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  • Written by Michael Lavigne
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  • Written by Michael Lavigne
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A Novel

Written by Michael LavigneAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Michael Lavigne

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On Sale: February 13, 2007
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-611-5
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Not Me is a remarkable debut novel that tells the dramatic and surprising stories of two men–father and son–through sixty years of uncertain memory, distorted history, and assumed identity.

When Heshel Rosenheim, apparently suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, hands his son, Michael, a box of moldy old journals, an amazing adventure begins–one that takes the reader from the concentration camps of Poland to an improbable love story during the battle for Palestine, from a cancer ward in New Jersey to a hopeless marriage in San Francisco. The journals, which seem to tell the story of Heshel’s life, are so harrowing, so riveting, so passionate, and so perplexing that Michael becomes obsessed with discovering the truth about his father.

As Michael struggles to come to grips with his father’s elusive past, a world of complex and disturbing possibilities opens up to him–a world in which an accomplice to genocide may have turned into a virtuous Jew and a young man cannot recall murdering the person he loves most; a world in which truth is fiction and fiction is truth and one man’s terrible–or triumphant–transformation calls history itself into question. Michael must then solve the biggest riddle of all: Who am I?

Intense, vivid, funny, and entirely original, Not Me is an unsparing and unforgettable examination of faith, history, identity, and love.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

The last person in the world I wanted to know about was my father. I did not want to know if he had lovers. I did not want to know if he took diuretics. I certainly did not want to know if he liked to masturbate, or if, even occasionally, he fantasized about teenage boys. It was of absolutely no interest to me if he cheated at bridge, or if his secret ambition was to become a ballet dancer, or if he had an obsession with women’s shoes, or if he washed his body with lemon, or if he hit my mother (especially, God forbid, if she liked it). So when I was presented with twenty-four volumes of journals, each bound with a rubber band so old it was as brittle as the leather cover it held together, and was told, “These are your father’s, take them,” I was less than enthusiastic. Especially since it was my father who gave them to me.

“These are your father’s,” he said, “take them.”

“Dad,” I said, “you are my father.”

He looked at me quizzically. His eyes were like aspic. Cloudy. Beneath which something obscure, unappetizing.

“Where’s Karen?” he asked.

“Karen is dead,” I reminded him.

“That’s not true,” he said. “She was just here. I was speaking to her. Take these.”

With his feet, he pushed the box of journals toward my chair.

“All right,” I said, “I’ll take them. But I won’t read them.”

Then he turned away, and looked out the window.

“I’m waiting for Frau Hellman,” he said.

“Okay, Dad,” I said. I had no idea who Frau Hellman was. Maybe someone from his childhood, or maybe his name for the lady who washed him.

After a little while I realized he had forgotten I was in the room. The space between us seemed to grow as if I were standing on a dock, and he were sailing away on the Queen Mary. I say the Queen Mary because he once actually did sail away on her, and I really was left behind, waving. Still, it was unthinkable that I would have a troubled relationship with my father. If I was not the perfect son, he was certainly the perfect father.

I reminded myself of that as I sat there looking at him drooling, his head lolling back like a toddler’s asleep in his car seat.

“He’s doing just great, isn’t he?” the station nurse said. “We just love him!”

I held out the box to her. “Where did he get these? They weren’t in his room before.”

“I don’t know. I think someone brought them.”

“Who brought them?”

“He has so many visitors.”

“He does?”

“You know how popular he is!”

