"Aryeh Lev Stollman, the author of The Far Euphrates, possesses a wondrous narrative voice that is by turns delicate, patient, searching and unabashedly spiritual. Jamaica Kincaid has spoken of the "prayer-like rhythms" of his work; indeed, an ancient, biblical quality carries along his tales of modern Jewish life in remote Windsor, Ontario, where the taint of history blows in like a bitter north wind. This is the other key element in Stollman's powerful stories: the way historical events, and the Holocause especially, impinge on his characters' fragile souls."
"In Stollman's second novel, The Illuminated Soul, the narrator, Joseph Ivri, is a successful neuroanatomist in Windsor, who has published a small, esoteric book on the soul's elusive qualities, which he embodied in the character of an enigmatic woman. A surprise best seller, the book propels him on a worldwide lecture circuit, where he regales rapt audiences with his investigations into our unknowable essences. Gradually Joseph recalls the inpiration for his feminine interpretation: Eva Laquedem Higashi, a beautiful refugee from the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia who landed on his family's doorstep the summer he turned 14. "I had never seen anyone so glamorous and elegant," Joseph recounts. "She placed one foot in front of the other, carefully, as if she were crossing a narrow bridge from a mysterious and enchanted world which we knew nothing about, into our small and quiet one.""
"That summer, a few years after the war, Joseph was obsessively studying his Torah lessons while his younger brother, Asa, anxiously battled failing vision. Eva's arrival opened their eyes to the wonders of a larger world: She thrilled them with stories of castles and magical giraffes, helped them trace the scriptlike borders of maps and enthralled them with the sounds of exotic languages. She also shared with them a precious 15th-century illuminated manuscript, the Augsburg Miscellany, which she had smuggled out of the Prague Jewish Museum and which holds the key to her most painful secrets. "Anythingyou have ever seen or heard or held in your hand changes you," Eva told Joseph, a lesson that will touch him for life. Stollman's novel -- as luminous as the scared text at its center -- will leave an equally lasting impression on the reader."
1. You are a medical doctor a neuroradiologist who interprets images of the brain and the son of a rabbi. Joseph, the narrator in The Illuminated Soul, is a neuroanatomist who studies Jewish scripture and theology, and wrote a book called The Illuminated Soul. What does this doubling and mirroring in your novel reveal of yourself or your work?
My great struggle for understanding, like Joseph's, lies in the two parallel worlds we live in: our cultural world and our physical world. The woven nature of our memories, and of our languages and literatures, seems to me to be reflected in the marvelous, woven structure of our brain. The cultural world, so to speak, hovers upon the face of the physical world. But how do these worlds truly interconnect and how are they different? How does one, the physical brain, produce the other? In The Illuminated Soul, the narrator, Joseph, a comparative neuroanatomist who studies the brains of a variety of creatures, struggles with these mysteries.
2. Both of your novels have been set in your hometown of Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit. Obviously it continues to have a strong hold on your imagination. Was it special, or ordinary, or both?
Both. When I was growing up, Windsor was a gentle place like many small cities in Canada and the United States, but also a border city, next to a great American metropolis. Windsor's status as a border city is also crucial to the story. Eva Laquedem, because of a misunderstanding of her visa, becomes stranded in Canada, a situation that happened on occasion to visitors when I was growing up. I find borders fascinating, both geographical and psychological. Borders are artificial, human constructs, which in the best possible sense help us understand who we are, protect us, and make us feel like we belong. In the worst sense they are alienating and exclusionary. It is good to remember that borders can be crossed, that all humans and all creatures in fact have things in common that no borders can erase. As a neuroradiologist I cannot tell the difference between any national or ethnic group by looking at their brains, they are all the same. Although Eva comes from such a different place and background, having crossed so many borders, she is able to connect with Adele and her sons, enlightening them with her rich knowledge and imagination. And at the same time Adele and her sons help Eva, who has lost so much in her young life, to feel, at least for a short while, that she is at home again.
3. Is Eva's book, the Augsburg Miscellany, an actual manuscript? Was there a particular medieval manuscript that inspired you?
