When L.J. Lazarus published What You See in 1974 he would say only, "All you need to know about me is in this book." He would give no interviews nor would he allow his picture to be taken although some snapshots have surfaced. The enigmatic author of the cult classic What You See, spent his life looking out from behind the curtain then scurrying up the scaffolding before the spotlight swept across his face. Yet it is this life we must mine in order to understand What You See. The voice behind the thriller (which he claimed was not a thriller), protean, reveling in its ability to take on other identities, is not going to give the reader an easy time. What you see is definitely not all you get in the work of L.J. Lazarus.
What is the relevance of the book now? Why bring it back? In the apparently boundless global village of the post Cold War, why bother with Lazarus' universe populated with Freud doubles, Nazi enthusiasts, informants waiting for Goering to tap them on the shoulder? As museums, private individuals, and institutions are asked to provide the provenance of their acquisitions, questions arise about the nature of cultural annihilation and fraud in the service of a racial agenda. It was Lazarus' project to be a persistent asker of those questions. The needler, sometimes given to rants and rages, will never be a popular writer, but in the case of L.J. Lazarus he had no notion of what a popular writer might be. Cultural theft is the axis on which What You See spins and with the recent examination of Nazi theft, it is a ghost that has come back to haunt. Hector Feliciano in The Lost Museum (Editions Austral, Paris, 1995) states what Lazarus began to uncover in 1962:
By looting French art collectors and dealers the Nazis stole much more than mere assets. These wily and tenacious confiscators were also stealing the soul, meaning, and cultural standards of these collectors. Not only do conquerors try to physically obliterate their enemies, but they also try to take over the precious art objects they owned and patiently collected. This plundering gives us a fair insight into the reasons the power of all victors -- even recent ones, like the former Yugoslavia-- rests in part on the looting and destruction of the cultural possessions of the enemy.
As an isolated expatriate marooned in Marseilles Lenny didn't know what to do with what he found until years later when he began to assemble the cast of What You See. The book was published, it exploded, languished, then disappeared as if it had never existed. After more than a quarter of a century his work is crying out to be reprinted. The re-emergence of this prescient classic is long overdue.
"You know your Batman only has one eye, kid."
The voice was old and cranky, the voice of an alter kahker if I ever heard one. It was not directed at me, but rather at my five year old son who was scootering down Henry Street in Brooklyn, a street of little foot traffic and even fewer cars. Lenny's storefront was a sliver stuck between The Golden City, Chinese take out and Let's Pet, a dog and cat supply shop. It was true; the Batman printed on my son Nissim's backpack did have only one eye. We were uncharacteristically early, and Nissim who will always talk to strangers, stopped to explain to the old man why Batman, in this case, had only one eye. It was simple: the rest of his face was in shadow.
The fellow was sitting on a milk crate smoking and squinting at the street through a pair of taped glasses. On the lapel of his checkered sportscoat he wore a button which read: Another Proud Nattering Nabob of Negativism. He noticed me staring at it and explained.
"When I feel like an idiot I love to quote Spiro Agnew, and he puts me in my place. There was a world class moron."
After dropping Nissim off at school down the street I picked up two cups of coffee at the Bonafide II Deli and returned to the old man who was still there. He appreciated the hot drink on a cool autumn morning. This was the beginning of my brief friendship with Lenny.