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The world of the paperback the University of Chicago invites you to join us for this series of 15 minute programs dedicated to the discussion of literary topics and the review of significant paper bound books each weekly program will bring to the microphone a different author authority or educator with his particular viewpoint towards the topic for discussion. The book selected for today's discussion is a collection of short stories titled A pile of stones. Our guest is the author of this collection huge innocence and Mr. Nissen begins the conversation with the University of Chicago host Robert C. Albrecht by reading from the collection on the kitchen table lying open was the Bible that he his father had been reading in re reading for the last few days found in peeling red leather with a silver clasp. The book was very ill. The boy lit another candle and bent down to examine the Yellow Pages. A passage from Hosea had been underlined by the imprint of his father's fingernail and the wavering light. The words seemed to dance in front of his
eyes. I will be like a lion to them he read aloud like a leopard. Well I lurk by the way. I will meet them like a bear who has lost her cubs and tear open their breasts. There will I devour them like a lion like a wild beast. Well I ran them. What did it mean. There was a passage from the Bible the boy had never understood. This was the Lord of the universe who was speaking the God of mercy who was comparing himself to a wild beast stalking his prey. The fire in the stove went out and shivering. The boy fell asleep with his head on his arm. It's a fine passage and also relates very closely I think to certain things which occur throughout the book really. How would you describe this thing in which he unites the stories in this collection. Well I think it can be described really by a kind of an avocation of the
demonic which profoundly interests me. The I don't know what you call it but at the very beginning of the book I have a passage from Genesis. Let me go for the DAYBREAK of which of course refers to the wrestling of Jacob and the angel which is always summed up for me at least the essential metaphor of the Jewish vision of the universe that is to say the blessing and the curse. And of course one of the stories in my collection is called the blessing. And again and again I found myself drawn to dealing with this topic of of the fact that here we are confronted by a philosophy a religious outlook which presupposes a unity of basic unity underlying the universe and yet of course the basic problem is of evil and the demonic which traditionally actually in the Jewish vision is not dualistic that is to say that the devil does not play until the early medieval Jewish philosophy a very important point.
So you will have I think Isaiah saying at one point something to the effect that God says that even evil comes from him. The evil impulse is in the human being it's what you do with it. And this I think is one of the things which occupy me very deeply in this book. The characters in the stories are several stories. Question continually. The evil around them and I've noticed that often their own questioning questions are almost directed at the deity. Yes I think that this is very important. WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME RIGHT. Or to us. And I think that again as I interpret the Jewish vision and I think one of the nice things about the Jewish vision is that really since I guess the destruction of the temple without a hierarchy of priests there is a basic confrontation of the man and his God. And so this is a very essential part of Jewish thinking I think which is something which is characterized Jewish thinking something which was reaffirmed for me
very basically by my reading which coincided Curiously I suppose inevitably with the writing of the first story in this collection called the blessing and was about the same time that I discovered which was in 19 I was at fifty eight I guess. Fifty seven fifty eight which I found articulated things which obviously in court had been within me and. He enabled me to kind of gel a very deep way. It was a profound influence on my life and in 61 I covered the Eichmann trial for Commentary magazine I had the privilege of visiting with Dr. Bill for several hours in his at his home in Jerusalem where in a very direct and exciting manner we talked about this and particularly by the image of Jacob and I spoke to him about the passage in this book. It's a book on Moses a very obscure and rather difficult work as a matter of fact acts of Jesus of the meaning of Moses. Here's a very short chapter about three pages on the curious
attack on Moses by God after Moses leaves the camp of the midnights and he's with his wife supporter and suddenly Jehovah attacks him and his wife to placate God circumcise is their son and throws the force can down on the floor of the tent and the Spirit of God withdraws suddenly. Well. This is open obviously psychoanalytical interpretation of very many interesting anthropological interpretations. But more than that what Gruber said which caught my attention which I know forgotten was that obviously what is happening here is that the monic in a monotheistic religion the problem is obviously I mean their one god or their many gods or as they would well it is a possibility of a Devil or Satan. And what relationship has he got to God but obviously here at this point in his development even the demonic was ascribed to God. And this seems to me to be an essential problem. It certainly is only comes out in many of your stories I think this is again and again what I am
dealing with. Finally in the last story for example which is in a sense one of the most pessimistic stories someone. And this is directly related to Martin Wilbur it's something from one of his comments about prayer in the hot seat like attitude towards prayer. Someone prays for a really happy death or when his prayers fulfilled the point is he dies. And this is a basic and profound irony. What interested me about the story too was it is not a Jew to whom this happens but a devout Protestant who is very concerned with the break tradition a Jew who does not believe is telling the story I thought this was kind of an interesting point you know which I you know. Well let's talk a minute about the Jewish character of many of the story. I think this is important because some readers. I think fail to recognize that just because one has Jewish characters does not mean the stories are
