I recently had a brief chat with a hundred-year-old Jew. His name is Manuel Bromberg, and he’s a resident of Woodstock, New York. Mr. Bromberg had written me a letter, to tell me that he had read and liked my latest book, and in the letter he mentioned that in a few days he would be hitting the century mark, so I thought I’d call him up and wish him a happy hundredth.
An accomplished artist and professor for most of his very long life, Mr. Bromberg painted murals for the W.P.A. and served as an official war artist for the U.S. Army during the Second World War, accompanying the Allied invasion of Europe with paints, pencils, and sketch pad, his path smoothed and ways opened to him by the presence in his pocket of a pass signed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, just like the Eisenhower pass carried by “my grandfather,” the nameless protagonist of my novel. After the war, this working-class boy from Cleveland rode the G.I. Bill to a distinguished career as a serious painter, sculptor, and university professor.
Mr. Bromberg sounded strong and thoughtful and sharp as a tack on the other end of the line, his voice in my ear a vibrant connection not just to the man himself but to the times he had lived through, to the world he was born into, a world in which the greater part of Jewry lived under the Czar, the Kaiser, and the Hapsburg Emperor, in whose army Adolf Hitler was a corporal. As we chatted, I realized that I was talking to a man almost exactly the same age as my grandfather, were he still alive—I mean my real grandfather, Ernest Cohen, some of whose traits, behaviors, and experiences, along with those of his brothers, brothers-in-law, and other men of their generation in my family, of Mr. Bromberg’s generation, helped me to shape the life and adventures of the hero of that book, as my memories of my grandmothers and their sisters and sisters-in-law helped shape my understanding of that book’s “my grandmother.”
Then Mr. Bromberg mentioned that he had now moved on to another novel of mine, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” and he wanted to tell me about another connection between his life and the world of my books: when he was in junior high, in Cleveland, Ohio, his chief rival for the title of School’s Most Talented Artist was a four-eyed, acne-faced wunderkind named Joe Shuster. One day in the mid-nineteen-thirties, in the school locker room, Mr. Bromberg told me, Joe Shuster came to him looking for his opinion on some new drawings: pencil sketches of a stylized cartoon strongman cavorting in a pair of circus tights, with a big letter-S insignia on his chest. To the young Mr. Bromberg, they seemed to be nothing more than competent figure drawings, but Shuster seemed to be very excited about this “Superman” character that he and a friend had come up with. “I have to be honest with you, Michael,” Mr. Bromberg told me, in a confidential tone. “I was not impressed.”
After we talked, I found myself reflecting on the way that, with his Eisenhower pass and his connection to the golden age of comic books, with his creative aspirations rooted equally in hard work and the highbrow, in blue collar and the avant-garde, Mr. Bromberg had been able to find so much of himself in my writing, as so many Mr. Brombergs, in various guises, can be found in the pages of my books. I think there are a few reasons that the lives of that generation of American Jews have formed my fiction. The first is that I have always been—to a fault, it has at times seemed—a good boy. At family gatherings, at weddings and bar mitzvahs, from the time I was small, among all my siblings and cousins, I always felt a sense of dutifulness about hanging out with the old people, enduring their interrogations, remedying their ignorance of baffling modern phenomena, such as Wacky Packages or David Bowie, and, above all, listening to their reminiscences. As the extent of my sense of obligation about serving this function became apparent, I was routinely left behind with the Aunt Ruths and the Uncle Jacks and the Cousin Tobys, not just by my peers and coevals but by our parents, too. Even to this day, at the weddings and bar mitzvahs of other families, you will often find me sitting alone at a table with an Uncle Jack completely unrelated to me, patiently listening to the story of the plastic-folding-rain-bonnet business he started in Rochester in 1948 with a three-hundred-dollar loan from somebody else’s Aunt Ruth, a story that all of his own relatives tired of hearing years ago, if they ever paid attention at all.
The dutifulness of a good boy is not, of course, the whole explanation. I’m not that good. The thing is, I have always wanted to hear the stories, the memories, the remembrances of vanished Brooklyn, or vanished South Philly, or even, dim and sepia-toned and far away, vanished Elizavetgrad, vanished Vilna. I have always wanted to hear the stories of lost wonders, of how noon was turned dark as night by vast flocks of the now-extinct passenger pigeon, of Ebbets Field and five-cent all-day Saturday matinées and Horn & Hardart automats, and I have always been drawn to those rare surviving things—a gaudy Garcia y Vega cigar box, a lady swimming in a rubber bathing cap covered in big rubber flowers, Mr. Bromberg—that speak, mutely or eloquently, of a time and a place and a generation that will soon be gone from the face of the earth.
