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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Chanukah and Howard Fast

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah - here I am, lighting the first candle! This evening, on the way home, I bought some potatoes to make latkes, potato pancakes. This is the time of year when we're encouraged to eat fried things; for the next eight days., we eat things cooked in oil, to remember the miracle of the lights meant to last only one day, which lasted eight. In Israel, people have doughnuts, but I'm more than happy to cook savoury latkes for dinner.

Another tradition - my own - is to re-read Howard Fast's novel My Glorious Brothers, his left-wing re-telling of the story of the Maccabees, who led a rebellion against the might of the Syrian/Greek empire - and won. In case you haven't heard of Howard Fast, he also wrote Spartacus, on which the movie was based.
 Howard Fast was a member of the Communist Party, which he eventually          left, for reasons he explained in his autobiographical book The Naked God. He began writing Spartacus in prison, where he'd been put for refusing to give names during the McCarthy witch hunts. Unfortunately, he had to self-publish it - and then the Communists hated the book as much as the witch-hunters!

Back to My Glorious Brothers. I remember when I first saw it, on a rack of paperbacks in the local milk bar. I was there to buy a few groceries and homed in on it. It cost me about 40c, a small thin paperback - not the cover above, one I couldn't find in Google Images. It has almost fallen apart from all the times I've re-read it.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Simon, last of the five brothers, now an old man, looking back over his life. As an adult, sadly, I know how it all ended, with the Romans conquering the country (they had actually helped the rebellion succeed) and the descendants of the heroes fighting among themselves in a style worthy of Hollywood soap opera.

But I was about twelve then. The story won my heart, leading me to read a whole heap of his historical novels, such as Spartacus, Agrippa's Daughter (the story of Queen Berenice). April Morning, Freedom Road, Moses, Prince Of Egypt... That one was set in the time of Rameses II, and ended when Moses left Egypt and walked into the desert with his servant and friend, Nun. The premise was that Moses's adoptive mother and some priests were dreaming of returning the worship of the Aten. Like his other novels of the time, it was a left-wing interpretation. There was meant to be a trilogy, but it never happened, though there was a sort-of-sequel, a novella set on the last day of Moses's life and seen from the viewpoint of Joshua. There were just hints that it was connected with the previous book.

And he wrote science fiction as well. The first story he ever sold, when he was in his teens, was SF, and he wrote a number of SF short stories and novellas, published in such collections as The Edge Of Tomorrow and The General Zapped An Angel. The title story of the latter has, in recent years, been updated and adapted for theTV series Masters Of Science Fiction.

Fast's SF is thoughtful stuff; you won't find light space opera or straight adventure here. Notice the cover of the first one? The story is called "The Large Ant". A man on holiday wakes up to see a giant ant standing by his bed. He kills it and takes the body to a scientist friend. Turns out it's not an ant - it's an alien, and the question is - was it actually a threat or did the man just assume it would be because we're scared of big insects? In another story, a company finds a way to drill very deep for oil and what comes up is not oil but blood. If that had been written today, reviewers would have complained about bloody greenies and cliches.

Why do I love his work so much, even today? I love his characters. They are a bit black-and-white, but he cares about them, deeply, so you do too. His language is beautiful. He cares about the story he's telling and can send a message without hitting you over the head with it.

Most of his historicals are about America, and that's fine. He loves his country, but isn't a flag-waver.

Most of all, I have been moved enough by his work that it has had an influence on my own style.

I've become the kind of writer I am because of my love for Howard Fast's writing. Whether that's a good thing or not, you will have to decide when you read my books, but for me, it works.


Mimi Fast said...

Thank you, thank you for your kind words about Howard Fast! I am Howard's widow and miss him terribly, especially at this time of year, but you have given me a gift that fills me with joy! Howard would have been thrilled to read your post---more so because "My Glorious Brothers" meant the world to him. There is an interesting video clip on which I think you will enjoy. Just click "Authors" and scroll to Howard's picture, then click video. Many thanks and all best wishes for peace and joy in 2012. Mimi Fast

Sue Bursztynski said...

Oh, Mimi, welcome to my web site! I am so thrilled and honoured to hear from you. I can understand your missing him, but you got to be a part of the life of a man who was one of the greatest writers of the century, in my opinion. I will certainly check out that web site and perhaps put up a link to the video.

Meanwhile, enjoy this feast of lights and have a joyous new year,