The thrilling conclusion!!
MOM: Have you read any of his others?
ME: No. So, this is the first of the Danzig Trilogy, and I can’t figure out how related they are…
MOM: I don’t think they’re related.
ME: The funny thing is is, it’s this one, then a very skinny little one that’s essentially a novella, and then another enormous one. What a weird way to do a trilogy, that’s so strange.
MOM: I read some of his other stuff, but none of it is as powerful as The Tin Drum.
I’m going to take out my apple crisp.
(While she does so, and I listen through another silent stretch of the recording: did you know that in French, the word for a crumble, like an apple crumble, is just the English word “crumble” but with a French accent? The year I studied in Paris, my advanced French grammar teacher, a very intimidating and often displeased Parisian woman, mentioned that, and her saying the word “crumble” was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.)
MOM: Okay, all done.
ME: Listen to this, I found another part that made me think of the Oskar version of talking about what’s happening in the world… he meets another wacky guy, right, and he says:
Then, having bartered rolled oats and synthetic honey for different kinds of disinfectant, he took to disinfecting himself, his whole family, Maria, and myself every single day. He rubbed us, sprayed us, and powdered us, and while he sprayed, powdered, and rubbed, my fever blazed, his tongue wagged, and I learned about the whole carloads of carbolic acid, lime, and Lysol that he had sprayed, strewn, and sprinkled when he was disinfector in Treblinka Concentration Camp. Every day at 2 p.m., in his official capacity as Disinfector Mariusz Feingold, he had sprinkled Lysol on the camp streets, over the barracks, the shower rooms, the cremating furnaces, the bundles of clothing, over those who were waiting to shower, over those who lay recumbent after their showers, over all that came out of the ovens and all who were about to go in.
That’s how he… it seems a little sacrilegious, to talk about that that way…
MOM: Well, there’s sacrilege all over the place.
ME: Right. So, he is talking about it, it’s not apolitical… just, instead of being like, “O, the horrors of the concentration camps,” he’s like, “I met a guy who sprayed Lysol on all the dead people at the concentration camps!” It’s kind of appalling.
MOM: You know about the big controversy, that people find out he (Gunter Grass) had been in the Hitler Youth?
ME: Yeah. That came out when I was in college, I think.
MOM: Right. But when you read this… you know, one of the things in the ways that he presents it, is that people did what they did because that’s what was going on at the time. He talks about all these people, and some of them were in the Nazi Party, some of them supported the Russians; and Matzerath, Oskar’s father, he became a Nazi Party guy… but not because of anything except that, expediently, this seemed to be…
ME: Well, like Oskar, everybody’s kind of numb to everything. And like we were talking about before, if you’re just numb to everything, it’s like, “Well, here’s this political ideology, and here’s this one and here’s this one…”
MOM: Well, then there’s all this stuff with the Dusters (a gang of young people who run around causing trouble), and what they serve as are these young people who really couldn’t care less about all the politics, they just form their own little band.
ME: They seem like they’re — and there have been movements like this, certainly, at various times — where the thing they’re most interested in, it seems like, is just sort of chaos, anti-authoritarianism. Because they finally like Oskar when he says “I’m Jesus”… and then they’re like, “Oh, this guy is kind of our speed, because he’s a crazy person,” so he can join them.
ME: So what would you consider your other favorite books, other books that made a strong impression on you?
MOM: Well, the Elena Ferrante books (she means the Neapolitan novels. Have you read these yet? You have to read them, everybody, they’re so good.)
And when I was younger, there was a book — I think I still have a copy of it — there was a book called… what was it called? It was a book by William Goldman… it was a coming of age story (the ensuing conversation narrows the book she’s talking about down to either The Temple of Gold or Boys and Girls Together). And there was another coming of age story called The City of Trembling Leaves.
ME: By… I’m looking it up… Walter Van Tilburg Clark.
MOM: Right. And there are certain Joyce Carol Oates books that I like a lot. I like her because in each of her books, I feel like she kind of burrows into her characters. And that’s what I like about her stuff.
ME: And what are the earliest not-children’s books you liked? (There’s a very, very long pause.) Well, Little Women, right? You have very strong feeling about Little Women.