Actually, I didn’t know he knew anybody. I thought everybody he knew was dead. I thanked Nurse Clara—her name was emblazoned on her ample, nurturing breast—and walked out into the brutal Florida heat. The car was only a few steps away, but I might as well have been crossing the Amazon River. By the time I got there, my shirt was soaked and my legs were sticking together. I turned on the air-conditioning in the Caddy, but had to wait outside for the temperature to drop—the car was an oven. In my arms was the box of journals. They weighed me down painfully. Finally I sank into the plush leather seat and let the frigid jets cool my face, my underarms. I tugged my shirt away from my body to let the air caress my stomach with its icy fingers. I sighed in relief. I put the shift in reverse, and pulled out of the spot. It’s amazing how long a Caddy will last, particularly if you never drive it. Dad bought his in ’78. I looked down at the odometer. It had twenty-two thousand miles on it. And I had to admit it was comfortable, bobbing down the road on those marshmallow shocks, riding on tires of Jell-O. Like the kiddy-car rides he used to take me on before I graduated to the bumper cars and roller coasters. I recalled how I used to be embarrassed being seen in it, especially when my dad drove twenty miles an hour in a forty-mile zone. But not anymore. His Caddy was now the coolest thing going, only he would never know it. As far as he was concerned we still had the 1952 Studebaker. If he kept regressing on schedule, in another couple of weeks he’d be curled up with a bottle in the back of his father’s ’23 Daimler.

I pulled out of the parking lot and turned onto Military Trail. All the roads in West Palm Beach County look the same. Six lanes. No curves. Fast food. And every few feet the entrance to some development. The Lakes. The Bonaventure. The Greens. Everything had a The in it. They liked the word The. They also liked the word at. The Villages at The Palms. The Fairways at The Willows. I turned left at The Turn at Lake Worth Avenue.

The box of journals was sitting there beside me, sort of the way Mom used to sit next to Dad, waiting for an accident to happen. But unlike her, they smelled bad—musty and moldy, decayed. Well, maybe she smelled that way now, too, I thought. But I shook that away. I didn’t know why my mind let such thoughts sneak in. I hated when that happened. But it was just part of being a comic. You always think funny. For instance, the box they were in—I noticed it was a Cheez Whiz box. This made me laugh. This is what Father chose to contain his life’s writings? I also noticed the logo was different than it is now. So it was a really old box. He’d been working at this a long, long time. Saving this stuff up, just for this moment. His patrimony. Since he had no money, maybe he thought I could get it published or something. Why would he think that? He ran a wallpaper store all his life. Who would want to read about that?

I was jolted suddenly, by someone honking the horn. I looked up and the guy passed me, making a fist. I glanced down at the speedometer. I was doing twenty in a forty-mile zone. For some reason this did not strike me as funny—and I stepped on the gas.

I pulled up to his building at The Ponds at Lakeshore and turned off the engine. There were only American cars in the lot, primarily Cadillacs and Buicks, and most of them had American flags on them. A gaggle of women were standing near the entrance. They were all small. How did they get so small? I wondered. They had to be less small once upon a time. Will Ella be that small one day? She’s five-eight now—could she end up four-ten? I stepped out of the car, thinking I would just leave the journals in the front seat for a while, but I knew I couldn’t. I would have to take them upstairs. But I thought: Wait. How come they weren’t in the apartment in the first place? I didn’t remember ever seeing them there. I didn’t remember him ever speaking about them. I didn’t remember him ever working on them, for that matter. Why would they suddenly appear at the nursing home? Why wouldn’t he just say, there are journals in the closet at home—I want you to read them?

The box suddenly looked even more dangerous to me. Poisonous. Like a scorpion that had crawled into my sleeping bag. I went around the other side and picked it up. It had to have been stored in a basement or attic—it had that smell to it, like damp earth. I thought: shouldn’t I remember something about this? How could he have written twenty-four volumes without my ever having noticed? Maybe they were someone else’s journals. Maybe he only thought they were his. That was possible. Totally possible. Sometimes he thought I was some cousin or someone named Israel—so why not?

I walked past the little ladies, and they all said hello. I said hello back and got into the elevator. I heard someone say, that was Gladys’s son. No, someone else said, that’s Rose’s.

They never mentioned the men. The men had no children. Only the women. And anyway, my mother’s name was Lily.

The elevator smelled like an indoor swimming pool. It crawled slowly up the side of the building like a dying man clawing his way out of a hole. It was only four floors, but in San Francisco I’d already be at the top of the Transamerica Pyramid. At least it was air-conditioned. But then the door opened onto the hall—which was no hall, it was actually a kind of gangway stuck on the outside of the building like an exposed rib—and the heat hit me again. I could feel rivers of moisture forming on my arms where the box rubbed against them. As always, it was a struggle to open the door. Finally, though, I stepped inside, shut the heat behind me, and put the box down on the dining room table. I went to the refrigerator and made myself a seltzer.

