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'A lucky life'

INTERVIEW: America may not have a better writer than Joseph Epstein, but his essays and short stories offer very different outlooks on life.

This is the fifth in an occasional series of e-mail interviews with writers, scholars, and others who help form the culture in which we live. WORLD hopes that readers, by listening to influential people who do not necessarily share a Christian worldview, will be better equipped for discussion and evangelism, and will be challenged to sharpen their own understanding. (Previous interviewees: Paul Theroux, Brian Jacques, Anne Lamott, Charles Murray.)

JOSEPH EPSTEIN IS PROBABLY the best essayist in America and is now contending for the short story crown as well. Born in 1937 and educated in Chicago, he edited The American Scholar, journal of the Phi Beta Kappa society, from 1975 to 1997, and lectured on English and writing at Northwestern University from 1974 to 2002. His 15 books include the best-selling Snobbery and a new book of short stories with the edgy title Fabulous Small Jews (Houghton Mifflin, 2003). He lives with his wife in Evanston, Ill.

WORLD: Your essays tend to be jaunty and often optimistic, as if written by a Yankees fan, but your short stories are often about lonely, pessimistic individuals faced with divorce, death, or despair. They seem to have been written by a Red Sox or Cubs fan. If that distinction is accurate, why are they that way, and what do you think about the view that life is largely suffering?

JE: You are not the first to point out that my stories, or at least some of them, can be dark. Of 18 stories in my recent collection, Fabulous Small Jews, a reviewer noted that there are 13 deaths. You didn't but might have added that I also throw in a fair amount of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, cancer, heart attack, and general human disappointment, all at no extra charge.

I prefer to think that, on the way to the gallows, my characters-and, I hope, my readers along with them-also find much to amuse them. I justify some of the darkness by citing an astounding statistic that I hope won't shock your readers, and this is that the mortality rate continues to rest at 100 percent.

Why my essays should be jollier than my stories is not a question I've hitherto thought enough about. Perhaps it has to do with the fact-at least for me it is a fact-that essays have to do with ideas, arguments, memories, while stories are about instincts, feelings, the secrets of the human heart that are only revealed through characters put to the test of action by way of plot. The point of view of my essays, or so I like to think, is that of a fairly worldly gent who feels that, just because we're all going down to defeat one day, because death in the end makes us all losers, this shouldn't cause us to be glum. I fear that last sentence is very far from the standard Christian view of the afterlife, but there it is.

As for whether I think that life is largely suffering, allow me to come at the question by way of your sports metaphor. In answering it, I should say that, rather than considering myself a Yankees or a Cubs or Red Sox fan, my position is closer to that of a Florida Marlins fan: That is, life for me has lots of moments of wonder and even ecstasy, but I wouldn't be in the least surprised if somebody comes along and trades away my team's best players. I have not known many people who have got off the earth without knowing profound suffering and sadness; yet life is also wondrously rich in delight, deep pleasures, and flashes of happiness. Hope I don't get too many splinters from sitting so firmly on the fence on this tough question.

WORLD: Several stories in your new collection, Fabulous Small Jews, show men coming out of ruts. "Moe" beautifully depicts a person resigned to death within a year or two seeing how much his grandson needs him and resolving to have the bypass surgery he needs to live longer. "Artie Glick in a Family Way" shows a middle-aged man coming out of a rut to embrace marriage and two unborn children, and "Dubinsky on the Loose" ends with a 75-year-old in "a haze of elation" after having lunch with a woman he likes. Have you ever been in prolonged despair, and what brought you out of it?

JE: I think it fair to say that, just now, mine are not the most common kind of stories being written; what is more common is the story that ends in what I believe in the creative-writing classes is called an epiphany, or oblique, sometimes (in my view) rather too precious insight: "Daniel felt that the half moon, rising over the Bosphorus, would never appear quite the same to him ever again." These, as you will have gathered from my disdainful tone, are not my kind of story. In the stories I write, someone usually has to make a decision; this decision gives the stories what drama they possess. And these decisions almost always turn out to be moral decisions, often involving the need for someone to take responsibility. These decisions, too, frequently free a man or woman from the ruts that they find themselves in, as many of us do in mid-life or beyond.

