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More readers discover the 'best unknown novelist'

By Amelia ThomasContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 24, 2005



Publishers Weekly once called him "America's best unknown novelist." His devoted fans insist that he's one of the great storytellers of all time.

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But this month, 10 years after his death, Edward Whittemore's literary reputation remains modest.

His enthusiasts hope, however, that his outlandish, fantastical fiction is finally finding an appreciative audience.

In 2002, the four novels of his "Jerusalem Quartet" were reissued, after being out of print for years. Earlier this year, they were released in Russian, Dutch, and French translations.

But the mysteries associated with Whittemore are not confined to his novels. His life itself reads like a shadowy piece of fiction.

At the time of his death in August 1995, in New York, Whittemore was penniless, having spent his last few years operating a photocopy machine in an attorney's office.

His past, however, had been quite different. A Yale graduate, he served as a Marine officer and then as a CIA operative, working undercover in East Asia from 1958 to 1967, posing as a reporter for the Japan Times.

Throughout his stint in Asia, Whittemore worked tirelessly on seven novels, none of which aroused the interest of publishers. He pressed on, and in 1974 his colorful spy novel, "Quin's Shanghai Circus" was finally published.

Soon afterward, the restless wanderer moved to Crete, and then, on a trip to Jerusalem, fell in love with its ancient Old City. Immediately he set to work on four novels collectively titled the "Jerusalem Quartet," an epic imaginary history.

The first, "Sinai Tapestry," was published in 1977, and is filled with eccentric characters such as Trappist monk and master forger Skanderberg Wallenstein, and 3,000-year-old Hai Harun, an "ethereal wanderer" through history.

The second novel, "Jerusalem Poker" (1978) tells the lurid tale of a secret high-stakes poker game in the 1920s and '30s. The third, "Nile Shadows" (1983), is set against the backdrop of World War II, when Rommel's powerful Afrika Corps seemed ready to conquer the Middle East.

With their magnificent settings, writhing plots, and vivid, engaging characters, the novels earned solid reviews yet failed to sell when they were first published. Only about 3,000 hardback and 10,000 softback copies of each were bought.

Whittemore did little to promote his work. Even as a published author, he preferred to remain in the shadows. When, in 1979, a reporter tried to track him down, a reply came via his publisher that "he sends no details to unknown correspondents."

In 1982, while working on the final installment of the quartet, "Jericho Mosaic" (1987), Whittemore met American painter Helen Bar-Lev.

"I was outdoors, painting," she recalls. "He walked past and noticed me, and invited me to his apartment for coffee. From that day on we were inseparable."

The couple moved into an apartment tucked away in an Ethiopian monastery in the heart of the Old City, and Edward set up a desk in the bedroom window. Each day, Ms. Bar-Lev went out to paint, and Edward stayed home to write.

"Ted's favorite word was 'inscrutable,' " Bar-Lev remembers. "And indeed he was. He didn't like to talk; he simply needed to write."

Even when a novel was turned down, she says, he wasn't discouraged. "Writing was his passion. He had to do it, he had no choice."

In 1987, Whittemore began to display the restlessness that Bar-Lev feels plagued his whole life. "I knew he was going to leave," she says, "He couldn't help it."

Silently, he packed his belongings, and left with no goodbyes.

Subsequently, Bar-Lev saw Whittemore twice in New York. Once, she says, he asked her to take him back. She refused.

Stylistically, Whittemore's novels are hard to classify. Some readers describe them as having a blend of the enigmatic qualities of the works of Jorge Luis Borges with the exoticism of the novels of Laurence Durrell. (Borges and Durrell were Whittemore's two chief literary idols.)

But others say that it is the breadth, color, and sheer exuberance of Whittemore's love for Jerusalem, his adopted city, that make his "Quartet" so attractive.

"He said later that his Jerusalem years were the happiest of his entire life," says Bar-Lev.

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