Then I picked up the phone to call Ella, but then I didn’t.

You call because you want to connect, but you don’t connect, you can never connect, you can’t wait to hang up, you hang up, you feel utterly alone—like you’re stuck in the bottom of a swimming pool and can’t hear anything except your own breathing. The thing is, you see, it’s the words. It’s just like a stand-up routine, or a sermon maybe. You work hard on the words, and you think the words say it, but actually it’s the delivery, and the delivery is in your body, your eyes, the fact that someone is right there in front of you and even if you can’t see them as individuals, it’s that you smell them, you sense their bodies there, it’s physical, it’s visceral.

But then why do comedy albums work? And radio? Not to mention things that are written, like, say, the Talmud? My theory was hopeless, and I knew it.

Anyway what would I say to her?

She was oddly vexed that I’d come out here again. “If you’d pay as much attention to your son as you do your father . . .” she said when I first told her, but then she just let herself drift into silence. “By the time I get there he might not even recognize me,” I’d tried to explain. But I doubted she heard me, since she’d already hung up.

I supposed I could tell her about the box. I could ask her if she remembered anyone named Frau Hellman. Then I could ask her what she thought I ought to do.

“I don’t know,” she would say. “I’m not sure.” She didn’t like to make decisions for me. At least not since the divorce.

If I told her I didn’t think I wanted to read them, she would say, “That’s fine.” If I said I was going to read them, she’d say, “That’s fine too.”

Really, when you think about it, you don’t have to have actual conversations with people you know well.

Also if I called, what if Josh answered? I couldn’t face him just then. I wasn’t sure why. And why was my own father suddenly so desperate to talk to me—now when he didn’t even know what year it was. I looked over at the Cheez Whiz box. All its little advertising slogans seemed more like curses and portents than inducements to slather some spread on a cracker.

I finished my seltzer, marveling at the tenacity of that generation of Jews to hold on to its old habits. How many places in the world could you still get seltzer delivered to your door?

I fixed myself a little sandwich and sat down at the dining room table. On the wall directly above my head was a tapestry of the Old City of Jerusalem—bright, tacky colors, somewhat abstract, and obviously made in Israel. In the living room just beyond, the walls seemed festooned with Judaica—fiddlers on roofs, flying goats, old, bearded men wrapped in prayer shawls, framed calligraphic paper cutouts of Hebrew letters. On the bookshelves were innumerable tchotchkes—cloisonné ashtrays in the shape of menorahs, ritual spice boxes, candlesticks, commemorative Israeli coins set off in black velvet, a sterling silver–covered Passover Haggadah (also made in Israel), and on the top shelf, standing like the guardian of all that is Jewish, the Hanukkah menorah—which in fact was surrounded by four lesser menorahs, all of which were given to my father in honor of some achievement for the Temple Men’s Club, or the B’nai B’rith, or AIPAC. There were photos stuck among the books, too—of Mom on the Hadassah Executive, the Sisterhood, and the ladies from ORT. Of Dad shaking hands with Elie Wiesel. Of Dad shaking hands with Natan Sharansky. Of Dad shaking hands with Golda Meir. (That was his favorite—it hung on the wall in a big frame, right between my sixth-grade school portrait and Karen, two months old, naked on a blanket.)

I think it got worse once they moved down to Florida. In New Jersey it was more prints of famous paintings—Rembrandt, van Gogh, Picasso. The books on the shelves didn’t seem so relentlessly Hebraic. A Stephen King novel or two. Valley of the Dolls. And all the things we kids brought home that had to be displayed: drawings, ceramics, term papers, birthday cards. But even then, the Jewish paraphernalia seemed to swallow up everything like kudzu, and by the time I left for college, my parents’ house could have been mistaken for the temple gift shop. It was funny, really. I used it as material for one of my best routines.

