Will the real Martha Nussbaum please stand up?


In 1996 writer Marc Estrin received a troubling phone call from a man in New York City. The caller wanted to procure a high-powered rifle—rifles are easy to get in Vermont, explained Estrin, a Burlington resident, to an audience of about 25 at 57th Street Books on Monday night—so he could “kill black people out of his window” for the coming “war between the blacks and the Jews in New York.” This maniac, Estrin said, along with “many other maniacs I’ve known,” was the inspiration for Alan Krieger, the protagonist of Estrin’s latest novel, Golem Song (Unbridled Books, 2006). According to folklore, the Golem was a Frankensteinian creature created to save the Jews from persecution in 16th-century Prague.

Reading from Golem Song along with Estrin was the inspiration for another character in the novel: Chicago professor of law and ethics Martha Nussbaum. In the story, Alan reads Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire, sees a photograph of her, and then “everything clicks because of this woman.” For Alan, who is dating both a Jewish social worker and a German psychologist and struggling to keep the two separate from each other, Nussbaum solves this problem: as Estrin explained, “She looks like a goy but must be Jewish because of the name.” Alan’s infatuation with Nussbaum comes to a head when he meets her, the scene used for Monday night’s reading.

The lively performance by Estrin (as Alan) and Nussbaum (whom Alan dubs “Helen of Academe”) was interrupted every so often by Nussbaum pointing out small differences between real and fictional Marthas: when the character talked about eating a Power Bar for lunch, Nussbaum explained, “Actually, it’s a Cliff Bar I eat.” This meeting scene, according to Estrin, serves an important function in the book: it is the “exposition of Alan’s romantic sexual greediness and his searching for rationalizations” for his twisted fantasies. Yet, Estrin said, the scene also allows both Nussbaum and readers to see Alan’s “charming” and “playful” side, challenging them to “like somebody who’s perfectly horrible.”

Although Estrin had been writing about the fictional Nussbaum for years while composing Golem Song, he took six months to build up the courage to e-mail the real Nussbaum for permission to use her as a character. He had used “real people” in earlier novels (Insect Dreams and Arnold Hitler), Estrin said, but they were “dead” and “well-researched.” After she granted permission, he corresponded with Nussbaum to make sure that her character was accurate—Nussbaum, for example, refuses to eat hot dogs, which is problematic for food-loving Alan when he offers her character a Hebrew National frank (“It’s kosher!” proclaims Alan). But Estrin was anxious about “putting words into someone’s living, breathing mouth.” Nussbaum, meanwhile, feared the flip side: “What business of mine is it to tell this creative artist” what to include or not include?

Ruthie Kott

Photo: The real Martha Nussbaum reads her character's part with author Marc Estrin.

January 10, 2007