Commentary Magazine


Topic: Cynthia Ozick

Do American Novelists Even Deserve the Nobel Prize?

On Monday, three days before Tomas Tranströmer was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature (“because . . . he gives us fresh access to reality”), Alexander Nazaryan predicted in Salon that there would be “the usual entitled whining” if an American didn’t win. I haven’t come across any, but at least one of my readers overheard some such whining in my reaction to Tranströmer’s favorite-son award.

It’s no secret that I believe Philip Roth is far and away the greatest living novelist. He represents what I have taken to calling, in a phrase freely plagiarized from John Erskine, the moral obligation to write well. And despite my reservations about literary prizes, which are (to repeat myself) little more than publicity stunts to sell more books, it follows that I would like to see Roth win the Nobel Prize, I suppose.

I pray daily to God to keep me from whining if he doesn’t. Nabokov never did, after all, despite annual predictions that this year at last would be his turn! Among American novelists aged 65 and older — the mean age of a Nobel winner is 66.73 — only Cormac McCarthy is in Roth’s league as a Nobel hopeful. Last year, when he took over as the oddsmakers’ favorite, I suggested that McCarthy would make a good winner, at least in the terms of Alfred Nobel’s original bequest, which specified that a writer of “idealistic tendency [idealisk rigtning]” be honored.

Joyce Carol Oates is admired by critics I respect and despised by critics I respect, and though I am in the latter camp, the more important point is that she does not have a reputation as a major novelist. She has written about a hundred minor novels. (Okay, only 39 plus collections of stories and poems and essays and she’ll probably finish a novella or two before you finish reading this sentence.) Nobody ever seems to mention Cynthia Ozick, although she is a far more significant novelist than Oates with a far broader range, in many fewer books. Marilynne Robinson, who will be 68 next month, is America’s other great novelist, but her problem is the opposite of Oates’s — only three novels in 31 years so far.

American novelists, according to Nazaryan, have only themselves to blame for not winning a Nobel since 1993. And he knows exactly what American literature needs:

America needs an Obama des letters [sic], a writer for the 21st century, not the 20th — or even the 19th. One who is not stuck in the Cold War or the gun-slinging West or the bygone Jewish precincts of Newark — or mired in the claustrophobia of familial dramas. What relevance does our solipsism have to a reader in Bombay? For that matter, what relevance does it have in Brooklyn, N.Y.?

Nazaryan obviously belongs to that corner of the intelligentsia (more like three corners of it, plus a lot of chairs dragged over from the fourth) which still believes, against all evidence, that Obama is “what the historical moment seems to be calling for.”

What the historical moment in literature is calling for is anybody’s guess. There is no such thing as prospective criticism. Nazaryan, however, knows just what it is. He believes the Swedish Academy has been trying to tell American novelists what they lack and what they need. In a word (Nazaryan’s word), they need to be universal. (The italics are his too.) Hence his dig at Roth’s Newark. It is “solipsistic,” you see, to know one place inside out. Far better to be able to congratulate oneself on knowing a little something about all the capitals of Europe. Such knowledge will obviously have “relevance . . . to a reader in Bombay.” I do wonder, though, if Nazaryan believes that a novelist of Bombay like, say, Amit Chaudhuri has relevance for readers in Newark.

The truth is that the demand for universalism in literature is a demand for its extinction. Universalism emphasizes what all human beings have in common, but what all human beings have in common is their biology, and (to paraphrase Ozick) if a human being is no more than his limbs and organs, then what matter that the body is burned and scattered or dismembered and fed to pigs? Good fiction explores how the world looks to someone who is different from me, and the possibility that the world is different from the way I understand it is a real and positive gain in knowledge: the very opposite of solipsism.

By and large, the Swedish Academy awards the Nobel Prize in literature to second-rate writers with agreeable politics. Occasionally a mistake is made and a first-rate writer like Mario Vargas Llosa, J. M. Coetzee, V. S. Naipaul, or Seamus Heaney slips through. No American writer is likely to be awarded the Nobel any time soon, however, unless — like Toni Morrison, the country’s last winner, and just like an Obama des lettres, come to think of it — she can flatter the Swedish Academy’s self-image in selecting her. And who knows? The right sounds of an ideological universalism, which is to say a self-hating anti-Americanism, might just do the trick.

On Monday, three days before Tomas Tranströmer was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature (“because . . . he gives us fresh access to reality”), Alexander Nazaryan predicted in Salon that there would be “the usual entitled whining” if an American didn’t win. I haven’t come across any, but at least one of my readers overheard some such whining in my reaction to Tranströmer’s favorite-son award.

It’s no secret that I believe Philip Roth is far and away the greatest living novelist. He represents what I have taken to calling, in a phrase freely plagiarized from John Erskine, the moral obligation to write well. And despite my reservations about literary prizes, which are (to repeat myself) little more than publicity stunts to sell more books, it follows that I would like to see Roth win the Nobel Prize, I suppose.

I pray daily to God to keep me from whining if he doesn’t. Nabokov never did, after all, despite annual predictions that this year at last would be his turn! Among American novelists aged 65 and older — the mean age of a Nobel winner is 66.73 — only Cormac McCarthy is in Roth’s league as a Nobel hopeful. Last year, when he took over as the oddsmakers’ favorite, I suggested that McCarthy would make a good winner, at least in the terms of Alfred Nobel’s original bequest, which specified that a writer of “idealistic tendency [idealisk rigtning]” be honored.