But now as I sat there regarding the Cheez Whiz box of leather-bound diaries, and hearing somewhere not too far away the laconic song of a bull alligator emerging from the canal that cut through the eighth fairway of The Ponds at Lakeshore golf course, and picking up the aroma from next door, or perhaps from the floor below, of brisket simmering in the Dutch oven, and noting as well that Mrs. Eagleberg, several doors down, had reached that point in the day when she spoke to her daughter in Chicago as if there were no telephone line connecting them, so loudly did she elucidate the machinations of her bowels and the tribulations of her swollen ankles—all these things filled me with a terrible longing.


From the Hardcover edition.
Michael Lavigne|Author Q&A

About Michael Lavigne

Michael Lavigne - Not Me

Photo © Gayle S. Geary

Michael Lavigne was born in Newark, New Jersey, and educated at Millersville State College and the University of Chicago, where he did graduate work on the Committee on Social Thought. His first novel, Not Me, received the Sami Rohr Choice Award for emerging Jewish writers and was named an American Library Association Sophie Brody Honor Book and a Book-of-the-Month Club Alternate Selection; it was also translated into three languages. Lavigne has worked extensively in advertising, for which he has won many awards, is a founder of the Tauber Jewish Studies Program at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, and spent three years living and working in the Soviet Union. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, Gayle Geary.

Author Q&A

A CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL LAVIGNE

Michael Lavigne discusses Not Me with Binnie Kirshenbaum, author of An Almost Perfect Moment and Hester Among the Ruins. (Editor’s note: The emotional and philosophical depth of this discussion reflects the poignant, cerebral, and often controversial elements found in Not Me, a novel that thoroughly explores the essence of humanity and is embedded in an authentic, and often disturbing, Holocaust history.)

Binnie Kirshenbaum: Is there such a thing as true redemption? And if so, what of forgiveness? To forgive, to forgive entirely without reservation, is that a kind of redemption, too?

Michael Lavigne: I do not know if redemption is possible. I do know that we must live as if it were. That means not only within ourselves but also in our relationships with those who have tormented us. I suppose the essence of the redemptive stance is empathy–this is the origin of ethical behavior in general. If we live with empathy, we also live with hope. Forgiveness is another matter. Is it possible to forgive without reservation? I suppose that depends on the offense. Frequently in myself I have found that a shadow of distrust seems to lurk beneath the surface of forgiveness.

BK: No doubt there are others, but The Great Gatsby and The Human Stain come to mind as novels with protagonists who reinvent themselves. How do you see Heshel Rosenheim’s re­invention of himself in light of the lies lived by Fitzgerald’s and Roth’s characters?

ML: You’ve put Heshel in much too fine a company. But I do see, in both Gatsby and Colman Silk, American types–for all their individuality, they have archetypal qualities that speak to American racism and classism, a critique of American values. Both are stories of America’s reinvention of self. And while Heshel certainly reinvents himself, his is a more existential voyage, an accidental one that sends him on a long and reluctant journey. On the other hand, I think of Gunter Grass, who after all these years finally admits his Nazi past–Waffen SS, by the way–so perhaps Heshel is an archetype after all.

BK: It is my own contention that comedy is tragedy taken to its conclusion. To make Michael Rosenheim a comic by profession was, I think, exactly the right choice, but an unexpected one. Why a comic and not a carpenter or lawyer or salesman?

ML: It just happened. I actually tried to change it. I tried to write him as a psychologist, and also as a rabbi; it didn’t work. But a comic does seem emblematic. When I was in graduate school it was common to say that the contemporary novel could be only comic. This reflected how ill-at-ease we felt, and still feel, in speaking of ourselves as if we really had a right to a point of view, as if meaning was not merely self-imposed. Seriousness was seen as sentimentality (the worst of all possible crimes!). I never quite got that. I don’t see what’s wrong with sentiment, as long as you are not just whitewashing the truth. Perhaps I chose “comedian” precisely because a comedian is the least sentimental of creatures, and yet the most covetous of simple things, like love, family, and home. One of my very best friends was a comedian, quite a good one. He died of cancer. I guess I wanted to write something for him. For a time, in college, I was his straight man. What I learned was, as a comedian, you see everything around you very clearly– actually, you see way too much–but then the trick is to avoid en­gaging with it. As my friend used to say, “You have to see the funny.” And that’s Michael’s MO.

