Lee Siegel

Portrait Lee Siegel
© Hartwig Klappert

Lee Siegel was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1945. He studied Comparative Literature at the University of California in Berkeley and fine arts at Columbia University in New York.  After completing his doctoral dissertation in the field of Sanskrit at Oxford University, he was hired by the University of Hawaii, where he has since worked as a Professor of Religious Studies.

Siegel’s scholarly examinations of Indian love poetry, comedy, horror, and magic have won many awards. His interest in, knowledge of, and fascination with the culture of India influence and inform his fiction.  Siegel’s first novel ‘Love in a Dead Language’ (1999), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, is the story of a professor of Indology who, imagining that he will only be able to fully understand Indian culture when he has had an affair with an Indian woman, falls obsessively and disastrously in love with a young American student of Indian descent. The book is a satire of the American academy, a parody of Western fantasies about Oriental understandings of sexual passion, and a burlesque of the many ways of writing about erotic love.

Siegel’s novel, ‘Love and Other Games of Chance’ (2003), beginning on the shores of the Dead Sea and ending on the summit of Mt. Everest, maps an allegorical journey from the lowest place on earth to the highest.  This comic tale is flamboyantly spun by a vagrant showman, Isaac Schlossberg, as he waits in Hawaii for World War II to end so that he can attempt to become the first person to conquer Everest.  The entertainer organizes his memories into one hundred squares on a childhood game of Snakes and Ladders, one hundred narrative blocks that form a patchwork picaresque.  The son of Jewish immigrants to America at the beginning of the 20th century, Isaac’s first recollection is of himself as Samoo the Amazing Snake Boy in his father’s traveling sideshow. Starting as Wild West performers, the Schlossbergs work their way up the game through circus, vaudeville, and early films. From California, Isaac travels to Calcutta and there assembles a troupe, to take on tour to England. Via the Soviet Union and Paris he finally returns to the United States.

As Isaac travels geographically around the world and up and down the board, he moves sentimentally from the beginnings of love, through many of its most painful and joyous, noble and ridiculous, manifestations, to finally almost achieve its realization.  “It is a story”, Isaac insists, “about love and death and trying to have a good time anyway.”

© international literature festival berlin