Award winning writer and Victoria graduate Julian Novitz published his second book, Holocaust Tours, at the end of last year, to a somewhat curious response. Salient feature writer Nicola Kean catches up with Novitz in Melbourne to find the story behind the story.
When Julian Novitz answers the phone in Melbourne, one can understand the source of inspiration for the troubles of the character Phil in his short story ‘Stories From the End of My Generation’. Born and bred in New Zealand, Phil’s strange accent sees him facing a barrage of questions about where he is from. Likewise, Novitz’s accent is hard to pick – although he spent his youth in Christchurch.
Surprisingly, chatting with Novitz in person is far from the “drop-dead nihilist cool”, as one reviewer described his work. He ums hesitantly, there are long pauses and unfinished sentences. But once he gets warmed up, the passion of the ideas behind his writing is obvious, and the eloquence of his stories shines though.
“It’s not very interesting”, he says of his background, before humbly proceeding to summarise it in one sentence: “I grew up in Christchurch, my parents were academics, I went to the University of Canterbury where I studied history and philosophy and did the Masters in creative writing at Victoria.”
Despite being “all but impossible to make a living off writing in NZ”, he says it is a good place to fulfil his childhood desire to be a writer. Following an abortive dream to be a vet at the age of six, Novitz latched on to the idea of writing fiction, an ambition that became a reality for the second time last October with the publication of his novel Holocaust Tours. Following his highly successful – and award winning – collection of short stories My Real Life and Other Stories. Holocaust Tours, as it’s name suggests, takes on a rather bigger subject.
While in Australia completing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Melbourne, he prefers the New Zealand literary atmosphere. “While … the Australian literary market is larger, I’ve found that it seems to be going through a very conservative phase at the moment and a lot of the younger writers I’ve met over here are frustrated with that. Currently I think that at the moment NZ is comparatively receptive to newer voices, themes and varieties of experimental fiction.”
Even so, “it still took me a good year for me to find a publisher for my first book.” My Real Life, the outcome of Novitz’s year at Victoria University working towards a Masters in creative writing in Bill Manhire’s course, is a book of short stories with a difference. Protagonists in one story wander nonchalantly into cameo roles in others, essentially making the collection an intertwining almost-novel.
For Novitz, then, it wasn’t such a great leap from a collection of short stories to his first feature length, you could say, book. “I wanted to write a novel. There were elements of my short fiction collection which were novelistic, so I was already pushing towards doing a novel at that point.”
The result, Holocaust Tours, written as part of the requirements towards his PhD, are the intertwining stories of several characters. We have Daniel, a self-confessed “half-Jew” and video game designer; his ex-girlfriend writing a thesis on Holocaust memorials; Daniel’s rival for her affections, Josh, who picks her up by taking her to visit Holocaust memorials, his university friend Martin Glass who has just written a book that ostensibly denies the Holocaust, the publisher who goes bust when he prints it, and the angsty, poetry-spouting neo-Nazis who defend him.
Darkly witty, it raises questions of identity and history.
It was an idea inspired by what he heard in the cafe of the Cape Town Jewish Museum. “I heard a conversation at a table next to me where a rather odd older British man was trying to pick up a young woman, who turned out to be writing her masters thesis on Holocaust memorials.
This guy just seized on this, and started speaking very enthusiastically about the memorials and sites of the Holocaust that he’d visited around the world. Essentially he was trying to pick her up with this extensive knowledge of Holocaust sites.”
Snippets of that overheard conversation turned into a short story which, in turn, metamorphosed into the beginning of a novel. The rest, as they say, is history. Or rather, the history of so-called Holocaust “revisionism” in New Zealand. Studying undergraduate history at the University of Canterbury during the 1990s – during which the infamous Joel Hayward controversy took place – was another inspiration.
Hayward submitted a Masters thesis on the historiography (the history of history writing) of the Holocaust in 1993, a thesis that was later accused of denying the Holocaust. Ten years later, a row erupted when another Canterbury historian, Thomas Fudge, wrote an article supporting Hayward. Copies of the magazine in which the article appeared were pulped and Fudge resigned in anger.
“All that stuff kind of shook my faith a little in academic history”, says Novitz. “So that’s pretty much what drove my interest from the start.”
A shaken faith which sees the character Martin Glass – who Novitz describes as having taken “post-modern history to an horrific extreme” – as the true anti-hero of the novel, rather than the bumbling white supremacist characters who appear on the scene after the publication of Glass’ book. “People on the far right in New Zealand are pretty much a joke”, he laughs. “I know they’re not a joke to some people and that these kind of beliefs still circulate is troubling and problematic, but they’re not really the target of my novel.”
“I’m suggesting that maybe young, intelligent, sensitive people with tertiary degrees who are in the mainstream of historical thought, or who are conversant with ways of presenting convincing academic arguments, are equally if not more threatening.” People like Novitz himself, myself and, most probably, you.
The response to the novel has been mixed, and Novitz says he hasn’t really been paying much attention. “I’ve only seen about three reviews, so it’s really hard to assess how it’s been received from over here in Australia. It’s quite nice in a way, it’s given me a bit of distance between myself and the book.” Two of those reviews were good, but the other, printed in The Listener, called him a “revisionist” in the last paragraph. “Without a justification”, he adds. “That made me pretty angry.”
Aside from being labelled a “revisionist”, Novitz says he has not encountered any negative responses regarding some of the characters views in the book. “I suppose I’ve had curiosity about the themes and approaches that I’ve taken. I was maybe expecting a stronger response. But surprisingly, no.” Dealing with such a sensitive and emotionally-charged period in history as the Holocaust “the problem that always comes up are questions around the authorial right to discuss the event. It is a mine field, a fraught area, and it should be approached with a degree of trepidation.”
“Most of the survivors of the Holocaust and participants in the events are approaching their 80s or their 90s now and so sooner or later there will a generation that has no direct memory of the Holocaust in a sense. The stories of the time will become unhinged and open to a variety of uses and interpretations. In a sense, that’s the point that my novel is looking towards. Where it becomes history as opposed to memory.”
With his sophomore effort now published, Novitz is currently concentrating on writing a critical thesis to complete his PhD. There’s another novel in the works, but “it’s still at a very early stage, almost talking about it right now is premature.”