Sunday, April 08, 2007

Late bloomer: Harry Bernstein's literary spring brightens the autumn of his life

Is ninety-five the new sixty-five? An inspiration to would-be late bloomers everywhere: The Motoko Rich NYT story about Harry Bernstein, the 96-year-old author of the highly regarded memoir, The Invisible Wall.
“If I had not lived until I was 90, I would not have been able to write this book,” Mr. Bernstein said. “It just could not have been done even when I was 10 years younger. I wasn’t ready.” And he suggested that he might not be an anomaly: “God knows what other potentials lurk in other people, if we could only keep them alive well into their 90s.”
As Rich writes, Harry Bernstein -- who had moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 12 -- began publishing in literary magazines as a young man. By the time he was 24, he had published a short story in a magazine alongside works by William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein. But despite occasional publication (a novel was published and disappeared without notice in 1981), he never succeeded in building a literary career. His working life was spent first as a studio script reader and then later as editor of a trade magazine for builders. Nearly five years agao, after his beloved wife of 67 years, Ruby, died of leukemia, he was shattered by loneliness and took refuge in his memories of his youth. And then he began writing about what he remembered.

The result was a powerful, novelistic memoirthat was unusual not only for the age of the writer, but for th efact that it was accepted on its own merits by a publisher who received the unagented submission over the transom. William Grimes gave The Invisible Wall a highly favorable review in the NYT recently.
Harry Bernstein grew up in a small world. In the Lancashire mill town of his childhood, during the teens and twenties of the last century, the poor Jews clustered along a single dead-end street, and even that was only half theirs. Christians lived on one side, Jews on the other, separated by a few feet that might as well have been hundreds of miles. “The Invisible Wall,” Mr. Bernstein’s heart-wrenching memoir, describes two cultures cohabiting uneasily, prey to misunderstandings that distort lives on both sides. It is a world of pain and prejudice, evoked in spare, restrained prose that brilliantly illuminates a time, a place and a family struggling valiantly to beat impossible odds.


In this, his first book, the 96-year-old Mr. Bernstein tells his story, so remote in time, almost as though it were a fable, occasionally addressing the reader directly. (“I have told you before,” he begins one sentence, characteristically.) The setting, beautifully rendered, recalls early D. H. Lawrence, with mill hands trudging off to work early in the morning, their iron-shod clogs raising sparks on the cobblestones. In Mr. Bernstein’s hands, the small events of family life and the daily dramas on the street take on a shimmering, timeless quality.
Oh, and Harry Bernstein? He's hard at work on his IBM Selectric on the sequel, The Dream. He was on page 386 the other day.

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