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March 26, 2007 | by  | in Features |
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Under His Covers: Julian Novitz

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.”

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About the Author ()

Nicola Kean: feature writer, philanthropist, womanly woman. Nicola is the smallest member of the Salient team, but eats really large pieces of lasagne. Favourites include 80s music, the scent of fresh pine needles and long walks on the beach.

Comments (3)

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  1. Sheila Novitz says:

    I have just finished reading Julian Novitz’s Holocaust Tours.
    First, a few smaller problems:
    Neither the writer nor his editor have picked up (page 175) the incorrect spelling of Hannah Arendt’s name. Novitz calls her ARDENT, and this lack of respect for others typifies the general flippancy of his book. Surely some effort could have been put into getting the name of this diligent writer correct? If Julian Novitz had ever read her work, perhaps he would be able to spell her name.
    Page 302: Perhaps Novitz and his editor could open an OED and find the correct meaning of the word “nemesis.”
    Page 118: How is it possible for someone to knock on an “open office door” when it has been “kicked shut” on page 116?
    Final small problem: Mr Novitz’s ignorance of simple punctuation is an irritation on almost every page. Perhaps he could make time to read what Lynne Truss writes about semi-colons and colons in Eats Shoots and Leaves? Punctuation was invented, most of us believe, to help the reader make sense of every sentence.
    The beginning of Holocaust Tours feels clear, strong and real, as does the final chapter about Daniel’s visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The middle section of the novel is, however, a messy muddle containing so much “filler” that there is a risk of the reader simply being bored into quietly dozing and then closing the book forever. It seems that all the “filler” is a “show-off” designed to tell the reader how clever and knowledgeable the writer is. It doesn’t work: it is boring, and obviously the result of Novitz’s very recent research. As for the foreign-language quotations – Mr Novitz knows scarcely a word of any language other than English.
    Extraneous characters and events could easily have been omitted, which would have given the entire work a tighter construction and have made it more effective. Lippman, the Luger – why are they there? They go nowhere and contribute nothing to the story. And Steve? Why on earth is he there?
    Julian has created Wilton as a person who knows his oats when it comes to what is taught in universities regarding the Holocaust. But I can tell you, with absolute authority, that NO-ONE teaches, and NOWHERE is it taught, that Jewish people were “made into soap.” This was a myth which expired long ago, with the work of historians and writers such as Raul Hilberg, Christopher Browning and Martin Gilbert. Novitz has obviously done some research, but it has been either insufficient or misdirected. Probably both.
    And now the gross problems: The ridicule, the trivialization, the lack of any care for people’s feelings, the “know-it-all” approach, and the eternal adolescent.
    Poor Josh who is half Jewish and becomes obsessed by this. He is so ridiculed, is treated with so much nastiness, that it leaves the reader feeling sick. Julian Novitz has told me personally that “There is no such thing as being half Jewish.” He is wrong, but his ego makes it difficult to contradict him face- to-face. We are not discussing Jewish law here, where indeed (as Julian writes) one is either a one or a zero, and this is understandable and justifiable. We are discussing basic genetics which make it quite clear that a person CAN be a zero-point-five. Read about it, Mr Novitz.
    Daniel is constructing computer games about the Holocaust. Is this meant to be amusing, funny, entertaining? It isn’t any of these. Millions and millions of Jewish people, Polish people, Russian people were murdered by the Nazis. And those who survived? They struggled and suffered for the remainder of their lives. Even today, Jewish families – children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who were murdered and those who survived – suffer and are limitlessly sad and afraid. Novitz deserves only castigation for his trivialization of such huge tragedy.
    He also subjects Simon Wiesenthal to egregious minimization.
    Mr Wiesenthal survived at least one concentration camp, and spent the rest of his life attempting to bring criminals to justice. I doubt that he ever in his difficult and heroic life subjected anyone to anything “rather bothersome.”
    Novitz’s first book, My Real Life and Other Stories, has a bright, clear and adolescent feel to it. It is funny and true to life, and very acceptable, because, after all, the writer had spent all of his life until then at school and at university. In Holocaust Tours, the characters continue living like adolescents: These people, no longer teenagers, share dirty, messy rental accommodation, find it difficult to stay in one place, and travel a lot, often without adequate financial resources. They get horribly drunk; they have parties which include destruction of others’ property. Novitz himself is fast approaching his thirties, and for him to be writing like a child, and about aspects of his own adolescence, at this stage of his life is simply inappropriate.
    As is the childish emphasis on computer games. Mr Novitz needs to come to terms with the fact that he is growing older, and is no longer everyone’s little blue-eyed baby. Perhaps now he will begin to write like a mensch, a true adult. It is time.
    Finally, is Julian Novitz aware, I wonder, that his entire Lithuanian family (apart from his great-grandfather Sam and two great-aunts), his entire Latvian family, and his entire German family (apart from his great-grandmother) – in all, more than 30 people – were murdered by the Nazis? He may think he is not half Jewish, but the Jewish half of his family were gassed and shot to death, and it hasn’t been in the least funny for any of us. The Shoah is not a subject for amusement.

  2. Nick says:

    what?

  3. Felicity says:

    It takes a lot of guts to tackle this subject and maybe down the road of life, Julian would want to take his novel and write it differently. Still, what an interesting start to a writing career. Novitz is one to watch.

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