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The Fly Swatter by Nicholas Dawidoff
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The Fly Swatter

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The Fly Swatter by Nicholas Dawidoff
Paperback $14.95
May 13, 2003 | ISBN 9780375700064

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  • May 13, 2003 | ISBN 9780375700064

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“A captivating memoir . . . showing personal triumphs over adversity. . . .The boy can do it.” -Sylvia Nasar, The New York Times Book Review

“Wonderfully rich and precise. . . . Do me a favor. . . read the first paragraph.” –Erik Lundegaard, The Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer

“Exquisitely written. . . . [C]ertain to charm away the idle hours.” -Trevor Butterworth, The Washington Post Book World

“Both a study of the immigrant experience and a vivid picture of mid-century intellectual life at America’s preeminent university. But most of all it is a touching portrait of a complex and staggeringly learned individual, written by one of the few people he allowed to touch his heart.” –Daniel Akst, Smithsonian

“An absorbing, psychologically nuanced and overall balanced appraisal of a complex man who lived in complex times. . . . A widely researched, meticulously documented portrayal.” –Marion Abbott, San Francisco Chronicle

“Dawidoff’s captivating family memoir is a tribute to his twice-exiled grandfather, the Harvard economist Alexander Gerschenkron, retracing his tortuous path to Cambridge and recounting the intellectual passion that earned Gerschenkron the title ‘the last man with all known knowledge.’” —The New York Times Book Review

“This is a splendidly crafted book: partly a valuable estimate of Gerschenkron’s place in the history of theory, partly a study of academic life and politics in the 20th century and above all a thoughtful and often charming personal memoir.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Nicholas Dawidoff has written a wonderful book, full of humor, love, and understanding.” —The New York Sun

“It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say this loving memoir is the most fascinating in its class.” —Chicago Tribune

“A loving, carefully researched, effortless-seeming book—a delight to read. The story of the great Alexander Gerschenkron as told by his grandson combines the smallest and most telling personal details with an exhilarating wide-angle view of twentieth-century intellectual life.” —Ian Frazier, author of Family and Great Plains

The Fly Swatter is a terrific book for many reasons. Amateur students . . . will appreciate Dawidoff’s discussion of economic theory. Historians will likewise enjoy his chronicle of a human character moving through world events. . . . Dawidoff’s unusual perspective as a grandson might be most compelling for another set of readers.” —The Austin Chronicle

“One marvelous memoir.” –Booklist

“To give birth to one’s own grandfather is no mean feat, but that is exactly Dawidoff’s great triumph. The Fly Swatter is a densely imagined, beautifully written book.” —Peter Carey, author of True History of the Kelly Gang

“If [Alexander Gerschenkron] has access to a celestial computer and can download (or perhaps upload?) Nicky Boy’s moving tribute, he must be proudly savoring every word.” —The New Leader


Pulitzer Prize NOMINEE

Author Q&A

A conversation with Nicholas Dawidoff, author of THE FLY SWATTER:

Q: Why would anybody want to read a book about your grandfather, the late, legendary economist, Alexander Gerschenkron?

A: If you think of a grandfather as the older man in your childhood who has seen a lot, done interesting things, and is willing to share it all with you–a young person just starting out–my grandfather was in many ways the perfect grandfather. I mean, he had thrilling escapes from both the Bolsheviks, during the Russian Revolution, and the Nazis. He worked in wartime shipyards and for the OSS in Washington. He became a famous Harvard professor who was known not so much for what kind of work he did, but for what a vivid character he was. He feuded with Vladimir Nabokov and John Kenneth Galbraith, he flirted with Marlene Dietrich, he claimed to know both Isaiah Berlin and Ted Williams well. He drove fast, drank hard, cussed, shot guns, and could read Hamlet in twenty different languages. I actually didn’t know a lot of this then. When I was a boy, what made him special for me was that he was the kind of man who could make ordinary experiences exciting. That was his real gift, he was a man who thought there was no such thing as a typical day and proved it with the way he comported himself. Everything was an adventure with him. He had his own names for everything right down to his knees. His drinking of a morning glass of juice was a dramatic ceremony. Any time you went out driving on an errand with him, you were always told to be on the lookout for things that interested him–a white horse or a big boulder. He cared more about that than getting the errand done. It was this way with everything and it made him an exciting person to be around. This was his gift, seeing excitement and complexity in places where you wouldn’t expect it. That he made everything in every day important meant that he filled his life with meaning. I found that inspiring and it turns out that a lot of other people did too.

Q: Why did you call it THE FLY SWATTER?

