Malamud, Singer, Roth, Bellows, Doctorow & That Bronx GypsySaturday, March 22, 2014
Hart and Schaffner are dead; Marx, ringed round with laurels, has notoriously retired. But the firm itself was dissolved long ago, and it was Saul Bellow who, with a sartorial quip, snipped the stitches that had sewn three acclaimed and determinedly distinct American writers into the same suit of clothes, with its single label: Jewish Writer. In Bellow’s parody, Bellow, Malamud and Roth were the literary equivalent of the much advertised men’s wear company — but lighthearted as it was, the joke cut two ways: it was a declaration of imagination’s independence of collective tailoring, and it laughingly struck out at the disgruntlement of those who, having themselves applied the label in pique, felt displaced by it.
Judging the World
Library of America’s Bernard Malamud Collections
NY Times Review by Cynthia Ozick March 13, 2014
|Jerome Charyn - Photograph by Deborah Flomenhaft|
That cover review in my NY Times Sunday Book Review caught my eye. Inside (and more later) I read one of the most amazing interviews with a writer that I have ever read. It was an interview with Philip Roth.
Until around 1963 I had no concept of a writer’s religion. It never occurred to me that my fave science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov was Jewish. At the time (and even for me today) a writer’s perceived religious background was immaterial.
It was in 1963 that my ears first heard from my philosophy professor, Ramón Xirau, that Baruch Spinoza (considered to be a Dutch philosopher who ushered in the Age of Enlightenment) was a Jewish philosopher. By 1965 I was reading all I could find of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, not only because I like his writing which was challenging but also because he was a Jesuit priest. Thus, to me, he was a Roman Catholic writer. From there I went to discover the two British authors who had converted to Catholicism, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. I had read C.S. Lewis in the late 50s as a science fiction writer but was not aware of his deep Anglican thought.
So much for the religion of writers. It has never been important for me. On the other hand I was never interested in reading Philip Roth. Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow. I have never seen pictures of these guys smiling. They seemed much too studiously serious for me. And then there was Isaac Bashevis Singer. He, too was obviously Jewish and serious.
I must thus state here that I have never read Malamud, Singer, Bellow or Roth. But this is going to change in the next few days as I am going to read a Philip Roth novel and who knows what’s next?
As soon as Rosemary, our two daughters Alexandra and Hilary arrived in Vancouver in 1975 I instantly became a member of Book-of-the-Month Club. One of my first purchases was E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Since then I have enjoyed, Billy Bathgate, City of God and The Waterworks. It never occurred to me think Doctorow is Jewish. While I read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Picture This, again that author's religion did not compute with me.
Since the late 80s I began to read Jerome Charyn and became so enthused that by October 1995 I was sitting in Charyn’s apartment interviewing him. I had no reason or interest to ask him, “What is your religion? Are you Jewish?” All he told me during the interview was that his parents were originally from some place in Russia. He intimated that he (Charyn) had Gypsy blood in him. If you look at this author photos beginning in the middle 60s you would readily believe this.
In my Buenos Aires of my youth, my best friend was Mario Hertzberg. He lived with his parents and two brothers in an apartment across the street from my house on Melián. Once he showed me a framed picture of a slightly older version of himself. I inquired and he answered, this was my other brother, he died in a concentration camp a few years ago. This was 1950. My knowledge of Hitler, WWII and especially of concentration camps was spotty. In our neighbourhood I was “el inglesito”, Mario was “el alemán” and our mutual friend Miguelito “el tano” as he was Italian. The word Jewish did not come up.
It was during my military service in 1965 that to make some ends meet I worked as a waiter in a la Boca dance/bar on weekends. One day I noticed one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen in my life sitting at a table. I inquired and was told she was a “lady of the night”. In Spanish it was “Es una puta rusa.” I had not known that for many years Jews in Argentina were blanket-called Russians.
This was confirmed when I acquired a beautiful girlfriend called Susana Bornstein. My family instantly said, “Es una rusa.”
In the two years in the Argentine Navy I never met or read in any list the single name of a non-commissioned or commissioned Jewish officer. The Jews of Buenos Aires seemed to be part of the arts. They wrote plays, directed films, were sculptors and painters or were part of the avant-garde.
All of the above somehow conspired, ever so pleasantly, when I finished Jerome Charyn’s I Am Abraham. That coincided with my reading on March 15 (I get the Sunday NY Times delivered the night before) the March 16 Book Review with the cover piece on Bernard Malamud by Cynthia Ozick. It made me think about Jewish writers. Inside I found a remarkable interview (Q& A) with Philip Roth by Daniel Sandstrom, the cultural editor at Svenska Dagbladet, for publication in Swedish translation in that newspaper.
The whole interview was fantastic but this segment charmed me and made me look twice at the man who has never posed with a smile:
I know that you have reread all of your books recently. What was your verdict? And what was your opinion of “Sabbath’s Theater” while reading it again?
When I decided to stop writing about five years ago I did, as you say, sit down to reread the 31 books I’d published between 1959 and 2010. I wanted to see whether I’d wasted my time. You never can be sure, you know.
My conclusion, after I’d finished, echoes the words spoken by an American boxing hero of mine, Joe Louis. He was world heavyweight champion from the time I was 4 until I was 16. He had been born in the Deep South, an impoverished black kid with no education to speak of, and even during the glory of the undefeated 12 years, when he defended his championship an astonishing 26 times, he stood aloof from language. So when he was asked upon his retirement about his long career, Joe sweetly summed it up in just 10 words. “I did the best I could with what I had.”
And then further down Roth gives a list of American writers in an interesting context:
Do you feel that there is a preoccupation in Europe with American popular culture? And, if so, that this preoccupation has clouded the reception of serious American literary fiction in Europe?
The power in any society is with those who get to impose the fantasy. It is no longer, as it was for centuries throughout Europe, the church that imposes its fantasy on the populace, nor is it the totalitarian superstate that imposes the fantasy, as it did for 12 years in Nazi Germany and for 69 years in the Soviet Union. Now the fantasy that prevails is the all-consuming, voraciously consumed popular culture, seemingly spawned by, of all things, freedom. The young especially live according to beliefs that are thought up for them by the society’s most unthinking people and by the businesses least impeded by innocent ends. Ingeniously as their parents and teachers may attempt to protect the young from being drawn, to their detriment, into the moronic amusement park that is now universal, the preponderance of the power is not with them.
I cannot see what any of this has to do with serious American literary fiction, even if, as you suggest, “this preoccupation has [or may have] clouded the reception of serious American fiction in Europe.” You know, in Eastern Europe, the dissident writers used to say that “socialist realism,” the reigning Soviet aesthetic, consisted of praising the Party so that even they understood it. There is no such aesthetic for serious literary writers to conform to in America, certainly not the aesthetic of popular culture.
What has the aesthetic of popular culture to do with formidable postwar writers of such enormous variety as Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, William Styron, Don DeLillo, E. L. Doctorow, James Baldwin, Wallace Stegner, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Penn Warren, John Updike, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, Robert Stone, Evan Connell, Louis Auchincloss, Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, Russell Banks, William Kennedy, John Barth, Louis Begley, William Gaddis, Norman Rush, John Edgar Wideman, David Plante, Richard Ford, William Gass, Joseph Heller, Raymond Carver, Edmund White, Oscar Hijuelos, Peter Matthiessen, Paul Theroux, John Irving, Norman Mailer, Reynolds Price, James Salter, Denis Johnson, J. F. Powers, Paul Auster, William Vollmann, Richard Stern, Alison Lurie, Flannery O’Connor, Paula Fox, Marilynne Robinson, Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, Hortense Calisher, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, Jamaica Kincaid, Cynthia Ozick, Ann Beattie, Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, Mary Gordon, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty (and I have by no means exhausted the list) or with serious younger writers as wonderfully gifted as Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz, Nicole Krauss, Maile Meloy, Jonathan Lethem, Nathan Englander, Claire Messud, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer (to name but a handful)?
That is one incredible “but a handful” but for me there is a glaring omission. Why is E.L. Doctorow not in that list?
|Jerome Charyn - Photo by Miriam Berkley|
I was thinking about Doctorow because during the writing of several blogs on Jerome Charyn’s I Am Abraham I found this!. It is a 1971 review for the NY Times of Doctorow's The Book of Daniel by Charyn.
Jewish or not, that man( Charyn) of letters, over 50 novels, told me about one of his novels (which I have) Darlin' Bill, a fantasy about "Will Bill" Hickok, won me the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1981. It is given to 'that novel that is a commercial failure but is nevertheless a literary achievement'. You have to lose in order to win. In past years it's been won by Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon and Bernard Malamud."
My life has been rewarded every time I have opened a Charyn novel, something that began for me in 1989. Next on my agenda, any novel I can find at the Vancouver Public Library by Philip Roth. And who knows Malamud, Singer and Bellows next?
Inside my copy of Doctorow's The Waterworks I found a clipping from the NY Times, March15, 1999,
WRITERS ON WRITING
Quick Cuts: The Novel Follows Film Into a World of Fewer Words
By E.L. DOCTOROW
This is the link just for you John Lekich if you have gotten this far.
|Jerome Charyn - Photograph Mariana Cook|
Mileage of I Am Abraham on Twitter
That Silver Sword of Appomattox
That Dark Lady from Belorusse
And Zero at the Bone
Blue Eyes, the butterfly and a picot
That Vampire of Paris