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Compulsion ()

The improbable career of novelist Meyer Levin somehow saw him ensnarled in lawsuits with both Anne Frank's father and Nathan Leopold, of Leopold and Loeb infamy. It was this book that was the cause of the latter, as Levin, who had been a classmate of the murderers, penned a not-even-veiled fictional account of the case, which Loeb objected to.

In the novel, Levin cast himself as cub reporter Sid Silver--he had, in fact, covered the real case as an 18 year-old for the Chicago Daily News--and the young men as Judd Steiner and Artie Straus. The killers are both brilliant, but terribly immature. They fancy themselves Uber-mensch, spew Nietzschean philosophy and are, of course, lovers. Imagining themselves to be above the petty constraints of morality and eager to experience that which such rules forbid, they kidnap and murder a local boy, the son of a former pawnbroker.

Levin was writing at a time, even thirty years after the murder, when murderous dyads were not yet well understood, indeed, were shocking. He does a reasonably good job of portraying what the interaction between the two might have been like, though, were he writing now, and trying to absolve Steiner to the degree he does in the book, he'd have made him less of a psychopath personally and more of a follower of Straus. In these politically correct times, he'd also likely downplay the sexual angle, which he treats with surprising frankness for his times. In particular, he'd have to ditch the implication that childhood sexual abuse and deification of the mother influenced Steiner's choice of sexual partners. Such things simply aren't said in polite company any more.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is his attempt to understand the Holocaust through the lens of the case:
Yet their superman idea was hard to grasp because I had seen them in everyday life. It was hard to grasp that people who lived in your own milieu, who abided by the day-to-day conventions and rules of life, paying their fares, buying their tickets, standing up for ladies--people who even followed the conventional rules of breaking the minor rules when you could get away with it, like speeding at times, or cribbing in an exam--it was hard to believe that within the very appearance of living under the same rules as the rest of us, they had their own contrary rules. It was hard to take their own words and believe them, just as it was to be hard, only a decade later in our lives, to believe that an entire nation could seriously subscribe to this superman code.
Note that he's started out talking about the two killers but ended up making them avatars for Nazi Germany. And he's basically adopted Dostoevsky's view (from Brothers Karamazov):
'But,' I asked, 'how will man be after that? Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything?' 'Didn't you know?' he said. And he laughed. 'Everything is permitted to the intelligent man,' he said.
That may be a slippery slope argument, but since it's now retrospective and made from the bottom of the slope it's pretty hard to refute.

Less effective, even ludicrous, are the author's attempts to understand the boys in purely Freudian terms. Levin himself spent a long time in psychoanalysis and unfortunately brings his faith in it to the book. The title itself reflects the sort of anti-free will mumbo-jumbo that he offers up in these passages, as if the murderers were not responsible for their own actions.

On balance, the book is a brisk and enjoyable read despite its 450 pages , If it is somewhat dated, it's fascinating for precisely the reason that we get to see how these murders and the pathologies of the killers were thought about at the time. And, as with all Meyer Levin's books, its focus on the Jewish experience adds another layer of interest. This is a welcome reprint.


Grade: (B-)


See also:

Meyer Levin Links:

    -FAN SITE: Meyer Levin Official Homepage
    -WIKIPEDIA: Meyer Levin
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Meyer Levin (IMDB)
    -FILM INFO: Compulsion (1959) (IMDB)
    -COURT DECISION: NATHAN F. LEOPOLD, Jr., Appellant, v. MEYER LEVIN et al., Appellees. No. 41498. (SUPREME COURT OF ILLINOIS 45 Ill. 2d 434, 259 N.E. 2d 250 (1970))
    -REVIEW: of 'The Diary of a Young Girl' by Anne Frank (Meyer Levin, 6/15/52, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Re-writing "Anne Frank" - A distorted legacy (Jonathan Tobin, 2/22/98, Jewish World Review)
    -AUDIO: Meyer Levin’s Anne Frank: A controversial radio play of the famous diary—rejected in 1952 as too Jewish—gets a second airing (Vox Tablet|September 14, 2012, The Tablet)
    -Leopold & Loeb (Famous American Trials, UMKC)
    -ESSAY: Leopold and Loeb Still Fascinate 90 Years Later (Jake Hinkson, 10/19/12, Criminal Element)
    -ESSAY: Did Anne Frank Really Have An ‘Infinite Human Spirit’? (Ruth Franklin, 3/09/11, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: Is Boston Like Columbine?: Were the Tsarnaev brothers a “dyad” like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, with a charismatic leader and submissive follower? (Dave Cullen, April 2013, Slate)
    -ARCHIVES: "meyer levin" (NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Compulsion by Meyer Levin (David Karp, Saturday Review)
    -REVIEW: of Compulsion (Jewish Books)
    -REVIEW: of Compulsion (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Compulsion (Existential Ennui)
    -REVIEW: of The Architect by Meyer Levin (Daniel Fuchs, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Fanatic by Meyer Levin (Stanley Kauffman, NY REview of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Martin Litvin, Audacious Pilgrim. The Story of Meyer Levin. (William L. Urban, Audacious Review)
    -REVIEW: of AN OBSESSION WITH ANNE FRANK Meyer Levin and the Diary. By Lawrence Graver (Frank Rich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of AN OBSESSION WITH ANNE FRANK Meyer Levin and the Diary By Lawrence Graver (Richard Bernstein, NY Times)
Mr. Graver carefully and honestly chronicles the 30 years that Levin spent living in heated obsession over the "Diary of Anne Frank," an obsession that began in 1952, when Levin's stage adaptation of the diary was rejected by a Broadway producer, and ended only with the author's death in 1981. Along the way, it involved a number of episodes that make for painful and fascinating reading, most notably a bitter, destructive, doleful conflict between Levin and Otto Frank, Anne's father and literary executor. Given that Levin's books are almost forgotten these days, it is a melancholy thought that the obsession described by Mr. Graver is the part of Levin that will be most clearly remembered.

    -REVIEW: of Obsession with Anne Frank Ian Buruma, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Meyer Levin’s ‘Obsession’ : Two current plays look at the writer’s quest to dramatize Anne Frank’s diary. (Ted Merwin, 2/15/11, The Jewish Week
    -REVIEW: of Compulsion [stage play] (SYLVIANE GOLD, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: The story of the diary of Anne Frank: Rinne Groff's Compulsion tells the tale of Meyer Levin, the writer whose evangelical zeal for Anne Frank turned to bitter infatuation. (Albert Williams, Chicago Reader) FILM:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Compulsion (film)
    -REVIEW: of Compulsion (Rob Nixon, TCM)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: LEOPOLD AND LOEB, 100 YEARS AFTER: On the crime of the century and the rise of the nonfiction novel (SUSANNA CASSISA, 4/11/24, CrimeReads)
    -ESSAY: ERIK REBAIN ON NATHAN LEOPOLD, 99 YEARS AFTER HIS INFAMOUS CRIME: Jill Dearman interviews the author of a new book on the haunting murder case that still resonates today. (JILL DEARMAN, 4/28/23, CrimeReads)
    -ESSAY: Leopold and Loeb’s Criminal Minds: In defense of murderers Leopold and Loeb, attorney Clarence Darrow thwarted a nation’s call for vengeance (imon Baatz, August 2008, SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE)
    -ESSAY: HOW LEOPOLD AND LOEB ENDED UP WITH THE COUNTRY'S MOST FAMOUS LAWYER: The nation's fascination with the young killers extended to Clarence Darrow, who had his own peculiar views on criminality. (GREG KING AND PENNY WILSON, 9/22/22, CrimeReads)