Deep in the heart of history’s most infamous concentration camp, a man lies dreaming. His name is Shomer, and before the war he was a pulp fiction author. Now, to escape the brutal reality of life in Auschwitz, Shomer spends his nights imagining another world – a world where a disgraced former dictator now known only as Wolf ekes out a miserable existence as a low-rent PI in London’s grimiest streets.
An extraordinary story of revenge and redemption, A Man Lies Dreaming is the unforgettable testament to the power of imagination.I was lucky enough to have lunch and a lengthy chat with the author, Lavie Tidhar, at Worldcon. We spoke about my research, the book, and about shund (Yiddish pulp fiction, essentially). I hadn't yet read the book but it sounded fascinating. Once I read it I knew it had to be included in my thesis and I decided to take the opportunity to get back in touch with Lavie and ask him a few questions. What follows is the interview I did with him. I've published it here because it's probably too specialised to go anywhere else, but hopefully you'll enjoy it. I want to thank Lavie for taking the time to indulge my interest and research, and for his generous and detailed replies.
- A Man Lies Dreaming was part of The Guardian's selection for Best SF Novels of 2014.
- Part of The Scotland Herald's selection for Best Crime Novels of 2014.
- Part of LA Review of Books selection for Best Crime Novels of 2014.
- On the Locus Magazine Recommended Reading List for 2014.
It was also one of my novels of the year, with the caveat that it is a challenging, twisted, and disturbing read. This is part of why I loved it.
It was recently released in paperback and is available from all good stockists, such as the one who pay my wages...
Glyn Morgan: When did you decide you wanted to write A Man Lies Dreaming, and what brought you to the specific idea of Hitler/Wolf as a Private Eye in London?
Lavie Tidhar: The idea - the need, really - to do a novel about the Holocaust was something that I always knew I wanted to do. It was something I dealt with in other novels - the short, weird SF novel Martian Sands, as well as - to a smaller extent - in The Violent Century - and in several short stories, but I needed to be fully committed to it, and to do what I do, which is essentially to write about something from an askew angle. It's a novel that explicitly addresses the question of how to write the Holocaust, after all, as much as asking if you can even ever do that.
I remember getting the idea - I'd just moved back to the UK, it must have been 2011 I think - I was in a temporary flat, almost empty, and I sat there, at 1 o'clock at night and I thought: Adolf Hitler, Private Eye. It was actually - I think, I realised it much later - it's a throwaway line in one of Philip Kerr's novels, and I was reading him at the time, but what struck me was not so much the audacity of the idea as the crazy thought that if anyone could - maybe, just maybe! - pull it off, it would be me. I don't mean this in a hubristic sense at all - I simply mean that it's such a ridiculous idea, such an offensive idea really, that you'd be mad to try it, and that to make it work you'd need to bring to bear a certain weight of a historical connection. I mean, I'm third-generation to Holocaust survivors. It's something that's had a profound effect on my life, that's been with me all my life. So that shapes a lot of it or, rather, it hovers over the book.
And of course, the story of Hitler as a pulp detective - while it was - I wouldn't say fun, but I enjoy that sort of pulp writing, the tropes etc - but that on its own would be meaningless, it would be empty. The only way it could work is if it is grounded in the reality, in Auschwitz. So Shomer was always there, it's his story. My editor, Anne, got that straight away, and she really pushed me to strengthen it too, because for me, for a long time, it was Wolf's story - mostly because Wolf's story is escapist, it's fiction, while Shomer's is the unbearable reality. So you can see which sections I preferred to write. The whole novel is about escape and, ultimately, about the impossibility, the futility of escape.
So the idea was late 2011, but I didn't write it. I was busy on The Violent Century then. And that took, well, forever. It was a hard slog. And then when Hodder bought The Violent Century, we did discuss what the next book would be, and I did float it - I think Anne suggested the name should be Wolf, not Hitler, which made a lot of sense in hindsight - but it was sort of agreed I'd do another book (actually one of the two that I'm trying to write at the moment!).