BK: When Heinrich Mueller refers to himself as a “pencil pusher,” Adolf Eichmann is echoed. And later in the novel, Michael notes seeing Eichmann’s eyes in Heshel’s eyes. How deliberate is this parallel, and does it further the conversation on the banality of evil?

ML: It is deliberate, of course. We are all insiders when it comes to evil, all part of the machine that causes human suffering. It be­comes clear to us only if our field of vision is pierced from the outside, when some object that has been out of range, or vaguely in the periphery, forces itself into focus. In Not Me, Heshel’s line of sight is interrupted by Moskovitz, but also (perhaps not unusually) by his own sense of superiority, which forces him to en­gage in various acts of kindness that ultimately explode his illusions. In a general sense, the banality of evil does not describe a merely personal moral blindness: it is societal. In this sense, the Nazism of Not Me and Heshel Rosenheim is a marker not only for fanatical movements in our own time, but for our failure as ordinary, decent people in the West to come to terms with even the most basic issues of human welfare: health, poverty, race. For me personally, writing this book required a willingness at least to try to explore my own blindness, and examine how my own illu­sions of moral certainty have hurt those around me.
By the way, I was also thinking of Milton. For him, the source of evil is injured pride. This sense of injury as a source of identity is at the heart of Not Me, and also, it would seem, of so many of the world’s woes.

BK: If we live a lie, do we at some point come to believe it to be true, or to be a greater truth than the facts may show?

ML: The lie is the greater truth. The identities we construct to fool everyone but ourselves in fact fool us the most. Mythology is much stronger than fact. Ask any Israeli or Palestinian.

BK: Early on, before he has any idea what those journals contain, Michael wants no part of them. Does he harbor a suspicion that something is not as it seems with his family? Is it foreboding or is he simply not very interested in his father’s life and history?

ML: Two things here. First, I think children fear certain kinds of knowledge about their parents, just as parents fear certain kinds of knowledge about their children. Braving that frontier is one of the tasks I assign Michael. As for secrets, there are none. They roam about the house and everyone knows they are there–it is merely the specifics that elude us. My wife, Gayle, grew up in such a house. All throughout her childhood she was riddled with doubt about her mother–like the kids in Not Me, she imagined all kinds of scenarios–her mother was a secret communist, her mother was a spy, her mother was . . . on and on. So many things seemed some­how out of whack. Naturally, this raised great doubts in Gayle’s mind about who she herself was, about what she could trust to be real. It was only when she was seventeen that she learned the truth. This, by the way, was one of my starting points in writing Not Me.

BK: Is it love that awakens the humanity in Heinrich Mueller? Is love his salvation? Or was it not love at all, but a redirection of hatred? And what role does love play in his newfound compassion?

ML: It is actually conversation–his ability to have one. Love comes at the end of that conversation, not at the beginning. What emerges first is empathy–and this only slowly. Empathy arises from contiguity, I suppose; from rubbing shoulders, but not in the same old way. Heinrich had plenty of contact with Jews in the camps, yet he never saw them as anything but Other. That’s the issue of blindness coming up again. The Jews were always right there, he just couldn’t see them. Somehow, as Heshel, he allows them to enter his field of vision. I don’t think I can explain it more than that. It’s a mystery. And like everything mysterious, it is al­ways present, just invisible. Call it the string theory of the soul. There are all these dimensions, alternative universes, all around us, all the time. Then suddenly, for no reason, two of these collide and bang! A new universe is born. For Heshel, it is not about love or hate, but about reconfiguring his universe of perception so that he actually can love and hate; then there is this wholeness in him that transcends categories.

