The Rumpus Interview with David Bezmozgis

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Simultaneously poignant, funny, and elegant, David Bezmozgis’s new novel, The Betrayers, tells the story of an Israeli politician named Baruch Kotler, a character with one of the most interesting backstories in all of contemporary literature. Kolter has built his career on his past as a Russian dissident and is renowned for spending years in the Gulag after being betrayed to the KGB by his friend Chaim Tankilevich. However, when The Betrayers begins in 2014, we find Kotler in very different circumstances. Though he’s been revered in Israel for decades, Kotler’s world suddenly crumbles when he becomes the center of a national scandal.

After being tipped off by Kotler’s political opponents in retaliation for his refusal to support a plan to withdraw an Israeli settlement from the West Bank, the Israeli news media reveal his affair with a youthful aide. In confusion and turmoil, Kotler decides to flee Israel with his mistress, absconding to the site of his boyhood vacations—Yalta, the famous Crimean resort town. The majority of the novel unfolds during the one tumultuous day Kotler spends in Yalta, a day shaped by a deeply ironic coincidence. Namely, Kotler rents a room in the house of Chaim Tankilevich, the very man that betrayed him forty years earlier. The confrontation between these two men provides the bulk of the book, an opportunity that Bezmozgis deftly uses to explore the history of the Soviet Jews and their future in Israel.

The author of two previous books of fiction, Bezmozgis has won many prestigious awards and his work has appeared in publications such as the New Yorker, Harpers, Zoetrope, and Best American Short Stories. In all of it, Bezmozgis seamlessly melds the personal with the political, exploring the Soviet Jewish experience with intelligence and courage. It’s a subject close to Bezmozgis’s heart, since his family immigrated to Canada from the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic when he was six years old. Reading Bezmozgis, I found it impossible not to recall a statement from Camus: “The artist of today becomes unreal if he remains in his ivory tower or sterilized if he spends his time galloping around the political arena. Yet between the two lies the arduous way of true art.” The Betrayers follows that arduous path. It does so effortlessly, every page alive with graceful language and stirring insight.

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The Rumpus: How do you view The Betrayers being either an extension of—or a departure from—your earlier work?

David Bezmozgis: I would say it’s the continuation of the project that I started with Natasha, which is to tell the story of the Soviet Jews. That’s it in broad strokes. As the books have progressed from one to the next, they have departed farther and farther from my own experience, reaching the point where we are with The Betrayers. The goals of this book are both to look at what mark the Soviet Jews will leave on history and to look at their place in the present moment. For me, that meant thinking about Israel, which is where most Soviet Jews ended up. So if you look at my three books together, you’ll see that this most recent book is the culmination of what started with Natasha, which was much more personal and worked more conventionally as a bildungsroman. Meanwhile, The Free World expanded the scope and looked at the Soviet Jewish century more broadly. And finally The Betrayers arrives at the present.

Rumpus: After the novel’s opening, I expected the story to focus exclusively on Baruch Kotler. And though his life is the nexus between all the characters, the book is ultimately just as much about his mistress Leora, Tankilevich, and Kotler’s family as it is about Kotler. Many of these characters even receive their own point of view sections. Is there something that attracted you to working with an ensemble rather than a single protagonist?

Bezmozgis: The content dictated the form. The original idea for the book was to explore the confrontation between these two men—Kotler and Tankilevich, one who betrays the other. More specifically, one Jew betrays the other to the Soviet Union. But what interested me more—or at least what got the story going—was Tankilevich more than Kotler. Kotler is based on someone who is reasonably well known, about whom there’s a tremendous amount of information. But Tankilevich is based on a second man who has much less written about him. The mystery of that intrigued me.

Rumpus: Is Kotler based on Natan Sharansky?

Bezmozgis: Yes, Sharansky is the closest model. Although there are other Soviet Jewish refuseniks, who—like Sharansky—became quite celebrated, wrote memoirs, and had a lot written about them. Tankilevich is modeled on a guy named Sanya Lipavsky. As I said, I became much more curious about him. Once the denunciation of Sharansky happened, Lipavsky’s trail essentially went cold. I did a lot of research trying to figure out what happened to him, and I did find out a few things. But because so much less is known about him, he was much more of a black box. I wanted to know: “What is the fate of a man who betrays his fellow Jew—his friend, his brother—for a country that then ceases to exist?” And this question dictated the fact that we had to come to understand him. It also necessitated that we see the world through his eyes, that we understand what his life is like.

