Arthur R. Heiserman (1928-1975)
My father, Arthur R. Heiserman (1928-1975), began writing a novel, Displaced Persons, while abroad on a Guggenheim in 1963. He finished it during a sabbatical from the University of Chicago in 1972 when he was terminally ill. I discovered it many years after his death, and have decided to edit the manuscript for publication.
According to a 1965 interview in the University of Chicago Magazine, my father believed that “Literature at its higher level has always been learned.” I agree. I’m told that his agent, the celebrated Candida Donadio, turned it down because although she thought it was brilliant, she found it too intellectual—and too dark–to attract a wide audience. Is Displaced Persons “too intellectual?” Absolutely. But in my opinion it is dazzlingly dark, its characters unforgettable.
The novel is sort of an Upstairs-Downstairs, tragical-historical bedroom farce. Its narrator is a highbrow young American drifting through a Volunteer Agricultural Camp on the grounds of a dilapidated 18th century abbey in England in 1949. In residence he finds the mistress of the abbey and her upper-crust guests. His fellow “volunteers” include the well-educated inmates of a Displaced Persons camp overseen by the abbey as well.
The young American probes with humor and exquisite precision the inner lives—especially the sexual sufferings—of the slew of ultimately loveable though physically and emotionally mutilated survivors of WWII who have washed up at the abbey. The novel is bold, expansive, and for the most part riveting, but T.S. Eliot-esque erudition and passages of oddly madcap philosophical dialogue sometimes weigh it down. The crucial problem, however, is that my father failed to quite bring off an ambitious, original narrative experiment: a subtly interwoven subplot that dramatizes the emotional vicissitudes authors suffer vis-à-vis their characters. The young narrator materializes, like the Cheshire Cat, to query, contradict, quarrel with and even apologize to the “real” tortured beings he is “doing in” by inventing their pain and perversions. In this, my father was too subtle; I aim to provide a guiding, but also subtle, hand.