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Chosen People

Early in 1951 I visited Arthur Miller in Brooklyn Heights. I was then an editor at Bantam Books, which had just bought the paperback rights of Death of a Salesman from Viking, the publishers of the hardbound edition. The head of Bantam adored the play but felt that, for the reader of paperbacks, there ought to be more descriptive and connective material to make the characters more vivid and to clarify the time transitions. He knew that I'd had some theater experience, so he delegated me to go out to Brooklyn and ask Miller to make additions to his play.

"Thanks," I said with maximum wryness. The critical and popular celebration of Miller's play had been thunderous, ecstatic: I have never seen anything to equal it. At that time a suggestion to Miller of any emendation would be, I thought, like asking Moses for another commandment to clarify the first ten. Still, duty-bound to face ridicule, I fixed an appointment through Miller's agent and went out to Brooklyn.

Miller, who lived with his tall wife and small daughter in a pleasant house on a pleasant street, greeted me cordially. He introduced me to his family, then took me up to his workroom on the top floor. We chatted for ten minutes or so. I was delaying my suggestions while I figured the height of the window from the street below. It had occurred to me that my request might result in defenestration at the hands of this bigger man. But the moment of truth had to come. I took a deep breath and made the case for the general reader who had no special skill in the reading of plays, and I asked Miller if he would be willing to add some material at various places for the sake of that reader. I paused and waited for--I didn't know what.

Miller's face almost contorted with anguish. "But I wanted to do that," he said. "They took the script out of my hands, they published it before I could do that work. Sure, I'll do it."

With some personal relief, I expressed Bantam's joy, and added that we wanted to make this paperback edition as fine as possible. We had already been in touch with Joseph Hirsch, the artist who had done the famous drawing of Willy Loman—seen from the rear, carrying two bags. This Willy was on every program and poster. Hirsch had agreed to do several more illustrations for the paperback, an idea that pleased Miller greatly.

He supplied the additional material very soon, an aggregate of several thousand helpful words to be inserted at various places in the play. Hirsch did more excellent art work, and Bantam published "this readers' edition specially expanded by the author" in November 1951. A few weeks later Miller wrote to me that he thought the Bantam edition was "a first-class job."

Now comes the cap. Miller's additional material was not included in later Viking editions, nor in any other English-language edition that I have seen. Viking simply went on publishing the original version. Why Miller did not ask them to include his new material I do not know. Viking's fiftieth-anniversary edition (1999) has none of the added material, though the title page has one of the drawings that Hirsch did for Bantam. Miller's additions can be read only in that fifty-year-old Bantam edition, if you can find a copy.

This whole story came to mind recently because of Focus (Paramount Classics), a film of the novel of the same name that Miller published in 1945. In his workroom on that day in 1951, while I had been stalling about the point of my visit, he showed me a just-arrived book, a copy of the Japanese edition of his novel. I admitted that I had not read the book and said that I would do so promptly. I did, and though over the years I have admired some of Miller's stories more than most of his plays, I remember thinking that Focus was far from deft, a capsule of didactics with a thin coating of fiction.

Kevin Lascelles, the screen adapter, plunks the story before us like a 1930s dramatist eager to be socially engaged. The hero, Larry Newman, who is Gentile but whose name could be Jewish, lives with his ailing mother in a "restricted" New York suburb. In his forties, he now needs glasses. The glasses make him look Jewish—at least people in the picture say so. He is demoted from his very visible job in his company, resigns angrily, and has a tough time finding a new place because of his now-Jewish looks. In his suburb a newsdealer named Finkelstein is given trouble by an emerging fascist group; and Newman, who has previously kept well away from social issues, is now enlightened and eventually takes sides in the battle between good and evil. Focus may possibly do some good in less sophisticated high schools.

William H. Macy, who is one of David Mamet's favorite actors, plays Newman and renews my admiration for Mamet's loyalty, more than his judgment. Macy never makes a false move, but he never makes a really true one. As usual, his acting is well-intended but superficial. The director, Neal Slavin, has put the picture together as if he were following a blueprint.

I could not help wondering how Miller's novel had fared in Japan, back there in the 1950s.

Claude Lanzmann made Shoah. That four-word sentence, for me, is chiseled in rock. A monument, a monumental achievement.Lanzmann's nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust is more than a work to be praised: it is a gigantic block of evidence for future beings on this planet, more elevated than us, I hope, to show them some of the profound darkness that had been possible in the past.

While Lanzmann was making Shoah in the 1970s, he filmed an interview in Israel with a Polish Jew named Yehuda Lerner. Omitted from that work, this interview is now released separately as Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 P.M. (New Yorker). Lerner had been an inmate of Sobibor, the death camp in Poland, and was one of the survivors of the only successful revolt against German oppression—Jewish prisoners who, on the day of the title, killed their guards and escaped. Lanzmann did not include the Lerner interview in Shoah because he wanted to keep that film a consistent account of a monstrous devouring.

As film, Sobibor is simple. It relies on what is being said. There are some shots of places that are mentioned, but it consists for the most part of Lerner seated in a chair, answering in Hebrew questions that Lanzmann, unseen, asks in French. Lerner's replies are then translated into French by an unseen woman while we are shown English subtitles. This procedure could have been compressed by putting in the English subtitles while Lerner replied, but the story is so stark and is told by Lerner so plainly that it holds. Some of the time he almost seems to be smiling slightly, perhaps as he remembers what he was capable of doing when he was thirty-six years younger, yet slightly embarrassed at recounting heroism. One of the more telling moments is his admission that, after the killings and the escape, he made his way into a forest and, exhausted, fell asleep instead of fleeing.

I wish that the picture had explained how Lerner subsequently got out of Poland to safety. Still, as is, Sobibor is an important appendix to Lanzmann's work.

This article originally appeared in the November 5, 2001 issue of the magazine.