LONDON — “Families tell stories about who they think they are. To be a character in a family is like being a character in a novel,” explains the award-winning, British-American writer, Benjamin Markovits.
Markovits speaks to The Times of Israel in a café not far from his north London home ahead of his session at Jewish Book Week. Strikingly tall and of slim build, the writer is the very image of the former basketball pro that he is.
In “A Weekend in New York,” Markovits’s eighth novel and the first in a new tetralogy, he explores the intimate dynamics of family life with remarkable precision, perception and acute observation. He asks what it means to be a family, what it means to be an individual in a family, and how we deal with the responsibilities of our respective roles within it — be they imposed or acquired.
Set over one late summer weekend, several generations of the Essinger family have reunited in New York to watch Paul, a professional tennis player, take part in the US Open. The bookies give him 1,200:1 odds on winning the title.
Each of the adult members of this large, close-knit, German-Jewish family is trying to work out a sense of self within the framework of their upper middle-class life. There are varying degrees of discontentment, intertwined with anxieties, tensions and alliances.
In 2013, Granta selected Markovits as one of their Best of Young British Novelists and his previous novel, “You Don’t Have to Live Like This” won the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction, one of Britain’s oldest literary awards.
His work has been described as the bastard son of Philip Roth and A.S Byatt, a compliment he laughs off. “Why couldn’t I be their first married child?!”
The middle of five siblings, Markovits, grew up in Texas with a German Christian mother and a Jewish father who came from the New York suburbs, much like his fictional family in “A Weekend in New York.” The similarities between his family and the Essingers are not coincidental.
“One of the things I ask myself when I start a book is, what do I know that my reader doesn’t; what kind of expertise do I have? And there aren’t that many things but the intricacies of very specific family life I know a lot about,” he says.
“I wanted to write a book about a big family, in which lots of very similar people are able to differentiate each other from each other. They are all the same class, they tend to follow similar professions, with the exception of the tennis player. It’s quite hard to do from scratch.”
Markovits studied at Yale and Oxford and, for a short period, had an undistinguished career as a professional basketball player for a second division German team, an occupation he wrote about in his autobiographical novel, “Playing Days.”
The line between fiction and reality often blurs in his work. “I guess I’m a realist. Wherever possible I try to base stories with the sort of things that did actually happen,” although, he says, the events that actually happen are far less interesting than the ones he conjures up in his imagination.
In his three novels about the life of the poet, Lord Byron, he deliberately tried to write in a way so that he couldn’t always remember the line between the things he was making up and the actual truth.
“With Byron you could do that because there were so many letters,” he says. “So occasionally real Byron phrases in which he described stuff that had happened to him would mix [with the imaginary].”
Sipping tea, Markovits explains why he chose to structure the new novel around a family reunion and set within such a compressed time frame.
“You come to the family reunion and you have this story to tell: that this thing has happened to you and that you’ve made that decision. It’s a very natural 48-hour window in which plot can be discussed and developed. I like that not so much happens,” he says.
But what does stand out is Markovits’s ability to convey how the family communicates. They debate and argue a lot of the time, about everything and nothing. Their conversations around a meal table are particularly authentic — sentences dart back and forth between characters and several topics are addressed, often all at the same time. It is not difficult to imagine that such scenes are based on reality.
“Yes, that’s part of the point [but] it was hard. Family life is not made up of major and minor characters, it’s just major characters and so I had to somehow try to do both minor and major — they had to shift in and out,” he says.
He obviously understands the pressures and mental strains on a professional sportsperson, but why did Markovits choose to make Paul a tennis player?
“It’s a good question,” he says. “I’m interested in how people’s levels of success shape their identity and if you’re any kind of [sports professional], especially a tennis player, that is very visceral and measurable.”
“I played basketball [but] I think I’d have been better suited to tennis because basketball is a team sport whereas tennis is more like being a writer; it’s solitary and you’re a freelancer. But Paul is a much better tennis player than I was ever a basketball player.”
Asked whether the Essingers are one big, happy family, Markovits thinks for a moment before replying.
“Not individually. They’re just very absorbed in each other and I think some people will find that stifling,” he says.
Although he doesn’t perceive their dynamic to be oppressive, he admits that his perspective is likely to be influenced by his own experience of family life.
“One of the things we liked about being in a big family is that it seemed great for kids. If you’re a certain kind of intellectually curious, you can have deeper conversations with family members who share an entire shorthand of history and cultural assumption than you can with anybody else. So, in some ways, the best conversations are going to be with your family.”
In a recent essay for Tablet Magazine, Markovits wrote about what it was like to be German and Jewish. In it, he said that German-ness and Jewishness were the same thing, with each aspect strongly connected to his parents and their respective childhoods.
“To be German for us was a strong identification with my mum’s childhood and background, and to be Jewish was our affinity with my dad,” Markovits says. “It was not community based, really. I went to synagogue, I was bar mitzvahed, I went to Sunday school, but it had a lot to do with cultural affinity for both.”
It was an unusual fusion, he says, but then at the same time, it was also totally predictable.
Following new appointments in 2018, we now have a total of seven Fellows of @RSLiterature in the Department of @RHULEnglish. To celebrate our creative writing team we asked each of the fellows to recommend a book of their choice. Today’s Fellow is Professor Benjamin Markovits. pic.twitter.com/T2W94fTIo9
— Royal Holloway (@RoyalHolloway) December 29, 2018
“There are a lot of German Jews, so there’s German Jewish culture. What I wrote was that I was familiar with Yiddish before I read it because of my Christian mum, because we grew up speaking German,” he says.
“There’s a Woody Allen joke, I think it’s in ‘Radio Days,’ in which he says his family was the kind of family where they’d argue about whether the Atlantic or the Pacific is a better ocean. And my mum’s family was exactly like that as was my dad’s, so obviously there was some affinity between them which meant they got married in the first place.”
Markovits is currently going over the copy edits for his next book, “Christmas in Austin,” which is about another family reunion that takes place just over a year after the events in “A Weekend in New York.” His plan is that the four novels in the series will span a five-year period, ending shortly after Trump’s inauguration.
“Part of the idea — if I get there — is to show how this very particular private family starts to interact with politics,” he says.
Given the subject matter of “A Weekend in New York,” has his family read it? Markovits believes so.
“They tend to be very supportive of all my books. I couldn’t have written anything without them,” he says.
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