What Has He Done To Deserve This?

Life Imitates Fiction in James Lasdun's Engrossing Memoir

An Atypical Victim: James Lasdun at home in upstate New York.
Naomi Zeveloff
An Atypical Victim: James Lasdun at home in upstate New York.

By Susan Comninos

Published February 26, 2013, issue of March 01, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

“Would you like to see me in a veil, sir?” she asks. It is one of the early warning signs of her taste for trespass that Lasdun uncomfortably ignores. He tries to help her book, even as she pushes for romance. Yet he feels he can’t cut her off. At best, she shows poor judgment: She launches an affair with a co-worker, gets mutually accused of sexual harassment, gets fired, and then sues her employer for race and gender discrimination — all of which she giddily reveals to Lasdun online, even copying him on email discussions of the case with her lawyer. “I want this to be a circus,” she writes.

A slippage of character — or sanity — seems clear. So why doesn’t he protect himself sooner? Why does he only politely reject her “unstoppably amorous” salvos? Part of the answer lies with human loneliness: “The interesting writerly friendship I had thought I was embarking on had clearly been a figment of my imagination,” he mourns, “and I felt mocked by my own naïveté.” But there’s another factor at work: a sense of having to prove — or disprove — what? His own goodness. “I didn’t see how I could refuse to read the revisions she’d made to her novel, since I was so implicated, by now, in the book’s existence,” he writes murkily at one point. But how, and by whom, he doesn’t say.

Readers of Lasdun’s fiction know what must follow: The hero gets cast out. Ambiguity leads to grotesquerie or ruin. If this memoir tracks his creative themes closely, it’s because in the author’s life — as in his writing — idealization occurs, and too soon. Then, his outsider’s fear kicks in, and prevents escape: “I can’t help feeling there was something hard about it; that if I were a person in a novel, it would show as a significant character flaw,” he says, worried at the thought of not answering Nasreen at all.

When he finally does go dark, her email fusillade escalates and swells to include toxic phone calls (“I know it’s in the Torah, I know it’s in the Talmud, that you’re supposed to rape gentiles, steal from them…”).

Nasreen takes her fury worldwide, firing off emails to Lasdun’s employers, accusing him of sexual misconduct and alleging on websites that his writing is “racist and horribly frightening.” For him, this is not just upsetting, but startling, too: “Here I was, a standard-issue liberal with unimpeachably correct views on everything, casting the shadow of some leering, reactionary bigot.” But like a cracked prism, Nasreen refracts back to him torqued images of his sense of rightness, his notions of the world, and his picture of how Jews appear to others.

As part of his memoir’s research, and his quest to understand Nasreen — is she mentally ill or in control of herself? — he heads for Jerusalem. There he observes Haredim praying at the Western Wall, each dressed in 18th-century regalia: fur hat, long black coat and a black leather box “strapped to the center of a man’s forehead, like a miner’s lamp, shedding invisible light.” To secular co-religionists and uninformed outsiders alike, it is, he writes, an “unassimilable” sight. Fair enough. But the garb of other faiths passes without similar comment, Lasdun merely noting on his walk through the Arab Quarter that “[r]obed men, women in headscarves, groups of small children, moved along the narrow street.”

To be clear, at no point in this memoir does he harshly seek to indict others. Overwhelmingly, he is hardest on himself. In the end, his support for Nasreen’s writing was noble: He thought that both it and she were deserving. He was wrong about the latter. Still, as this gripping book shows, in the face of a hounding rage, one can begin to entertain a pursuer’s violent claims, and to wonder (here, advisably so), “Is there something about myself that I simply don’t see?”

Susan Comninos is a frequent contributor to the Forward. Her journalism most recently appeared in The Boston Globe and the Christian Science Monitor. She lives in New York.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.