So no one really knew about it, though my agent was going around I think telling people, who tended to react with a shocked look and a laugh. I mean, we talked about it as the unsellable book. So I did my best to not write it! I mean, it would have been idiotic to actually write this book.
I spent a long time trying not to write it. I worked on all kinds of other books and none worked. It takes me a long time to get an idea into the right shape and form, as I'm learning. (A recent book I tried to write, it turns out, was actually meant to be a graphic novel, for instance).
But I was running out of options fast, and running out of time, and I sat up one night, this must have been 2013 maybe, and I was itching so hard to write that opening line, and I thought, well, just do it. Just sit down and write it and see what happens. No one needs to know! It was the same feeling I had with writing Osama. Try it. No one needs to know if you fail.
So I did, and that was it. I had to keep writing. I wrote the first draft very fast. At night - midnight to 3am, usually. Crazy hours. It was a disturbing sort of experience. I wanted to do it fast to get it out of my system, to not have to keep doing it, spend more time with Wolf.
Then it was sort of - it went through a kind of painful editorial process. I knew it wasn't quite right,
but I was a bit resistant to criticism, I have to admit (I can admit it now!), so it all took a long time, but I did it. It basically came down to cutting a couple of voices - I was trying to juggle too many balls, narratively speaking - and that was hard. Strengthening Shomer's part, giving him more of a voice, a past. More cutting... let's just say I didn't enjoy this part!
I was also terrified Hodder won't publish it. I mean, I was asking a lot of them. And I was just very lucky with my editor, I was very lucky with all of it. They really got behind it, and it actually came out! I mean, I still can't quite believe it. I'll be honest - I write a fair bit, but I'm not sure I'll ever write something I'm as happy with again as I am with A Man Lies Dreaming. You don't get too many chances like that. And I probably wouldn't want to relive the experience!
GM: Was Shomer always going to be a writer of shund, and why pick up the historical writer (the victim of the mauling from Sholem Aleichem) and place him into Auschwitz rather than use a contemporaneous writer or create a new one altogether?
LT: I didn't pick the historical writer, merely the name - Shomer means "guardian" or "watchman", and I liked it in contrast to Sholem Aleichem ("peace be upon you") - "Shomer Aleichem" would mean "He who watches over you" (the Yiddish writer was called simply Shomer). The irony inherent in the historical author and in Sholem Aleichem's attack on him is pretty central to the work, though. That is, the conflict between "popular" or populist genre fiction and the "high" art of literary fiction. The book tries to interrogate those two modes, while making fun of them, though its sympathies are quite likely with "low" art, and it's reflected equally in the debate between Ka-Tzetnik on the one hand, and Primo Levi on the other.
I was actually interested in my fictional Shomer for a while, and I wrote a mini-biography of a somewhat different version of him some time before writing A Man Lies Dreaming. The idea of the Shomer also finds its way into this new book I’m trying to write, in a small way, as the Shomrim, or Watchmen, were significant figures in the early days of the Jewish settlement in Palestine. I like to extend motifs from one book to the next, just as The Violent Century implicitly references Osama, and A Man Lies Dreaming implicitly references The Violent Century.
But to answer the question more succinctly, it was the meaning of the name I was interested in, not the historical author, who died peacefully in New York long before World War 2 broke out.
GM: Pulp Private Eyes, Marlowe etc..., are always put through the wringer. With a writer like Chandler we're cringing when Marlowe takes his beatings, with your book we might cringe because of how graphically you describe a scene of violence, but we're also sort of okay with it, there's a sort of justice in Wolf being beaten up by Jews (and even more in being beaten up by fascists after being mistaken for a Jew). You said you "needed" to write a novel about the Holocaust, were scenes like these a sort of catharsis for you? How often, if at all, did you have to reign it in and "go easy on him"?
