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The Complex Fate of the Jewish-American Writer | The Nation

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The Complex Fate of the Jewish-American Writer

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As early as the 1960s,
influential critics argued that American Jewish writing no longer
counted as a distinct or viable literary project, for younger Jews
had grown so assimilated, so remote from traditional Jewish life,
that only nostalgia kept it going. Ted Solotaroff wrote some
exasperated pieces about young writers whose work already
seemed to him derivative--thin, tiresome, voguish, strained or
sentimental. Irving Howe and Robert Alter launched similar
complaints. I once heard the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld tell a
New York audience that Jewish writing was grounded in the Yiddish
culture and way of life that had flourished in Eastern Europe,
something that died with I.B. Singer in New York and S.Y. Agnon in
Israel. Gazing down benignly at an audience that included his good
friend Philip Roth and the novelist E.L. Doctorow, he said that while
there were certainly writers who happened to be Jews, there really
were no more Jewish writers.

Other observers have been
equally firm in anchoring American Jewish writing to the immigrant
experience, a point brought home by Irving Howe in a famous attack on
Philip Roth in Commentary in 1972. Howe saw Roth, whose first
book he had warmly acclaimed, as a writer with "a thin personal
culture," the kind of writer who "comes at the end of a tradition
which can no longer nourish his imagination" or one who simply has
"chosen to tear himself away from that tradition." Certainly there
was very little sense of history, Jewish or otherwise, in Roth's
finely crafted early fiction. Yet in the light of his humor, his
characters, his subjects and above all his later development, Roth
hardly stood outside the Jewish tradition; instead, he had a family
quarrel with the Jewish world that profoundly affected everything he
wrote. Yet Howe's charge struck home. A good deal of Roth's
subsequent writing can be seen as a rejoinder to Howe's wrongheaded
attack, which so rankled him that a decade later he wrote a furious
novel, The Anatomy Lesson, lampooning Howe as a hypocrite, a
pompous moralist and even, in a remarkable twist, a fast-talking
pornographer.

What was the core of the Jewish literary
tradition that Howe and Roth, two of its most gifted figures, could
come to such angry blows over it? I'll try to show how Jewish writing has changed--even
grown--and survived even the best-informed predictions of its demise.
The conflict between Roth and Howe was partly temperamental, but some
of it was generational. Howe was the product of the Yiddish-speaking
ghetto, of socialism and the Depression; Roth came of age in postwar
America, a world he would alternately satirize and recall with
nostalgia. There is a streak of the moralist, the puritan, in Howe's
criticism, while Roth took pride, especially when he wrote
Portnoy's Complaint, in playing the immoralist, or at least in
treating Jewish moral inhibitions as an ordeal, a source of conflict.
For Howe, as for writers of his generation like Bernard Malamud, this
moral burden was the essence of our humanity; for Roth it led to
neurosis, anger and dark, painful comedy.

It comes as a
surprise to realize that the major current of Jewish writing in
America dates only from the Second World War. Howe once compared the
Jewish and the Southern literary schools with a provocative comment:
"In both instances," he said, "a subculture finds its voice and its
passion at exactly the moment it approaches disintegration." But in
what sense was Jewish life in America approaching disintegration in
the first two decades after the war, when the best Jewish writers
emerged? What was dying, quite simply, was the vibrant immigrant
culture evoked by Howe in World of Our Fathers. After the war
Jews became freer, richer, more influential. As they moved up the
economic ladder, professions like academic life opened up to them
that had always been off-limits. Thanks largely to the sense of shame
induced by the Holocaust, social anti-Semitism in America became
virtually a thing of the past. Surely the great literary flowering
owed much to the way Jews in America had finally arrived, although
the writers were often critical of what their middle-class brethren
did with their freedom.

In any ethnic subculture, it's
almost never the immigrant generation that writes the books. The
immigrants don't have the language; their lives are focused on
survival, on gaining a foothold in the new world and insuring an
education for their children. That education not only makes
literature possible; it ignites a conflict of values that makes it
urgent and inevitable. The scattering of excellent novels by
individual writers before the war belongs less to a major literary
movement than to the process by which the children of immigrants
claimed their own identity. In powerful works of the 1920s and '30s
like Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers, Mike Gold's Jews
Without Money
and Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, the writers
pay tribute to the struggles of their parents yet declare their
independence from what they see as their narrow and constricting
world. These works could be classed with Sherwood Anderson's
Winesburg, Ohio and Sinclair Lewis's Main Street as
part of what Carl Van Doren called the "revolt from the village," the
rebellion against local mores and patriarchal authority in the name
of a freer, more universal humanity.

