Everyday Magic: The Book of Raziel
If you go looking for LADY LAZARUS when it comes out this September, you will find it in the Fantasy section of the bookstore. But I prefer to call LADY LAZARUS a magical history – the story of LADY LAZARUS is a magical metamorphosis of my family’s history.
In my family’s Budapest, magic was part of the cultural fabric. My mother’s childhood in Communist Hungary was filled with séances, mediums and prophetic dreams. And this magic was part of her *Jewish* experience, it was a Jewish magic that she knew.
And even here, in America, golden and godless, I find magic all over the place. It comes up out of the ground, like oil in the Caucasus. And that magic infuses my writing. I’ve heard writers say they write unintentional comedy – they think as they write that they are writing tragedy, but the absurdity of their characters’ dilemmas and perils could make a gargoyle laugh by the end.
It’s the same with the magic. I mean to write straight up stories, but the magic hides in plain sight, and before I know it characters are working their spells, flying by night, dreaming of demons. Do you believe magic is real? If so, where does it come from?
Let me give you a single example of something magical from our everyday world that infused my writing. In LADY LAZARUS, Magda hunts a book called the Book of Raziel, written by her angel Raziel to console humankind after their expulsion from the Garden.
The thing of it is, the book exists. It’s real – I’ve held it in my hands. The book itself is an amulet, a benevolent, Jewish magic that you could find in Brooklyn, in Jerusalem, even in Budapest. The book protects the bearer in childbirth, during surgery, and from fire, and I first learned about this book when grateful patients gave my husband the book to protect him, too. My husband is a surgeon, and he has found the Book of Raziel taped over his Hasidic patients’ hearts. To these patients, the magic of the Book of Raziel is *real.*
According to legend (not my imagination) the angel gave the book to Adam, and it contains angelology, magical astrological formulations, incantations, and amulets. Other legends say that after a period in which the book was lost, the angel Raphael rescued it from the deep and gave it to Noah after the Flood.
It is forbidden to read the Book of Raziel – but fortunately for reckless people like me who have tried it, the Book is written in the Angelic tongue and has never been properly deciphered, so it is impossible to read and understand the version of the Book that exists. The first bound and printed edition appeared in 1701 in Amsterdam, and reportedly the pages were scrambled on purpose before publication to further render the book unreadable.
I think magic, an emanation of the One that made us, is a way to strengthen people’s native power to transcend the evils and dangers they confront in the world. It’s lying around like a weapon, like gold, like radium. It’s up to us to figure out how to use it.
My family only survived the war through a combination of courage, luck, and sheer determination. I’d like to believe that a dash of magic, the intercession of angels, gave them the strength to save themselves, too. Because what is survival in the fire, but a miracle of the first magnitude?