The Augsburg Miscellany, which Eva risks her life to rescue from Prague, is my invention. But miscellanies were an important type of manuscript in the Middle Ages. They were composed of many books bound together, prayers, Bibles, commentaries, Midrash, scientific treatises and even children's fables. They formed a sort of portable library for people wealthy enough to commission or own them. Sometimes they were kept in the possession of a community. One of the most beautiful and richly illuminated examples is the Rothschild Miscellany, which is at the Israel Museum and has been reproduced in facsimile. It can be seen online along with many other wonderful illuminated manuscripts at http://facsimile-editions.com/rm_page.htm.
4. Eva is an intriguing character, deeply rooted in her time and place in history. Is she based on anyone you knew or read about, or is she purely an invention?
Eva is an invented character, though she arose out of my longstanding fascination for Prague and its rich Jewish history. Even as a boy I knew of the great Rabbi Judah Loew, whose daughters were said to be learned, and David Gans the Jewish historian, mathematician and astronomer who was in contact with Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. In my imagination, Eva Laquedem, with her knowledge of languages, Biblical and scientific scholarship, and beauty, is the product of this rich history and culture. I have also been haunted by the knowledge that the Prague Jewish Museum had been designated by the Nazis to become the "Museum for an Extinct Race" and this came to play a central role in the novel and Eva's destiny.
5. You continue to be concerned with the ramifications of the Holocaust. How do you see its effects continuing to reverberate, even as the survivors pass away?
Like my first novel The Far Euphrates, The Illuminated Soul is concerned in part with the aftereffects of the Holocaust and the great upheaval of World War II. In both books, most of the action and story take place in Windsor, Canada, years after the Holocaust. The Holocaust was a great wounding of the Jewish people and humankind, and it still affects us more than a half century later.
6. In the novel you refer to the Museum for the Extinct Race in Prague, and the activities of the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, of which the philosopher Hannah Arendt was once the director. How much research did you do into these institutions?
I traveled to Prague. I found myself walking around the city, trying to imagine where Eva would have lived, attended university, and walked with her future husband Chujo Higashi. I looked for the museum building where Eva's father would have worked while enslaved by the Nazis. I also read a large number of sources. Jewish Prague, Guide to the Monuments by Ctibor Ryb�r is an excellent history of Prague's Jewish inhabitants, and introduction to the museum. I've read a fair amount of Arendt. What fascinates me most about her is her direction of the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction from 1948 until 1952. The Commission's goal was the rescue of the spiritual treasures of the Jewish people, which resulted in the recovery of 1.5 million volumes of books and manuscripts, and thousands of ceremonial and artistic objects, and Torah scrolls. Many people are unaware of the hard work she did. When one reads about Arendt one finds that even after safely settling in the U.S., she, like, Eva, often felt heimatlos without a home.
7. The tragic events of September 11 and the reactions to them have changed our world. Do you see your book acquiring unforeseen resonances because of these events?
I do not know. But I think the question always has been, What can literature do in the face of all the terrible events that have occurred throughout all of recorded history, most recently in the sufferings of the Twentieth Century and now after the cruel attack of September 11? I believe our languages and our books are part of our collective memory, part of our collective soul if we can be said to have such a thing. Good books make us contemplate our world anew, help us see past ourselves, and are one of the greatest creations of humankind. In the light of tragedy, books, like other good things in our lives that we may have taken for granted, become more precious to us.
8. In The Illuminated Soul, scripture, science and literature all suggest, in your words, a "unifying pattern, a structure too vast and too subtle to be seen." The mundane is inextricably bound up with the spiritual, and we are all imperceptibly tied to one another. Do you feel that this sort of all-encompassing, nonsectarian spirituality is on the rise?
I think people are always searching, it always has been and always will be our human nature to do so. In our society there exists, for the most part, a peaceful mixing of cultures and religions, as well as a continuing increase in scientific knowledge. This may lead to a more encompassing spirituality. I often think of life as a continual attempt to understand the world I live in on whatever levels I might. I think I will never really understand very much no matter how hard I try. I accept this as the nature of things. It is the attempt and journey that seems so necessary and comforting to the spirit.