Phyl Van Ammers: The Misadventures of Ari -- does the title suggest a relationship to Saul Bellow's Adventures of Augie March?
Lionel Rolfe: Oh God no. I never could read Saul Bellow. He was everything I don’t like. Academic, heavy handed, establishment in the worst kind of way. He might have even been a good writer, but I just couldn’t read him. What I could read just got on my nerves--badly. Also, I take my California identity seriously. I’ve made a career out pointing out that most of this country’s best writing came from California, from Mark Twain to Jack London to Steinbeck. Not from the James brothers from Boston, or wherever. That’s what my book “Literary L.A.” was all about. The real soul of California’s contribution to world literature was born in its Bohemian roots, and then it metamorphosed into something more apocalyptical after World War II. I don’t see Bellow as summing up anything big and stirring--just pompous and stale academia and equally pompous and stale New York publishing. Bellow is in the tradition of James’ parlor room writing. I’d point out that the best American writer in recent years certainly wasn’t Bellow, it was Bukowski. And no New York publisher ever touched him. I got to admit I do like Philip Roth on occasions. He had a certain bawdy appeal. Bellow sucks. If my book draws from anything--the picaresque novel sort of thing--think Henry Fielding and Mark Twain. I loved Henry Fielding.
Phyl Van Ammers: If so, what are they? Both picaresque novels, both mostly true, both you and Bellow Jewish?
Lionel Rolfe: Well, as I said, no, Bellow was never an influence on me. But yeah, I suffer from a Jewish thing. It’s been a big thing in my life. It began in junior high school when the son of a local Baptist minister used to chase me through the back alleys to my home in Long Beach and punch me and call me a “Christ Killer.” I had lots of reason to ponder this thing, Jewishness. At first I equated Jewishness to love of knowledge, a commitment to justice, to ethics, to science, to music--and a lot to what is dismissed as radical politics. Hell, Jesus was just yet another Jewish rabbi in the area urging his people to drive the Romans out of Palestine. I learned about the Holocaust in various ways I’ve written about. Then for a decade I edited the old “B’nai Brith Messenger,” the original Jewish paper founded in Los Angeles in 1892. I think I was basically the paper’s last editor. But I’ve also not come to terms with my Jewishness. I think it was important that Jews had a place they could call their own, just like any other people, but I’m torn, because that country has become a monstrosity led by fascists like Netanyahu, who’ve dealt with Nazism by becoming one. Jews of all people shouldn’t be oppressing other people, of that I’m sure. I’m sure my Jewishness is quite different from Bellow.
Phyl Van Ammers: Were you blacklisted? How did that happen?
Lionel Rolfe: I was drawn to the logic of the left and repelled by the nonsense from the political right. Almost all the great artists, writers, musicians, were of the left. It’s best summed up by that wonderful story of Picasso showing Nazis around his studio in Paris, per their request, and the commodant stopped in front of “Guernica” and said “You did this,” Picasso responded, “No, you did that.” I joined the party for six months and left on not great terms. I never was attracted by the notion of “dictatorship of the Proletariat,” just like I don’t like the dictatorship of the ruling class we have in this country now.
Phyl Van Ammers: Do you still consider yourself a Marxist?
Lionel Rolfe: Well, I don’t think anyone has come up with a better description of how class struggle forms a society. But no, I think the answer is a system that has both capitalist and socialist impulses. If I put a label on it, I’d say I’m a social democratic. I like the idea of economic democracy. We have political democracy but no democracy in the work place, except that which trade unionism can provide. An entrepreneurial approach is good for some things, things where an individual’s vision is the focus, be it in writing, in cooking, in making clothes. But I think capitalism is lousy for the big things a modern society needs--housing, transportation, finance, medicine. Capitalism is a stupid way to deal with those kinds of things.
Phyl Van Ammers: How have your political beliefs affected how you have lived your life?
Lionel Rolfe: It’s made it harder. I was actually blacklisted by the California Newspaper Publishers Association and fired from the Inglewood Daily News (no longer in existence) until I was hired by Scott Newhall of the Newhall Signal because of my politics. I know I’ve suffered because of my politics. But I can’t imagine mouthing beliefs in things I do not believe in just to make my life easier.
Phyl Van Ammers: Do you think Ari has any regrets about how he lived his life?
Lionel Rolfe: Sometimes, sure he does. But the way I described Ari’s life was the only way it could really be.
Phyl Van Ammers: Do you think Ari will find real and sustaining love by the end of his life?
Lionel Rolfe: I hope so.
Phyl Van Ammers: How did you come to meet Studs Terkel? What was he like as a friend?
Lionel Rolfe: Well, it was brief. I interviewed him in the Polo Lounge for some magazine, and we seemed to click. Then he said he had to get to the airport. He could either go by taxi or I could drive him. I was happy to drive him. He said, “You need an agent. Talk to my agent Don Gold, head of the literary department at the William Morris Agency in New York, and use my name,” Terkel said. I did, and Gold, who had sold two books that did incredibly well when published but about 100 publishers turned them down first--Love Story and Jonathan Seagull--took me on. He wasn’t proud of either book, they made him a legendary agent. He put a lot of work editing my manuscript because he thought I made up for his sins of cheap commercialism, which those two books represented in his mind. I was a writer in residence at Villa Montalvo near San Jose when I first began writing what became “The Misadventures of Ari Mendelsohn.” Gold was my first editor--a second agent, Mike Dorr was the second. Like Gold, Dorr was an editor before he became an agent. Gold had told me he wouldn’t keep being an agent “so use me while you can.” He got me a good advance to do my first book about my family, “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey.” I think if he had stayed being an agent, my life, and Ari’s life, would have been certainly easier.
Lionel Rolfe will sign "The Misadventures of Ari Mendelsohn: A Mostly True Memoir of California Journalism" at Skylight Books at 1818 N. Vermont Ave. in Los Feliz on Saturday, March 30, at 5 p.m. The book is also available in paperback and in the Kindlestore at Amazon.com.