Adam Kirsch

  • culture June 15, 2012

    In and Out of History

    There is nothing like like a novel set in the recent past to remind you of how quickly things change. In 2005, if a novelist had published a book that hinged on the murder of a Jewish American journalist by Islamic terrorists in Iraq, it would have been read as a political novel, a war novel, a post-9/11 novel—and, of course, a roman a clef about Daniel Pearl, who was murdered in 2002 in Pakistan. Seven years later, Joshua Henkin has published just such a book in The World Without You, which is set in 2005 on the anniversary of the murder of Leo Frankel, whose story closely mirrors Pearl’s.

  • culture February 29, 2012


    About halfway through By Blood, Ellen Ullman's marvelously creepy new novel, Dr. Dora Schussler, a tight-lipped, determinedly impersonal therapist, confides to her own therapist the story of her childhood. Her father was an SS officer, a “true believer in the Fuhrer and the Master Race,” whose job before World War II involved funneling “money to amenable French candidates for office. Fascist rightists. Anti-Semites.” In other words, he might have been the German liaison for someone like Darquier de Pellepoix, who was on the Nazi payroll during the 1930s for exactly those reasons. Like Anne

  • culture March 17, 2011

    Modigliani: A Life by Meryle Secrest

    “Modigliani should have been the father of a family. He was kind, constant, correct, and considerate: a bourgeois Jew.” The English painter C.R.W. Nevinson, who rendered this verdict, knew full well that these were not the first adjectives that would spring to most people’s minds to describe Amedeo Modigliani.

  • How He Sees It

    "It was by taking novels seriously in my youth that I learned to take life seriously,” writes Orhan Pamuk in The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, a book based on the Norton Lectures he delivered at Harvard in 2009. Fewer and fewer readers still seem to approach fiction in this spirit, not just as an entertainment but as a vale of soul-making, and the power of Pamuk’s short book lies less in his theorizing about the novel than in his professions of faith in it. That faith is all the stronger, perhaps, because Pamuk—who won the Nobel Prize in 2006—did not discover his calling as a writer until

  • culture August 30, 2010

    The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

    In 1943, Hannah Arendt reviewed the memoirs of Stefan Zweig, one of the leading literary figures of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Like the vast majority of those figures—the playwrights and journalists, psychoanalysts and art collectors who made the Austro-Hungarian capital perhaps the most sophisticated city in the world—Zweig was Jewish. But this Jewish golden age was always haunted by the pervasive anti-Semitism of Austrian society, and it ended, of course, in catastrophe.

  • culture May 12, 2010

    Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History by David B. Ruderman

    With the title of his new survey, Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History, David B. Ruderman plunges into one of the central debates in the writing of Jewish history. For the most of the last 2,000 years, Jews lived as a small minority among much larger and more powerful civilizations.

  • Beastly Burden

    In an interview with The Onion in 2007, Yann Martel gave an unlikely description of his work in progress. It would be a book in two parts, he explained, a novel and an essay “published back-to-back, upside down, what the trade calls a flipbook. In other words, a book with two covers. And they’ll have the same title: ‘A 20th-Century Shirt.’ They share the same fundamental metaphor to do with the shirt and to do with the laundry, and they both have to do with the Holocaust.”

    To treat the Holocaust in terms of laundry, or a shirt, or something—it sounds silly at best, offensive at worst. Yet it

  • culture February 11, 2010

    The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

    Reading The Three Weissmanns of Westport, the new novel by Cathleen Schine, is a curious experience. Even as you turn the pages, following the genteel misadventures of the titular clan—the aging mother, Betty Weissmann, and her two middle-aged, lovelorn daughters, Annie and Miranda—the book seems literally insubstantial, as though it is about to melt or turn to smoke in your hands. This is less on account of the writing, which is undemanding but intelligent, than of the reader’s realization that the book is only a temporary incarnation of itself. Before Schine wrote it, her novel’s story belonged

  • Letter Heads

    Thomas Mallon’s Yours Ever: People and Their Letters is not the history of letter writing its subtitle seems to promise. Instead, it is an amiable, very readable collection of brief essays about dozens of correspondents, almost all of whom were not just “people” but professional writers. Mark Twain and Colette, Bruno Schulz and Virginia Woolf, William Burroughs and H. L. Mencken: These are not individuals you would want at the same dinner party, but they would all grudgingly admit to belonging to the same guild. Even most of the statesmen Mallon discusses—Lincoln, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt,