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Not a Jew Among Them

For a seminar that I am teaching tomorrow, I have been rereading Cynthia Ozick’s 1970 essay “Toward a New Yiddish,” reprinted in her collection Art and Ardor.

In passing, she makes a claim that took me aback, because I had never before realized its truth. The 19th-century novel (“essentially the novel”) was described by critics of the time as “exhausted” or “played out.” The French nouveau roman made its way to these shores, “involving not only parody, but game, play, and rite. The novel is now,” Ozick observed, “said to be ‘about itself,’ a ceremony of language.”

So far, so commonplace. But then Ozick points out a difficult truth: “Roth, Bellow, and Malamud, the most celebrated of all [American] Jewish writers, are all accused of continuing to work in ‘exhausted forms.’ ”

Ozick is right, isn’t she? The leading U.S. practitioners of “metafiction” or “self-conscious fiction” or the “anti-novel” were John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., William H. Gass, William Gaddis; and then, later, David Foster Wallace.

In a blog post last year, I reeled off the names of other novelists, here and abroad, who had been described at one time or another as “experimental”: Robert M. Coates, Louis Marlow, P. H. Newby, Richard Bankowsky, Rayner Heppenstall, J. P. Donleavy, B. S. Johnson, Ann Quin, R. C. Kenedy, Nicholas Mosley, Mack Thomas, William Eastlake, Alan Burns, Gil Orlovitz, Christine Brooke-Rose, Rudolph Wurlitzer, Robert Coover, John A. Williams, Ronald Sukenick, Stuart Evans, Gilbert Sorrentino, A. G. Mojtabai, Richard Brautigan, Gordon Lish, Eva Figes, Ron Loewinsohn, Frederick Ted Castle, Deena Linett, Harry Mathews, D. M. Thomas, and Tom Marshall.

Not a Jew among them.

Ozick is provocative on the reasons:

The novel at its nineteenth-century pinnacle was a Judaized novel: George Eliot and Dickens and Tolstoy were all touched by the Jewish covenant: they wrote of conduct and of the consequences of conduct: they were concerned with a society of will and commandment. At bottom it is not the old novel as “form” that is being rejected, but the novel as a Jewish force.

These are also, of course, the conditions for its renewal in the hands of such “covenantal” novelists as Francine Prose, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Russo, Roland Merullo, Zoë Heller, Sam Munson, and Dana Spiotta—all of whom, in one way or another, are absorbed with conduct and its consequences. The best novels remain those to which a moral tradition is attached.