On writers, glass, Pliny the Elder, and the way families pass on their stories.
Since I started writing, I have sought forebears who might have had literary aspirations. Were there writers in the family? My great-uncle György, who was exiled to the Ukraine during World War II and afterward became a functionary in Hungary’s Communist government, was a novelist, but my father has always been dismissive of his work. He says György wrote a variety of socialist-realist novel that’s hard to take seriously, hard not to see as propaganda. His books have never been translated into English, and my Hungarian isn’t nearly good enough to understand what’s in them. The only existing copies I know of sit on a shelf in my Cousin Hajnal’s house in the Buda Hills. I don’t have the heart to ask to take them and have them translated. When I’ve asked her about them in the past, she’s simply said that they are books, yes, and that her father wrote them.
In their stead I have purchased rare used copies of two books written by Frederic Neuburg, author of a large trove of letters to my father’s Aunt Traute that he keeps in an old teak box in his house in Los Angeles. My father is not Bellow or Updike, and I am not the son of Bellow or Updike, but it is the book I have, in two editions, an art book containing photographs of Neuberg’s glass collection and extensive commentary on the pieces.
Frederic Neuburg was my grandmother’s uncle. He escaped Leitmeritz, the small city north of Prague, where he and my Aunt Traute’s husband owned a successful leather factory before the war. He went to Tel Aviv. As the main purveyor of the leather factory there, he was wealthy. Thanks to his foresight he was able to have a large portion of his epic collection of ancient glass shipped to Israel.
His book is not a novel, and it was not written by my great-uncle György, but it has come to fill a certain need, or to stoke it. I have read it very, very closely.
I keep Neuburg’s first book, Glass in Antiquity, in my small office on the third floor of my house in Philadelphia. It’s a short but impressively comprehensive history of the development of glass, published in 1949 in London by Art Trade Press LTD. On the first page, Neuburg writes:
The divisions of history are arbitrary and periods of political and economic development do not coincide with eras of artistic achievement. In considerations affecting the history of art it is therefore not feasible to keep strictly within the bounds of the historical period selected; moreover, the only method of approach proper to the study of the history of art is that dictated by ethnological and stylistic considerations.
For this reason it has been impossible not to overstep the bounds suggested by the title of this book.
I recognize this stringent, leaden written voice, full of certainty and absent restraint. It’s a voice I’ve come to know well from his Eastern European family. It sounds like a damp piece of writing: not a voice in my memory, but a voice captured by the amber of ink.
Are divisions of history arbitrary? Is it true they never coincide with eras of “artistic achievement”? What gets me on this first page of Glass in Antiquity isn’t so much the single-mindedness of that claim. It’s the one-sentence paragraph that follows: “For this reason it has been impossible not to overstep the bounds suggested by the title of this book.” It is not a question being asked. It’s an answer, and one of intention: There are moments, dear reader, in this book about ancient glass called Glass in Antiquity in which you’ll find … glass that’s not ancient.
I mentioned Neuburg’s famous collection of glass, which according to family lore he himself lugged to Palestine after the leather factory was wrested from him at the beginning of World War II. In the following letter to my Aunt Traute, who was exiled to an apartment on Riverside Drive in the early thirties and still lived there when I was a kid, he provides some advice about the sale of paintings that may well have been his:
And now my dear, to your remarks regarding the objects of art. There is no question that you have to get more as before for all your troubles. I am sure that your sister agrees with the prices you did mention. But that is only a part of all the things you are keeping. The man who told you about Fragonard is quite right. The picture is too fine to be made by Kligstedt. And there is a difference of 100 years between these two. But you know that Fragonard is much better and more appreciated than Klingstett. The altar is a masterpiece by Schachtl, a famous master, signed and dated.
My Eastern European forebears came to this country in exile from Budapest, from Vienna, from Prague, and their sense of self depended upon their maintaining what little they got out with.
In the second edition of Neuburg’s book, now titled Ancient Glass, published by Barrie & Rockliff in 1962, we get a corrective to his introduction.
“There is a story told by Pliny [the Elder] (A.D. 27–29),” Neuburg writes, “to the effect that Phoenician sailors used blocks of saltpetre, which they were carrying as cargo, to construct a hearth on a sand-dune, and on lighting a fire to cook food ‘rivulets of a fluid suddenly flowed out.’ ” Neuburg goes on to undo this account of the discovery of glass by man. The earliest glass we now have was the result of a combination of soda and silica, and glass cannot be created by combining sand and saltpetre.
This fact did not stop Pliny the Elder from writing the claim down in his Naturalis Historia, nor did it stop historians from repeating the story for nearly two thousand years.
“Either these authors passed on this formula without testing it,” Neuburg writes, “or the longevity of the story is due to false statements by glass-makers, who have always made every effort to preserve the secrets of their craft. It is astonishing how long-lived such fables are.”
Ancient Glass, the second edition, contains no competing theory about the discovery of glass in the ancient world. It simply discounts Pliny the Elder’s version. Whatever obsession led Neuburg to bear out, doggedly, the apocryphal nature of Pliny the Elder’s story also led him to miss something in the poetry of this account:
Man did not set out to create glass. Man attempted to cook, and then found glass had been created by accident. His exile from his former ignorance came as an accident, not some new land to which he arrived as an immigrant.
“Once they recognized the merits of the new material,” Neuburg continues, “it was an easy matter to collect the pieces and by heating them reduce them once again to their fluid molten state.”
In other words, glass was not discovered the day sand and silica combined under a fire and came to make a hard substance. Glass was discovered the day whichever man saw that if he were to heat that substance again it could become malleable.
“Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels,” Nabokov, the great exile, told his students at Cornell while lecturing them on the history of the novel. “Literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him.”