Ironically, the
parochial world these writers rejected was the only authentic
material they had. Their painful memories of small-mindedness and
poverty, parental intolerance and religious coercion fueled their
imagination as nothing else could. In these works the driving impulse
of the sensitive, autobiographical protagonist--Sara Smolinsky in
Bread Givers, little Mike Gold in Jews Without Money,
the impetuous Ralph Berger, hungry for life, in Clifford Odets's play
Awake and Sing!, even young David Schearl in Call It
Sleep
--is to get away from the ghetto, with its physical
deprivation, its materialism and lack of privacy, its desperately
limited horizons, but also to get away from the suffocating embrace
of the Jewish family--the loving but overly emotional mother, the
domineering but ineffectual father and the inescapable crowd of
siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors, all completely
entwined in one another's lives. These works were a blow for freedom,
a highly ambivalent chronicle of emancipation and often, sadly, the
only books these writers could write. Their autonomy was hard-won but
incomplete; this new identity liberated them personally but did
little to fire their imagination.

Henry Roth once told me
that only when he began to depart from the facts of his life did his
novel begin to take on a life of its own; it went on almost to write
itself. In Beyond Despair, Aharon Appelfeld made the same
point to explain his preference for fiction over autobiography. It
gave him the freedom he needed to reshape his own recollections,
especially the wartime experiences that bordered on the incredible.
"To write things as they happened means to enslave oneself to memory,
which is only a minor element in the creative process." The early
Jewish-American novelists were not so lucky. They were stuck not only
with what they remembered but with a naturalistic technique that
could not do full justice to their experience. Their escape from
their origins, never fully achieved, became a mixed blessing; they
found themselves caught between memory and imagination, ghetto
sociology and personal need. Mere rebellion and recollection, it
seemed, could not nurture a full career. Their literary development
was stymied. Only the postwar writers managed to break through this
sterile pattern.

Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Delmore
Schwartz, Paul Goodman and their Yiddish cousin I.B. Singer were the
first Jewish writers in America to sustain major careers, not as
immigrant writers but in the mainstream of American letters. When
modernism replaced naturalism as the dominant literary mode, as fresh
influences like psychoanalysis and existentialism exploded the
sociological approach of many prewar writers, a new generation found
powerful new vehicles for dealing with its experience.
Straightforward realism was never an option for Jewish writers in
America; it belonged to those who knew their society from within, who
had a bird's-eye view, an easy grasp of its manners and values. As
newcomers dealing with complex questions of identity, Jews instead
became specialists in alienation who gravitated toward outrageous or
poetic forms of humor, metaphor and parable--styles they helped
establish in American writing after the war.

The key to the
new writers was not only their exposure to the great
modernists--Kafka, Mann, Henry James--but their purchase on Jews not
simply as autobiographical figures in a social drama of rebellion and
acculturation but as parables of the human condition. Though Saul
Bellow admired the power of an authentic naturalist like Theodore
Dreiser, though Flaubert helped forge his aesthetic conscience, his
first two novels, Dangling Man and The Victim, were
more influenced by Dostoyevsky and Kafka than by any writers in the
realist tradition. Bellow and his friends were the children of the
Holocaust rather than the ghetto. They did not write about the recent
events in Europe--they hadn't directly experienced them--but those
horrors cast their shadow on every page of their work, including the
many pages of desperate comedy.

The atrocities of the
Holocaust, the psychology of Freud and the dark vision of certain
modern masters encouraged Jewish writers to find some universal
significance in their own experience. Kafka was the prophet, not of
totalitarianism--that was too facile--but of a world cut loose from
will and meaning, the world as they experienced it in the 1940s. Saul
Bellow's engagement with the themes of modernist culture can be
traced from novel to novel, but even a writer as private as Malamud
was able to combine the stylized speech rhythms of the ghetto with a
form adapted from Hawthorne and Kafka to turn parochial Jewish tales
into chilling fables of modern life. This was the brief period when
the Jew became the modern Everyman, everyone's favorite victim,
shlemiel and secular saint. Yet there was also an innovation in
language, a nervous mixture of the literary and the colloquial, of
art talk and street talk, that was almost poetic in its effects.
Bellow himself brought the buoyant, syncopated rhythms of the
vernacular into his prose. As he put it in his eulogy of Malamud
after his death in 1986:

Well, we were here,
first-generation Americans, our language was English and a language
is a spiritual mansion from which no one can evict us. Malamud in his
novels and stories discovered a sort of communicative genius in the
impoverished, harsh jargon of immigrant New York. He was a myth
maker, a fabulist, a writer of exquisite parables.

We can
find these effects almost anywhere we turn in Malamud's stories, from
animal fables like "The Jewbird" and "Talking Horse" to wrenching
tales like "Take Pity," which he put at the head of his last
collection of stories. It includes the following bit of dialogue,
supposedly between a census taker, Davidov, and a recalcitrant
citizen named Rosen:

"How did he die?"

"On this I am not an expert," Rosen replied. "You know better than
me."
"How did he die?" Davidov spoke impatiently. "Say
in one word."
"From what he died?--he died, that's
all."
"Answer, please, this question."

"Broke in him something. That's how."
"Broke what?"

"Broke what breaks."

Eventually we discover that
the man answering the questions in this Kafkaesque exchange is
himself dead, and his reckoning with the "census taker" takes place
in some bare, shabby room of heaven or hell, though it feels like a
forlorn pocket of the ghetto. (Malamud himself later described it as
"an institutional place in limbo.") Rosen, an ex-coffee
salesman, has killed himself in a last-ditch effort to impose his
charity, pity or love on the fiercely independent widow of the man
who died. Rosen takes pity on her, but she will not take his pity.
Even after he turns on the gas and leaves her everything, she appears
at the window, adrift in space, alive or dead, imploring or berating
him in a final gesture of defiance.

Like all of Malamud's
best work, this is a story of few words but resonant meanings.
Anticipating Samuel Beckett, Malamud strips down the sociology of the
ghetto into a spare, postapocalyptic landscape of essential, even
primitive emotions, finding eerie comedy on the far side of horror.
After her husband's death, as the business disintegrated, the woman
and her children came close to starving, but the story is less about
poverty than about the perverseness of the human will. Again and
again Rosen tries to help the widow, but she adamantly refuses to be
helped. Both are stubborn unto death, and the story explores the fine
line between goodness and aggression, generosity and control,
independence and self-sacrifice. Rosen will get the proud woman to
take his help, whether she wants to or not, but neither can truly
pity the other; their unshakable self-will isolates and destroys
them. And the interrogator, standing in for both author and reader,
makes no effort to judge between them. The story leaves us with a
sense of the sheer human mystery.

The raw power of
Malamud's stories is based on a simple principle--that every moral
impulse has its Nietzschean dark side, its streak of lust or the will
to power, just as every self has its anti-self, a double or shadow
that exposes its vulnerabilities and limitations. This dialectic of
self and other is at the heart of Malamud's stories and novels. The
"self" in his stories is often a stand-in for the writer, a worldly,
cultivated man--someone fairly young but never youthful, well
educated but not especially successful, Jewish but nervously
assimilated, full of choked-up feeling. Repeatedly, this figure is
brought up short by his encounter with some ghetto trickster, a
wonder-working rabbi, an ethnic con man who represents the
suppressed, tribal part of his own tightly controlled
personality.

Malamud's work is full of such symbolic
figures, half real, half legendary, including the ghetto rat,
Susskind, a stateless refugee in Rome in "The Last Mohican," who
steals the hero's manuscript on Giotto; and Salzman, the marriage
broker in "The Magic Barrel," whose ultimate gift to a young
rabbinical student is his own fallen daughter. These Old World
characters point to the ambiguous, even disreputable qualities that
the young hero has bleached out of his own identity. They are
slightly magical figures who come and go with almost supernatural
ease. At different times they stand for ethnic Jewishness, carnality,
wild emotion, even a sense of magic and the irrational. Or else they
are figures from another culture--the Italian helper in The
Assistant
, the black writer in The Tenants--who test the
limits of the protagonist's humanity and sometimes put him on a
tentative path toward redemption and
self-knowledge.

Malamud's piety toward the past, the Jewish
elders, is not much in evidence in the next generation. Coming of age
in the late 1950s and early 1960s, writers like Philip Roth belonged
to a new group of discontented sons and daughters. This was the black
humor generation, rebelling not against the constraints of the
ghetto--they were too young to have known any real ghetto--but
against the mental ghetto of Jewish morality and the Jewish family.
If Anzia Yezierska or Clifford Odets inveighed against the actual
power of the Jewish father or mother, Roth and his contemporaries,
who grew up with every apparent freedom, were doing battle with the
internal censor, the mother or father in the head. (Much later Roth
would build The Human Stain around a character who jettisons
his whole family, including his doting mother, to shape a new
identity for himself.)

The work of these writers proved
deliberately provocative, hugely entertaining, always flirting with
bad taste and often very funny, but with an edge of pain and
giddiness that borders on hysteria. As Portnoy gradually discovers
that he's living inside a Jewish joke, the novel's comic spirits turn
self-lacerating. Like Roth, writers such as Stanley Elkin, Bruce Jay
Friedman, Joseph Heller, Jerome Charyn and Mark Mirsky have practiced
an art of incongruity, deploying a wild mockery in place of the old
moral gravity. Howe's charge against Roth--that he writes out of a
"thin personal culture"--could be leveled against them as well, but
it would be more accurate to say that they looked to a different
culture: satirical, performative, intensely oral. They identified
less with modernists like Kafka and Dostoyevsky than with
provocateurs like Céline, Nathanael West and Lenny Bruce. They
looked less to literature than to stand-up comedy, the oral tradition
of the Jewish jokes that Freud collected, the tirade of insults that
ventilated aggression, the vaudeville shtick that brought Jews to the
forefront of American entertainment.