BK: A disturbing effect is created with the details of uniforms. Heinrich/Heshel is so pointedly unimpressed with his lack of a uniform as a soldier in Israel (such a lovely note is hit with his being pleased with the Eisenhower jacket he gets). Later Moskovitz tells him he looks good in his uniform. This reflects the intent of SS uniforms, the elegance of them, and how attractive the men looked in uniform. Is there something inherently fascist and/or sexually exciting about all uniforms? Or were you getting at something else with these parallels?

ML: No one else has mentioned this business of the Eisenhower jacket, which seemed so important to me when I wrote it. It does completely encapsulate Heinrich and at the same time point to the Heshel he is one day to become. However, I myself never drew the connection with Moskovitz’s remark–I was merely thinking about her feelings–her love and anger and her inability or refusal to express them at that moment. The uniform is both distancing and intimate. It romanticizes. The object recedes, and the space is filled up with feeling; all men look good in uniform. Heinrich’s vanity separates him from those around him, but in the end he becomes the uniform, doesn’t he? It is while wearing it, finally embracing what it seems to stand for, that he kills the two people he most cherishes.

BK: How does Michael’s distance from his own son mirror his relationship with his father? Is the distance between both sets of fathers and sons the by-product of secrets kept for too long?

ML: Michael’s distance from Josh is a reflection of his distance from himself. Memory and love are connected, just as are memory and ethics. In this regard I always think of E. M. Forster’s “only connect.” Michael lives in a world of entropy–nothing holds together. Michael actually has no secrets, only holes. Per­haps these are caused by Heshel’s secrets, but I rather think it is his horror at his own past that torments him. If his love for his sister destroyed her, even with the kindest of intentions, what might it do to his son? Certainly he had to ask himself that question. Beyond this, though, I think I was asking myself–how do we hold our lives together when we truly have no clear sense of identity? How can we love if we are disconnected from ourselves? It’s not just Michael’s problem. It’s the condition of our lives.

BK: There are moments when there seems to be something of Raskolnikov in Heshel, when it seems to be guilt and guilt alone that is driving him. Or on some level does Heshel continue to be­lieve that as Heinrich, he never did anything very wrong?

ML: I think on every level he thinks he did something wrong. But he pities himself enough not to punish himself or turn himself in. Even though he spends the rest of his life atoning for, and even absorbing the identity of, his victims, he does it in secret. What does that say about him? Like Raskolnikov, it is not merely guilt that drives him, but a sense of inherent superiority. This is also what he has to break through. Does he succeed? The reader can judge. In general our problem is not that we don’t see that we’ve done wrong, but what we do with that information. How do we repress it, transform it? How does it debilitate us, innervate us?

BK: I know a woman who, as an adult, learned that her adored and beloved grandfather had been an SS officer and served time in prison for war crimes. How does someone–can someone– reconcile these opposing forces of revulsion and hatred with filial love?

ML: I am curious to know how she dealt with it. I think filial love is very complex, as it is wrapped up in one’s own identity to such a great extent. It is rarely without its compliment of resentments and anger, yet its pull can be irresistible, even when parents and children no longer speak to one another, or speak only in generalities. But I do think that a child, however grown, cannot be whole unless he or she reconciles with his or her parents, regardless of their crimes. In Michael’s case, love wins. It is important, not only for his own well-being, but for that of his son. But even greater than that is the role of love in holding off the strong forces of chaos and cruelty that wish to, and often do, rule the world. The power of family love is to bind us together against these forces. The more we extend that family, the safer we will be.

BK: During his time in Israel, Heinrich’s anti-Semitism periodi­cally revealed itself in his thoughts and to the reader. This struck me as absolutely true. Does he really never again harbor these thoughts? Is it possible to entirely eradicate our own prejudices and bigotry? Or must a bit of it always linger?

ML: I don’t know. I really don’t. To what extent do we ever fully slough off the prejudices of our youth? To what extent does immersion in the other eradicate the old self? Years ago, I lived with a non-Jewish woman. Everything was fine until one day when we got into a huge fight about something, I can’t remember what, and she called me a dirty Jew. She immediately retracted it, of course, but there it was. I have many residual prejudices of my own. They don’t guide my life, or my behavior, but they lurk, and every so often come into consciousness. By the way, the woman I spoke of–long after we broke up, she converted to Judaism. Strange, but I hadn’t remembered that until just now. In that way, I am like my character, Michael. So many things are repressed; you never know what is really driving you.

