Life on Sandpaper


Susan Sontag writes: "Of the novelists I have discovered in translation... the three for whom I have the greatest admiration are Gabriel García Márquez, Peter Handke, and Yoram Kaniuk."

Dalkey Archive Press

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Susan Sontag writes: "Of the novelists I have discovered in translation... the three for whom I have the greatest admiration are Gabriel García Márquez, Peter Handke, and Yoram Kaniuk."

Dalkey Archive Press

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The autobiographical latest from acclaimed Israeli novelist Kaniuk (after The Last Jew) is a masterwork of technical virtuosity and tough sentiment. Wounded in Israel's 1948 war, narrator Kaniuk arrives in New York penniless and decides to become a painter. Settling in Greenwich Village, his circle includes Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, James Dean, Tennessee Williams, and Marlon Brando, but Kaniuk never loses sight of his minor role in their stories: "I was in the lives of these people by mistake." Kaniuk marries a Broadway dancer and finds excitement everywhere, whether it's pretending to be a Soviet defector to score a dance with Ginger Rogers, or spontaneously pitching a film director. But the wonder is tempered by a tough streak: Kaniuk often behaves badly, and these lapses pass without introspection; even when his frequently betrayed wife lays out his faults, Kaniuk refuses to own or reject the problem. He's equally unforgiving with others: Wally Cox and Miles Davis are depicted as monsters; novelist James Jones is portrayed as sentimental and naïve. An essential novel about boho New York, this is not to be missed. (Feb.)
Chicago Tribune
“I am convinced that he is one of the masters of contemporary fiction. There is his inordinate technical skill, fecundity of incident and character, and overall intensity.”
Saturday Review
“The problems posed by Yoram Kaniuk go to the heart of modern man’s deepest longings and emotional needs. His keen vision is unhesitatingly centered on what history may regard as the most characteristic experience of our unfortunate age, and this is true of few writers today. He is an enormous talent, both as an artificer of plot and as a virtuoso of language.”
The Barnes & Noble Review

With a title like Life on Sandpaper, you know the book is meant to be rough. And so it is -- the Israeli painter/writer Yoram Kaniuk's bumpy, bristly account of his multiyear spree in Greenwich Village after being wounded in the 1948 War of Independence. Nothing is polished -- not the descriptions, not the dialogue, not the action. It's life left in a natural state with all its scraggy joy intact.

What a life it is. These were the glory years of New York's bohemian scene: abstract expressionism, improvisational jazz, beat poetry sung on the streets in a bawdy, feverish mix. It was the era when sentimental gangsters wept at the music in nightclubs, when if you had the kind of moxie Mr. Kaniuk apparently had, you could score a dance with Ginger Rogers by pretending to be a Soviet spy. A parade of drugged-out angels and talented grotesques lurch through in a glorious, messy, Fellini-esque sprawl.

Wise was the editor who didn't try to impose gloss on the book's spontaneous, splintery disorder. Roughness can be a virtue when describing larger-than-life characters like Frank Sinatra down on his luck and "singing like cowboys fight in the movies" to get himself back in the game; James Dean with his "mischievous sense of shame"; the shrewd and bitter menace of William Saroyan. Gag writers for the Steve Allen show, the funniest show on TV at the time, turn out to be "five of the saddest people I'd ever met, their faces long and longer," sitting around a bottle of Four Roses bourbon laughing with their mouths closed. Pungent cameos abound: Jerome Robbins, James Agee, Leonard Bernstein, Billie Holiday, Peter Ustinov, Charlie Parker, Willem de Kooning, on and on.

Not many women's names in the list above? Fear not. Women abound in Kaniuk's account; in point of fact, just about every heterosexual encounter ends up in the sack. OK, one with a nun doesn't. And Lady Day wasn't crazy about his kissing. But Kaniuk finds succor of a sort by picking up widows in cemeteries, female drivers stuck in the mud and, oops, the nun is back 50 pages later, hot to trot.

Are we meant to believe every word? It hardly matters. Kaniuk calls his book an "autobiographical novel," and it feels curmudgeonly to quibble. In truth, the self-mythologizing gets a bit much sometimes: "I learned where to get cheap meatball-and-spaghetti meals in various, almost secret locations." Really, secret spaghetti joints? But he redeems himself with self-awareness of the most astringent kind. "My talent was meager," he says of his own painting, "I was only doing my best, but my best was shallow and conceited."

So what are we to do with this much unvarnished self-involvement? Surrender to it! If not every word is true, the one thing we can believe in is its energy: the sheer, driven thrust of it. And we should feel free to read it any which way we want. Since Kaniuk doesn't follow any rules, we don't have to, either. 417 pages contain no quotation marks, no chapter breaks, not even a fleck of white space to provide a breather. With that kind of anarchy, we can be anarchic ourselves, and pick it up or put it down anywhere. We can play as rough as he does!

--Daniel Asa Rose

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781564786135
  • Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/2011
  • Series: Hebrew Literature Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 1,157,558
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Yoram Kaniuk was born in Tel Aviv in 1930. A novelist,
painter, and journalist, Kaniuk has published more than thirty books of fiction and cultural commentary, including the novel The Last Jew, which appeared in English translation in 2006. A feature film based on his novel Adam Resurrected was released in 2008 to great critical acclaim.

Anthony Berris was born in the UK and has lived in Israel for most of his life, working as a teacher and freelance translator.

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