Full Circle: A Memoir, by Edith Kurzweil (Transaction Publishers, 312 pp., $34.95)
Edith Kurzweil has lived many lives and prevailed against tremendous odds. As an Austrian Jew, she was not meant to live at all; as a first-generation immigrant in America, she wasn’t expected to succeed; as a woman, who was also a 1950s-style wife and mother, she was not supposed to become a scholar in her own right. But Kurzweil refused to identify herself as a victim, choosing instead to view adversity as a useful challenge. She earned a Ph.D. in sociology, became a professor, and published a number of thoughtful books including The Freudians: A Comparative Perspective, The Age of Structuralism, and Nazi Laws and Jewish Lives: Letters from Vienna. She also married three times, the final time to William Phillips, the founder of Partisan Review. Kurzweil served as executive editor of this highly influential magazine from the late 1970s until its demise in 2003.
Thus she knew and worked with many of the leading intellectuals of her time: Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Doris Lessing, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Norman Podhoretz, Cynthia Ozick, and many more. She was privy to the great disputes of the era, and her memoir Full Circle recounts them all, from battles about communism and fascism to splits over Zionism and the nature of American power—battles that, in different forms, continue to the present day.
Kurzweil’s life, like a play, has had many distinct acts. Act One: “Ditta” Weisz is born in Vienna to wealthy Jewish parents. For 13 years, she enjoys a charmed and sheltered existence, which world events then shatter. Solely responsible for her younger brother, Hansl, she flees Austria to join her parents, who are already settled in America, and travels through at least 11 cities and villages in Austria, Germany, Belgium, France, Spain, and Portugal. Her flight is grueling and perilous: she dodges bombs, enemy soldiers, hostile civilians, and Catch-22-like diplomatic restrictions. Strangely, the idea of “being sold into slavery” (as opposed to being simply incinerated) terrifies her. At one point, Kurzweil rides in a boxcar together with other Jewish children. For eight days, they have little food, no light, no ventilation, no bathrooms—and no parents. She writes: “The younger children got sick first and some of them threw up; we had no toilet facilities and had to use the odd containers . . . since boxcars have no windows . . . the putrid smell of excrement mingled with that of perspiration and vomit. . . . By the fifth day our limbs were black and blue from the bumps we got when the train was careening.”
These painful memories occupy only three paragraphs in the hellish travelogue. Still to come is a long period of hiding in the French countryside and long lines to navigate at the Spanish, Portuguese, and French consulates as Kurzweil desperately tries to get a visa. Aided by a kind stranger, she makes it to the S.S. Excalibur just as it pulls up anchor in Lisbon. Seeing two children approaching, the ship’s crew halts and lets them aboard.
Act Two: Kurzweil’s new life as a teenage immigrant in New York City begins. Her sadistic father and self-involved mother control and exploit her. Kurzweil the memoirist does not complain; she merely shows us how things were. Her writing is fresh, leavened with the endearing Americanisms that she acquired. She “moseys” along, wants the “low-down,” relates best to people “on the ball.” For those, like me, who remember the Manhattan of this era, her descriptions bring back a lost world: here is the dear departed automat, the Cafe de la Paix, the Éclair, and the Konditorei. Kurzweil dubs these last two “Vienna on the Hudson.”
She encounters routine sexual harassment on the streets and on the job, of a type that these days we would regard as extreme. She describes the “leering once-overs” of foremen, the “foul language” of “sweaty men,” and the harshness of the “demanding foreladies.” Kurzweil works as a hat maker, jewelry painter, stock clerk, salesgirl, bookkeeper, and far underpaid diamond cutter. She works during all of her marriages, even while raising the children she had with two of her husbands.
Act Three: she prospers as a wife and young mother in a New York City suburb during the very decade in which Betty Friedan decided that isolated, educated housewives suffered from a “problem that had no name.” “I don’t recall my suburb as a Mecca of enlightenment nor as the nadir of Hell,” Kurzweil writes. She eventually returns to Europe and lives there happily for some time—though she shares a sobering anecdote about visiting her childhood home in Vienna. The concierge of the building, guilt-ridden about the past, is afraid that she has come back to reclaim her apartment.
Act Four: Kurzweil documents an important period of intellectual history. She confirms that intellectuals can be as ruthless as corporate titans, capturing the raw ambition, ceaseless backbiting, intimate betrayals, and anti-Americanism that have characterized so many New York and Parisian thinkers. Kurzweil describes how the New Yorkers devoted themselves to “honing their mercurial minds at each other’s expense.” She relates priceless anecdotes and both first- and second-hand thumbnail sketches of a battalion of intellectual leading lights, including Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, Diana Trilling, Czeslaw Milosz, Robert J. Lifton, and Noam Chomsky, among others. She is frank about the male domination, philandering, and polygamy prevalent in intellectual circles, and about the way in which otherwise capable female job applicants were mainly viewed in terms of their “sexual potential.”
Full Circle has far too many rich anecdotes to recount, but one involving Chomsky is typical and illustrative. Kurzweil describes an enormous party that is “more like a political rally,” at which Chomsky states that students should be encouraged to protest, “even to the point of laying down on a railway track while awaiting an oncoming train.” When Kurzweil protests that a young Italian demonstrator has lost his life that way, Chomsky replies that the loss was acceptable—“if it had furthered the cause.”
Kurzweil also reveals the rather shocking attempt to destroy Partisan Review by certain “solicitous friends” who envied its success and wished to “own” its gold-standard brand name, even though they disagreed with many of its principled stands. She describes how William Phillips found himself locked out of his own office at Rutgers University, his Partisan Review papers impounded. Boston University chancellor John Silber gave the magazine a safe harbor, but after Phillips died, Silber, in Cynthia Ozick’s words, “executed” and “terminated” the magazine that Kurzweil had essentially run on her own during the years of Phillips’s declining health.
Full Circle is an ode of sorts to Phillips and to the committed intellectual life that he led, and an acknowledgment of what one must juggle, sacrifice, brave, and endure to live the life of the mind. The intellectually dazzling Phillips lost many of his closest friends when he refused to glamorize tyrannies or wholeheartedly embrace the cultural uprisings of the 1960s, which included hatred of America and Israel.
Kurzweil shared his political bravery. Immediately after September 11, in the pages of Partisan Review, she wrote: “To others, like myself, who lived through some of the real horrors of World War II, the United States was perceived as a safe haven . . . the United States is not truly prepared to fight its enemies. Once again, we are divided around domestic priorities and must fight enemies both outside and within our borders. . . . We have tried to attain our ends while holding on to our liberal values. . . . We will have to decide at what point the rights of the individual must be subordinated to the public good, to the ‘rights’ of the country. When do we go after the Osama bin Ladens? And how do we conduct fair trials without being so overly ‘fair’ as to encourage or condone more such activities?” Kurzweil’s perspective was prescient; her views today remain vigorous and vital.
Full circle: Vienna, 1940. As the train leaves, the 13-year-old Ditta is afraid to keep her maternal grandmother’s gold chain: “We were forbidden to take any valuables . . . in the end, I panicked . . . as the train began to move I reached out of the window to return the coveted jewel.” The real jewel is this book, and the memories and insights it contains.