My work has at times been criticized for being overly nostalgic, or too much about nostalgia. That is partly my fault, because I actually have written a lot about the theme of nostalgia; and partly the fault of political and economic systems that abuse nostalgia to foment violence and to move units. But it is not nostalgia’s fault, if fault is to be found. Nostalgia is a valid, honorable, ancient human emotion, so nuanced that its sub-variants have names in other languages—German’s sehnsucht, Portuguese’s saudade—that are generally held to be untranslatable. The nostalgia that arouses such scorn and contempt in American culture—predicated on some imagined greatness of the past or inability to accept the present—is the one that interests me least. The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection.
More than ten years ago now, my cousin Susan, a daughter of my mother’s Uncle Stanley, forwarded me some reminiscences of Stanley’s childhood that he had set down just as his health was failing. Besides my grandfather, Uncle Stan was always my favorite among the male relatives of that generation: witty, charming, and refined, with a deceptively sweet and gentle way of being sardonic and even, on occasion, sharp-tongued. He was a professor, a scholar of medieval German who for many years was also the dean of humanities at the University of Texas. A Guggenheim fellow and Fulbright scholar, Stan was fluent in a number of languages, not least among them Yiddish; during his tenure as dean he created a Yiddish-studies program at U.T. He had been an intelligence officer in Italy during the Second World War, and was decorated for his service during the fierce battle of Monte Cassino.
His reminiscences—or fragmentary memoir, as I came to think of it—ignored all that. It was a delightful document, all too brief, a shaggy and rambling but vivid account of his early life as the son of typical Jewish-immigrant parents, in Philadelphia and Richmond. It featured memories of the godlike lifeguards and the Million-Dollar Pier, at Atlantic City; of stealing turnips and playing Civil War, in Richmond, with boys who were the grandsons of Confederate soldiers; of neighbors who brewed their own beer during Prohibition; of his father’s numerous unlucky business ventures; of his mother hauling wet laundry up from the basement to hang it out on the line, where, in the wintertime, it froze solid.
But what stood out for me most vividly in Uncle Stanley’s memories was the omnipresence and the warmth of his memories of his many aunts, uncles, and cousins, who seemed to take up as much room in his little memoir as his siblings and parents. In the geographically and emotionally close world they lived in, Stan’s extended family of parents’ siblings, their spouses and their siblings and their spouses, and, apparently, huge numbers of first, second, third, and more distant cousins, was just that—an all but seamless extension of the family he lived in. That’s how it was in those days. Somebody came to Philadelphia from Russia, and then his brother came, and then another brother, and pretty soon there were fifty people living in the same couple of neighborhoods in Philly, a kind of community within the community, connected not merely by blood or ties of affection but also by the everyday commitments, debts, responsibilities, disputes, tensions, and small pleasures that make up the daily life of a family.
When I was growing up, it wasn’t like that anymore. My parents moved seven times before I was seven years old, back and forth across the country. I had a lot of second cousins and great-aunts and great-uncles, and I used to see them—and be abandoned to their company—at weddings, bar mitzvahs, et cetera. Listening to those stories, I always felt a kind of a lack, a wistfulness, a sense of having missed something. Reading Stan’s memoir, looping and wandering as his thoughts were as he lay contending with his illness, seemed to connect me, briefly but powerfully, to all that vanished web of connections.
Nostalgia, to me, is not the emotion that follows a longing for something you lost, or for something you never had to begin with, or that never really existed at all. It’s not even, not really, the feeling that arises when you realize that you missed out on a chance to see something, to know someone, to be a part of some adventure or enterprise or milieu that will never come again. Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafés that are now hot-yoga studios. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored, whether summoned by art or by the accidental enchantment of a painted advertisement for Sen-Sen, say, or Bromo-Seltzer, hidden for decades, then suddenly revealed on a brick wall when a neighboring building is torn down. In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.
“Thank you, Mr. Bromberg,” I said, just before I hung up, not sure what I was thanking him for, exactly, but overcome with gratitude all the same, both of us aware, I suppose, as we made tentative plans to meet sometime soon, or at least to talk again, that the next time I called there might be no one on the other end of the line.