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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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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.

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