The usual targets of
their derision, besides Jewish mothers and Jewish husbands, were the
new suburban Jews who had made it after the war, the vulgar, wealthy
Patimkins in Goodbye, Columbus, who live in a posh Newark
suburb, play tennis and send their daughter to Radcliffe, and--this
got me when I first read it--have a separate refrigerator for fruit
in their finished basement. (Actually, it was their old fridge they
were thrifty enough to save, the way they've held on to remnants of
their old Newark personality.) As a foil to the Patimkins of Short
Hills, Roth gives us the inner-city blacks of Newark, where the Jews
used to live. We get glimpses of black workmen ordered around by the
Patimkins' callow son, and especially of a young boy who runs into
trouble simply because he wants to read a book on Gauguin in the
local public library. At the heart of the book, then, for all its
irreverence, is a sentimental idea of the virtue of poverty and the
simple life, something the upwardly mobile Jews have left behind but
the black boy still seeks in Gauguin's noble vision of Tahiti.

Goodbye, Columbus was published in 1959, a prelude
to a decade in which outrage and irreverence would become the
accepted cultural norms. Even Bellow would take a spin with black
humor in Herzog (1964), as Malamud would do, unconvincingly,
in Pictures of Fidelman in 1969. Here these stern moralists
dipped into sexual comedy as never before, the comedy of adultery in
Bellow, of sexual hunger and humiliation in Malamud. But they were
soon outflanked by their literary son Roth, who would make epic
comedy out of Jewish dietary laws, rabbinical pomposity, furtive
masturbation, plaintive longing for shiksas and, above all, the
family romance in Portnoy's Complaint. With its deliberately
coarse comic stereotypes, especially of the histrionic Jewish mother,
the long-suffering father and their son, the young Jewish prince,
this was the work that elicited Irving Howe's attack, the book that
turned the vulgar spritz of stand-up comedy into
literature.

The Oedipal pattern in Portnoy belongs
to a larger history: Roth and other black humorists were rebelling
not only against their own parents but against their literary
parents, the moralists of the previous generation, who were still
around and did not take kindly to it. Bellow responded to the
carnival aspect of the 1960s by taking on the voice of the censorious
Jewish sage in Mr. Sammler's Planet, arraigning middle-aged
adulterers along with women, blacks and young people in one sweeping
image of moral decay--of "sexual niggerhood," as he put it in one
indelible phrase. The date was 1970, the bitter end of that
tumultuous decade; Bellow's and Howe's responses were extreme but
typical of the overheated rhetoric of the generation gap and the
culture wars. Bellow's outrage, perhaps, was tinged with the envy
that so many middle-aged Americans, not simply Jews, felt toward the
new sexual freedoms of the young.

Malamud responded just as
pointedly in a 1968 story called "An Exorcism," but it is scarcely
known because he never reprinted it in his lifetime. More than any
other text, this story brings to a head the Oedipal tensions among
Jewish writers, shedding light on their key differences. It is
closely related to another story of generational conflict Malamud
wrote the same year, "My Son the Murderer," about a bitter standoff
between an anxious, intrusive father and his 22-year-old son, who is
angry at everyone, unhinged by images from Vietnam and grimly
awaiting his own draft notice. (Malamud had a son just the same age.)
The central figure in "An Exorcism" is an austere older writer--like
Malamud himself, but far less successful--a lonely man rigorously
devoted to his craft, a kind of saint and hero of art. An aspiring
writer, a young 1960s type, attaches himself to the older man at
writers' conferences--virtually the only places he ventures out. The
older man, Fogel, is grudging and taciturn, but gradually his
defenses drop, for he feels "grateful to the youth for lifting him,
almost against his will, out of his solitude." Having won his
confidence, the boy betrays him; he publishes a story based on an
embarrassing sexual episode in the older man's past. Fogel first
confronts, then forgives him. But when the student, as a provocative
stunt, seduces three women in a single night, the writer feels a wave
of nausea and violently exorcises him from his life.

Not
given to wielding fiction as cultural polemic, Malamud clearly felt
uneasy with the naked anger of this story, which indicts not simply
one unscrupulous young man but a whole generation for its
freewheeling life and confessional style. In the eyes of an exacting
craftsman who fears that his kind of art is no longer valued, these
facile new writers simply don't invent enough. (Fogel accuses the
young man of doing outrageous things simply to write about them, of
being little more than "a walking tape recorder" of his "personal
experiences.") When Fogel tells his surrogate son that "Imagination
is not necessarily Id," Malamud could even be referring to Portnoy's
recent line about "putting the Id back in Yid." Roth would give his
own version of his spiritual apprenticeship to Malamud and Bellow ten
years later in The Ghost Writer. In any case, "An Exorcism"
remained unknown, while Portnoy's Complaint became the
ultimate piece of second-generation black humor, a hilarious whine
against the neurotic effects of prolonged exposure to Jewish morality
and the Jewish family.

Portnoy's complaint was an Oedipal
complaint, but even at the time, long before he published
Patrimony, his powerful 1991 memoir of the death of his
father, it was clear how deeply attached Roth was to the parents he
mocked and mythologized--the eternally constipated father, the
effusively overbearing mother who loved and forgave him as no other
woman could, loved him even for his transgressions. All through the
1970s Roth kept rewriting that novel in increasingly strident works
like The Breast, a misconceived fantasy; My Life as a
Man
, a vengeful account of his first marriage; and The
Professor of Desire
. Roth seemed unable to escape the facts of
his life but also seemed desperate to offend. He attacked critics for
taking his work as autobiographical yet repeatedly fell back on
exaggerated versions of the known facts. In My Life as a Man
he even played on the relationship between fact and invention by
giving us what claimed to be the "real" story behind some fictional
versions. But of course he felt free to make up this story as
well.

None of these almost military maneuvers against
critics and readers, which Roth also carried on in essays and
interviews, quite prepared us for his next book, The Ghost
Writer
, which launched the next stage of Jewish-American writing,
the one we are still in today. Let's call it the return, or the
homecoming. If the second stage was debunking and satirical, even
parricidal, the third stage began with Roth's filial homage to the
two writers with whom his name had always been linked. Malamud
appears in the book as E.I. Lonoff, very much the ascetic devotee of
craft we meet in Malamud's own late work. Bellow (with a touch of
Mailer) figures as the prolific, much-married, world-shaking Felix
Abravanel, a man who, as it turns out, "was clearly not in the market
for a twenty-three-year-old son." Roth himself appears as the young
Nathan Zuckerman, a dead ringer for the author at that age. Zuckerman
has just published his first, controversial stories, as Roth himself
had done, and his own father is angry at him for washing the family
linen in public. ("Well, Nathan, you certainly didn't leave anything
out, did you?") His father has gotten the elders of the Jewish
community on his case, in the person of one Judge Leopold Wapter, who
sends him a questionnaire (!) that concludes: "Can you honestly say
that there is anything in your short story that would not warm the
heart of a Julius Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?"

Judge
Wapter stands for all the professional Jews and rabbinical critics
who had been upset by Roth's early stories--stories which, after all,
had surely been written to ruffle people's feathers, even to offend.
With very broad, satirical strokes, the older Roth is now
caricaturing his enemies, nursing old grievances, parading his
victimization as wounded virtue. Roth demands from his readers what
only his parents could give him: unconditional love. He wants to
transgress and wants to be forgiven, wants to be outrageous yet also
to be accepted, to be wickedly clever and be adored for it. When his
women or his critics fail to give this to him, he lashes out at them.
This rehearsal of old grievances is the tired and familiar part of
The Ghost Writer, but the book included much that, in
retrospect, was daringly fresh:

First, there is a
surprising and resonant literariness that matches the book's
evocative tone and warm filial theme. Roth's angry iconoclasm, his
need to offend and outrage, has for now been set aside. The Ghost
Writer
deals with Nathan Zuckerman's literary beginnings, and
Roth's virtuoso portraits of the older writers are perfectly in tune
with the literary allusions that form the backdrop of the
story--references to Isaac Babel, the great Soviet-Jewish writer
murdered by Stalin; to Henry James's story "The Middle Years," which
also deals with a young acolyte's relation to an older writer; and
most important, to the diary of Anne Frank. She is the figure behind
Amy Bellette, the young woman in Roth's story who may actually be
Anne Frank, and who may be having an affair with
Lonoff.

Second, for all the shtick and satire in Roth's
previous fiction, this was his most Jewish book yet, not only for
Roth's tribute to earlier Jewish writers but in his tender retelling
of Anne Frank's story. Both the literariness and the Jewishness had
always been latent in Roth's work, just barely masked by its satiric
edge, its willed vulgarity. Roth's literary bent had been evident in
his essays on contemporary fiction, his brilliant story about Kafka,
the interviews he had given about each of his novels, and especially
the invaluable series he was editing for Penguin, "Writers From the
Other Europe," which launched the Western careers of such
little-known Polish and Czech writers as Milan Kundera. No critic, to
my knowledge, has yet tried to gauge the effect of this large
editorial enterprise on Roth's later fiction. As his own work bogged
down in Portnoy imitations and paranoia, this project took Roth
frequently to Eastern Europe, where he made a wealth of literary
contacts. Thus Roth found himself editing morally serious and
formally innovative work that, despite its congenial absurdism, cut
sharply against the grain of what he himself was writing. This
material exposed Roth to both the Holocaust and Soviet
totalitarianism, and ultimately gave his work a historical dimension,
and especially a Jewish dimension, it had previously lacked. These
books brought him back to his distant European roots. The angry young
man, the prodigal son, was gradually coming home.

