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Interview with Elaine Feinstein PDF E-mail

The following interview took place on July 16th, 2004, 4:00 p.m. in the writer’s London flat, on the patio, over a glass of white wine.

In retrospect, when you were a young writer and poet, what were your thoughts vis-à-vis your Jewish identity or imprint, on the one hand, and your British, or universal, artistic and literary aspirations, on the other hand?

Well, as a writer I felt profoundly I wanted to be part of the English literary tradition. I read English literature at Cambridge, and I aspired to being part of that tradition. As you know, it wasn't so easy for me to join the mainstream of that tradition.

It wasn't easy only for you, or for other women as well?

I think for all our women, when I began to write, it was very difficult to be accepted as a poet. Of course it's now absurd; no one will remember that because there are so many good women poets now. As far as my inner being was concerned, apart from about three or four months in my first year in Cambridge when I thought of becoming Christian, because you know the English literary tradition soaks you in Christianity, metaphysical poets, Milton and particularly, I remember Bunyan’s Grace Abunding to me most miserable of sinners – apart from that I always felt very, very strongly Jewish; I identified always as Jewish.

And what was the reason you wanted to become a Christian?

I thought it was true at the time! I was seduced by the myth, but very briefly.

What about now? Are you still thinking about such ideas?

Well, no, I mean, now it seems to me quite extraordinary that I ever believed in it. It seems to me most unappealing. I suppose, if you think it's true, that's a different matter – if there really is a heaven and a hell, you have to have your salvation stamped with some church linked authority.

So, you closed the subject… [ I never wrote about it. ] … straight after you thought about it?

I thought about it with great intensity for about a term.

You know that when women, especially women artists, started to assert themselves in the 1960's, personally you may have had an extra conflict with this. I mean, as a Jewish woman you had already received a traditional upbringing which, in itself, goes according to pre-established patterns. How did you manage with this inner conflict, if there was any?

I was involved in a strange situation, because I was the only child of parents who had wanted a large family. There was no son, so therefore in some ways I was the son as well as the daughter. It was a good fortune. There was no opposition to my going to university or doing all the other strange things I wanted to do.

They supported you all the way?

They did, yes, they did. And by the 60's I was, in any case, already independent, married and with children. There were some conflicts there, but of a different kind.

Did you get married, if I may ask, at an early age?

Well, by today's standards yes. But not really, I mean I was 25.

We all know that writers and artists usually address certain social, philosophical and political subjects in their creation. You certainly address such subjects yourself: women, men, family, society, history, Judaism, etc. Do you usually preprogramme the subjects, places and historical periods that you wish to create, and if so, who is your public and who are your readers? . To what extent do you address the Israeli public?
First of all, I don't think any writer preprograms anything. Certain subjects come up and find you; you don't go out and look for them. Who is my public? Well, I don't really know. I don't think about them, but moreover I don't know who they are.

You don't premeditate it? You don't address some [particular] public?

No, not at all. When would I meet them, this public? Sometimes they write to me, sometimes I meet them at a literary festival, and they seem very various to me, quite often very English. In fact, more English really, certainly, than Jewish, because on the whole, Anglo-Jewry doesn't go travelling around to festivals. As to my Israeli public, well I'd like to have a presence there, but as you tell me I don't have… not yet.

Now, coming back to identity, we are generally tempted to ask questions about your Jewish identity. My question is about your British identity this time. Do you feel in all respects as an equal among equals? Can you elaborate on your identity as an English contemporary writer?

If I walk around the literary world, I do feel an equal of other poets and other novelists and biographers, yes, I do. The whole question of being British has become very fraught, you know; the Welsh don't like it, the Scots don't like it, the Irish don't like it. And indeed the Asians and blacks call themselves British. Well, the word British suggests the empire. Empire is seriously unfashionable at the moment. It's not just because imperialism is unfashionable. You must have heard even while you were here, people don’t accept dollars… There's a strong feeling that the word "British" itself has some kind of taint associated.

So, do you believe there is still a period of backlash to what used to be the British Empire?

Yes, on the other hand, am I really English? I don't feel as I am entirely English. But, actually I only have to go to Israel to realize that I am, in fact, English. I felt very English in Israel, and in many other countries I realize my whole tradition, expectations, etc. are English. I am grateful to this country, really.
Family for you is one of your choice subjects, and it emerges almost everywhere in your prose and poetry. Do you think you have said everything you could have on this subject, or is there anything left unsaid that you would like to say in the future?

Well, I don't know what I will say in the future. I don't know where I'm going next. I think I probably am going to explore family but further back and probably with a Russian connection rather than a western European connection. My own family is quite an interesting one. I might look back into that, further back than the survivors go. For instance, back to Odessa, back to Kiev. Perhaps even Regissa. That's the next book. I haven't finished this one yet, or, I can't really write my next book till I have.

So, you have to finish?

I have to finish it, yes.

Is the Russian family something very, very different for you, something that you'd like to explore more?

Yes, I do and I would and I hope to. You see, it's a very rich mix that Russian Jewish mix. From which Isaak Babel and Mandelstein and Ilya Ehrenburg and Michoels and so many writers came, and artists and theatre directors, a very rich mixture. And I come from that stock and I want to see what's happened to it, because everybody didn't die. And so I want to go back and look into that.

Very interesting. Reading most of your novels, one cannot help noticing your array of women characters and heroines – the great women typology, one might say. Consequently, your male characters seem somehow to lack diversity as compared to their women counterparts. Could you please comment on this issue. Are you giving the reader some deeper social message here?

I don't know. I don't think so. Men are as diverse as women, of course they are, but the way in which they relate to women is often very similar. As I've written the biographies, I can see patterns emerging, not in my life only but in other people's lives.

