‘Zexy’ and he knows it

‘Zexy’ and he knows it

Former Rutgers prof mines Jewish past and present

As in his other books, Curt Leviant’s new collection of short stories features a gallery of Jewish characters.
As in his other books, Curt Leviant’s new collection of short stories features a gallery of Jewish characters.

Curt Leviant’s latest book is titled Zix Zexy Ztories. Never mind that that it contains seven stories, not zix — um, six. He just couldn’t resist the alliteration, or that x.

“Something would have been lost with a title like: Zeven Zexy Ztories,” he said.

That playfulness colors the book, a wry look at often rocky romantic liaisons, and it permeates his talk about it. Presented with e-mailed questions, Leviant, who has written frequently about travel for this newspaper together with his wife, Erika Pfeifer Leviant, enthusiastically answered those that interested, and dismissed those that didn't.  His humor has won the author of seven works of fiction a devoted following — and a strong dose of personal pleasure.

“Just the other day, I saw someone reading Zix Zexy Ztories on a train to New York — and laughing out loud. I really liked that,” he recalled. Then he added: “But I have to admit: It was me.”

Though not featured in best-seller lists, he has been described as “one of the greatest unknown novelists in America,” and as one of its best Jewish writers. That identity is important to him. When this reporter failed to ask what makes his writing Jewish, he supplied the question himself, and answered it with this list: “Jewish subject matter, Jewish characters, the Jewish past and present, its wide literary tradition, references to prayer and holidays, Jewish melody, even Jewish imagery.”

In this newest book alone there is a Holocaust survivor, an Israeli Yiddish professor, a synagogue architect, a Reform rabbi, a Yiddish artist, and a gentile Polish woman in love with Jewish history. All — according to their fond creator — are “delectable characters, seeking adventure, admiration, and love.”

He said an author, “with all his chutzpah, tries to imitate God. And there is something god-like when you look at 300 sheets of blank paper and then a couple of years later they are filled with words, stories, and characters of your own creation. But sometimes there is dictation, as any writer knows who gets up in the middle of the night with an idea and has enough sense to write it down right away, and not wait for the morning, when he invariably forgets that night-time ‘dictation’ from the subconscious.”

‘An ideal reader’

Asked how he feels about fame, Leviant quoted his father quoting the Book of Proverbs: “Let another person praise you….” But he acknowledged that he has a growing audience. “During the past few years, translations of my novels have appeared in France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Romania, and earlier in Israel and Argentina,” he noted, “and in their reviews, the critics in those countries have compared me to some of my favorite authors: Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Vladimir Nabokov, Vargas Llosa, Saul Bellow, I.B. Singer, Joseph Heller, and James Joyce.”

In September, an Italian translation of his book, The Man Who Thought He Was Messiah, was published. It describes one year, 1800, in the life of the great hasidic storyteller and leader, Reb Nachman of Bratslav.

“The novel was very well received in the USA,” Leviant said. “It was short-listed for the National Jewish Book Award and got a stunning review in The New York Times Book Review and other newspapers and magazines. I’m particularly happy that a novel with such an intense Jewish theme will be available for Italian readers. The Jewish population in Italy is minuscule, but interest in this work is already great. One of Italy’s leading daily newspapers, Corriere della Sera, has already contacted me for an interview.”

Size doesn’t count when it comes to one’s audience, he insisted. “I write for an ideal, intelligent, well-read reader,” he said, “who appreciates fine fiction and all the subtle nuances that go into shaping letters into words, words into phrases and sentences that somehow magically reflect and recreate reality.”

He added, “I can hardly call the reputation I have as fame. But, I tell you — and this happens more in Europe than in the USA — one day, when I registered in a hotel in Italy a couple of years ago, the desk attendant said to me, ‘Aren’t you the author of…?’ And within half an hour four people on the office staff and the general manager approached me with a copy of the book and asked me to autograph it. They had run out to a local book shop to buy my novel.”

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