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Sunday, June 9, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Engaging 'Fly Swatter' will snare you

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Fly Swatter: How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World"


by Nicholas Dawidoff
Pantheon, $26
Author appearance


Nicholas Dawidoff will read from "The Fly Swatter" at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co., 206-624-6600.
Do me a favor. Go to your local bookstore and read the first paragraph of "The Fly Swatter," Nicholas Dawidoff's memoir/biography of his grandfather, the renowned Harvard economist Alexander Gerschenkron, and then try not to buy the book. If you read the first paragraph, you'll continue to the next page; and if you continue to the next page, you'll finish the prologue; and once you finish the prologue, you're hooked.

It doesn't matter if your eyes just glazed over at the word "economist" because you don't have to be interested in economics to enjoy "The Fly Swatter." You just have to love good writing and great characters and maintaining energy and optimism in the face of monstrous adversity. It also helps if you think books and erudition matter.

The prologue is dazzling. It's mostly a grandson's-eye view of a grandfather — the stories a family tells about a colorful family member. One morning, for example, Gerschenkron announces he's giving up the newspaper because there are only so many books a man can read in his lifetime — 5,000, he's calculated — and "permitting himself such a daily distraction was out of the question."

He names the knees on which his grandchildren sit "Hoxie" and "Moxie" and tells stories about two bad children named Hooey and Mooey. He feuds with everyone from Vladimir Nabokov to John Kenneth Galbraith. He loves white horses, big boulders and the Boston Red Sox. He teaches himself Swedish, then Icelandic, then calculus. Around Harvard he is known as "the Great Gerschenkron, the last man with all known knowledge."

It's such an energetic beginning, in fact, that the only worry is whether Dawidoff can keep it up. Will the book flag once we move out of memoir and into biography? It doesn't.

Gerschenkron (called by his family nickname, Shura, throughout) comes to life as a boy "showing off" in Odessa, Ukraine, engaging in intellectual and physical one-upmanship with his friends. At 16 he and his father flee the Bolsheviks and settle in Vienna. Eighteen years later, he and his wife flee the Nazis and settle in America.

Twice a refugee from extreme left and extreme right political movements, he comes to love the American middle. He works his way up from Berkeley to Washington, D.C., to Harvard. He publishes well-read and respected texts such as "Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective," but a big book eludes him.

There are other disappointments and tragedies. His wife, an unhappy exile, succumbs to a kind of snobbish enervation. He butts heads with '60s radicals — despite remaining a lifelong Democrat who considers all Republicans "morally flawed." He suffers a series of heart attacks. One of his children dies before him.

Gerschenkron himself is full of flaws and contradictions which his grandson, rather than ignoring, relishes. Just as Gerschenkron once wrote about the importance of religion in a relativistic world, so Dawidoff (author of "The Catcher was a Spy" and a frequent New Yorker contributor) points up the importance of character. We are all flawed and contradictory, he seems to say, so we should at least be interesting. Gerschenkron was.

One of my favorite vignettes is when Gerschenkron sees his neighbor, Jane Williams, outside shoveling snow: "... he flung on his gloves, dashed outside shouting, 'Emancipation has gone too far!,' took the shovel away from her, and finished the job himself."

"The Fly Swatter" would have made the grandfather, dead more than 20 years now, proud. Friends thought of Gerschenkron as a "living, breathing literary figure" and now he has become one. The writing is wonderfully rich and precise — French food compared to millet.

Above all, Gerschenkron's limitless energy seems to seep through the pages and into the reader. Reading of his accomplishments and enthusiasms, you wonder how you could ever have been bored with life, and become determined never to be so again.

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