Yoram Kaniuk’s autobiographical novel Life on Sandpaper follows the Israeli writer through his galavanting in 1950s Greenwich Village.
A celeritous semi-autobiography set in the jazz-soaked Greenwich Village of the early 1950s, Life on Sandpaper begins with the sentence, “There had been a war and I was wounded.” The war was the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and the wounded is our narrator, Yoram Kaniuk. His wound is mended at Mount Sinai Hospital, where the Jewish doctors fawn over this strange new thing called an Israeli. But Yoram is exhausted of his novelty and his past. He decides to stay in New York as the emotional damage of having “killed people before I’d kissed a girl” festers within him. Completely devoting himself to painting and all the colorful excitement of the abstract expressionism, Kaniuk proceeds without comment on his war, his wound, or his nation.. Instead, the memoir is a linear and exhaustive telling of the idiosyncratic activities of New York’s drugged-out, brilliant, confused, and heterogeneous creative class.
Kaniuk drinks with James Agee, paints with Jimmy Dean, sobers up with Charlie Parker, and kisses Billie Holiday. He’s ambivalent about his art and seems to only pursue it to remain destitute. He’s an intellectual, but without any of the neuroses that would diminish and clutter the prose—anyway, the pace is too fast for Kaniuk to manage more than a drunken aside about the meaning of his wanderings. He hangs out with jazz musicians who find pleasure in sending a white kid out for drinks and who engage his art with actual interest: “Ben Webster asked me what I’d write and I said a book called The Future of God, though I wasn’t at all sure He had a future.”
Still too damaged from combat to envision a future, but still reverent enough to capitalize the “He”, Kaniuk is drawn to the Lower East Side’s Yiddishers, who feel betrayed by Israel. To them, the Hebrew he speaks, and the state he fought to form, is worthy of deep disdain. Kaniuk, who harbors these same feelings of resentment about himself, is suddenly at home. Throughout his time in New York, Kaniuk doggedly avoids attempting to construct an identity. While his peers become nuns, businessmen, drug dealers, and luminaries, he stays the poor artist. He moves in with Pat, a southern belle living among the aged Yids, whom he describes as having “the scent of magnolias infused into her blood along with needles of love.” As displaced as he is, Kaniuk is always at home among eccentric and beautiful women.
Kaniuk climbs in to bed with Pat, Lee, Mira, Adele, and a woman covered entirely in soft fur; each time he’s conflicted, but he always climbs in. Sometimes he does it to keep warm, but mostly he sleeps around so he doesn’t have to be alone. Incapable of true devotion, he hurts, and, in turn, hurts those closest to him. This somewhat sociopathic edge keeps Kaniuk on the move and, in turn, he becomes an adventurer. He runs to Nevada, California, Mexico, and deep into Central America, all to avoid settling into anything resembling domesticity or regularity.
That this is a work of translation is a marvel. Anthony Berris takes the “damnable” Hebrew and transforms it into a fevered locomotive. Kaniuk muses, “I was in the lives of all these people by mistake. A time of anarchy in America. I was passing through, younger than all of them.” Like Richard Farina’s Gnossos, Kaniuk thinks himself the coolest man in the room, but wants no part of it. He has no opinion of the Scene, just a growing weariness.
Kaniuk’s isolation, which is only deepened by his philandering, is realized brilliantly by his first wife, the dancer Lee Becker. “So what if you fought in a war?….Have you ever told anyone what really happened to you along the way? You really are genuine bohemian because unlike the rest of us here you didn’t rebel against your parents, against the bourgeoisie, because you didn’t have to, you come from a rebellious country. But look, I no longer want any part of it, I don’t want to be your excuse for legitimizing you sadness anymore for those demons that live in your paintings and tell you their stories. I hate you and hating is a wonderful emotion.”
Kaniuk meets and loves all these passing artists and intellectuals. Sometimes they hate him. They all pass into oblivion. Returning from Central America, Kaniuk recites the names of the now-dead, gone to drugs or calamity, like he’s reciting Kaddish, the Jewish prayer. Soon, he finds a wife and returns to Israel. He then becomes a famous novelist.
Shortly after writing this book, he causes a controversy in Israel by petitioning to have his “Jewish” citizenship removed from his official record, further removing himself from any definitive identity. Kaniuk would rather live out the abstract modernism he fought for in Greenwich Village, becoming not just the artist, but the canvas as well. In Life on Sandpaper, Kaniuk and his wife are invited to a restaurant where speaking is not allowed, where all these intellectuals have to silence their verbal posturing. “The quiet wasn’t oppressive. It was easy to learn how to speak without making noise. Every now and again the light changed and we didn’t exactly understand where it was coming from and I thought of Vermeer and his illusive light and Hopper’s gentle toying with light and we parted in silence, it was hard to talk after we left, it was the first time I’d experienced love entirely through looks and gestures.”