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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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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.

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