Commentary Magazine


Defenders of the Faith

Some readers may be a little surprised to discover that Cynthia Ozick’s new novel, The Messiah of Stockholm,1 is dedicated to Philip Roth. It will be a surprise from another direction that Philip Roth has dedicated his new novel, The Counterlife,2 to his father. He, after all, ever since his first collection of stories, Goodbye, Columbus, has figured in the minds of certain Jewish loyalists as the exemplary self-hating Jewish intellectual, a writer who uses his fiction to defame the world of his parents, to reject its familial and communal values. (Almost a quarter of a century ago, a memorable exchange between Roth and his readers on just this question appeared in the pages of this magazine.3) Cynthia Ozick, on the other hand, both in her essays and in her fiction, has often appeared (to borrow the title of an early Roth story) as a defender of the faith: a passionate Zionist, a critic of what she shrewdly identifies as the parochialism of Jewish universalism, and, above all, as an intransigent polemicist, in the name of simon-pure Jewish tradition, against the very hedonistic paganism to which so many of Roth’s protagonists seem to aspire. Has something changed in the work of either writer that these twain should now meet?

The immediate reason for Miss Ozick’s dedication of this particular book to Roth is the Polish Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, murdered by a German officer in the ghetto of Drohobycz in Poland in 1942, whose life and work are the axis on which the plot of The Messiah of Stockholm turns. Schulz’s fiction was introduced to readers of English by Roth through two volumes that appeared in the admirable series he edits for Penguin, Writers from the Other Europe. Miss Ozick’s dedication, then, could be taken simply as a token of literary gratitude. But beyond any common interest she and Roth may share in one writer, these two books remind us that all along the two have had a similar preoccupation with writing as a subject of fiction—with the writer’s immersion in words; the question of audience; the impact of criticism; the issues of originality, imitation, discipleship, plagiarism; and overarching all these, the relation of the imagination to whatever it is that we mean by reality.

The Messiah of Stockholm focuses these concerns in a novel that is literary in a straightforwardly realistic way, set in the small world defined by the triangle of the book-review offices of a Stockholm daily, the tiny book-filled bachelor apartment of the protagonist, and a bookstore run by an old woman of dubious origins. The Counterlife, on the other hand, is a new departure for Roth in not merely representing a literary subject (one of its two alternating protagonists is the novelist Nathan Zuckerman) but in being a self-reflexive novel—that is, a fictional work that, in the interests of imaginatively investigating the larger uses of fiction, repeatedly calls attention to its own precarious condition as mere fiction.

Novels of this sort go back as far as Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, and in our own century constitute an important tradition from Gide to Nabokov to the French New Novelists to contemporaries like John Fowles and John Barth. But what bearing does the self-reflexive mode have on the urgent issues of Jewish identity that continue to preoccupy Philip Roth, and what is the relation of the relentlessly literary novel to that overriding concern with Jewish values—beyond the idolatry of art—which Cynthia Ozick has proclaimed so often in her essays?

The question about Miss Ozick is by far the harder one to answer. The location of The Messiah of Stockholm in Sweden makes it her first pervasively “Gentile” fiction, and it has as a consequence a certain quality of abstractness, not unlike that of Roth’s “Wasp” novel, When She Was Good, which was set in the American heartland far from the urban Jewish types whose minutest mannerisms and verbal tics he knows so subtly. The only “Jewish” presence in The Messiah of Stockholm is the rather remote one of the ghost of Bruno Schulz. The protagonist, Lars Andemening, a divorced, isolated, impoverished daily book-reviewer, entertains a kind of hopeful hypothesis of being half-Jewish by trying to persuade himself, and a few others, that he is the son of Bruno Schulz. But Jewish identity is scarcely at issue here except as a particularly acute instance of the collective European memory of the traumatic war years: “His head was full of Europe—all those obscure languages in all those shadowy places where there had been all those shootings—in the streets, in the forests.” The real substance of Lars’s obsession with Bruno Schulz is the power of literature to dominate reality, to displace it, to call into question reality’s seemingly self-evident authority. Lars more than once invokes a line from Schulz, “Reality is as thin as paper and betrays with all its cracks its intuitive character”; and he wonders whether a man can be fathered by a piece of paper. For without the patrimony of Schulz, is he anyone at all, cubicled as he is in his little hole of an apartment, with scarcely any real human attachments, eking out a book-parasite’s meager living from reviews—mostly of Writers from the Other Europe—which readers resolutely ignore?

