Nick Hornby’s Jewish ‘Education’

On the Record: Nick Hornby
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On the Record: Nick Hornby

By Gabrielle Birkner

Published December 16, 2009, issue of December 25, 2009.
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Discussing his gentile upbringing outside London during the 1960s, writer Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy,” “Fever Pitch”) recalls how the word “Jewish” was used interchangeably with “cheap” in the schoolyard, and how his grandmother would call him a “Wandering Jew” when he was restless.

British attitudes toward the nation’s now 280,000 Jews have advanced significantly since then. But the societal antisemitism of decades past figures prominently in the new film “An Education,” for which Hornby wrote the screenplay.

Adapted from a memoir by Lynn Barber, the film, set in the early 1960s, chronicles a British schoolgirl’s affair with a charming Jewish man many years her senior (played by Peter Sarsgaard). The man’s portfolio of unscrupulous dealings finances his extravagant lifestyle. Hornby recently spoke with the Forward’s Gabrielle Birkner about the film’s cast of complicated characters, and responded to those critics who have charged that “An Education” plays on antisemitic stereotypes.

Gabrielle Birkner: Some of the Forward editors and I were wracking our brains to think of other Jewish characters in your oeuvre — and we couldn’t come up with any. Was this the first expressly Jewish character to appear in your writing?

Nick Hornby: This was my first, and it obviously caused a great deal of anxiety. I developed the script, originally, with a Jewish director. We talked about whether or not to keep him Jewish, and we decided that it would probably be more offensive to excise his Judaism from the piece. Some of the things he does are not good, but it never occurred to me that it was stereotyping. I mean picking up girls at bus stops is not necessarily something that I associate with Judaism.

It wasn’t so much the picking up a girl at a bus stop that some have taken issue with, but rather the portrayal of the Jewish character as greedy and underhanded.

Well, I don’t think he’s greedy; I think he’s a petty criminal. This seemed to be an important part of the subculture of the late 1950s and early 1960s. A couple of the people he hangs out with — particularly someone who’s mentioned in the script, called [Peter] Rachman, who was a big Jewish gangster at the time — were part of the British subcultural life, so it felt accurate to me. I hope we’re beyond the point where you can only show ethnic and religious groups in a positive light.

The other issue is that there are a couple of characters that make antisemitic remarks in the film. And I can only think that some people are upset because we didn’t kill the characters that make antisemitic remarks — that they’re not actually punished within the film. … I think that people are not used to the idea that people go unpunished in movies. I think they might be more used to it in books.

You mentioned that you considered writing the Jewish character’s Jewishness out of the script. Why?

In a 90-minute movie, when you’re trying to deal with other things as well, you know that you’re going to have to be concise and elliptical about certain issues that are complicated and you just hope that people understand it. I mean clearly I got that wrong to a certain extent in that some people have taken offense.

The Jewish character, David, frequently employs the collective “we” when he speaks: “This is how we are,” and so on. Is he referring to him and his friend, Danny? Or is he referring to the Jews?

To the Jews? Oh my God, no. He’s talking about him and Danny. I’m very surprised that some people think that the “we” refers to the Jews, and I can see that that’s offensive. Of course, I regret that.

David makes his money, in part, by moving minorities into neighborhoods in an effort to scare away racist tenants, and buy up properties on the cheap. In one scene, we watch as he interacts warmly with a black family he is helping to relocate. Is this scene supposed to garner viewers’ sympathies in any way?

I think it’s quite clear that David has sympathy with the family that’s moving in, but he’s also using them in an unscrupulous way. He plays on other people’s racism, while at the same time he is not himself racist. He says to Jenny, “It’s not like they could rent from their own kind,” which, of course, they couldn’t at the time. So I think it was sort of a complicated and rich political moment.

Before embarking on this script, how much research did you do into the genteel antisemitism in 1960s London that we see onscreen?

I knew it was there, and I remembered what I remembered. [Growing up in the late 1960s], kids used to be called “Jewish” if they were mean with their money. And if you were restless and just wandering around the house, my grandmother used to say, “Sit down, you wandering Jew.” I don’t know why she said it.

Have British attitudes toward Jews — and how Jews are discussed — evolved significantly since then?

Yeah, I think that British attitudes have just become more sensitive, generally, to any ethnic group. I mean consciousness has been raised enormously. … And we live in a very properly multicultural society now.

On a different topic altogether, what do you think is the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction? Your work seems to have succeeded in both arenas.

I think commercial fiction sells more. I think you notice if a literary writer writes three or four best-selling books in a row then they stop talking about him as a literary writer, and I think it’s as simple and as sort of banal as that. I always go back to Dickens. He wrote commercial fiction, and because that fiction has survived he’s now a literary writer because he’s part of the canon. But I don’t think it’s a distinction that would have made much sense to him.

You wrote extensively about soccer — or football, as the Brits say — in your memoir “Fever Pitch.” My colleague from Leeds would kill me if I didn’t ask you this: Who should Arsène Wenger manager of Britain’s Arsenal Football Club] pick up during his transfer window?

[Chuckles]

Am I saying his name wrong?

You ask very nicely, but I can detect the incomprehension. … Well, I wouldn’t mind Thierry Henry coming back on loan.


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