Roth and the Jewish-American novelists who followed him had very different attitudes to their cultural inheritanceby David Herman / June 4, 2018 / Leave a comment
Philip Roth attending the 53rd National Book Awards ceremony in 2002. Photo: PA What is striking about the flood of tributes to Philip Roth since his death at the age of 85 is not what has been said but what is missing. There has been plenty about Roth and sex, Roth and Jews, Roth and America. How funny he was, what a great conversationalist and, above all, how talented. There has been remarkably little, however, about Roth and the great theme of 20th-century Jewish-American literature: the often difficult search for a subject. In 1961 Roth visited Bernard Malamud in Oregon. Roth was still in his twenties and had just published his first book of stories, Goodbye, Columbus. Malamud was almost 50 and one of the most famous writers in America. This meeting was immortalised in one of Roth’s greatest books, The Ghost Writer. In this 1979 work, a young writer, Nathan Zuckerman, visits EI Lonoff, a first-generation immigrant modelled on Malamud, who found a new voice for Jewish-American literature. He had found a voice but, more importantly, he had a subject: “life-hunger, life-bargains, and life-terror”—a Jewish experience rooted in the traumas of east Europe and Russia. There is a third novelist in The Ghost Writer, Felix Abravanel, “a writer who found irresistible all vital and dubious types, not excluding the swindlers of both sexes who trampled upon the large hearts of his optimistic, undone heroes.” Abravanel, of course, is Saul Bellow. Zuckerman heard him speak at Chicago, just as the young Roth had recently met Bellow in Chicago at a literature class. There is one more writer present in The Ghost Writer: Anne Frank. What is interesting about her appearance is not the shock value, but what Roth does with her. Anne Frank, of course, has a subject too, one of the subjects of the 20th century. Zuckerman, like Roth, was too young to have experienced either the old country or early immigrant life that is Lonoff’s (and Malamud’s) subject. At the same time, born in safe America, he was spared the Holocaust. Instead, throughout his career, Roth searched for a subject: from the Jewish suburbs of Goodbye, Columbus to Prague and Israel, and then in the 1990s to America’s post-war history. This allowed him to bring together American history and Jewish characters (including Zuckerman, now much older), humour but also a new, dark vision. Finding a subject challenged all the great Jewish-American writers of the second half of the 20th century. They were haunted by the failure of the generation before them, Jewish writers like Nathanael West, Mike Gold, Henry Roth and Delmore Schwartz, who never delivered on their promise, never produced the multi-volume Library of America editions that Bellow and Roth achieved. If Roth and Bellow were going to appeal to mainstream America they had to find subjects that were Jewish but not too Jewish, clever and funny, but also serious and smart. High and low. This is what Roth meant when he wrote, “Bellow’s special appeal […] is that in his characteristically American way he has managed brilliantly to close the gap between Thomas Mann and Damon Runyon.” If Bellow and Roth were haunted by the failure of their predecessors, the next generation was haunted by the success of theirs. How could they follow them? What more could be written about America or about Jews? Had anyone written about sex like Roth? Or mortality? (“Old age isn’t a battle,” Roth wrote in Everyman (2006). “Old age is a massacre.”) Who could match Bellow or Malamud when it came to writing about the immigrant experience? Just when it seemed like the golden age of Jewish-American writing was over, a new generation emerged. They turned away from America to Europe’s 20th century. The opening story in Nathan Englander’s For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999) was about the execution of the Yiddish poets by Stalin. Perhaps his greatest work is the title story from What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel was Everything is Illuminated, in which Jonathan Safran Foer (the character who is and is not the author) is looking for a woman who saved his grandfather, a Ukrainian Jew, from the Nazis. Nicole Krauss’s breakthrough novel The History of Love was about a missing manuscript, Jewish refugees and the Holocaust. Michael Chabon has outdone them all, with three novels about the Holocaust, most recently Moonglow (2017). These young writers gave the Holocaust story an American twist: young Jewish-Americans trying to solve a family mystery, which takes them into the dark European past. They find a balance between their identities that speaks to their audience. (Again, Jewish but not too Jewish.) Like their predecessors Bellow and Roth, they make their books bookish, full of smart references to Babel, Kafka and Bruno Schulz, but also funny. Foer announces his intentions at the beginning of Everything is Illuminated with the scene when the author’s namesake is in the back of a car with a bitch called Sammy Davis Junior sitting on him, in what our Ukrainian narrator calls “the sixty-nine position.” Krauss, not to be outdone, begins The History of Love with Leo Gursky’s in his underwear. “My bowels. They never cease to appal me.” This was the Holocaust without sentimentality and piety. (Though some critics, including James Wood, think Krauss doesn’t avoid the trap of sentimentality.) As Foer says later, “We laughed with violence, and then more violence.” Once again, Jewish American writing stirred with the sounds of violent laughter and suffering jokers. It is surely no coincidence that Foer and Krauss, Chabon and Englander all moved on from the Holocaust to Israel. Englander lived there for five years. Krauss set her most recent novel, Forest Dark, in Israel and Foer’s latest book, Here I Am, is in large part about the country. Chabon has recently co-edited a book of essays about Israel and the Palestinians. This raises an interesting question about Roth’s generation. How Jewish are the novels of Bellow, Roth and Joseph Heller? This might sound absurd. But consider how marginal Judaism is in their work. Of course, there are great stories by Roth, Malamud and Cynthia Ozick—the writer often left out of the picture—especially on the battle between Orthodoxy and the secular (and in each of these stories it is a battle). But the critic Morris Dickstein was right when he wrote that Roth’s generation was “brought real Jews into modern American literature but left Judaism out.” And the Holocaust? Of course, there is Bellow’s Mr Sammler’s Planet, Roth’s treatment of Anne Frank and the camp survivors in his story “Eli, The Fanatic,” as well as numerous stories by Malamud. However, this writing pre-dates the huge revival of interest in the Holocaust of the 1980s and 1990s and remains on the margins of their work. Israel? The critic Tresa Grauer points out how often in books like Bellow’s non-fiction To Jerusalem and Back (1976) and Roth’s The Counterlife (1986) Israel was “a stop on the itinerary of self-discovery that ultimately leads home to America.” Judaism, the Holocaust and Israel tended to be on the margins of Jewish-American writing in the post-war golden age but in the last 20 years they have moved centre-stage. This new generation changed as American culture changed and become more—perhaps too?—preoccupied with questions of identity and authenticity. Just as the golden age addressed questions of generational conflict and the great experiences of immigration and assimilation, so contemporary writing is more interested in new kinds of Jewishness. In Everything is Illuminated, the character Jonathan Safran Foer tells Alex, the narrator, “I’m looking for my voice.” From Roth and Bellow to Foer, Krauss and Chabon the story of modern Jewish-American writing has been about the search for a voice and a subject. The great books by these writers have come when they found both.