Fiedler on the Roof, by Leslie Fiedler
Many readers may be put off, as I was, by the grating pun of the title, but a certain cultivated vulgarity is both an essential part of Leslie Fiedler’s design and a necessary consequence of the contradictory role as Jewish writer that he assumes. Fiedler on the Roof is a collection of the author’s essays and book reviews since 1970 on more or less Jewish topics. These include: anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, the Book of Job, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud (probably the best in the collection), and Jewish consciousness in Joyce’s Ulysses. This miscellany does not constitute a volume with a sustained argument, and some of the individual pieces are rather slight, anecdotal, and episodic in their articulation. The essays abound in brief autobiographical revelations, and the real justification for the volume is that it spells out the author’s Jewish credo, or non-credo. As such, Fiedler on the Roof, despite its verve, despite its occasional flashes of probing insight, is a very sad book.
Fiedler, now in his seventies, made his real mark as a critic with two books on American literature published in 1960, Love and Death in the American Novel and No! In Thunder, a volume of essays. In both he showed a flair for drawing bold mythic patterns in literature, sometimes with a casualness about matters of detail but always in ways bound to provoke thought. The years immediately following witnessed the great vogue of Jewish writing in American fiction, and though Fiedler in the transition from his early Stalinism to myth criticism had made nothing of his Jewish origins, he now became one of the liveliest expositors of the new Jewish writing. Looking back on all this two decades later, he sees the Jewish literary awakening as a transient moment, perhaps the only one in which he could find some cultural expression as a Jew, and he speaks of it in a bleakly elegiac tone: “I have long since decided that the Jewish-American novel is over and done with, a part of history rather than a living literature.” Writers like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth may continue to publish fiction, but “their most recent books have come to seem not merely irrelevant but posthumous.”
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