Thursday, April 22, 2010

"Question Period"

Not long ago, Dr. M and I attended an event where Carl Reiner (Your Show of Shows, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Jerk) sat down with Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer to discuss Feiffer’s recently published memoir. (We were invited to the event by our friend, Cliff, a professional photographer, who had chosen his career after watching The Bob Cummings Show, a fifties sitcom in which Cummings played a photographer who was constantly surrounded by beautiful women. Cliff is one of the lucky ones. He knew what he wanted, and he went for it.)

Reiner was a hilarious if occasionally spotlight nabbing interviewer. Feiffer was everything his cartoons are – funny, insightful and resolutely angry over insults and abuses now long in the past. His best story concerned his mother’s having given away his dog, after the pet had lived with the family for only six months.

“Why did you give him away?” demanded the irate young Feiffer.

“Because I knew you wouldn’t take care of him,” the mother replied.

“I’ve been taking care of him for six months!” screamed the boy.

“You wouldn’t later,” came the mother’s all-knowing explanation.

Feiffer was thoughtful and generous in his responses, and on the money in his observations, concerning humor (funny people are funny to take the sting out of their otherwise threatening remarks), learning your craft (he lamented the disappearance of the valuable tradition of internship), and dealing with criticism (act like it never happened).

After the interview came an illuminating “Question Period”, impeded only slightly by the fact that the eighty-one year-old Feiffer had difficulty hearing the questions. Staving off possible embarrassment, Feiffer deftly made glorious fun of his impairment.

What a pleasure it was, witnessing two aging lions (Feiffer more an aging lynx), infirm in certain regards, but sharp as tacks where it really mattered. In the coconut. It was a memorable evening.

The event, which took place in a synagogue, reminded me of a similar “meet the author” event I attended many years ago, which also took place in a synagogue. Synagogues are a natural venue for people promoting their books. Jews are “the people of the book.” Synagogues are a gathering place for Jews. You can sell some books at a synagogue.

It’s a winning strategy. Much better than flogging your memoir at the car wash.

Haling from Montreal, the author on this earlier occasion was the renowned – to Canadians – and deservedly highly praised writer, Mordecai Richler (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, St. Urbain’s Horseman, Joshua Then and Now, among other wonderful and worth reading offerings.)

I don’t know about now, because I don’t live there anymore, but when I did, Richler was the only famous Canadian Jewish writer. America had considerably more of them. I am entirely certain that if Richler been from the States, he’d be studied in writing programs across the country. Richler’s abilities consistently rival his contemporaries – Bellows, Roth, and Malamed – and that’s not Canadian braggadocio; the guy’s really good.

(Imagine. A country so under-populated, there was only one Canadian Jewish author. When he died, they had to put an ad in the paper to find another one.)

I can no longer remember which book Richler was promoting at the time. I only knew this. The guy was a hero to me. I had to hear him speak.

So we got tickets and we went.

Time has erased the specifics of his presentation that evening, though I recall it was skillfully delivered. What stays with me after all these years was the subsequent “Question Period.” Never have I witnessed such a remarkable performance. Not before, and not since.

Though he invited questions from the audience, no matter what the questioners wanted to know, Richler adamantly refused to accommodate them. One by one, admiring fans would rise, offering the standard queries people might inquire of a visiting author, and, as coldly and efficiently as Wyatt Earp in Dodge City, Richler shot every single one of them down.

“Do you think you’d be better known if you were American?”

“That’s a silly question.”

“What effect did growing up in working-class Montreal have on the way you see the world?”

“It’s all in my books.”

“Which of your books is your favorite?”

“Why would you ask me such a thing?”

On it went, for ten agonizing minutes. It was starting to get funny, in an uncomfortable sort of way. Offered the most innocuous-seeming questions – concerning his influences, his work habits, the secret of his success – Richler consistently and truculently slammed the door.

“How would you compare yourself with other authors dealing with similar subject matter?”

“How would you?”

Finally, after deflecting a dozen or so question, and showing no sign whatever of lightening up, I stood up in front of the gathering, and I said,

“Is there anything we can ask you that you’ll be actually willing to answer?”

I’m lying. That was my fantasy, but I didn’t do it. I wanted to, but I feared Richler would march indignantly off the stage, and the crowd would morph into an angry mob and decimate me with sarcasm.

“Are you happy now? You made him leave the stage.”

“He wasn’t saying anything.”

“He might have later.”

There you have it. The dog has to go. The question can’t be asked.

Feiffer’s mother lives!
A reminder: Readers may feel free to ask any questions they'd like. Though Canadian, I promise not be as icy as Mordecai Richler.


Rick said...

Great column, Earl! Saul Below was born in Canada but quickly escaped.

I heard a story about Mr. Richler. I don't know if it's true or not. He once went to an awful production of The Diary of Anne Frank. He consumed a number of cocktails during intermission ... and faithfully returned to his seat to suffer through the second act. When the Nazis came at the end of the play, Richler yelled out from the audience: "They're in the attic!"

A. Buck Short said...

Mordecai Richler was Jewish ???

scooter said...

um, Leonard Cohen?

PALGOLAK said...