The frail structure of Lars’s effort of self-invention is badly shaken when a worn-looking woman, about his own age, in a white beret, abruptly appears, claiming that she is Bruno Schulz’s illegitimate daughter and that the bag full of hand-scrawled pages she clutches is the manuscript of his lost novel, The Messiah. Since Miss Ozick’s most admirable technical accomplishment here is the way she deftly spins out a mystery plot from these ambiguous literary circumstances, leading the reader through a chain of reversals and surprises, I will reveal only that the collision with a competitor for the Schulz legacy catapults Lars into a new relation to literature, to the past, and to the conditions of his everyday existence.

_____________

 

A good many reviewers have taken Cynthia Ozick at her word and have celebrated The Messiah of Stockholm as a major achievement. To me the novel never seems fully convincing, for all the interest of its informing idea, because, like a good deal of Miss Ozick’s fiction, it is finally too cerebral. Lars is more concept than character, with a literary lineage going back to Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, but he has only the sketchy outline of a personal history, and precious little in the way of psychological density or individual language. The figures around him work well enough as counters in a plot but the vividness of their surface mannerisms cannot altogether camouflage their abstractness. To put this another way, the novel is notable in the rendering of sensations but lacks the resonance of real experience beneath the level of sensation.

This cluster of deficiencies is, I think, most readily detected in Cynthia Ozick’s style. Let me first say that at her best she is one of the most gifted stylists now writing in this country. For the most part, her best means her literary essays, where she exhibits the most remarkable ability to strike the enlivening phrase, to catch the nuance and paradox and suggestiveness of ideas by framing just the right words for them, often in unexpected combinations. Too frequently in her fiction, however, and especially in this latest novel, a mechanism (perhaps unconscious) is set into operation that seeks to compensate for the thinness of novelistic imagination by sheer force of stylistic razzle-dazzle.

The result is a prose that is often mannered, overwritten, oddly violent in excess of the objects of representation. (An unanticipated analogy with the prose of John Updike suggests itself here.) An autumnal sun about to set is “an eggshell shielding a blue-black yolk.” Bruno Schulz is “a gargoyle on the flank of Drohobycz, a mole on its inmost sinew.” As metaphors proliferate in this manner, images of combustion and destruction multiply. Writing a review at top speed, Lars is “a furnace burning fat . . . as if his pen, spattering along the line of rapid letters it ignited, flung out haloes of hot grease.” Though it is in a sense true that Lars is looking for the dead in turning over the pages of Bruno Schulz’s books, we may begin to squirm when we are told that “He had washed his fingers in that half-familiar dread print like a butcher with a bloody sheep in his grip, or like a tug dragging a river for a body.” Once Lars is thrown into a series of fits by the intrusion of the self-proclaimed daughter of Bruno Schulz, this use of wild hyperbole knows no limits: “Lars . . . stared as if his own eyeballs were two breathing bellows inflated by the bottommost power of his pumping lungs.” Again, contemplating the supposed manuscript of The Messiah, he “felt his own ordinary pupil consumed by a conflagration in the socket. As if copulating with an angel whose wings were on fire.”

There is, of course, a high order of inventiveness in many of these images, as well as some attempt to give the images thematic anchorage, but the violent extravagance of the metaphors—flaming or bursting eyeballs, and elsewhere, a plethora of vomiting, slashing, gashing, gouging, battering, in the figurative language—betrays an attempt to substitute rhetorical intensity for experiential depth. Good novelists ought to be good stylists, but “fine writing” in the end cannot serve in place of novelistic imagination.

It may be that this problem is especially palpable in The Messiah of Stockholm because of the oddly general and international nature of the characters and situation. I would not for a moment suggest that a Jewish writer needs to write about Jewish subjects, but it is peculiar that so much of what Cynthia Ozick cares about most deeply, not to speak of what she knows most intimately, is excluded from this book: the Jewish people as the bearer of a distinctive history; Judaism with its uncompromising monotheistic imperatives; Israel as a radical new possibility in the Jewish relation to history; the urban intellectual Jews of the American Northeast. The only tenuous links with what she has repeatedly stated elsewhere as her compelling concerns are the wraithlike figure of Bruno Schulz, ostensibly associated with the Holocaust but here figuring more as archetypal literary predecessor, and a brief apocalyptic fantasy about idols that is presented as the content of the supposed Schulz manuscript. But even in regard to Schulz and his novel, one feels that The Messiah of Stockholm is rooted not in experience but in reading and cogitation about reading.

