Saturday, July 16, 2016

Barney Greengrass

Norman Manea (b. 1936)
From Becoming Americans: Immigrants Tell Their Stories from Jamestown to Today

Barney Greengrass, Upper West Side, Manhattan, c. 2005–2009. Uncredited photograph via Tumblr.

A few years back, the novelist Philip Roth told a Vanity Fair reporter an anecdote he has often related to underscore his concern that the audience for serious literature was dwindling to the point where it might soon become a cult:
I have a Romanian friend named Norman Manea, who’s a writer, and Norman has been a friend of mine since he left Ceauşescu’s Romania. He lived there through the worst of the dictatorship, and they harassed him at every turn, and he couldn’t get published.

So he went to see a friend who was an elderly writer he respected, and he began to complain about the fact that he had no readers. And his friend said to him, “How many readers does a writer need? Four. That’s all you need is four readers. You, unfortunately, have two!”
For nearly three decades, Manea (who turns eighty on Tuesday, July 19) has lived in the United States. Since his arrival, he has published numerous books and essays, including his acclaimed 2003 memoir, The Hooligan’s Return. Yet—while he certainly now has an audience larger than two—he is still unknown to most American readers, even though he has received accolades from an astonishing range of writers and critics and has won dozens of international awards—and is often considered a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize.

In March 1997, on the ninth anniversary of his arrival in this country, Manea strolled through his neighborhood on his way to Barney Greengrass, a century-old deli on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The opening selection of The Hooligan’s Return recalls this outing and then presents a short account of the assassination in Chicago of a fellow Romanian writer—a still-unsolved crime that led to Menea temporarily receiving FBI protection.

Additional information about Manea is included in the headnote that precedes the story, which was reprinted in the LOA collection Becoming Americans: Immigrants Tell Their Stories from Jamestown to Today (edited by Ilan Stavans).

Notes: On page 640, Manea quotes a line from the first stanza of “Report from Paradise,” by Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert (1924–1998).

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