From a Pulitzer Poet, a ‘Very Dark Book’

“The Wherewithal,” a novel in verse
Philip Schultz in his study in East Hampton Mark Segal

    There is a poem in Philip Schultz’s book “Failure,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2008, called “The Reasonable Houses of Osborne Lane.” Shifting from “cottages slowly blooming into mansions” to “neighbors carried in and out of ambulances” to “long azure afternoons dragging shadows toward twilight,” its acute observations of the everyday are infused with grace and a hint of the elegiac.

    The sunlit, book-lined study of Mr. Schultz’s own house on Osborne Lane is a comfortable place to discuss “The Wherewithal,” his novel in verse that has just been published by W.W. Norton & Co. Mr. Schultz admits it is a “very dark book.”

    The way into “The Wherewithal” is through Henryk Stanislaw Wyrzykowski, a young man working in the basement of a San Francisco welfare building in the late 1960s, hiding from the draft and translating his mother’s diaries, which concern the 1941 pogrom in Jedwabne, Poland, where 1,600 Jews were butchered, tortured, and burned alive by their 1,600 non-Jewish neighbors.

    In 2002 Mr. Schultz read Jan Gross’s book “Neighbors,” which revealed the details of the massacre and the heroism of Antonina Wyrzykowski, a Catholic who hid seven Jews in a pit under a barn on her property for almost three years, until the end of the war in 1945, despite the ongoing suspicions and hostility of her neighbors.

    “I was fascinated by the book,” the poet recalled, “but then I started wondering about this woman. What enabled her, against everybody’s wishes, to put her family and herself in danger? Her neighbors thought she was hiding the Jews in exchange for their money. The only way this woman could tell me how she was able to do what she did would be if she left a diary. So I made up Henryk, and I made up her diary.”

    Mr. Schultz spent eight years reading books about the Holocaust. “I started making notes for this book in 2002, but I didn’t really know what I was doing and I hadn’t read enough until 2006 or 2007. As a poet, you don’t really have to do research. But for this book I had to know about Poland, which was really the nexus of the entire story of the Holocaust. I’m dyslexic, so to read a normal-sized book, let alone a history book, is an ordeal. But I did, and one book led to another.”

    Among the 15 narrative lines are the story of Rossy, a childhood friend of Henryk’s and son of a survivor, whom Henryk accidentally shot and killed in a game of chicken; the Zodiac killings that terrorized the Bay Area in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Vietnam War and its opposition, and Swigge, Henryk’s predecessor, who died in the welfare building of a heroin overdose but functions posthumously as a voice of both compassion and pain.   

    “The Wherewithal” had its genesis in the late ’60s. “I was avoiding the draft,” Mr. Schultz said, “doing part-time jobs, living on food stamps, and when in the welfare building, I saw this basement that brought to mind Dostoevsky’s ‘Notes From Underground.’ I knew I wanted to write about it, and in 1969 or 1970 I started a novel about the welfare building. I had the ’60s, I had the protagonist hiding in the basement, I had his girlfriends, but I didn’t have a story or a reason he would stay there for so long.”

    Asked if he considered himself knowledgeable about the Holocaust before undertaking the book, Mr. Schultz said, “I grew up on a street in Rochester that in the 1950s was inundated by displaced persons from the war. They never integrated into the neighborhood, but I spoke Yiddish, and I was hired by my grandmother’s friend’s brother to translate his letters in return for music lessons. Yiddish was the language all the D.P.s spoke, and I translated a number of letters. In one case — Mr. Schwartzman’s — all the family members I was writing to were dead.”

    “Zdena Berger, a teacher of mine in college, wrote a beautiful book called ‘Tell Me Another Morning,’ an autobiographical novel about her years in Nazi concentration camps as a teenager. So if you asked me before starting on ‘The Wherewithal,’ I would have said, ‘Yes, I’m knowledgeable.’ But now I realize I knew nothing. The people I read have spent entire lives looking for the pieces to the puzzle. The story keeps changing, as new documents are discovered. My guess is the puzzle is maybe half-finished.”

