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


The Complex Fate of the Jewish-American Writer

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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.

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
, 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

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
, 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?"

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
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

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.

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