I have had what I believe qualifies as genuine sadness in my life: a divorce, the loss of a son in his late 20s. I also underwent bypass surgery, which is now too commonplace to gain much in the way of sympathy. But my despair has not, I think, been prolonged. I used to joke that I hadn't the attention span to sustain real depression. F. Scott Fitzgerald says somewhere that by middle age a man or woman ought properly to be mildly depressed, by which I suspect he meant that life is by then more than half over, the grave looms, one's achievements may not outweigh one's regrets. But what has kept me from serious depression is an awareness of my good luck in life-my good luck in having been born in America, in having had honorable and kind parents, in being married to the right woman, in having been paid decently to do the work I love. With all this good fortune, to allow myself to lapse into depression, let alone despair, would be unbalanced, not to say simply dopey.

WORLD: Your short story characters are often dry cleaners, scrap-metal dealers, and others unlikely to be welcomed for wine and cheese at Northwestern, but they are thoughtful and also in touch with more than the latest fashion in clothes or coffee. You seem to prefer these tough, solitary middle-aged and elderly men to doctors who can pull in $15,000 in a morning doing colonoscopies. Why?

JE: I've long thought that work is one of the things that has gone out of much American and English fiction-and long regretted it. What a person does for a living, after all, is one of the most significant things about him or her. Balzac, Dickens, Trollope, Dreiser, all knew that there was an intrinsic fascination in the details of work. I suspect that one of the reasons that work has gone out of most American fiction is that too many writers have become teachers of creative writing. There isn't too much to learn about the actual world in a college setting, and, because of this, I once claimed that the fiction of the future was likely to be about fancy fornication and new-fangled (and mostly hopeless) ideas.

You are correct again about my partiality for writing about middle-aged men who have been toughened up by the world of their work. These are usually men who know that life entails a good deal of struggle, and that no one gives away anything that is important, and so one must be clever, savvy, sometimes cunning, always on guard. Life gives such characters a point of view-not necessarily the correct point of view, but a sense of how the world works, and a certainty that it doesn't do so through the power of supposedly enlightened opinions on, say, recycling and vegetarianism.

WORLD: You write in one of your books of essays, With My Trousers Rolled, "Vanity, vanity, vanity. Vain, empty, and valueless, Webster calls it, and yet who is without it? Let him who is cast the first comb." You frequently play off biblical references in a witty way. What formal or informal biblical education did you grow up with, and what effect did it have on you?

JE: When I was a small boy, my father used to read stories to me out of a children's Bible. Between the ages of 10 and 13, like many Jewish boys of my generation, I was sent to Hebrew school to train for my bar mitzvah. But I did not otherwise grow up in a very religious household. My father was very edgy about anti-Semitism, which he felt-rightly, I believe-would never disappear, and very concerned about the fate of the Jewish people; he was an adult during World War II and knew what Hitler was up to. I would say that my being Jewish has had a much stronger influence on my general outlook than my Judaism, which, owing to my own intellectual laziness, is thin, to put it very gently.

Your question, though, touches me on a sensitive point, and this is that I, who claim to be a literary man and well read, have never read the Bible straight through, though I've twice read those much longer works by Proust and Edward Gibbon. I mention those two writers because I sense that, if I am to read through the Bible before I depart the planet, I shall have to do it the same way I read them: 20 pages a day, everyday, religiously (you might say).

WORLD: Your stories and essays probe character, and WORLD readers tend to think that character reflects religious belief-but religion as such seems to play little role in your writing. Why is that?

JE: Religion in the strict sense of the word, biblical reading and ritual, prayer and theology, play a negligible, almost nonexistent role in my writing. I consider myself a pious agnostic: I haven't, that is, been able to make the leap to faith yet I have great respect for those who have. In Envy, a little book I recently wrote on that lugubrious subject, I speak of having faith envy. Although I do not claim true religious faith, I frequently find myself asking God to look out for those whom I love, especially my three grandchildren, and I frequently send up brief but heartfelt prayers of gratitude for the lucky life I have been allowed to live.

I hope you are right in saying that my stories and essays probe character, though I would emend that slightly to say that they attempt to probe the mysteries of character, which to me are unending. My sense is that many of my stronger characters resemble their creator, not God, but me, in not stressing their belief in God but in trying to live their lives as if God existed and kept a strict accounting of those who have and have not lived in a morally decent way.

WORLD: How much has Jewish culture shaped your worldview? Does your wife, who is non-Jewish, see things in a different manner than you? (For that matter, what does she think of your description of marriage as "one year of flames and 40 years of ashes"?)