BK: If we are to assume that Heinrich the Terrible indeed trans­formed into Heshel the Good, hope is offered. Why is such a transformation so slow in coming to our collective human nature? Why after it is proclaimed “never again” has genocide happened not only again and again, but the world has consistently turned a blind eye? Have we not learned anything from history?

ML: The only way for the world to change is for people to actually listen to each other’s stories. This is not so easy. At heart, I don’t believe human nature can change. However, I have seen, and I know it to be true, that individual people can change in quite astounding ways. But to do so, one must constantly struggle against one’s own instinct and will. It requires a very high level of self-awareness and motivation. But let’s face it, people enjoy conflict; we cannot learn from history because we are always rewriting it. It’s fine and good to say “Hey, you guys, stop shooting at each other.” But when somebody crosses our own turf, it’s a different matter. So much of conflict is in the realm of imagination. You get a Muslim and a Hindi in the same room. They sit down to dinner, share jokes, and have a nice time. But you take the idea of Islam, and the idea of Hinduism–and then all the sudden you have Kashmir, and everyone is killing each other. How is that possible? As it happens, that seems to be the subject of my next book–not Kashmir, but the tragedy that while conflict is largely imaginary, it is at the same time absolutely inescapable.

BK: What elements of Not Me, if any, are autobiographical?

ML: When I wrote Not Me, I was convinced nothing in it was autobiographical. And indeed, there are no Nazis in my family, and no Holocaust survivors, either. No terrible family secrets, no journals, no horrible parenting. My real father was born in Newark, New Jersey. I don’t think fiction should be autobiographical–it’s so much more interesting and pleasant to make things up. But of course, much of me did intrude into the story on slippered feet, so to speak. At first it was the use of familiar locations, which helped in creating a sense of reality for my characters. The father’s apartment is my parent’s apartment, much exaggerated. Kibbutz Naor looks very much like the one I lived on for a short time when I was seventeen. But then I noticed that little events, memories of which I was only partially conscious, crept into the story. The violin in the closet (I had forgotten entirely that my real sister did play the violin as a child), the business with the magic act for show-and-tell (in real life, it was playing the saxophone–I stood up to play and realized I had forgotten how–but I got so many laughs, everyone thought I was being awful on purpose: a great life lesson)–things like that. And of course, I must have been dealing with my own father’s death, though I was only vaguely aware of it as I was writing. But no, the novel itself is not autobiographical!

BK: Please tell us a little about your writing process and perhaps you can use that to segue into a brief mention about the contents of your next project.

ML: I don’t like to talk about what I’m working on, because, who knows, I may just tear the whole thing up and start on some­thing else. But mainly, if I talk about it, it loses some of its energy, and becomes harder to write. My process, though, is to begin with a premise–a “what if”–and go from there. I don’t know who will inhabit the book, and certainly I don’t know what will happen except in the vaguest outline. I do write notes from time to time, but they are also in the form of “what ifs.” I like to set up road blocks for myself, allow things to happen for reasons I have not yet understood. I sometimes create histories of characters, timelines, relationship schematics, things like that. I also do an enormous amount of research, mostly as I’m writing. But basically, I just sit down and write at least three pages a day, five days a week, and see what happens. In Not Me, the premise was “What if my father were a Nazi?” In the new book the premise is something like: “What if someone frees himself from tyranny, only to become the victim of something even worse?” I’m trying to be unclear. I hope I’ve succeeded.