LT: Well, I mean, I like the formula story, I like structure, and to me the detective story is great because it allows you to go around asking questions - I'm not remotely interested in the actual mystery (as is pretty evident in this book) but simply in what it allows me to do. I like to work with - and react against - the forms of story we expect from familiarity. So, if you're writing a hardboiled story, your detective by dint of convention should be beaten up at least three times! And there's something very funny about that, I think, there's a sort of grim fatalism in the hardboiled genre, that the beatings almost become rote, they become another part of life - and that adds another sort of bitter irony to the story of a man incarcerated as Shomer is.
But there is also a deeper structure at play, which is the transformation of Wolf. The circumcision scene was essential, and it was technically a difficult one to write - it's very funny, to me, but also it had to be done just right, and I remember how tense I must have been writing it, afraid to get the notes wrong. It's funny, and it seems essentially as meaningless cruelty, maybe, but it assumes a growing significance as the book progresses. The moments of violence Wolf experiences are ironic points in the book. His suffering isn't real. It's just pulp. I find graphic descriptions are often quite funny - the less you describe, the worse you make something, and part of the... the vulgarity of A Man Lies Dreaming is a sort of humour. I think the humour is essential to underscore the real horror of the book. The parts you don't describe, because there aren't words to describe them with.
GM: As a Jewish writer interested in both the Holocaust and science fiction, what is it that you think employing sf tropes (alternate history in A Man Lies Dreaming, but also superpowers in The Violent Century, etc.) can bring to Holocaust fiction?
Jews vs Zombies, has got a lot of interest, by contrast!). I think the idea of fantasy-as-escape has been explored in Holocaust fiction before, and mine in a way is an argument against fantasy - an argument I have been having with myself over the course of Osama and The Violent Century. These are the tools I have. Moreover, I think genre tools allow us to look at reality in a different way, to defamiliarise it, and that's very powerful, to me. I don't know that I can honestly write the Holocaust: but I thought I should try.
GM: When writing a piece like A Man Lies Dreaming, do you worry about possible controversy when playing these thought experiments with the Holocaust, or do you relish that?
LT: Well, good literature should aim to unsettle; to shock - but at the same time, it seems to me that we are in a world where one cannot be shocked anymore, or not very easily - we are in a world where we are constantly bombarded with the crudest images, something that would have been unimaginable only a few decades before. With Osama there was a lot of worry initially about possible controversy, which never materialised, and so after that I stopped worrying much about it. It also seems to me that using the tools of genre fiction is an excellent way of passing under the radar. Since it is very often marginalised, you can get away with a lot more (after all, it's 'just fantasy'). I find that very useful.
GM: Sort of the same question with regards the sexuality of the novel. Is that juxtaposition of fetishism and the Holocaust the result of you employing shund tropes, an extrapolation of the various rumours about Hitler's own sexual mores (which you mention in the notes to the book), or a little of both?
LT: I have been interested in the links between fetishism and Nazism for a long time, ever since I read a - very interesting - academic article about it years ago, as a student. This was linked powerfully for me with the whole world of Israeli "Stalag" novels, which I found out about by accident - they were well before my time, so I never saw them or read them - but I found their sudden appearance, and popularity, in 1960s Israel fascinating. I was also doing a lot of research about Hitler's life, and it helped that his sex life, such as it were, is so tied up with the same themes. It begged to be written about, and I have to admit I took great joy in just how ridiculous the sex scenes are.
GM: Do you think the Holocaust has become, in a way, too familiar or "normalised"? If so, and sf or sf-like texts defamiliarise it, do they help to reinstall some of the otherness and horror of what happened, or cheapen it?
LT: This is a question that actually has two, disparate answers. Can we normalise the Holocaust? What worries me, as a writer, as a person, as a Jewish writer, maybe, is that what is shocking - what is incomprehensible - about the Holocaust is not the scale of it. It's the industrialisation of those deaths, the banality of the human machine which manufactured those deaths while absolving the individual of any responsibility. It was mass murder by paperwork.
