by Len Lear
Simone Zelitch, a Mt. Airy professor and author of six books, will be one of two authors (the other one is Max Gross, of New York) to discuss their works by Zoom on Monday, Jan. 25, 7 p.m., sponsored by Big Blue Marble Bookstore in West Mt. Airy, where she previously discussed her highly praised work during in-person events before the pandemic.
Although it will not be a topic of discussion on Jan. 25, Zelitch’s latest novel is “The Hill,” based loosely on Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain which takes place in a tubercular sanitarium before WWI. The setting is a high-end life care community, and it examines the eco-system that involves the entire community — aides, administrators, residents and families. The novel is really about the tension between safety and freedom. There is a plot about Doris from Somerton (in Northeast Philly), who fell on Labor Day and progresses through the different levels of care with sometimes-funny and sometimes-tragic consequences.
Zelitch’s previous book, “Judenstaat,” is an imaginative tour de force about what would have happened if a Jewish state had been established in Germany after WWII instead of Israel. Zelitch, mid-50-ish, who teaches English at Community College of Philadelphia, as does her husband, Doug, explained that “maybe 12 years ago, I was lying in bed with my husband when I suddenly said, ‘What if a Jewish state had been established in Germany instead of Palestine after the war?’ People often think about the establishment of the state of Israel as a response to the Holocaust, but if any country owes reparations to European Jews, it’s Germany.”
Zelitch’s new novel, “The Hill,” is her first novel that takes place in the present, “and that’s been a challenge because the present keeps on changing. When I started this novel, it was close to science fiction. Now it’s in danger of being historical fiction. As you can imagine, Covid-19 and its effect on nursing homes, not to mention everybody else, has made me consider an extensive revision, and I’m struggling with that right now.”
Does Zelitch think “The Hill” is relevant to the tragic storming of the Capitol building? “Actually, I think that ‘Judenstaat’ is far more relevant to what went on, particularly the way that an event can be seen in such starkly different ways by different interest groups. ‘Judestaat’ is an alternative history that centers on how an archivist pieces its history (the new Jewish state) together 40 years after its founding. How will the storming of the U.S. Capital be presented in 40 years? Will it feel like a significant turning point?”
If Zelitch could meet and spend time with anyone on earth, living or dead, who would it be and why? “I’m in the middle of reading ‘David Copperfield’ and therefore would like to spend some time with Charles Dickens, who would be excellent, relaxed company. Then again, this summer it would have been Victor Hugo, who got me writing down passages from ‘Les Miserables’ in a little notebook. I’ve been spending a lot of time with these authors of enormous and engrossing 19th century novels, and I am grateful for it.”
How has the pandemic affected Zelitch’s work and life? “My teaching life at Community College of Philadelphia has been exclusively online, and I poured a lot of creative energy into course design. My students were terrific, but I missed the messy, unexpected shape that in-person teaching takes. As for the writing life, I’d hoped to work on a new novel, spending time at writers’ residences and traveling for research, but of course, all of that is on hold. In terms of life in general, well, I cook too much.
“My husband washes the dishes while I practice piano. We can both work remotely. As the New York Times columnist David Brooks observed, the world appears to be divided between ‘the remote and the exposed.’ Most of my students at Community College of Philadelphia are exposed to Covid-19 every day. Three of them had it; many had family members who died. I suspect that this this breathtaking inequality will matter more in 40 years than Trump supporters storming the U.S. Capitol.”
For more information, visit simonezelitch.com. Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com