Recognition was never something Edith Pearlman asked for, but she can no longer ignore it. This month, the 75-year-old Jewish writer was named a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction for her latest collection of short stories, “Binocular Vision.” And while Pearlman isn’t exactly dodging the limelight, she’s not going out of her way to bask in it, either.
“The praise that has come is very welcomed,” Pearlman said from her home in Brookline, Mass., where she has lived for decades. “But it’s nothing I missed before.” “When I was young,” she added, “I wanted to publish a book simply to be buried with it, that’s all I wanted. I had no ambition beyond that.”
But given her prodigious gifts — her economic use of words; her ability to craft astutely observed, deeply humane stories that grapple with the Holocaust, revolutions and assimilation — it is no wonder someone would notice.
To be fair, the National Book Award jurors are somewhat late to the party. Earlier this year, Pearlman won the prestigious PEN/Malamud Award, given annually to a significant short story writer; her works have appeared regularly in the “Best American Short Story” series; and in January, when her latest collection came out, the exclamatory appraisal was put on the cover of The New York Times Sunday Book Review.
“Pearlman’s view of the world is large and compassionate, delivered through small, beautifully precise moments,” wrote Roxana Robinson, an accomplished short story writer herself. “These quiet, elegant stories add something significant to the literary landscape.”
That so many of Pearlman’s stories brim with Jewish characters is hard to miss, too. Stories like “Day of Awe” focus on a Jewish-American grandfather who goes to visit his gay son in Central America. He arrives 26 hours before Yom Kippur, and throughout the story, the grandfather frets that he will defile the holiest day of the Jewish year if he cannot find a proper minyan of 10 Jewish men. But, as he becomes endeared to the locals, everyone begins to seem Jewish.
“In the bed alone he found himself wondering whether the handsome Chilean chef might also be a little bit Jewish,” Pearlman writes of the grandfather. “And that native Canadian woman from last night’s party — such an expert kvetch.”
Other stories capture the tensions within Israeli society. Perhaps most memorably, in “Allog,” which was included in the “Best American Short Stories” collection from 2000, an aging Jewish family warms to a non-Jewish Southeast Asian nurse. Since Israeli citizens don’t want that kind of job, the government invites impoverished immigrants on temporary visas to fill the positions.
“Citizenship was not part of the deal,” Pearlman writes. “Weren’t these people already citizens someplace else? The Law of Return did not apply to Catholics, which most of them nominally were, nor to hepatoscopists” — a practitioner of Eastern medicine — “which some of them were said to be.”
Pearlman sets her stories in far-flung places, from Latin America to Israel, and a central theme is often dislocation. So you’d think the writer would have lived a nomadic existence herself. But she hasn’t, she said. She’s lived in Brookline for much of her adult life, with the exception of a year spent living in Israel in the mid-1990s — where she got the idea for “Allog.”
“All the stories I write come from someone I’ve met, or some anecdote I’ve heard,” Pearlman said, noting that few of her stories are autobiographical.
Yet she acknowledges that many of the stories hit close to home. Her father immigrated to the States from a small Jewish town outside of Kiev, when he was just a boy, at the turn of the 20th century. Her maternal grandparents were also Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, though her mother was born in Providence, R.I.
Edith was born in Providence too, in 1936, and her upbringing was suffused with Jewish culture, if not quite religion. She was confirmed—“this was before the time of bat mitzvahs,” she says—even though her father didn’t care much for religion (his father, however, was a rabbi). Nonetheless, Pearlman’s parents insisted that their children be raised Jewish.
The results are self-evident in her stories. “The way she treats Jewish subject matter is very nuanced,” said Nancy Sherman, the former editor of Pakn Treger, a Jewish literary magazine published by the Yiddish Book Center, which has published Pearlman’s work. “She understands that we don’t form our identities in a vacuum.”
As much as Pearlman’s stories deal with Jewish characters or Jewish subjects, their themes are not uniquely Jewish. “Vaquita” deals with a high-powered Jewish health minister in Central America, Señora Marta Perera de Lefkowitz, who is herself a Polish immigrant. But she is again exiled amid a government coup.
In “The Story,” the parents of newlyweds — one couple Jewish, the other not — meet for dinner. The Jewish mother tells the story of how her father, a Jew living in Paris, saved her brother from the Nazi round-up. As much as it is about the Holocaust, “The Story” is also about the difficulty of sharing a history with those who are not a part of it. Something inevitably gets lost in the telling.
When asked if she thinks her stories are fundamentally about Jews, or only populated with them, Pearlman responded: “I write the world I know, but it’s broad and general, and they’re about human nature.”
Her Jewish characters, she says, “come naturally. I don’t consciously write about them; they just come out of me. I’m interested in Jews just like I’m interested in everything.”
Like her characters, Pearlman likes to live among Jews, too. The sizable Jewish population of Brookline, where she’s lived for much of her adult life, is a significant pull.
“I lived around the corner from Saul Bellow,” Pearlman said, noting that the Nobel Prize-winning Jewish writer lived for a time in Brookline in the 1980s. “It’s wonderful to walk down the street and still hear Yiddish. I love and feel part of a Jewish community, I feel home.” In Brookline, she added, Jewish culture “is in the air. I get a lot of Jewishness just breathing.”
Many of Pearlman’s stories are set in a fictional hamlet outside of Boston called Godolphin, which some view as a stand-in for her hometown. “It’s essentially Brookline,” Pearlman’s close friend, Debbie Danielpour, a professor of film at Boston University, said of Godolphin. “And did Edith tell you that she’s Miss Brookline?” Danielpour added, noting that everyone seemed to know her.
Pearlman’s roots in the region go far back. She grew up in Providence and went to Radcliffe, the sister college of Harvard, which in the 1950s still did not admit women. Though she had a passion for literature, she spent her first 10 years out of college working as a computer programmer — “I certainly didn’t consider myself a writer,” Pearlman said.
But her husband, who by the mid-1960s was stable enough financially to support their young family, encouraged her to write. “Why don’t you do what you want to do?” Pearlman remembers him saying. Then, slowly, she set out for a literary life.
She first began writing short first-person pieces for small magazines like The Smithsonian, in the late-‘60s. A few years later, it was travel pieces for The New York Times. But still, her main interest was in for fiction, not journalism. So she began contributing stories to literary magazines that mostly circulate in English departments, like the Antioch Review and the Ontario Review.
But even as her renown grew in Boston, and among a small but significant group of writers and editors, she avoided major publications. There is no New Yorker or Harper’s or Paris Review in her resume, and even her latest collection is published by a new imprint, Lookout, funded by the creative writing department of the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
“I don’t feel like being put on The New York Times Book Review was in her schedule,” said Danielpour. “That’s not her. She just wants to write and have people read it.”
Indeed, Pearlman’s attention-averse persona has become a kind of hallmark: she is known for not being known. “To that great list of human mysteries,” writes the best-selling novelist Ann Patchett, in her introduction to “Binocular Visions,” “which includes the construction of the pyramids and the persistent use of Styrofoam as a packing material let me add this one: why isn’t Edith Pearlman famous?”
It is anyone’s guess how that might change if Pearlman actually wins the National Book Award, announced on Nov. 16. But Pearlman’s main focus, she said, will always be on her craft. She can spend weeks writing a story, and still uses a typewriter, making edits by hand then re-typing new drafts. The short-story form, with its implicit demand for precision and economy, are perfectly suited to her.
“You have to get a great deal down in 10, 12, 14 pages,” Pearlman said. “It means that every word has to matter, every sentence has to stand for something.”