In many of your novels men are these patriarchal figures; they are like in Loving Brecht, he is a dominating…

Well, yes I don't think Brecht is really patriarchal, because he…well, perhaps you could say so. He certainly dominated all the women who came into contact with him, issuing orders and forming them according to his desires and expecting fidelity from them while being extremely unfaithful. I think it's male; it's coded in the male genes to be dominant, really. Women have to struggle quite hard not to be dominated... it's biological rather than…

The same patterns come to light in Mother's Girl...the father there is also dominant…?

Well, that's rather different. He's a very tricky figure: handsome and charming and unreliable, and …maybe that's not so different. He's in some ways enchanting and in other ways very dangerous, and particularly for a daughter, I think. I think daughters are probably quite damaged if they have too strong an attachment to their fathers. On the other hand, you can't win. If you don't have such an attachment you'll probably never fall in love at all.

Now, one of the scenes in Mother's Girl where Halina is bidding farewell to her mother is a great scene. It impressed me very much.. The girl got the wrong message from her mother – that she was crying for all the mistakes she had made. But actually, what did you want to say there with those mistakes? Were they really mistakes?

No, I suppose my relationship with all the mothers in my novels is coloured a little by the relationship to my own mother, who was a very fine woman, very sensible and intelligent, and I really didn't value her enough while she was alive. So thinking of farewells to mothers, I suppose the tears are in a way mine as much as hers.

So I understand now. So there's something from you in that. Very impressive.
Your creative work is generally based on the cultural triangulation of the British, Jewish and Russian heritage. Can you elaborate especially on the Russian side of the triangle? Namely, what makes you turn to the Russians - their classicism, their modernism, or what exactly?

Their power, their strength; particularly the Russian poets like Tsvetayeva and Akhmatova are giants in comparison with most women in the West. They're so passionate, they're so humanly resilient. They have to had such stamina simply to survive. As role models they're wonderful. They're very different. Akhmatova is almost phlegmatically calm and Tsvetayeva has a kind of febrile energy, but both of them together make up a kind of wonderful role model for somebody who doesn't want to be a cowed woman. I mean they have a magnificence which I can't find even in the greatest of the women poets in the West – Marianne More, Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath – all of them are much slighter in comparison.

I see. Although, if we think about the Russian women poets, we cannot talk about any feminism, can we, in conjunction with these women, in the Western meaning or in the Western context?

No, neither of them were in situations in which feminism was really appropriate. Tsvetayeva supported two children in exile and a sick husband, and she did all the earning and, indeed, all the begging, which sort of kept the show on the road. So, she was, if you like, the honorary man of the household. And Akhmatova, too, needed – they both needed – practical, sensible qualities which they monumentally lacked. They were not very practical women.

Yet you also admire poets like Pushkin and others as well. What exactly makes you tick when we mention Pushkin?

I think Pushkin is genuinely an amazing poet. He writes wonderful stories, like apart from the ease which he handles language, he just produces the most amazing plots – always fresh. He gave two plots away to Gogol. I mean, he just was so fruitful, and so how can one not admire him, really?
Thinking about Sylvia Plath,, you've probably heard that there's a film out on Sylvia Plath.

Indeed. I haven't seen it, and I don't really want to see it. But I know it's there.

Did you have any personal connection with Sylvia Plath? Did you meet her?

No. She was in Cambridge I think, 1955-56 and I was not in Cambridge those years; I was in London. And then I went to Cambridge, so I didn't overlap with her really. I mean I knew Ted, and the extent to which I knew Ted is in my book, so you don't need to have all that detail.

So, speaking of the Ecstasy of Dr. Miriam Garner, you said that it was a novel?

It was a novel which didn't have much success, because people were so puzzled; they didn't know the background at all. And I remember that Susan Hill, not a writer now much known but then very much a power in the land, wrote a long review saying it was just puzzling throughout. She couldn't see what I was after. I mean, it just puzzled people. It made sense to me, but there you are. I, from that point on, realized that if you want to communicate with a British audience you can't do it quite like that. It's alien, it's really alien.

Do you mean because you introduced the Ibn Ezra period and the dream and the…?

Everything was unfamiliar to them at the same time. If you're going to be a Modernist, you've got to work with at least the bricks that are fragmented from a life that is known.

But there are so many examples in Western literature of …. this kind of fantastic literature. I'm not saying that this is a fantastic novel, but it deals with certain aspects of dreams, getting into the fantastic…

Well, the thing is that at the same time as using all this arcane subject matter, it is also a spoof of science fiction. I mean, one moves into the past, which is clearly not possible. This man who wants to go back and change time…
Yes, but in a novel everything is possible.

Of course, it's true. Anyway, so I realized that you can only move one frame at a time. If you're going to do something as fantastical as that, you'll want to have the pieces in place that people could recognize.

In my thesis, in the chapter on men and women, I'm dealing with Stavros, and for me he is a fascinating character, not a benevolent and more of a malevolent type of person, who wants to make things happen, and while doing that he uses people. It doesn't matter whether they are women or men, but especially he misuses women for that end. For instance, you said in Miriam, is the whole thing because of him or more because of Octavius Garner? Who is the initiator for putting her in this strange coma?

Well, I think they have different motives, but they're both involved.

I wonder, what would the British public say if a novel like this came out now?

I think they might be more interested because, for one thing, Arab culture is now much more acceptable to people.

And maybe they wouldn't like the fact there is such a great understanding among the three cultures. What would they say about that?

I think they might be generous enough to see that's a good idea, but they wouldn't like the blame my heap on the Christians. [ Which you actually, did suggest ,the peril over the Pyrenees.] Yes, that’s right.

Elaine Feinstein, thank you very much for this interview.

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