Full Circle: A Memoir
by Edith Kurzweil
Transaction. 302 pp. $34.95
The writer and intellectual Edith Kurzweil traces not one but three concentric circles in this account of what she calls a “chopped-up life.” The innermost circle is a story of childhood fear and daring. During the Anschluss of Austria in March 1938, the thirteen-year-old Edith, the daughter of assimilated Viennese Jews, looked on with dread from her apartment window as lines of storm troopers paraded unendingly by. A few months later, on a November evening that would come to be known as Kristallnacht, she watched shivering in fear from a dressmaker’s shop on Tempelgasse as Nazi soldiers and ordinary Austrian citizens torched Vienna’s largest and loveliest synagogue.
Soon the Nazi fury had separated Edith and her younger brother from their parents and was pursuing them through a series of dislocations—first to wretched children’s homes near Brussels, and then, when the Germans overran Belgium in May 1940, to Toulouse in southern France via a bruising eight-day journey in a boxcar. Miraculously, Edith managed to acquire the necessary transit visas, shepherding her brother on a perilous voyage from France through Spain to Lisbon and thence on the S.S. Excalibur to New York and reunification with their parents.
Kurzweil’s second circle encompasses the confusions of acculturation. With a few vivid strokes, she evokes the émigré society of Vienna-on-the-Hudson: the café-goers reading the German-Jewish paper Aufbau, reminiscing about the comfortable past, complaining about the indignities of the present. The young Edith, who by now was dreaming in three languages, picked up street English from soapbox orators on Columbus Circle and with alphabetical thoroughness read her way through the fiction shelves of the public library. Yet when her insatiable appetite for learning culminated in an offer of a scholarship to Radcliffe, her father, a businessman who disdained the life of the mind, forbade her to accept it.
The memoir’s third circle widens to take in Kurzweil’s career as a teacher of sociology, as the author of books—including The Age of Structuralism (1980) and The Freudians (1989)—on psychoanalysis and French social theorists, and as a New York intellectual and the last editor of the quarterly Partisan Review.
Here Kurzweil crowds her canvas not only with the brilliant, sharp-tongued writers she came to know but with her husbands; they, one senses, were her true teachers. The first, Charlie Schmidt, provided an escape from a controlling father and into adulthood. The second, Robert Kurzweil, spirited her away from her disastrous first marriage into a glamorous expatriate life in Milan, just in time for the Italian economic boom of the late 1950’s and early 60’s. After Robert died, her third husband, Norman Birnbaum, inducted her into the left-wing academic world she longed to join.
Describing herself as, at this stage, “a product of American public education and a traditional liberal,” Kurzweil got a heady whiff of the overheated ideological squabbles of the 60’s Left. But even while married to Birnbaum, a radical fellow-traveler, she harbored doubts about the direction some of their friends were taking. “I had trouble believing,” she writes, “that America was as bad as they decreed.” She adds, wittily: “I kept wondering how dropping out and moving to rural communes, or stealing books from the 8th Street Bookstore, was going to stop capitalist production.”
At a reception for the novelist Doris Lessing in the early 1970’s, Kurzweil began a friendship with the man who would become her fourth husband. This was William Phillips, co-founder in the 1930’s of Partisan Review. He had read an article by her in COMMENTARY, about a meeting of psychoanalysts in Vienna, and invited her to write on similar themes for him. She did, eventually joining the staff and his life.
Others have recounted the history of Partisan Review and of its attempt to join the literary and the political avant-gardes, or modernism and Marxism. By the time Kurzweil appeared on the quarterly’s masthead in 1977, and certainly by the time she took over the editorial reins in 1994, the magazine was well past its prime as the voice of the anti-Communist Left. She remains, however, justly proud of its historic role in bringing European thought to America, and of the magazine’s faithful effort to combat the utopianisms—both of the Right and of the Left—on whose 20th-century altars millions of lives were sacrificed.
With Phillips, Kurzweil’s anti-Communism now became more pronounced. Under the magazine’s auspices, she organized influential conferences with Eastern European dissidents, among them Czeslaw Milosz (who first appeared in English in Partisan Review), Joseph Brodsky, Norman Manea, and Adam Zagajewski. She also began to cast a more critical eye on the rising tide of political correctness, postmodernism, anti-Americanism, and group-think among her fellow intellectuals in the United States. Kurzweil is especially good at recounting and bringing her reader into conversations where disputes over these and kindred matters ended by sundering longstanding friendships.
A woman who has presided over her share of endings, Kurzweil also tells here of her brave but ultimately futile effort to keep Partisan Review afloat. Rutgers University, which had hosted the magazine since 1963, tried in 1978 to force Phillips into retirement and to impound the magazine’s files. He and Kurzweil won that battle, successfully moving to Boston University. But in 2003, within a year of Phillips’s death, the university president pulled the plug. “We are shutting you down,” he said.
Giving a gently centrifugal motion to each of Kurzweil’s self-contained circles is her unadorned style, which perfectly matches the appealing modesty of her voice. But what in the end relates each of the three rings to the others is something else: the searing experiences disclosed in the innermost circle, the one that lies at the heart of Kurzweil’s story. This was her harrowing brush with totalitarianism, and the shadow it cast on all that came afterward, in her own life just as it did in the life of Western culture.
Unlike some survivors, and not without expressing a certain sense of regret about it, Kurzweil never gave up her secularism or found her way to a meaningful commitment to Judaism. In her case, another deep conviction—a moving appreciation of America—may have substituted for the energies of traditional piety. Five years ago, receiving the National Medal for the Humanities from President Bush, she looked around at the other medalists and realized with a start that she was the only one not born in this country. “As memories of Hitler’s march into Vienna, of my escape and my botched teens flitted through my head,” she writes, “I marveled at my good fortune. I had made it to America, and into America.”
This displaced child of Europe lost neither her European savoir faire nor her admiration for those elements of the continent’s intellectual tradition that in her academic career she sought to interpret to her adopted countrymen. But in coming to grasp just how alien to American soil were the twin terrors of fascism and Communism, Kurzweil also learned to cling to that soil and to feel it as her own. That course of discovery, or self-discovery, holds a profound lesson for anyone who by accident of birth has been blessed to remain distant from the awful human realities she narrowly escaped.