_____________

 

In all these respects, Philip Roth’s The Counterlife provides an instructive study in contrasts. It is, I believe, Roth’s best book to date, which may seem a little improbable if one considers that it is a sequel to The Anatomy Lesson, the disastrous concluding novel of his Zuckerman trilogy. The center of interest in the new book is the relationship between novelist Nathan and his younger brother Henry, a prosperous dentist and family man in suburban New Jersey. Roth explores the bifurcating life choices of the two Zucker-mans by having each of them live out the same two alternative destinies: thus, the novel’s five long chapters constitute not a linear plot but a total of four different fictional hypotheses about the two protagonists.

In the first chapter Henry, afflicted by a cardiac disorder, is confronted with the decision of living permanently on a medication that causes complete impotence or undergoing very risky surgery to correct the condition. Since, as it now emerges, respectable Henry has been keeping a shiksa on the side, enjoying a clandestine Portnoyism as the escape hatch from the prison of bourgeois propriety, he chooses the operation—and dies under the knife. The next chapter gives us a Henry who has survived the operation but could hardly be said to be enjoying his restored virility. A post-operative depression leads him to move to Israel, where, having rejected the snares of opulent assimilation back home, he changes his name to Hanoch, straps a pistol around his waist, joins a West Bank settlement, and becomes the disciple of a charismatic Gush Einunim rabbi named Lippman. In the last two sections of the novel, Nathan moves from narrator to protagonist, and we soon realize that in the previous chapters he has been writing his own destiny over the surface of Henry’s life: it is he who is now confronted with the choice between impotence and the risk of death, perishing in one version—logically, it is the authoritative one, but here all fictional hypotheses have their equal day in court—and in the other version, writing himself a future of survival and progeny with his fourth Christian wife, in anti-Semitically genteel England.

Any account of the four sets of fictional possibilities that constitute The Counterlife will make it sound chiefly like a piece of intricate ingenuity, the very quality one feels in the literary mystery plot of The Messiah of Stockholm. In fact, what is most striking about the Roth novel is the sense it repeatedly conveys of experience shrewdly observed and deeply felt. This is, of course, especially palpable in the representation of the Jewish middle-class family and the background of growing up in New Jersey in the 1940’s. The ways of life of the two brothers, pre- and post-operative, diverge to the point of mutual estrangement, and yet there persists a residue of fraternal love, a shared childhood. At the funeral in the first chapter, Nathan remembers how his kid brother once went sleepwaking into the street, still wanting to trick or treat in his dreams—“But now he was in his coffin, the sleepwalking boy.” It is a moment of persuasive pathos, produced with affecting simplicity not by any rhetorical maneuver but by the novelist’s concrete imagination of a situation (both the present and the remembered one) and by his insight into a relationship.

_____________

 

What is remarkable is that the section of the novel set in Israel, a place that earlier in Roth’s work had been accorded only a peripheral and unconvincing role in Portnoy’s Complaint, should be equally marked by close observation and persuasive feeling. The style, with its colloquial ease and vigor, rarely calls attention to itself, and figurative language is used not to evoke an otherwise absent intensity but to catch the precise nuance of what is being observed. Thus, Nathan looks over a young Hasid, in satin coat and black velvet hat, who invites him to join a minyan at the Western Wall:

His pallor was alarming, however, a skin tone a breath away from the morgue. The elongated fingers with which he was tapping my shoulder suggested something erotically creepy at one extreme and excruciatingly delicate at the other, the hand of the helpless maiden and of the lurid ghoul.

Roth, or rather Nathan as narrator, is just as keen in his perception of the harsh, pitiless Judean landscape, which “could have passed for a piece of the moon to which the Jews had been sadistically exiled by their worst enemies” and was, for that very paradoxical reason, a place where “one might well imagine self-renewal on the grandest scale of all, the legendary scale, the scale of mythic heroism.”

As even this brief quotation may suggest, Roth’s Nathan catches not only the look of things in Israel but also the special tenor of political imagination and sentiment projected into and out of this landscape. The “Judea” section of the novel turns into a long ideological debate between Nathan and Henry, and Nathan and the formidable Rabbi Lippman, arguing for religious annexationism à la Gush Emunim, and it is informed by a sense of Israel as a distinctive ambience for debate of this sort. “I wasn’t exactly a stranger to disputation,” Nathan confesses, “but never in my life had I felt so enclosed by a world so contentious, where the argument is enormous and constant and everything turns out to be pro or con, positions taken, positions argued, and everything italicized by indignation and rage.” The wit of the metaphor drawn from typography is revelatory: the image is right for Nathan, a writer by trade, and it aptly defines the peculiar quality of superemphasis of Israeli poltical discourse, as anyone will recognize who has sat in a living room in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and participated in a discussion about the territories, the Diaspora, the role of religion in the state, or any of the other permanent crises that constitute Israeli life.

