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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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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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