    Mr. Schultz knew he was going to be a writer from the age of 16. Two years later, an excerpt from a novel earned him a scholarship to the University of Louisville. In 1965 he transferred to San Francisco State, which at the time had the most fully developed writing program in the country. He eventually earned an M.F.A. from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, after which he wrote stories, poems, and novels. “The poems I sent out would get published,” he said, “but not the novels. However, if I hadn’t kept writing fiction all those years, from which I learned narrative structure, I never could have written ‘The Wherewithal.’ ”

    The poet first came to the East End in 1977 when a friend invited him to share in a house on Miankoma Lane in Amagansett. “I had spent a lot of time on the West Coast, and it was gorgeous, but I never felt I could live there permanently. When I got off the train in Amagansett, I just knew this was the place I wanted to live.” His next book of poems will be about East Hampton.

    In 1987 Mr. Schultz founded the Writers Studio in Manhattan, which now offers four 10-week sessions a year in the city and in Tucson, San Francisco, Amsterdam, and online. He maintains a one-bedroom apartment in New York, but spends more of his time in East Hampton, where he lives with his wife, Monica Banks, a sculptor; his sons, Augie and Eli, and Penelope, the family dog, in a house he purchased in 1990. “Living here helped when writing this book. Having a family and being in a place like this and taking my dog to the beach offered a respite from the nightmarish world I was immersed in.”

    Like many other young Vietnam War protesters, “I had no doubt I was leaving the country,” he remembered. “I slept with a suitcase under my bed. I was going to Mexico.” But he made it to age 26, the cutoff for draft eligibility, without being called. “At one point, I had been accepted into graduate programs at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Columbia. But I was in Paris, had fallen in love with a Swedish girl, and we were getting established there. I figured Hemingway didn’t go to graduate school, he fought bulls. Faulkner didn’t have an M.F.A., but he did okay.”

    One day he received a letter from his draft board saying he had three days to prove he was enrolled in graduate school or face five years in prison. The next day he was riding the Metro to the airport with $15 to his name. He landed in New York but couldn’t face it. “I decided I could handle the wheat fields of Iowa better than New York.” He called the Writers’ Workshop from Kennedy Airport and was not only reaccepted, but the school sent him money for a plane ticket.

    Mr. Schultz made it clear that while every story has to be personal on some important level, “Henryk is not me. I worked in a welfare building, but not in the basement. I’m not Catholic. And I never killed my best friend. Henryk had to have a personal tragedy.”

    Another character in the book is Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher. “I knew I didn’t want Henryk to be a writing student. He had to be something intellectual, and philosophy has always worked for me. I knew I needed another perspective, larger than mine.”

    Both Wittgenstein and Hitler were born in Austria, six days apart, and both attended the same secondary school, though it is not clear if they knew each other. Wittgenstein was a Jew whose father converted to Catholicism. He became part of the intellectual elite at Cambridge University, where he studied with Bertrand Russell. “The use of Wittgenstein was one of a number of distancing techniques. I had to arm myself in the book against taking on the pain of the subject. Wittgenstein gave me authority. He was the perfect armament to put between me and an ugliness so profound it’s unnamable.”

    Now that the book has been published, Mr. Schultz has readings and appearances lined up around the country, including one on Feb. 26 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park. When asked how he felt about going on the road, he laughed and said, “I wouldn’t like not being asked.”

    Reflecting on what he had gained from writing “The Wherewithal,” he said, “It’s interesting that, having grown up around all these D.P.s, listening to their stories in Yiddish, translating their letters, I had to wait all these years to even begin to understand them. I think the biggest thing I got out of this is all the reading I did that I wouldn’t have done otherwise.”

    Some of Mr. Schultz’s friends have commented on the darkness of the book’s final pages. “I knew I had to conclude, and Henryk had to have a final thought about everything. I had no clue what it was going to be. When it was time to write it, I went back to my favorite novels for conclusions, and none of them helped me. In the end I sat down and it came out automatically, and I was shocked to see that I had such a grim view. And I was speaking of what ‘we,’ not ‘them,’ are capable of.”