MOM: Oh yeah! I guess I consider that part of my childhood. You know, I was thinking about this the other day; much like your growing up, my father was this voracious reader. And I remember one time… we must have been in high school, because we were still both home (her and her sister who’s a year older than her), my father found this list in the Times of either 20 or 100 books that everybody should read, and he brought it in and he said, “Well, let’s look at this! Let’s see how many of these you’ve read, and we’ll start reading these.” And my mother would just give us books sometimes that she liked a lot.
ME: What were your mother’s favorite books?
MOM: I don’t know. I think my mother’s stuff didn’t seem that interesting to me. And she went to law school, so then she was reading all that. I remember more what my father read. Like he read Ulysses, and he had two or three books that were about James Joyce, and companions to Ulysses so you knew what was going on, so when he read, that’s how he read.
He also had all these books about the Medicis, and Florence and the Renaissance. He wanted to retire to Florence. That was his wish.
ME: What are your favorite — and The Tin Drum would probably be in this category — books that would be considered “classic literature”?
MOM: When I read it, I really liked The Idiot. And I did like Herman Hesse when I was reading him.
ME: What about all the ladies, like Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice…
MOM: Oh, yeah! I like Jane Austen a lot. She’s like something to read when you just… it’s like having a cup of tea.
ME: Jane Eyre maybe less so.
MOM: You gave that to me for my birthday, and I read it again, and enjoyed it, I liked it a lot. It was a little bit like having a cup of tea, but more like having chai tea, you know?
Oh, James Baldwin I like a lot. And Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison; and Manchild in the Promised Land. I read a lot of that stuff, and I’d make reading lists for my kids (my mom was some version of a social worker for teenagers for her entire career)… these were the kids that I had at the vocational technical high school, and I would read them excerpts. I read them some excerpts from Malcolm X’s autobiography, stuff like that.
(Then I ask her what “lowbrow” stuff she enjoys, and the conversation transitions mostly to TV. Basically, my mother will watch just about anything on TV. A couple days later we were on the phone and she said she was reading an article that mentioned Fellini’s La Strada, which reminder her that that’s one of her favorite movies, up there with Lili and the films of Danny Kaye, especially Hans Christian Andersen. I pointed out that none of those could remotely be considered lowbrow, but what are you gonna do.
Anyway, during the TV conversation, she asks me at some point if I have HBOMax, because she has a recommendation for me; one which, it turns out, she’s already pitched to me. We’ll pick up there.)
MOM: It’s like a twenty minute show…
ME: Oh, is it Painting With John?
ME: Mom, that’s the one with your friend, we’ve already had this whole conversation.
(My mom knows John Lurie, who now has his own show on HBO Max, through Jon Ende, mentioned earlier in this interview, one of her best friends whom she met at the University of Chicago. Jon [as opposed to John] was very in the downtown Manhattan “scene” and hung out with people like John Lurie, who was buddies with Jim Jarmusch and I think Anthony Bourdain and maybe some other people too. Jon was also an activist with ACT UP during the AIDS crisis. He died in 2000.)
MOM: Oh, you should watch it. I find them very charming, not because I know him, but —
ME: It’s probably kind of cool that you know him, though, a little bit.
MOM: Yeah, and also because I know him through Jon.
So when I was going through all my stuff in my drawers, I found the — I knew I had it somewhere — the obituary that Roy and Ray (more old friends) wrote for Jon in the Times. And then I realized that it was actually 20 years exactly.
ME: Since Jon died?
MOM: Yeah. He died in March 2020.
ME: Well, not March 2020, Mom, that wouldn’t be —
ME: Okay. So, wait, also… it’s not 20 years, it’s 21 years, if he died in 2000.
MOM: Oh, you’re right…
ME: It’s 2021. You missed the 20 year mark.
(We’re both laughing.)
So it’s twenty-ONE years since Jon died.
MOM: Okay. (We both laugh some more.) Anyway, they wrote a nice obituary.
ME: I’m glad there’s a moment like this captured in the interview. I hoped something like this would happen, because I feel like it’s part of the experience of talking to you.
MOM: And I told you, I have these like 300 pictures I put on my computer… there’s some really neat ones……
(And we went on from there.)