_____________

 

It may sound puzzling that all this intense engagement with what deserves to be called, without apology, reality should occur in a novel constructed out of the playing of one fictional hypothesis against another. In point of fact, the self-conscious fictionality of The Counterlife proves to be the perfect vehicle for confronting the question of what it means to be a Jew, given the ambiguous burdens of Jewish history at this particular moment of the late 20th century. Roth has no answers but he recognizes that the dimensions of the question can be seen only by following out a collision course of opposing ideas. Assimilation has its allure but in the end it does not quite work, not even for Nathan with his four Christian wives, who retreats from the idyll of “Christendom” (the title of the last chapter of the novel) to a perception of the need to reject all idyllic visions, to cling to a Jewish sense of being wounded, alienated, by history, community, and faith. The return to Zion also does not quite work, at least not as an act of radical self-transformation, but the argument for it is given a powerful voice.

All this is to say that the structure of the novel is essentially dialectical. At this point in time, after genocide and statehood and the fullest invitation to assimilation of any diaspora in history, it is not easy to imagine what a Jew might be, and The Counterlife is constructed both within the chapters and from chapter to chapter, as a clash of imaginations of the Jewish self in which no single viewpoint is allowed to cancel out the others. Some moments may be less convincing than others—the one real lapse is an attempted skyjacking episode in which an Israeli counter-terrorist delivers himself of a harangue on Jewish history—but the writer does not load the dice ideologically. Nathan, listening to Rabbi Lippman, admits to himself that his adversary’s “tirades have an eerie reality” and wonders whether such views seem repugnant “because what he says is wrong or because what he says is just unsay-able.” He feels himself in the presence of a “terrifying imagination richer with reality” than his own. This leads him to an observation that precisely states the link between the self-reflexive fictional form and the investigation of the Jewish self at the heart of The Counterlife: “The treacherous imagination is everybody’s maker—we are all the invention of each other, everybody a conjuration conjuring up everyone else. We are all each other’s authors.”

As this perception is worked out in the structure of the novel, Nathan is Henry’s author but Henry then reappears liberated from the bonds of authorial subjugation and if not Nathan’s author at least his executor, while we are left puzzling over the nature of the inferrable author or authority that presides over both brothers. The novel also makes clear that there are imaginations more or less rich in reality. Portnoyism, which appears here in different guises in the lives of each of the two brothers, is definitively transcended because it is seen to betray in the end a real lack of imagination. The author behind the fictional authors within the novel clearly rejects the Gush Emunim alternative but does not dismiss the authority of the historical imagination behind it. The more solitary Jewish way articulated (posthumously) by the Nathan of the last section is precarious, ambiguous, perhaps too purely symbolic, but it has its own imaginative force—a force that flows largely from the willingness to look unflinchingly both at personal and collective history. Nathan remains a thoroughly literary man to the end, but literature alone would not suffice to nurture his imagination, and surely not a literary idea like building an identity through the obsessive attachment to the life and work of a dead writer. The dedication of the novel to Philip Roth’s father in his eighty-fifth year is in the end more than just a personal gesture because The Counterlife is a serious if idiosyncratic affirmation of connection with a people and its past.

_____________

 

In the 60’S, during the great vogue of American Jewish fiction, it seemed to me somehow suspect that writers celebrated by many at the time as harbingers of an American Jewish cultural renaissance, should so regularly imagine a world in which Israel was scarcely even a presence on a distant horizon. It was not that serious American Jewish writers should have been obliged to be Zionists or to produce highbrow versions of Exodus but only that the creation of Israel represented a fundamental alteration in the facts of Jewish existence, so that a fiction that simply ignored the momentous challenge of renewed Jewish autonomy could scarcely be thought to probe the problematic of modern Jewish identity. Israel stands, of course, as a triumphant solution to a “question” that ended in the murder of six million Jews. It is also, as we know every time we open a newspaper, a constant source of trouble, ambivalence, and self-questioning as well as pride to all who choose to see themselves as Jews, whether within Israel itself or anywhere in the Diaspora.

Philip Roth’s ability to imagine Israel in depth as an inexorable component of the Jewish struggle for identity is what gives his latest book the unusual resonance it possesses. In Cynthia Ozick’s new novel, on the other hand, the absence of either Israel or of a persuasive sense of real history is a symptom of the narrow limits of the merely literary notions within which her fiction is enacted.

_____________

 


Footnotes

2 Farrar Straus & Giroux, 324 pp., $18.95. I reviewed this book shortly after it was published (New Republic, February 2, 1987).

3 Letters from Readers, April 1964, on Philip Roth's article, “Writing About Jews,” December 1963.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.