The book begins from Kotler’s free indirect close third perspective, and then the narrative stops in order to wind backwards and portray that same day from Tankilevich’s perspective. We get to understand him and his reality so that by the time the two men encounter each other we know who both of them are. We have an investment in both of them. We understand that they’re both coming at this story in a moment of extreme turmoil and trauma. I think by giving each one the opportunity to present himself it becomes much more complicated to choose one way or the other.

Rumpus: It’s interesting that you used a lot of research as the basis for these characters. Did you ever find it difficult to translate the raw material of the facts into something that functioned more dramatically, while still staying true to the material? As you say, Kotler is inspired by Sharansky. But in the end you decided not to write a novel about Sharansky. You created a figure that echoes his experience but has his own fictional life. I’m curious about that process—the process of taking material that is rooted in research, then transmuting it into something else.

The Betrayers_CoverBezmozgis: I think writers often do that. Some more explicitly than others. You have to ask: “Why did you chose to write about this person in the first place? What is it that attracted you to this particular life? What motivated you to take from it, and then to depart from it?” In the case of Sharansky, it was interesting in moral terms. Absolute moral terms. Why is one person highly virtuous? Able to sacrifice anything for his or her principles? And then others, which is most of us, are not able to do this. Even though we can agree upon the fact that there are certain things that are simply wrong. For example, you shouldn’t betray someone. You shouldn’t bare false witness. That’s in the Bible. So we all agree that these things are wrong, and yet when pushed to the extreme it’s fair to say that most people will compromise. They’ll justify breaking these principles. And they’ll rationalize that decision in a way that I think many of us could empathize with. But then there are those few who don’t, those that are willing to sacrifice everything for their principles—such as Kotler. So it was interesting to investigate the difference between these two kinds of people. The question at the heart of the book is a moral one: “Why is Kotler the way he is? And Tankilevich the way he is? And what can we learn from the two of them?”

To return to the question, a number of things attracted me to the life of Sharansky. First, it definitely has those moral components I’m interested by. But—additionally—his life is an apropos model for what’s happening currently in Israel, which in a lot of ways is represented by Russian Jews. Here is a basically secular person who believes strongly in the Zionist project. But the Zionist project is changing. It’s becoming less secular. And within his family you can see the fractures. That’s why using Sharansky as a starting point was interesting to me. So I take the elements of his life that make it particularly relevant right now, keep them, then find a way to depart from them in a way that exaggerates the issues I’m interested in investigating. So, for example, I give the man a mistress. In terms of the story, this increases the juxtaposition between the public principles that one can hold—these absolute principles—and the sacrifices and allegiances one might have in his private life. And that’s always the tension that awaits if you hold strongly to your principles. Inevitably, your private life will suffer. You’re going be sacrificing the people closest to you.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about the structure of the book. Although it’s addressing material that feels very global in scope, the plot is actually very contained, taking place mostly in a single house over 24 hours. I found myself often thinking of the Albee play, Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which deals with another set of couples that have the weight of past events bubbling up over the course of the action. Why did you chose to structure your book in such a circumscribed fashion?

Bezmozgis: There were models that really appealed to me. I like short books. And I wanted to write one. You mention a play, and it certainly has things in common with a play. It takes place mostly in one location—four people in a house. And if you have a central conflict that is compelling enough I think you can pull that off. And that’s why it was important to have a character like Kotler. My first two books dealt with people who were quite ordinary, people who were subject to the forces of history—people like me and my family. To the contrary, Kotler is somebody who has a hand in molding history, in changing it. Writing about a public person—a famous person—was an interesting challenge. With that sort of person you can have this parlor structure, where what happens in the house has ramifications far beyond the house.

As far as examples of this kind of structure, there’s Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, a book that was quite provocative and brave at the time. It was written in the early ’40s to expose Stalinism as an evil thing at a time when a great many people believed in Stalinism. That’s an example where it all takes place in a prison cell. Or there’s Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, which is quite self contained as well. Again, it’s basically a man in prison. Another book I really love is The Ghostwriter by Philip Roth, which is also just four people in a house. It’s 180 pages. And yet you can’t really beat that book. It’s better than many books 400 pages long.

Rumpus: Because of that contained structure it’s also true that the dialogue needs to carry a lot of weight. What was the key to effectively using dialogue?