A: There is a story about him that I love concerning his abilities as a killer of insects. He made an odd science of it. He had a series of fly swatters that he kept out on the porch where he read and wrote in warm weather. The swatters were identical, except that they came in different colors. He claimed, however, that they all had different specialties. The blue could do this to hornets, the green was better for killing that kind of bee, and so forth. It got very involved. His battles with wasps were something to see, but not half as interesting as hearing him recount them later, which he’d do while standing over his fallen victim. My grandmother had to clean them up later on the sly. He always wanted to keep them around because he said they were deterrents to other yellow jackets. Really, I think, they were his trophies. But more than that particular story–a somewhat typical Gerschenkron story–I was thinking that he was a man who lived vigorously, fending people off as he fended difficulties off, feuding, roaring, keeping on with things in an aggressive way. That, in turn, meant that people were seeing him the way he wanted them to. By swatting out first, as it were, he landed the first impression. I wanted my book to show how he did all that and also the sides of him that he was–very effectively–protecting.

Q: He sounds more like a fictional character than the subject of a nonfiction book.

A: I think that’s fair. It’s right and important to read biographies and memoirs of famous people. But in writing about Moe Berg (as I did in Catcher was a Spy) and now my grandfather what I’ve sought to do is to think about real-life characters. They may not have been quite as involved in well-known events, but their personal characteristics are so unusual that they become memorable for being themselves. Don’t get me wrong, Moe Berg was a professional baseball player and a professional spy and highly proficient at both, and my grandfather was a well-known economist, but what really makes them special is what makes a character in a good novel special–they are compelling characters whose lives reveal a strange and–to me, anyway–enthralling story. As a person, they tell you something about people.

Q: I don’t know much about economics. Will your book still be of interest to me?

A: Well, I didn’t know much about economics either when I began, and it sure interested me. There isn’t really any economics in the book except as it relates to my grandfather’s personality. His great achievement as a thinker was his claim that there were advantages to economic backwardness. In other words, that countries who industrialized slowly compared with say Britain or France or the United States might gain from their handicap. This was, I think an idea born of my grandfather’s life experiences. The Russian Revolution and then the Nazis in Austria twice made him start over completely. He arrived in Vienna in 1920 speaking not a word in German. When he got to California in 1938, things weren’t much better for him. But he persevered, found creative ways of making up time and making his way, and so it’s not surprising that he’d be the person to deduce that many successful but late-starting countries have been similarly innovative through the course of their economic development.

Q: Your grandfather was a secretive person. So was Moe Berg. What is it about these men that appeals to you?

A: It’s exciting to uncover a life that was hidden perhaps even from the person who lived it. My grandfather had a hard life. And one way of not letting it get him down was to reject the hardships. When bad things happened to him, he took a stoic Russian pride in overcoming them, which worked remarkably well for him until Vietnam. Like many immigrant Americans, my grandfather was a besotted patriot. He was wild about this country. He loved everything here–baseball, President Roosevelt, political radio programs, American made cars. When Vietnam came, the divisions the war made in his country also cleaved his community and he suffered. It’s really interesting to me to see how people find ways within themselves of waking up in the morning and getting out of bed and getting on with life when life isn’t grand. My grandfather had all of these deeply human and sometimes pretty quirky personal devices for keeping on in the world. For me, understanding how he did it is not only interesting, but also useful. Useful in a way that is no less important than seeing how Harry Truman or Claude Monet made their way. They were people of outstanding accomplishment. My grandfather was an outstanding personality, the sort of man whose life informs other lives as–we said this before–fictional characters often do.

Q: What’s the Gerschenkron Effect?

A: In the 1950’s, a great many Americans were justifiably concerned that the Soviet Union was becoming an extraordinarily very well armed and prosperous enemy. The Soviets were making great claims for their annual economic growth. And it goes without saying that a flourishing economy can support enormous weapons programs. Yet, because Russia was a closed society, the United States had very little definitive information about what the Russians really had. My grandfather found a scientific means of determining how to tell what the Russians had based on what they said they had.

Q: Is this a biography or a memoir?

A: It’s both. I knew my grandfather until I was fifteen, when he died. There was nobody I felt closer to. The book is informed by that relationship. He was, as they say, a father figure to me. My parents were divorced when I was very young, my father was severely mentally ill, and my grandfather kind of stepped in for me. So I knew him as a child knows him and the relationship made me want to know him more. The biographical part of the book is my effort to come to know all the years of Alexander Gerschenkron that existed before I was born. It took a long time to do that. It’s hard to reconstruct non-public lives–one reason, I think, that there are not many books about grandparents.

Q: Weren’t you worried about what you might find out about this person who obviously meant so much to you?

A: Yes, I was worried. And a lot of the things I learned about my grandfather are not pleasant. But there two things I think about that. First, he was human, so human, and I admire him for being so real. Everything that he did in his life, right or wrong, is consistent with his character. That’s a rare and beautiful thing to find–a fully realized life. What emerged was a character portrait of a vivid character. He’s so interesting and complicated, flaws and all. That’s refreshing in a time when so many people are formed by image. Nobody formed him. He wanted to form them. Like so many great teachers–and he was a great teacher–he aspired to form other people in his image. Second, I could admire all that about him because I never lost my feeling for him as a grandfather. They became two separate things. My subject and my grandfather. I feel, in the end, that now I know him both as I knew him and as everyone else did. Now I have him in my book and I have him in my memory.

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