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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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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.

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