Bezmozgis: I don’t think it’s much different than the way I write dialogue at any other time. Due to the circumstance of the story—four people together in a house—they’re constantly interacting. They naturally talk more than they would in other situations. So the challenge is to make the conversation a back and forth that keeps the pace going, that isn’t pedantic. You need to have argument and counterargument that is unpredictable. The challenge is to have the four characters all go back and forth about who’s right and who’s wrong, why things are happening, why things in the past happened the way they did, all of the characters justifying themselves and trying to convince the other person in the conversation of their point of view. In that way it is kind of like a play. Though it also isnt because of all the things that a novel does that a play doesn’t do. For example, you enter into each person’s subjectivity. Kotler has his point of view sections, and Tankilevich has his, and even Leora gets a chapter.

One thing that was interesting for me as I moved into my third book was how I began to think about writing differently. The first time out you think there has to be a certain balance between the points of view, that there are rules you have to obey. But here I reached the point where I said, “Oh fuck it. I’m just going to give Leora one chapter.” But there’s always a temptation toward balance, the idea that if there’s three characters each one of those characters needs to get the same amount of space. But somehow through the writing of this book that feeling changed for me. Another example of ignoring the rules might be the coda at the end, which is quite unusual since it’s just three very short chapters. But for me, the joy of writing a book is that you go through it believing it must operate by certain rules. But then you reach a point where you realize, “What if it didn’t?” And then you try it that way. And you discover that it’s not that bad. In fact, it’s the way it needed to be.

Rumpus: Even though the structure of the book is contained, there’s an element that allows some of the outside world to trickle in. Specifically, the book does a great job of evoking the sense of 21st century digital life. The characters are constantly aware of the news cycle updating via the Internet. And there are some very fruitful moments when unexpected cell phone calls upend the plot. Is the nature of the connected life we’re all tangled in something that you set out to explore?

Bezmozgis: I just think it presents opportunities. On the one hand, this is just the reality of life now. These people would be carrying cell phones. But it’s interesting to look more closely at what that means: “What does it mean when you could receive a phone call at any moment? Or make one?” And so it becomes—pardon the pun—a device, which you can use to do exactly as you say, which is to expand out. So the characters don’t have to go back to Jerusalem to talk. You could receive a phone call right in the middle of a different conversation that you’re having, and decide to take it or not take it. That allows all these other streams to enter the book. And similarly you can have an email arrive in the midst of something else. Whereas in earlier times, a character like Kotler’s wife, Miriam, who has been abandoned in Israel, would be unable to participate in the story. How could she get in touch with him not knowing where he is? But the way we live now is obviously different. Miriam even says that the thing that pains her most about the situation is the distinction between the way things used to be and the way things are now. Before, when Kotler was imprisoned, she knew exactly where he was, but she didn’t know if he would ever receive her letters. Now she knows that he will receive her messages, even though she has absolutely no idea where he is. It would be strange to deny that this is the way the world operates. So we need to take the way the world operates and incorporate it into the fiction.

Rumpus: Clearly the novel deals with a number of somber topics, including the settlements of the West Bank and the oppression of the Soviet regime. However, I also felt it had many notes of comedy and irony. How do you go about balancing the serious with the humorous?

Bezmozgis: First of all I’m glad you thought some of the book was funny. I intend it to be. This issue really goes back to two things. Every writer has a sensibility. So I guess this is how I see the world. It’s sometimes comic and sometimes tragic. Often these two things coincide when people wouldn’t expect them to. I’m not the first person to observe this; so it’s no great discovery. But, yeah, I think the world is sometimes ludicrous, and ridiculous, and ironic. But also very serious. And when I sit down to write those things inevitably end up on the page. That’s just how I see the world.

Now the second issue is writing about someone like Kotler, basing him on someone like Sharansky. Not every refusenik dissident is very funny. Some are quite dour. But one of the things I liked about Sharansky was that he had an impish, whimsical sense of humor. A very subversive sense of humor. One of the challenges of creating Kotler was to create someone that was the equal of Sharanksy. When I read Sharansky’s memoir, I found that he’d done many things that were very brave, but also very funny. At every given moment that the KGB told him to do something, he would do the opposite. For example, take the very moment of his release, when the Soviets told him that he had to cross a bridge to go from East Germany to West Germany. They said, “Go walk in a straight line and you’re free.” So— deliberately—he walked in a zigzag. And that’s great! That makes somebody alive and it makes somebody aware of the contradictions in life. So by basing Kotler on somebody with a wry sense of humor the whole book became invested with it. There may also be something about an underlying Jewish sensibility—a wry, ironic sensibility. That’s one way that Jews have survived. There’s a lot of funny Jewish writers, and there’s a reason for that.

