Joseph Heller : The Jewish Novelist Explains Just Why It Wasn't Easy to Become a Jewish Novelist

Times Staff Writer

Hunched over a podium, his voice a stew of gravel and mashed potatoes--Joseph Heller surveys the packed synagogue with the look of the congenitally jocular. "Thank you, Milton," he says to his host. "As I look out at this large crowd, I feel we're wasting a wonderful opportunity for a fund-raiser."

There's laughter in the temple, and Heller, the creator of "Good as Gold," "Something Happened," "God Knows" and the authoritative text on bureaucratic madness in the military--"Catch-22"--tackles the topic of the hour at Valley Beth Sholom in Encino: "It's hard to be a Jewish novelist." His appearance is the first in a public lecture series sponsored by the University of Judaism in association with Beth Sholom and Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles.

"What I mean to say," he continues, "is that is was hard for me to become a Jewish novelist. I was past 50 years old before I began to write a book about Jews and being Jewish," the 65-year-old Brooklyn-born author says.

No Jewish Characters

In "Catch-22," his first book, published in 1961, "There are, I think, 44 characters by name . . . and not a single one, if my memory is correct, is Jewish," he tells the overflow audience.

Backtracking, Heller recalls that a man once asked him: " 'Come on, Mr. Heller, isn't Yossarian (the protagonist in "Catch-22") really Jewish?'

"Well, he's the one I'm most sympathetic to," Heller said he told the man. "He's from a city that's unnamed, probably New York. He thinks a lot the way I do, worries the way I do. I guess the answer is yes. Yes, I would say Yossarian probably is Jewish."

Then the man asked him, "How about the chaplain? He's a man who feels he doesn't fit in. He feels self-conscious. He worries about the welfare of his children. He keeps imagining that terrible things are happening to him. Isn't he Jewish, too?"

"To which I said, 'I think you're right,' " Heller says. "And before we finished, we came to the agreement that every good person in 'Catch-22' was Jewish and that none of the bad ones were." Laughter again.

Heller's movie-star looks work well with the stand-up comedian-philosopher shtick. Tall, elegant in a gray suit, a full head of shocking white hair, he begins to talk about his second novel, "Something Happened," published 13 years after "Catch-22."

Jewish Character in Mind

"Now in this novel, I knew very well that the character I had in mind was Jewish. His name was Bob Slocum. I also knew at the beginning that I must never mention that fact," Heller said.

"The book is a first-person, obsessive, confessional narrative about a man filled with self-pity. He worries about his children, has trouble with his family, worries about his job, feels out of place in a large corporation." Even though he's successful, "he feels very much insecure."

Says Heller: "I felt that if he were Jewish it would be consistent with his character. The reader would dwell on that, attribute a great many of his fears and anxieties to that."

To get around that, he's "a Congregationalist, but I knew he was Jewish."

Heller remembers that not long after that book was published in 1974, a woman at a regional writers' conference in Wilmington, Del., raised her hand and asked him:

"Why is it that you have never written about the Jewish experience in America?"

"For one thing," Heller told her, "it's taken me something like 20 years to write two books, so it wasn't as though I was discarding ideas."

And other Americans, he said, were writing about that experience better than he could--Bernard Malamud, Issac Bashevis Singer, Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow.

But finally, after the Delaware woman demanded a Jewish experience novel from him, Heller came up with "Good as Gold," the story of a man who wants to become the first Jewish secretary of state.

It begins: "Bruce Gold had been asked many times to write about the Jewish experience in America; most recently by a woman in Wilmington, Delaware . . . "

In reality, it was never hard for Joseph Heller--who never had a Bar Mitzvah, whose family seldom went to temple--to write about Jews or accept his identity as one.

He is seated in the lobby of the Bel Age Hotel the day after his lecture at Valley Beth Sholom, leaning forward, talking in intimate tones.

"What defines a Jew is the ethnic identification," he tells his listener. "And that is the only thing that defines a Jew to a gentile or an anti-Semite."

"If you ever forget you are a Jew, a gentile will remind you," goes a line from a story by Bernard Malamud, which also happens to be an epigram at the beginning of Heller's "Good as Gold," which may be made into a movie. Heller has already sold the film rights, a script has been written by Stephen Geller, Gary Rubin will produce, David Steinberg will direct. But no studio has bought it yet. As Heller makes clear in the opening chapter of "Good as Gold," there is not just one Jewish experience.

"Even among practicing Jews there has been so much dissension. Chaim Potok's 'The Chosen' was built on the fierce hostility between a Hassidic Jew and an Orthodox Jew. There is a vast difference between someone like me and someone like Walter Annenberg (the multimillionaire former ambassador, publisher and friend of the President).

"Or me and Henry Kissinger," Heller continues. "It's embarrassing to me that people think of him as Jewish. I don't trust Jewish Republicans--I don't trust any kind of Republican," he says in that gravelly voice, then laughs.

"It was always easy to accept who I was. As I enter my senior years it's something I'm very proud of and most comfortable with. I believe I'd rather be Jewish than anything else. And I've always felt that way."

He does not look like a man in his senior years, or one who had been stricken by Guillain-Barre syndrome in 1981--a debilitating, sometimes fatal condition that can leave its victims paralyzed from head to toe.

His 1986 book, "No Laughing Matter," co-written with friend Speed Vogel, details Heller's illness and recovery. His nurse during that period, Valerie Humphries, is now his wife. They married last April.

They live in East Hampton, Long Island, where Heller says he is in "virtual retirement."

"I don't really have any hobbies. I just like to think about writing and write."

His next book, to be published next year, is tentatively titled "Picture This."

Heller says the story centers on Rembrandt's 17th-Century painting of "Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer," its sale at the Metropolitan Museum of Art 300 years later "and almost everything that happens in between in the Dutch Republic and America. I get to go back to ancient Greece and Aristotle, too."

The Dutch government during Rembrandt's period was the first modern republic, Heller says. "It was not a democracy, it was officially an oligarchy. What we have today in this country is not a democracy, either. It's an oligarchy, although constitutionally it's a democracy."

As in Athens, Heller says, people in America "have the right to choose the wealthy people who will govern them."

Standing at the lectern, Heller tells the Valley Beth Sholom audience there were no Jews in ancient Athens. But in "Picture This," he has found a way to work them in.

In the novel, Heller explains, Aristotle hears about a new Hebrew Bible. As soon as he learns the details, he knows it will have to be suppressed. The opening paragraph contains a theory of the creation of the universe. "The account was simple," Heller reads from his manuscript. "He was furious he had not thought of it himself.

"Let there be light, and there was light. What could be easier. In the beginning, God created the heaven and earth. Why hadn't he said that. So much clearer than his own explanations. Against the Bible, he didn't think his metaphysics would have a chance. He had to give credit to those Jews, whoever they were . . . He wondered how long he could keep the secret from his students."

Heller looks up from his manuscript and out at his audience: "It seems to me, in this latest novel, I'm doing something I have always been doing. It was hard for me to become a Jewish novelist, and it seems impossible for me to stop."

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