This is an essay I wrote on my friend, the novelist Lawrence Rudner, who died in May 1995.  I served as his literary executor, and saw his last novel, Memory's Tailor, published in 1998.  It is available from the the University Press of Mississippi.
 
 





Lawrence Rudner and Memory's Tailor

by John Kessel


The final story Larry Rudner told us is about a man who refuses to forget. In the last days of the Soviet Union, Alexandr Davidowich Berman, an old man--a retired tailor who has made his living sewing costumes for Leningrad's Kirov Ballet--determines to collect, before they are forgotten, the life stories of Soviet Jews, and secretly sew them into the clothing in all of Russia's great museums. Berman dragoons Simon Moskovich Zorin, a retired glassblower, into his foolish odyssey, and they crisscross the decaying nation in Zorin's beat up automobile, pursued by an ailing KGB agent, ending up in Moscow during the confrontation that brings down the Soviet government in August 1991. Alternately comic, tragic, satiric, earthy and inspiring, Memory's Tailor is Lawrence Rudner's heartfelt act of witness of a real and imaginary world.

While he was alive, Larry told me lots of other stories. I would stop by his office at North Carolina State University and find him hunched over the keyboard of his computer. He'd lean back in his chair, silhouetted against the light coming in through the window behind him, and we'd talk politics and books and people. I remember his deep voice. We'd start out bitching about some idiocy, and end up laughing. Sometimes it was a close race to see whether the bitching or the laughing would prevail, but laughing was always a part of it. I can still hear his strong, humane laugh.

I was always struck by Larry's physical presence. He had a big, peasant's body, broad shoulders, large hands with long, square fingers. His arms and chest, even the backs of his strong wrists, were hairy. I played tennis with him only once, but remember the force with which he swatted the ball. I remember his rueful smile, his soft brown eyes. He was bald as an anarchist, and had a patriarch's beard, increasingly shot with gray. He wore wrinkled shirts with the sleeves rolled up, always on the verge of coming untucked. Beat up shoes. A brown leather jacket he'd bought in Poland. He moved thoughtfully, perhaps not gracefully, but with a certain lightness.

He was one of the handsomest men I've ever known.

Lawrence Sheldon Rudner was born in Detroit, on January 7, 1947. He attended Mumford High School in Detroit, and enrolled Michigan State University, where he received a B.A. in history and social science in 1968. He was a member of the antiwar organization Students for a Democratic Society, and in the sixties studied at the London School of Economics while incidentally avoiding the draft during the Vietnam War. (How he raged at Bill Clinton, not, as the op-ed writers did, for evading the draft, but for acting ashamed of that act of conscience thirty years later.) He married his wife Lauren in 1969, finished a doctorate in American Studies at Michigan State, fathered his son Joshua and daughter Elizabeth, became a professor of English at NCSU in Raleigh. There he taught courses in journalism, American literature, world literature, and occasionally in creative writing. He started a course in the literature of the Holocaust. Soon into his academic career, his interest turned away from journalism and criticism, to fiction. During the 1980s he spent many summers as an American Studies Fellowship lecturer in Poland and Czechoslovakia. In 1986-87, he was awarded an Senior Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Krakow, Poland, where he taught American literature and a special seminar on the work of I.B. Singer. He traveled extensively. During this period he wrote a number of short stories set in eastern Europe. His first novel, The Magic We Do Here, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1988.

Larry was a marvelous teacher, a colleague with a humane sense of right and wrong, a good friend. He was a man of conscience. And he was a wonderful writer. The Magic We Do Here is set in Poland before, during and after the Second World War, and tells of the life of Chaim Turkow, a blond and blue-eyed Jew who survives the Holocaust by pretending to be a half-witted Polish farm laborer. The novel received excellent reviews, but I remember Larry being annoyed by one in particular, in which the reviewer, while praising the novel, questioned the right of someone who was himself not a Holocaust survivor to write about the Holocaust. Larry was not one to dismiss the serious moral question of authenticity, but he also knew that, unless living people were allowed to confront this horror through acts of imagination, any attempt to keep the lessons of history alive was doomed. His books are acts of witness, not just to the lives of Jews, but to his own life. By taking a step away from the particulars of his own world, by going to an eastern Europe of his imagination, he found his true voice.

When Larry was in his final illness, battling the brain tumor that finally killed him, he asked me to act as his literary executor. At that time the finished manuscript of Memory's Tailor was in the hands of Larry's agent, and was making the rounds of commercial publishers. We had hopes, even expectations, that the book would be accepted and published before Larry died. I submitted portions of it to magazines; in an irony that I'm sure he would have laughed at, on May 5, 1995, the day that Larry died, I received an acceptance letter from The Sun magazine for a version of chapter 10 of Memory's Tailor. But despite his agent's continued efforts, the novel found no takers; it seems that commercial publishers are even less interested in the manuscript of a dead writer than a living one, unless that dead writer was someone likely to make the cover of People magazine.

Under those circumstances, it was understandable that the agent gave up and handed the manuscript back to me.

I had read the book and liked it, but it was not until I had to prepare the manuscript for further submission that I took a good look at it. What Larry had given to his agent was a fair copy of a wonderful book, rich in detail and precise in language. But it was also a submission draft, which he would have expected to rewrite with the cooperation of the editor who eventually accepted it. When Susan Ketchin accepted Memory's Tailor for the University Press of Mississippi, we were left with the task of editing a book whose author was not there to tell us his intention or guide us in the minutiae.

In working with the manuscript with Susan, reading every line, every word, more than once, I have come to feel that I know Larry--at least the part of him that was a writer--better, perhaps, than I ever did before his death. I don't know what others will say about this book, but I do feel a number of things strongly, now that I have lived so closely with it for so long. Chief among them is that Memory's Tailor is a work of voice, or of voices. All of these voices are, at some fundamental level, Larry's voice, filtered through the things he saw, heard and imagined.

It may not seem obvious, but in Memory's Tailor I find the strong influence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a writer Larry greatly admired. Like Marquez, Larry combines the comic with the tragic. He is political in the best sense, with a humanity deeper than any party platform. Like Marquez, Larry has a sense of the absurd magic we can do here. Of the passionate commitments that can drive some people to reshape their lives and the world. Of the existence of good and evil. Of humans as physical beings, with all the occasional grossness that entails, and how this grossness co-exists with some transcendent soul. In that good Yiddish way, it's not a matter of the soul rising above the body, it's a matter of how the soul is entangled with our bodies, so that to try to separate the two would be a perverse denial. That's the paradoxical magic. A hundred-and-fifty-year-old coat is discarded in a basement, with a nameless dead man's story in its lining. A retired bugler runs a sewing machine needle through his thumb and plunges his hand into a toilet, preparatory to making a journey to preserve the memory of a people. An old man dances at a funeral, in the middle of a revolution.

Dancing--again and again in Larry's fiction, characters, in the midst of tragedy, dance. Ah, I'd love to do a little dance for you now, Larry. Maybe I will.

What can I say, my friend, in the end, other than quote you and your alter ego Berman? "About some people you should remember."
 
 

John Kessel
Raleigh, NC
16 August 1998