Praise

Praise

Advance praise for Not Me

“What a daring, even dangerous, act of the imagination this novel is! Not Me challenges one emotionally and intellectually. It’s that rare phenomenon: a philosophical thriller that will draw you in and leave you arguing furiously with yourself after you’re done.”
Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler

“A novel with a powerfully unsettling moral conundrum at its heart: Is radical evil indelible; can anything undo it? But what philosophy cannot resolve, storytelling triumphantly can. Lavigne’s radiantly imagined portrait of human possibility never obscures the blackest abyss of real history, and his Heshel Rosenheim emerges with all the complexity of a modern Raskolnikov.”
Cynthia Ozick, author of Heir to the Glimmering World

“Michael Lavigne has an immensely powerful story to tell of guilt and redemption. Beyond its riveting plot, Not Me is a novel about the loss and recovery of love. In this sense it reminded me of Dickens’s Great Expectations: Heshel Rosenheim is as mysterious and haunting as Magwitch, and the lesson that his uncanny life imparts to his son, and to Lavigne’s readers, is on a grand human scale, and unforgettable.”
Jonathan Wilson, author of A Palestine Affair

“Family secrets, awful historical truths, the nature of good and evil, and the bond between a son and his father are woven seamlessly into a page-turning plot. Michael Lavigne writes with generosity of heart and he leaves the reader with an abundance of hope. Not Me is a powerful debut novel.”
Binnie Kirshenbaum, author of An Almost Perfect Moment

“A disturbing yet surprisingly tender read that grips the reader from page 1 and never lets go. Michael Lavigne tells his intriguing story with intelligence, sensitivity, and flashes of scintillating wit. What more could you ask from a novel?”
Aaron Hamburger, author of Faith for Beginners


From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. How does the nature of memory play an important part in this story? What traps and opportunities does memory create for Michael and for the people around him?

2. Discuss the role of place setting in this novel and in fiction in general. How, and why, are places “characters,” and how does place affect you personally?

3. What kind of person is Heinrich? Do you know any people like him? Could you be such a person?

4. What feelings are aroused in you by the descriptions of the concentration camps and by Heinrich/Heshel’s role in the murder of thousands?

5. Why do you think the author opted to make Heinrich a bookkeeper as opposed to a Nazi soldier?

6. Hannah Arendt created the phrase “the banality of evil,” referring to Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi death camp system, and those like Eichmann who commit unspeakable acts under the guise of “just doing their job.” Does Heinrich fit that description?

7. Do you think it plausible for a person to change as dramatically as Heinrich/Heshel did? Is it plausible that someone like Heinrich could find salvation by embodying the nature of his enemy?

8. What is the role of God in this novel?

9. Everyone tells lies. Why do we lie to ourselves and others? What secret knowledge do we all carry with us? Consider a time in your life when you have been unsure whether to reveal or to conceal an important truth, and had to choose between “the truth shall set you free” and “what they don’t know won’t hurt them.” How did you resolve it?

10. Every family has secrets. What are the effects of family secrets and how do they affect Michael’s life? How have they affected yours? What happens when they are uncovered?

11. Part of the plot structure of this novel is in the form of a mys­tery or detective story. Is it successful in sustaining an aura of sus­pense until the novel’s conclusion? Do you feel the mystery of Heshel’s identity has been solved? Why or why not?

12. Is guilt what drives Heshel Rosenheim? If so, what is the true nature of that guilt? If not, what is it that drives him? Do you think guilt itself can be a conduit to redemption?

13. If Heshel Rosenheim is indeed Heinrich Mueller, do you think his son should be able to forgive him? Could you forgive him? Can the good that Heshel/Heinrich has done in his life make up for the bad? What is the role of good works in the balance sheet of redemption?

14. Michael’s relationship with his sister is unique within the novel for its purity and wholesomeness–yet it is this relationship that pushes Michael to commit a terrible crime, and become, in essence, like the man in the journals. What are the moral implica­tions for Michael, for causing destruction in the name of love?

15. The relationships between fathers and sons in this novel are ambiguous and complex. In what ways do they disagree on how to live their lives? Which of the generational disagreements would you attribute to historical change, and which to individual char­acter differences?

16. April Love is a mysterious woman who keeps popping up in the oddest places, including in bed with a man ten years her jun­ior. What does she represent to you? Why did the author bring her into the story?


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