In The
Ghost Writer
Roth still nurses his old quarrel with the Jewish
community, just as he would pursue his vendetta against Irving Howe
in The Anatomy Lesson. He eulogizes Lonoff as "the Jew who got
away," the Jew of the heart, or art--the noninstitutional Jew--and
portrays Anne Frank as a secular, detached Jew like himself. In a
bizarre moment, Zuckerman even imagines himself marrying Anne Frank,
perhaps the ultimate rejoinder to his Jewish critics, to all the
Judge Wapters of the world. But apart from this defensiveness,
there's a strain of reverence toward art in the book, toward the
Jewish historical experience, even toward the Jewish family, which
creates something really new in Roth. Instead of rebelling against
the father, he wants to be anointed by him: He's come "to submit
myself for candidacy as nothing less than E.I. Lonoff's spiritual
son." Adopted by Lonoff, married to Anne Frank, he will no longer be
vulnerable to the Howes and Wapters who criticize his writing for not
being Jewish or tasteful enough.

In retrospect we can see
how so much of value in Roth's later work--the wider political
horizons of The Counterlife and Operation Shylock, the
unexpected play with metafiction and magic realism in both those
books, with their ingenious variations on what is made up and what is
"real," and finally, his loving tribute to his late father in
Patrimony and to the figure of the Good Father in American
Pastoral
--can be shown to have originated in The Ghost
Writer.
Moreover, they are strikingly typical of what I call the
third phase of American Jewish writing, when the Jewishness that once
seemed to be disappearing returned with a vengeance. In this phase
the inevitability of assimilation gives way to the work of
memory.

There's nothing so surprising about this pattern.
The great historian of immigration, Marcus Lee Hansen, long ago
enunciated the influential three-generation thesis that came to be
known as Hansen's Law: "What the son wishes to forget the grandson
wishes to remember." Sociologists have shown that this return
actually begins in the twilight years of the second generation. In
Patrimony Roth presents his aged father as something of a pain
in the neck but also as the keeper of the past, the storyteller, the
Great Rememberer. Driving around Newark with his son, the former
insurance agent, like a real census taker, recalls every occupant of
every building. "You mustn't forget anything--that's the inscription
on his coat of arms," his son writes. "To be alive, to him, is to be
made of memory."

The father's motto is also part of the
artistic credo of the son, who remembers his past with a
hallucinatory intensity. Yet by the mid-1980s Roth also developed a
wider historical purview, a sense of all that life that was lived
before him, or far away from him--in Eastern Europe, where he sets
"The Prague Orgy"; in England or Israel, where some of the best parts
of The Counterlife, Deception and Operation
Shylock
take place. This is a more cosmopolitan Roth, reaching
outside himself for almost the first time, in dialogue with Zionism,
acutely sensitive to anti-Semitism, finding new meaning in the Jewish
identity he had once mocked and scorned.

Much of The
Counterlife
still belongs to the old self-involved Roth of the
Zuckerman saga--the fears of impotence, the scabrous comedy, the
Wagnerian family uproar--but the sections set in England and Israel
are something else. Until the early 1980s, there was as little trace
of the Jewish state in American fiction as there was of the old
European Diaspora in Israeli writing. American writers by and large
were not Zionists, and Israeli writers were not nostalgic for the
shtetl or the Pale. With its insistence on nationhood as the solution
to the Jewish problem, Israel was perhaps too tribal, too insular to
capture the attention of assimilated writers, however much it
preoccupied ordinary American Jews. Israel was the place where
Portnoy couldn't get an erection--surely the least memorable part of
that larger-than-life novel.

But more than a decade later,
when Zuckerman's brother Henry becomes a baal t'shuva, a
penitent, and Zuckerman looks him up among the zealots of the West
Bank, Roth's work crosses that of Amos Oz and David Grossman,
novelists who had written so well about the tensions dividing Israeli
society. Like them, Roth finds great talkers who can articulate sharp
ideological differences, which also reflect his own inner conflicts.
He begins to relish the sheer play of ideas, the emotional bite of
Jewish argument. The Counterlife inaugurates a dialogic phase
of Roth's writing that gets played out in Deception, an
experimental novel that is all dialogue; The Facts, where
Nathan Zuckerman appears at the end to offer a rebuttal to Roth's
memoir; and Operation Shylock, which returns to the Israeli
setting of The Counterlife. In this new fiction of ideas,
Roth's work acquired a real historical dimension, which would also
lead to an acclaimed but uneven trilogy about postwar America,
beginning with American Pastoral.

