Off the Shelf: Characters from real life

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Readers are often curious about whether characters in a novel are based on real life people. That’s why most novels’ reverse title page (the page that contains copyright information and details about the publisher) usually feature statements such as “this is a work of fiction” or “this is a novel.” Those two sentences appeared in two recent works, both of which contain real life characters, in addition to their fictional ones. The reverse title page of “The Vixen” by Francine Prose (Harper) also notes that the work is “drawn from the author’s imagination” and makes it clear that “real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locales... are used fictitiously.” The reverse title page of Joshua Cohen’s “The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family” (New York Review of Books), on the other hand, offers only the sentence that it’s a novel with no additional disclaimers, although details about the accuracy of the story are offered at the end of the work.

The real-life character featured in the “The Vixen” is Ethel Rosenberg. The novel includes two very different portraits of her: 1) the real-life woman known to the mother of the narrator, Simon Putnam, and 2) her stand-in Esther Rosenstein, who is the main character in “The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic,” a novel Simon is editing. When Simon began work at a prestigious New York City publisher in 1953, the job was not his first choice. After being rejected by the graduate school he hoped to attend, he had no real plans. Between graduation and finding work, Simon lived with his parents and watched the news about the Rosenbergs’ execution on TV with them. The experience was traumatic for all three, but especially for Simon’s mother, who grew up in the same apartment building as Ethel and refuses to believe she was a spy. However, it was dangerous to express that sentiment since Joe McCarthy was calling people before the House Un-American Activities Committee: one hint of sympathy for the Rosenbergs or communism could get someone fired or worse.

Although Simon had not planned to go into publishing (and only received the job with the help of his uncle, who is a literary critic), he does hope to find a novel in the slush pile worth editing and publishing. That’s why he’s thrilled when his boss hands him a book that he claims may not be as worthy as most they publish, but which might save the company from bankruptcy. Unfortunately, the book is “The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic,” which is not only awful (in writing and plot), but offers a horrendous portrait of an Ethel-related character, Esther, who sleeps around, treats people like dirt and dominates her husband. Simon is horrified, not just because the novel is smut, but because he can never let his parents know of his connection to the book. His only hope is to convince the author, Anya Partridge, to make changes in her portrayal of Esther. Unfortunately, Anya, who is living in a sanitarium, has no interest in changing the novel. In fact, she shows little interest in the work and says that the character of Esther (Ethel) is based on her own life and desires, something she seeks to prove to Simon.

In “The Vixen,” almost nothing is as it first seems, and Simon is surprised when he learns the truth behind Anya’s novel. The question then becomes whether he is willing to put his ethical principles aside and find the success of which he dreams or if he’s willing to risk his future to do what he believes is the right thing. However, the question is not as simple as it might first appear: How much leeway should a person or a society have to perform unethical actions in the hopes of achieving a result they believe is for the greater good of society? Prose’s novel, which is extremely well done and ultimately moving, offers a great deal for readers to ponder.

While real life people play only a minor role in “The Vixen,” a version of the real-life Netanyahu family appears in the second half of the Cohen’s book, and Ben-Zion Netanyahu’s view of Jewish history creates the true drama of the work. Ruben Blum, the narrator, is the first Jew to become a professor at Corbin College, a small town in New York state, during the late 1950s. He is careful to note that while he is a Jewish historian, he is not a “historian of the Jews.” His expertise is in American history. There are difficulties being the only Jew in the town and it doesn’t help that both his wife, Edith, and his daughter, Judy, are discontent with their surroundings. In fact, Judy seems unhappy with life, school and, in particular, her nose. However, no matter how often she asks, her father refuses to let her have the nose job she desperately desires. 