Nauturalis Historia was the last book Pliny the Elder—whose very name, of course, suggests there was an heir who was also a writer, his adopted son and nephew—wrote. It is viewed as the first encyclopedia ever written, and widely acknowledged as the best remaining document of the totality of knowledge accrued by ancient Roman culture. The book was never finished, not by some fault of Pliny’s knowledge but because Pliny was killed in the aftermath of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. He’d been honored with a charge as a praetorian in Misenum, a port city north of the volcano along the Gulf of Naples. When he heard of the catastrophic eruption, rather than head back toward Rome for safety, he commissioned a ship to sail south. “Fortune favors the brave,” he reportedly said. “Steer to where Pompeiantus is.”
So Pliny the Elder set out, an emigrant from ignorance of the experience of seeing a volcano erupt. Foucault once wrote that Pliny’s books “are experiences, and an experience is something that one comes out of transformed,” and Pliny the Elder sought to be an immigrant on the shores of transformation. He had been the collector of all his culture knew. His book could not be finished if the biggest eruption of an epoch was happening and he had not seen it. Fortune favors the brave, and Pliny the Elder had pinned his life’s work on the equation of bravery with the acquisition of empirical knowledge.
Think of what Pliny the Elder collected in his enormous knowledge of the physical world on that voyage. What did he expect to find as his ship passed the great five-hundred-foot-tall rock at the mouth of the port at Misenum? When did the turbid roil from Vesuvius begin to appear on the shore? Was it a single black contrail, thick and opaque as early glass? Did his crew begin to smell the evidence of burning lava and bodies encased in fire before their eyes, or did the smoke come to view first—ashen particulate carrying somehow faster or farther than the speed of light?
The ship didn’t make it as far south as Pompeii. At some point in their trek south his crew was forced to leave the waters of the Gulf of Naples and dock in Stabiae, only miles north of the famously destroyed city. Pliny died sometime after they took to land.
This, the most widely accepted account of Pliny the Elder’s death, comes from his son, Pliny the Younger. The account comes as those from family history do: an account of the father written by the son.
It is also a commonplace in stories of my father’s Uncle György, the socialist-realist novelist, that Hungary’s Communist party killed him. The details are unconfirmed, unconfirmable, but as my father tells it, in 1964, after almost twenty years serving the party, Uncle György asked to come to New York. My grandparents had moved to Long Island with my father in the early fifties, and Uncle György wanted to visit them.
He was granted his leave. While he was in the States, as the story goes, he went to Queens to see the World’s Fair. What did he see there after decades of deprivation in Communist Budapest? The Unisphere, glinting in the summer sun like the mouth of some chrome volcano. Maybe some part of him longed to emigrate from Budapest when he returned home, having seen the cars my grandparents drove, their small ranch house in Wantagh.
Uncle György returned to Budapest and months later, though he’d been healthy and only in his fifties, he died of a heart attack. Whatever socialist-realist novels were left in him went unwritten. Whatever chance I would have had to ask about them: vanished.
Pliny the Younger claimed his adoptive father was killed by noxious gases released from Mt. Vesuvius amid the same famous eruption that petrified Pompeii—that the Elder died pushing ever forward toward that new phenomenon. But this account has always troubled historians, as it must have troubled the Romans who heard it from his son. Why did the rest of his crew survive when Pliny the Elder, for whom the very excursion was undertaken, did not? How was his whole crew able to return when he wasn’t?
There is a second account of Pliny the Elder’s death, given by one of his crew—not, bear in mind, a member of his family—a man named Suetonius, who writes that the heat of the massive volcano’s eruption did, in fact, make its way south to Stabiae, where Pliny the Elder died.
Suetonius says Pliny the Elder asked one of his slaves to kill him. He chose to die. He went near to the volcano, where the heat and smoke were simply too much. He wanted to turn back, but the wind would not take their self-exiled ship back north, and even while Pliny the Elder and his men were able to retreat to their ship, the heat would not abate. His crewmen were young. He was old. He had lived long enough, and so he chose to die rather than suffer the immediate pain inflicted by the eruption.
Which of these two stories is true? The account of the son, who claims that his father died seeking knowledge? Or the claim of the colleague who reports that the father, upon seeking knowledge, took one step too far and, unable to undo his decision, suffered the fate that might have plagued him most?
For many years I longed to sit down and talk with Honza North, Frederic Neuburg’s son and my relative, about his father’s glass collection—to learn where it ended up, the publication history of Frederic Neuburg’s books. I wanted to know what Honza thought of Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger; I’d like to know if my grandparents ever talked to him about my father’s Uncle György. Frederic has long since died. I’ve gone to London a number of times to visit Honza, but glass simply never arose. A little more than a year ago, having revisited Neuburg’s books, I decided to write Honza. I received no reply.
On October 3, 2013, I received a note from Honza’s daughter, Bibi, letting me know Honza had died that morning at six A.M. He was ninety-five. He had been on a long riverboat tour on the Rhine. He returned with a lung infection that quickly spread. He was hospitalized with pneumonia. Ten days later, he died of organ failure.
There are attendant emotions after a passing. Some are familiar. Some surprise. Honza was the last of that generation of my Eastern European family. With him died the answers I’d longed to have—Where is Neuburg’s glass? Who owns it? What did it sell for? And answers about sense, feeling: What did that glass smell like on a shelf in Leitmeritz? What did it sound like when two pieces of Roman glass clinked against each other? What did it look like the last time Honza saw it before he left home for Rotterdam when the war began? These are questions now for the next generation, hearing the old voice in our heads or clanging leaden on the page, full of conjecture, every day floating just farther from the island of fact.
Daniel Torday’s debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, will be published next month. His novella, The Sensualist, won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction.