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WHAT I SAW AT THE FAIR
By Ann Birstein
(Welcome Rain Publishers; 272 pp.;
here was the
time that Saul
her how to iron her
\VH.K.0 I SA..
husband's shirts. She
AT THE FAlt
learned to do the
twist at James
party. And once
Bernard Malamud came over to bor-
row a pair of black evening socks.
Now, a drawing of her by Jules Feiffer
hangs in her Manhattan apartment.
Ann Birstein has had something of a
charmed literary life, which she
describes in her memoir What I Saw
at the Fair. The author of seven novels
and a nonfiction work, she was mar-
ried for 30 years to writer and literary
critic Alfred Kazin.
While theirs was a life at the center
of New York's intellectual life, it was a
time when women were, for the most
part, in the shadows.
Birstein illuminates that part of the
picture. She also writes candidly of her
passionate and, ultimately, painful
marriage, that ended in the early
The author previously chronicled
her childhood in The Rabbi on For-
Seventh Street, a moving memoir that
was something of a love letter to the
father she adored.
But while that book had an almost
folkloric quality with its many colorful
stories, this work, a kind of cultural
history, has a voice that's more assured,
experienced and mature. Birstein is a
graceful writer, and she's also very
funny. Although she writes of some
difficult times, she's neither bitter nor
Birstein was enchanted with Kazin's
world, with his friends, who "talked
and talked and talked. I had never
heard such talk, high flown and pas-
sionate, about art, music, literature,
She was always involved in her hus-
band's writing — anonymously, as she
had written benedictions for her father
— and she continued to write, too.
But in Kazin's circles, she was largely
ignored and increasingly isolated.
Their friends were the group known
as "New York intellectuals," and, as
she explains, although "New York" was
a code for Jewish, many of their
friends were not. They hosted frequent
parties, and went to many parties.
"But what happens when the ball is
over?" she writes. Theirs was a mar-
riage marked with physical violence as
well as verbal abuse. But like many
women in her situation, Birstein didn't
Birstein is candid throughout the
memoir. She doesn't veil her feelings
for her own mother or for Kazin's
good friend Hannah Arendt, whom
she describes as a Nazi.
"It was so difficult to be Jewish and
live with 'Alfred," she says. Since their
divorce, Birstein has been moving
closer to the Jewish world of her
Kazin died in June 1998. Birstein
learned after his death that Kazin had
sold his papers, including a box of per-
sonal letters she had written to him, to
the New York Public Library — and
was shocked to see the "eviscerated
guts of one's love boxed, catalogued
and open to the public."
— Sandee Brawarsky
By David Amram.
(Thunder's Mouth Press; 309 pp.;
or much of the
has been home to
Bohemians and intel-
lectuals who rejected
and crude material-
ism. They were artists
and anarchists, painters and pacifists,
writers and radicals, poets and play-
wrights — all freethinkers who strug-
gled for self-expression and self-deter-
In the 1950s, - David Amram, a
musician, came to the Village, where
he participated in jam sessions and
played at bars, clubs and parties. His
music evoked "the Jewish liturgical
wailing of ancient songs" that was an
ineradicable part of his heritage.
Among the people with whom
Amram became friendly was Jack
Kerouac, author of On the Road and
many other books. He is usually asso-
ciated with the Beat Generation, and
is sometimes referred to as its "King."
Amram scoffs at this notion, insist-
ing that neither he nor Kerouac could
subscribe to the supposed character-
istics of "Beatniks.
In any case, in 1957, Kerouac and
Amram developed a jazz-poetry pres-
SUMMER READING on page 75
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