Zuckerman in
Israel, like Zuckerman recounting other people's stories in the
American books, is also Roth escaping from the self-absorption of his
earlier work. In England, cast among the not-so-genteel anti-Semites,
Zuckerman develops an extraordinary pride, aggressiveness and
sensitivity about being Jewish. With their layers within layers, both
The Counterlife and Operation Shylock are Roth's most
Jewish books, even as Zuckerman defends himself (and Jewish life in
the Diaspora) against the imperious claims of orthodoxy and Zionism.
They mark his return to the fold, as well as his most formally
complex fiction, pointing not only to the confusions between art and
life but to the multiple layers of Roth's identity.

By
giving so much attention to Roth, I run the risk of making it seem
like it's only his development that is at stake, not larger changes
in American Jewish writing. But every facet of Roth's later work has
its parallel in other writers who have emerged in the past twenty
years: the more explicit and informed Jewishness, the wider
historical framework, the play with metafiction or magic realism, and
the more intense literariness. In line with the wave of identity
politics in America, there has been a persistent search for roots
among younger Jewish writers, as there has been for older writers
from assimilated backgrounds such as Leslie Epstein, Anne Roiphe and
Alan Isler. If we add to the themes listed above a concern with
gender and sexual preference and a fascination with strict religious
observance, we would have a complete inventory of issues that have
attracted the younger generation, including Steve Stern, Allegra
Goodman, Lev Raphael, Thane Rosenbaum, Melvin Jules Bukiet, Pearl
Abraham, Rebecca Goldstein, Michael Chabon, Aryeh Lev Stollman,
Nathan Englander, Myla Goldberg, Tova Mirvis and Ehud Havazelet. They
have written about subjects as varied as the old and new Jews of
Memphis, the lives of young Jews in Oxford and Hawaii, the Orthodox
communities of New York and Israel, the attractions of Jewish
mysticism, the problems of gay Jewish identity, the surreal
experiences of the walking wounded--Holocaust survivors and their
children--and the old world of the shtetl and of Europe after the
war. Some of their writing, arduously researched, smells of the
library. They work best in short novels like Stollman's hypnotic
The Far Euphrates or in collections of overlapping stories
like Goodman's The Family Markowitz, composed of scenes and
vignettes that allude nostalgically to the old-style family
chronicle. The larger synthesis so far eludes them.

The
interests of these emerging writers were foreshadowed not only by the
shifting stance of Roth but by the themes explored by another writer
of his generation, Cynthia Ozick. Like Roth, she spent many years
indentured to the 1950s gospel of art according to Henry James, and
only later discovered her own vein of Jewish storytelling typical of
what I've called the third stage. To put it bluntly, Ozick's work is
far more Jewish than that of her main predecessors, richer with
cultural information, proudly nationalistic, even sentimentally
orthodox. Some of her stories and essays, such as her angry piece in
The New Yorker on Anne Frank's diary (reprinted in Ozick's
recent collection Quarrel & Quandary), launched stinging
attacks on secular Jews. Yet she began as a feminist and became the
most articulate woman in a largely patriarchal line that rarely
produced strong writing by women apart from such isolated figures as
Emma Lazarus, Mary Antin, Anzia Yezierska, Grace Paley and Tillie
Olsen. This is something else that has changed dramatically since
1970.

Bellow and Malamud had Jewishness in their bones, but
what they actually knew about Judaism could have been written on a
single page. They knew the ghetto neighborhoods, the character types,
the speech patterns and what they took in at the kitchen table. They
were born into Yiddish-speaking homes. Their Judaism was instinctive,
domestic, introspective. But their determination to navigate the
literary mainstream prevented them from getting too caught up with
specifically Jewish subjects. They refused to be consigned to any
literary ghetto. "I conceived of myself as a cosmopolitan man
enjoying his freedom," said Malamud. Ozick, on the other hand, like
I.B. Singer or Steve Stern, was fascinated by the whole magical side
of Judaism--the popular lore and legend, the dybbuks and golems of
Jewish mystical tradition. For Singer this was part of his experience
of growing up in Poland, the curious son of a learned rabbi,
entranced by hidden and forbidden byways of the Jewish tradition. For
Ozick and Stern it sometimes becomes a bookish, vicarious Judaism
based on reading and research. But this very bookishness--a certain
remoteness from life--becomes a key theme in their
work.