As part of their adjustment to their new home, Ruben invites his parents and in-laws for the fall Jewish holidays, rather than them traveling to New York City. While Edith’s parents visit (mostly to complain about the house, the small town and college, and the fact that Ruben isn’t rich), Ruben’s parents turn down his offer, with his father reminding Ruben that there is no synagogue in their town so they would be unable to attend services. They do visit later, but their trip is not a success on many levels. Soon afterward, Ruben finds himself serving as the resident Jew on a committee interviewing a new professor, solely because the applicant, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, is also Jewish. Ruben is to escort him around the campus, listen to the lecture Ben-Zion is slated to give and sit in on his interview. 

Ruben might be excused for thinking this won’t be a difficult task, but it becomes far more complex than expected for opinions of Ben-Zion’s work greatly differ. Included are the texts of letters of recommendations: one that greatly praises Ben-Zion’s work and another that suggests it would be better for Israel if he found an academic position in the U.S. While it might sound as if these chapters disrupt the flow of the novel, they actually offer fascinating portraits of Ben-Zion’s theories.

The visit from the Netanyahu family itself serves as comic slapstick. Although only expecting the scholar, Ben-Zion arrives with his unhappy wife and three rambunctious sons who not only make a mess of Ruben’s house, but create havoc in the town. The on-campus interview, lecture and dinner don’t create the same kind of chaos, but it’s clear that Ben-Zion finds the interview process distasteful. These sections of the work are far funnier than this summary suggests, and the novel proved more enjoyable and interesting than one might expect from its plot summary. However, the author’s portrayal of the different members of the Netanyahu family shows them in a decidedly unpleasant light. 

Using real-life characters in a novel can be controversial. “The Vixen” shows Simon debating the issue. He believes it’s important to accurately portray Ethel “because Ethel Rosenberg had been a real person, on the surface so like Anya’s Esther Rosenstein that people would think she was writing about the real woman. The guilty one. If readers had been uncertain about Ethel’s alleged crime, by the time they’d spent hundreds of pages with her twisted commie psyche, they would know she was guilty of espionage and worse.” Anya rejects this, noting that her book is “Fiction, okay? It’s not a history book... I’m not saying she’s innocent, I’m not saying she’s guilty. I made up a story about a woman who likes power and sex, who likes to control men. A woman who wants to rule the world.... I’ve written a story that every woman can identify with.” Yet, because of Simon’s loose connection to the real Ethel, he cannot accept what he sees as slander.

In the “Credits and Extra Credit” section that appears at the end of his work, Cohen writes that his novel is based on a real event, although he notes that Ruben is not an accurate portrayal of the person who told him the story: the Blums took on a life of their own during his writing and do not represent this friend and wife. Cohen also writes that his novel is a work of fiction, meaning he has taken poetic license and created characters not based on real life. However, the author stands by his portrayal of the Netanyahu family as accurate – even in the face of critics who have objected to his work.

What will strike readers of both novels are the narrators’ relationship to Judaism. At different times in their lives, Simon and Ruben have hidden the fact that they were Jewish. Simon deliberately wrote his application essay to Harvard about Puritan theology. He even believes that other employees at the publishing house are unaware he is Jewish. While Simon says he would not lie if someone asked him about his religious background, he won’t volunteer the information – going as far as to say, “I half pretended to come from a family that was nothing like my family.”

Ruben also notes that for most of his life, he ignored Judaism and Jewish history, saying that “I found no strength in my origins and took every opportunity to ignore them, when I couldn’t deny them.” That is impossible to do in his new home and he struggles to retain his equilibrium when his car mechanic makes a joke about Jews having horns or that the local golf club claims to have lost their application form. Ruben accepts these slights and others because he knows that complaining about them will only create more problems.

Ultimately, both novels are about being Jewish in 1950s America. This fact, in addition to all the other delights they offer, make them worth reading. “The Vixen” is the less controversial of the two because it may be difficult for readers to separate “The Netanyahus” from contemporary political discussions about Israel. “The Vixen” also offers a more cohesive plot, although those interested in Jewish history will be intrigued by the descriptions of Ben-Zion’s theories on medieval Judaism. Readers and book club attendees will find much to explore in both books.