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.
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“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.


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