Rumpus: From a distance, it seems that a reader would be much more likely to sympathize with figures like Kotler or Sharansky than their betrayers. However, in the end, we come to empathize with Tankilevich as much as with Kotler. How did you go about humanizing a character we might take purely as a villain otherwise?

Bezmozgis: The challenge was to understand this guy. To understand why he did what he did in the first place. And then to imagine his life subsequently and to understand what he wanted from his life and from the world. And how he was frustrated from getting it. Once I sympathized with certain elements of his life, then I was able to write him. And if I was able to empathize with him properly, then the hope is that the reader would be able to empathize with him as well. To me, empathy seems like the main task of writing. How do you imagine your way into the life of someone else—without judgement? Or at least not judging a person any more than you judge anyone else.

Rumpus: You’ve written very compellingly about the strange feeling of writing about the Crimean peninsula at a time when so much social upheaval is currently unfolding there. How has the violence that erupted in Gaza this summer intensified or complicated that experience? You’ll be publishing a novel that will not only be read as a piece of art, but also as something enmeshed in current events.

Bezmozgis: When I was writing and researching the book, which went on for a number of years, I did a research trip to Israel in the fall of 2012. I was driving around southern Israel as rockets were being fired from Gaza and Israel was retaliating. A couple days after I left, there was a war between Israel and Gaza. There had been an earlier war in 2009 as well. And now, obviously, there’s one in 2014. So, to me, what’s happening is only a continuation of something that’s been going on for a long time. It’s no news. I don’t think it changes anything materially—except for the very depressing fact that thousands of people have lost their lives. And thousands more have been displaced. And thousands more have lived in terror of rockets falling out of the sky. The whole thing is tedious and extremely depressing. But it’s not news. Nothing new happened. Sadly, what happened in Israel doesn’t mean much unless you have a very short memory. However, what happened in Crimea, and what’s happening in Ukraine, that was—and remains—a shock. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but that’s where things really departed from what we expected. What happened in Israel wasn’t a departure from anything unfortunately.

Rumpus: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Bezmozgis: What was particularly important to me about this book was writing something that could be part of the conversation. It was a chance to write a book about things that I care about very deeply. They are things that a lot of people care a great deal about. To step into the middle of that as a novelist—if I’m doing my job—will be provocative. It will be provocative because it’s not taking sides. I think it’s very easy to look at this book—to look at Kotler’s politics—and to say simply, “He’s pro-Zionist.” Well, he happens to be pro-Zionist, but there’s also much more to him. There’s also an aspect of him that’s disillusioned with Israel. And the book asks the question, “Why is he disillusioned with Israel?” It also investigates what’s happening in his family, and the rift between him and his son. It’s my hope that the novel expresses some of the complicated ways that I feel about what’s happening now both in Israel and the former Soviet Union. And I aim to do that in a way that I don’t think will console either side of the debate.

People come to the subject of Israel and Palestine—and to a lesser degree the subject of Russia—with very firm, very polarized opinions. But I think the great thing about literature is encountering a book where you arrive with very strong opinions and those opinions are challenged in a way that isn’t dogmatic. And so if your politics are very much on the left and against the occupation of the West Bank, you must try to understand why Kotler would oppose unilateral withdrawal. To do that means really reading the book and allowing it to be the launching off point for a deep, meaningful conversation about these issues. And it’s necessary. The situation of having one newspaper that supports one side, and another newspaper that supports the other side doesn’t allow us to do that. And that’s the main challenge of a novelist: to wade into something knowing you’ll get beat up by one side or the other. But isn’t that our job? As for me, I’m forty years old. I feel strongly about these things. And if I do—and I call myself a writer—then it’s incumbent upon me to step up and put myself out there. And to take my lumps if I get it wrong. But certainly to be able to defend what I’ve written, and believe in it, which I do.

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Feature photo credit: Hannah Young.


Cam Terwilliger is a Fulbright Scholar at McGill University, working on a project titled Yet Wilderness Grew in My Heart, a historical novel set in New York and Québec during the Seven Years War. His fiction has appeared in a variety of publications, such as West Branch, Post Road, and Narrative, where he was selected as one of the magazine's "15 Under 30." He tweets at @CamTerwilliger. More from this author →