JE: I think my being Jewish has given me my irony, some of my humor, my ability to distance myself slightly from the main flow of life in America. I recently wrote an essay called "Funny But I Do Look Jewish," in which I make the point that, whatever his pose of confidence, in the back of the mind of every Jew is the slight (sometimes not so slight) fear that someone will ask him, "What are you doing here?" The world just now, you will notice, seems to be asking this question of the entire State of Israel.

My wife is superior to me. She is more refined, elegant, generous, kind, and morally sound. She grew up going to Methodist and other Protestant churches. She attempted, in the 1970s and then again in the 1980s, to return to church-going, this time, specifically, to Episcopalian churches, but found too little there to interest her and too much that was off-putting. (At one such church, in the '70s, an Episcopal priest offered a prayer for "Patty Hearst and her associates"; after that God was gone and so was my wife.)

I wonder if an interviewer has ever broken up a marriage? I hope this interview of yours will not be the first. Lest my wife debar me permanently from her bed, let me quickly say that the sentiment that marriage "is one year of flames and 40 years of ashes" is uttered by one of my characters, and is not the view of the author or, so she informs me, his wife.

WORLD: You edited the magazine of Phi Beta Kappa, which has a membership of kids who got good grades, but I've read that you were not an academic hotshot. Do universities these days tend to look for facile students who can respond quickly but not deeply? If you were trying to build a new college that in the absence of offering social prestige might at least try to provide an education, what would you emphasize?

JE: I was a completely uninterested high-school student and a fairly mediocre college student. (My wife is the Phi Beta Kappa in our family.) During my years of teaching at Northwestern, I encountered a good many smart and even intellectually passionate students. But I also discovered many who had no intellectual shame-that is, they didn't feel the embarrassment that I did when young at deep ignorance. My suspicion is that most of the students one finds at the so-called better universities these days have been trained to take SAT and ACT exams. That they score high doesn't mean much more than simply that: that they have been well trained to take SAT and ACT exams. Only a small number of students, then as now, have a genuine passion for books, ideas, culture.

I had a cousin named Sherwin Rosen, who was for many years chairman of the Economics Department at the University of Chicago and who, I'm told, was in line for a Nobel Prize in economics. At a memorial dinner for him soon after his death, Gary Becker, who did win a Nobel Prize in economics, spoke about how they came close to bouncing my dear cousin out of the Ph.D. program at Chicago because he wasn't quick in response. Instead, according to Becker, he would brood on questions, then return to show his supposed betters that there were aspects of the question that they had overlooked-often crucial aspects. He worked the same way in his professional life: slowly, broodingly, effectively. Too much education nowadays entails asking the student to supply seven reasons for the Renaissance in less than two minutes.

Educational reform is something I don't feel fit to talk about in even a falsely authoritative way. But I think it might help a lot if they could simply debar junky subjects and books from university curricula: no courses in the movies, none revolving around race, class, and gender, none featuring second- and third-rate books, most of them by living authors. What an advance-a fine step back into the future-that would constitute! No one, of course, has the courage to do anything like it. A misapplied notion of academic freedom has it that university teachers can be as prejudiced and ignorant as they wish.

WORLD: If you were writing your obituary, what would you highlight? When you look back, what would you have spent less time on, what more time on? What was a waste of time? And, what do you think happens after death?

JE: I would be pleased if my obituary made the point that I tried, in my various scribblings, to be amusing and to give pleasure without scamping the essential seriousness of life.

I haven't all that many regrets, which may, I fear, suggest that I have lived an unexamined life. Had I a chance to redo my education, I should like to do it as a classicist, reading almost exclusively about the Greeks and Romans.

Judaism is alarmingly unclear about the afterlife. Certainly, it nowhere suggests those puffy clean clouds in which we shall all, in our togas, smilingly greet one another, in sublimely clement weather with Andre Kostelanetz music playing in the background. The Reverend Sydney Smith, a writer I adore, said that he imagined that in heaven he would be eating foie gras to the sound of trumpets. I haven't, really, a distinct notion of what the afterlife might be like, though I hope there is one and in it I shall be sent to a place where my wife and (eventually) children and grandchildren and all those I love will join me, I shall read and speak every foreign language with complete ease, be able to play all of Mozart, Shubert, Ravel, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin effortlessly and flawlessly on the piano, and there will be absolutely no cell phones whatsoever.