What makes me angry - and I say this as the descendant of Holocaust survivors, as a Third Generation (which comes with its own set of problems) - is that we may use the Holocaust to absolve ourselves of responsibility. Ethnic cleansing, mass murder, the industrialisation of death, these are all ongoing things. We must never forget the Holocaust! - one may cry - and in the same breath curse at the damned immigrants coming over here. Or invade a country for a made up reason, killing hundreds of thousands and destroying countless other lives. Or build a huge separation fence to keep another nation in a ghetto and then bomb it.
Do we normalise the Holocaust? We have normalised it. We're saturated by images of death and cruelty. There are now firms in the Philippines whose sole job is to filter youtube videos of the worst, most vicious acts humans are capable of. Which we commit and then record on camera so we could share it on social media.
That said, yes, I also agree with the sentiment, that to an extent the Holocuast has been turned into pop culture. There's a poem by an Israeli poet I like, Eli Netzer (who was my boss for a short while!), that talks about the keyrings you can now buy at the Auschwitz gift shop. It's the Nazis as pulp villains, it's all of that, but as long as we don't forget, I'm not even sure that's necessarily a bad thing. I can't personally watch the images from Auschwitz. What they showed Eichmann at his trial, when he didn't bat an eye. I physically can't watch it, and I can't imagine who can. And is that the only way to discuss the Holocaust? There is that famous quote from Theodor Adorno, that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric", but frankly that's, well, it's shit. Netzer, who I mention above, is himself a survivor, and you have Celan, you have Pagis, whose "Written In Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car" is I think an outstanding poem. How can you demand of the survivors, or their descendants, not to react to the Holocaust? Not to try and interpret it, in artistic form, in poetry or fiction or film? And then, too, do only we - the survivors' descendants - have that right?
The second part of my answer is to do with my conception of literature. Everything is a story. Every narrative voice has an I behind it. Whether we are reading a novel or a historical chronicle, there is a narrator, there is someone with an agenda and a voice, telling us something, failing to tell us other things. There is no truth in writing, and in that respect, I kind of resent so called "realist" fiction, since that's all it is, ultimately - a fiction. It practices a form of mimicry, it pretends, if only to itself, to only showcase the real world, but it is no different to the worst excesses of pulp in its essential dishonesty. What's worse, I find that it often comes to serve the leading ideology, which itself shapes people's perceived reality. I talk about this a lot more in a forthcoming non-fiction book I’m doing with my friend, Shimon Adaf.
As a non-realist writer, I reject that. The tools of science fiction are the tools of irony and doubt, of liminality. By being dishonest from the get go, by saying, like a street magician, "I AM NOW GOING TO LIE TO YOU", I feel I am actually able to tell the truth. Paradoxically. The problem is that genre fiction’s inherently commercial nature hasn’t lessened but increased dramatically in the last two decades. We’re bombarded with product. To me it was a literature of the counter-culture, of rebellion. Maybe I’m naive. I write out of a sort of idealism. I don’t think I feel entirely comfortable in either camp.
GM: Where do you go from here? What's the next project?
LT: This is a very good question, and not one I'm sure I can answer honestly... I am currently, as mentioned, working on my first non-fiction book, a book-length conversation with Israeli author Shimon Adaf, about politics and writing (and yes, we discuss the Holocaust as well). This book also includes two pieces of short political speculative fiction, one by each of us, in which each is a minor character in the other's story. We're just signing the contract for it, but we don't have a working title yet - it should be out next year, I think. It's quite exciting for me, as it's a book I wanted to do for some time. And I’m trying to write a couple of new novels. One about the nature of the universe, and one about Israel/Palestine. You know... the easy stuff!
*Once again, my thanks to Lavie Tidhar.
If you are interested in his work please visit his blog: https://lavietidhar.wordpress.com/
He's also on twitter: https://twitter.com/lavietidhar