somehow exclusively Jewish or Irish or many other things. How do you think of these stories you know they Jewish story Jewish characters and only this. Well I like to think of course as every writer must I believe that his story has if not universal at least wider application specific. But I think again that every artist proceeds from a specific vision and then moves to the general and what grasps my imagination is my own heritage in these terms which is obviously as all American heritage is a very complex it's an American heritage it's a Jewish heritage proceeding from Poland stories which my father told me he remembers as a child which I used directly into the stories here on. I think however that differentiation has to be made in so far as I like to think. It was I would say the Graham Greene is a Catholic writer I like to think of myself as a Jewish writer. That is to say in Apparently the metaphor of Roman Catholicism this man has found
his view of the world where he expresses his view of the world through the metaphor of Roman Catholicism and I like to believe that I'm doing the same through the metaphor of Judaism as I understand it and as my grasp of it has preceded Jewish characters I don't think make the Jewish story necessarily I think it's rather the moral vision if I can use an old fashioned word like that which will suffuse a story which will determine whether it's Jewish or Roman Catholic or Protestant. I'm talking out about the great religions primarily obviously interest me is as a metaphor of looking at the world and I think this is the problem and it's the basic moral vision which determines whether something is one thing or another. But just because there are Jewish people in my story I don't think makes it necessarily a Jewish story. You know let's take an example the other aspect the form of your story is not. Which one has come to expect to one has come to
recognize as the Jewish tale. I think for instance the way you use the the ending of the stories I gather is intentional. Very often astir there is a kind of thematic summation at the end of the story that comes of course through in the dialogue. Do you think it was a way of doing a short story or as a trademark or I don't know I think it's just simply the way my interest in the short story as a narrative form developed. I was profoundly and I started out I guess as alright as I was a poet and then went on to writing drama became profoundly interested in the drama and wrote short dramas and then I started working on the short story form. But in studying the drama I was profoundly impressed by. I guess it's the poetics of Aristotle and that is to say that there is a and also a book by Francis Fergusson you know that marvelous but what is the idea of the theory is that I had made a profound impression on me so I am never forgotten just theoretically you know it sort of reverberated within me and that's the idea that
the tragedy at least from what he's talking about has a rhythm. And proceeding also from Aristotle the idea that a story does have a beginning a middle and an end. And this is what interests me the kind of incidental insight or as you can say the kind of thing that we've come to expect from a magazine like The New Yorker does not just particularly interest me as a short story form I find myself much more attracted by the perhaps obviously too obviously dramatic but this is what I choose to what has chosen me to you know be expressed. And I find that this is what I deal with most easily and that's it. Do you find the short story particularly dramatic. John Ritter were I do I find it tremendously challenging because I think that it requires a tremendous compression of ideas and dramatic scene and dramatic insight. And the challenge of compression is one that has always interested me very much was the experience of covering the Eichmann trial for instance stuff or fiction in any sense very deep are you.
Yes yes. And as a matter of fact. The vision is propounded in the prison which for me is a very important kind of seminal story I'm not sure whether I'm entirely satisfied with it to be perfectly honest but I think that for I've obviously chosen to include it in the collection I think it works as far as it goes. The vision there is something which was an overwhelming experience for me and other then other form at the Eichmann trial. That is to say a confrontation with evil which is so profound and yet curious terrifying awful sensation which may be just simply a defense mechanism that underneath everything is not only unity but a meaningful unity and moral unity which is one of the things that interest me very much as a writer I suppose in some sense as fanatic statement which often takes place near the end of a story is of great importance to a reader. On your mind. Do you relate this to the reader you think of it as as saying to the reader
this is something that the character discovered in the process of these events. Is this what it tells the reader. I think that it does. But I think incidentally I think that I know that I don't think particularly about. I can't say honestly what effect it will have on the reader but somehow the story sets up the tale whatever it is that has attracted my attention sets a certain kind of ambivalence as in myself which worked themselves out and I resolved this way dramatically as you say by generally a summation I mean this kind of moving towards a climax of the end and it's simply a rhythm which I incidentally and of course since and silly hope has some meaning for the reader but I don't think I relate myself the idea of a certain kind of reading audience when you don't know the word you don't really could address your stories. You know I don't you know I don't or I don't think this is really over and in my my mind I wonder is consciously possible for a any sort of writer other than one who is simply trying to sell his work.
World of the Paperback
Hugh Nissenson's "A Pile Of Stones"
Producing Organization
University of Chicago
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
This program features Hugh Nissenson discussing his own "A Pile Of Stones."
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This series is dedicated to the discussion of literary topics and of the publication of significant paperbound books.
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Talk Show
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Guest: Nissenson, Hugh
Host: Albrecht, Robert C.
Producing Organization: University of Chicago
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 66-23-2 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:14:28
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Chicago: “World of the Paperback; Hugh Nissenson's "A Pile Of Stones",” 1966-06-09, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 21, 2022,
MLA: “World of the Paperback; Hugh Nissenson's "A Pile Of Stones".” 1966-06-09. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. May 21, 2022. <>.
APA: World of the Paperback; Hugh Nissenson's "A Pile Of Stones". Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from