Until recently a fear haunted Jewish-American
writing: that the subject was exhausted, that we live in inferior
times, that giants once walked the earth and said everything that
needed to be said; the rest is commentary. From her first important
story, "Envy, or Yiddish in America," in 1969, to her keynote
"Usurpation: Other People's Stories" in the mid 1970s, to The
Messiah of Stockholm
and The Puttermesser Papers, Ozick
repeatedly writes stories about writers, or stories about other
people's stories. This is a latecomer's literature, almost a textbook
example of the postmodern profusion of texts upon texts, or of Harold
Bloom's famous theory of the anxiety of influence, which emphasizes
the Oedipal tensions between writers and their precursors. We risk
becoming footnotes to our forebears.

Like The Ghost
Writer
, Ozick's "Envy"--the very title is revealing--is most
memorable for its portraits of two older writers, one a lethal
caricature of I.B. Singer--widely translated, fabulously successful,
yet cruel, egotistical and rejected by most other Yiddish
writers--the other loosely based on the great poet Jacob Glatstein,
celebrated among fellow Yiddishists yet never properly translated
into English. (Ozick herself later did some translations of his
work.) But the key figure is a young woman, perhaps based on Ozick
herself, whom the poet seizes upon as his lifeline into English, the
potential savior of all of Yiddish culture.

This poet is
envious of the Singer character but even more contemptuous of
American Jewish writers for their ignorance: "Jewish novelists!
Savages!" he says bitterly. "Their Yiddish! One word here, one word
there. Shikseh on one page, putz on the other, and that's the whole
vocabulary." Like Roth's novella, this is a kind of ghost story; the
characters embody a dead culture trying to come alive. But it's also
a vampire tale, since the young woman eventually rejects them as
bloodsuckers trying to live at her expense. Fascinated by the high
drama of an expiring Yiddish culture, she decides she cannot allow it
to take over her own life. Cynthia Ozick is thought of as some kind
of pious traditionalist, but this, her best story, written with
ferocious energy and style, is a work that radiates hostility from
first to last, reminding the reader of the sharp polemical turns she
often takes in her essays.

In Ozick's story "Usurpation,"
the spirit of envy takes over the protagonist herself. It begins with
a young author at the 92nd Street Y listening to a reading by a
famous older writer. After two or three sentences, her ears begin to
burn, for she feels he's telling a story that truly belongs to her,
that she was born to write. As it happens, the writer and the story
can easily be identified, since Ozick retells it. It's "The Silver
Crown," Malamud's story about a wonder rabbi, which is precisely
about the conflict of generations that is virtually the signature of
this third, or latecomer's, generation. It's also a story of the kind
of Jewish mystery and magic so dear to Ozick that she feels a sting
of regret at not having written it herself. Malamud had been there
first, but Ozick, like Steve Stern, makes her literary belatedness
the theme of her story.

It's no accident that Ozick's
stories overlap with her eloquent literary essays, or that
metafiction and postmodernism here make a surprising entry into
Jewish writing. Postmodernism, as I understand it, conveys the sense
that all texts are provisional, that we live in a world already
crowded with familiar texts and images, that originality is a
Romantic illusion and techniques like collage, pastiche and
pseudocommentary are better than realism for conveying our sense of
belatedness and repletion. At the heart of Ozick's fine story
"Puttermesser Paired" (in The Puttermesser Papers) are some
brilliantly told episodes from the life of George Eliot, which the
heroine partly re-enacts, just as Ozick weaves a lost novel by the
murdered Polish writer Bruno Schulz into The Messiah of
Stockholm.
As in the work of Jorge Luis Borges, this is writing
about writing, perched on the fine line between commentary and
invention.

It's rare that literary history so closely
mirrors social history, but the conflict of literary generations I've
described here is part of a larger pattern. It's no news that America
has experienced a revival of ethnicity, or that the world has been
rocked by waves of resurgent nationalism. With their longstanding
commitment to the universalism of the Enlightenment, to which they
owed their emancipation, Jews have been ambivalent about
participating in this process. Jewish life in America has become far
more assimilated, but younger Jewish writers have both taken
advantage of this and sharply criticized it. They have turned to
Israel, to feminism, to the Holocaust, to earlier Jewish history and
to their own varied spiritual itineraries, ranging from neo-Orthodoxy
and mysticism to Eastern religion, as a way of redefining their
relation to both Jewish tradition and contemporary culture. If they
have lost the old connection to Europe, to Yiddish or to immigrant
life, they have begun to substitute their own distinctive Jewish and
American experiences. They are not simply living on the inherited
capital of past literary generations. The new writing so far may lack
the power of a Malamud, a Bellow or a Grace Paley, but it is
certainly not enervated by the bland, assimilated aspects of Jewish
life. Jewish writers have quarreled with one another and with
themselves, but these have been family quarrels, not holy wars.
Whatever tension this creates, it certainly gives no sign that they
are about to give up the ghost, especially now that the ghost, the
past, has taken on new flesh and blood.

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