Joyce Carol Oates is admired by critics I respect and despised by critics I respect, and though I am in the latter camp, the more important point is that she does not have a reputation as a major novelist. She has written about a hundred minor novels. (Okay, only 39 plus collections of stories and poems and essays and she’ll probably finish a novella or two before you finish reading this sentence.) Nobody ever seems to mention Cynthia Ozick, although she is a far more significant novelist than Oates with a far broader range, in many fewer books. Marilynne Robinson, who will be 68 next month, is America’s other great novelist, but her problem is the opposite of Oates’s — only three novels in 31 years so far.

American novelists, according to Nazaryan, have only themselves to blame for not winning a Nobel since 1993. And he knows exactly what American literature needs:

America needs an Obama des letters [sic], a writer for the 21st century, not the 20th — or even the 19th. One who is not stuck in the Cold War or the gun-slinging West or the bygone Jewish precincts of Newark — or mired in the claustrophobia of familial dramas. What relevance does our solipsism have to a reader in Bombay? For that matter, what relevance does it have in Brooklyn, N.Y.?

Nazaryan obviously belongs to that corner of the intelligentsia (more like three corners of it, plus a lot of chairs dragged over from the fourth) which still believes, against all evidence, that Obama is “what the historical moment seems to be calling for.”

What the historical moment in literature is calling for is anybody’s guess. There is no such thing as prospective criticism. Nazaryan, however, knows just what it is. He believes the Swedish Academy has been trying to tell American novelists what they lack and what they need. In a word (Nazaryan’s word), they need to be universal. (The italics are his too.) Hence his dig at Roth’s Newark. It is “solipsistic,” you see, to know one place inside out. Far better to be able to congratulate oneself on knowing a little something about all the capitals of Europe. Such knowledge will obviously have “relevance . . . to a reader in Bombay.” I do wonder, though, if Nazaryan believes that a novelist of Bombay like, say, Amit Chaudhuri has relevance for readers in Newark.

The truth is that the demand for universalism in literature is a demand for its extinction. Universalism emphasizes what all human beings have in common, but what all human beings have in common is their biology, and (to paraphrase Ozick) if a human being is no more than his limbs and organs, then what matter that the body is burned and scattered or dismembered and fed to pigs? Good fiction explores how the world looks to someone who is different from me, and the possibility that the world is different from the way I understand it is a real and positive gain in knowledge: the very opposite of solipsism.

By and large, the Swedish Academy awards the Nobel Prize in literature to second-rate writers with agreeable politics. Occasionally a mistake is made and a first-rate writer like Mario Vargas Llosa, J. M. Coetzee, V. S. Naipaul, or Seamus Heaney slips through. No American writer is likely to be awarded the Nobel any time soon, however, unless — like Toni Morrison, the country’s last winner, and just like an Obama des lettres, come to think of it — she can flatter the Swedish Academy’s self-image in selecting her. And who knows? The right sounds of an ideological universalism, which is to say a self-hating anti-Americanism, might just do the trick.

Read Less

Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, 1940–2011

The American Jewish novelist Susan Fromberg Schaeffer died last Friday in Chicago. The cause of death was complications from a stroke.

Perhaps best known for Anya, her 1974 “Holocaust novel,” Fromberg Schaeffer ought to be better known for her variety, the diversity of her talents, her refusal to plow the same postage stamp of earth over and and over again. She wrote twelve novels, and only rarely wrote about the same subject twice. She wrote about the rural culture of 19th-century New England, Russian Jewish immigrants to the U.S., a woman who murdered her romantic rival, the Vietnam war, Greta Garbo and her West Indian housekeeper, a lecherous poet who drives two of his wives to suicide. And in addition to six volumes of poetry, she also wrote autobiographical novels about academic women who battled depression and professional discontent.

Fromberg Schaeffer spent her entire working life in the university. After earning all three degrees at the University of Chicago (her 1966 PhD dissertation was on form and theme in the novels of Vladimir Nabokov, “the most intellectual novelist to write in English since James Joyce,” as she described him), she took a teaching job at Brooklyn College, where she met her husband Neil J. Schaeffer (author of a 1999 biography of the Marquis de Sade). They had two children, a boy and a girl, and remained married until her death.

The daughter of a wholesale clothier, Fromberg Schaeffer was born in Brooklyn on March 25, 1941. She attended public schools in Brooklyn and on Long Island. Her family had emigrated from Russia two generations earlier. Although she was bashful about describing herself as a Jewish writer (“I’m not trying deliberately to write on Jewish themes,” she said in an interview), she wrote two Jewish-themed novels — Love (1980), a multigenerational saga of a Jewish immigrant family, and Anya.

Anya was one of the first fictional treatments of the Holocaust to find anything like a popular audience. Before its appearance, Edward Lewis Wallant in The Pawnbroker (1961) and Saul Bellow in Mr Sammler’s Planet (1971) had summoned the Nazi war against the Jews to serve as the dramatic background to a survivor’s struggles with postwar American freedom. (Her most direct predecessor, Meyer Levin’s 1959 novel Eva, which also sought to filter the mass destruction through the consciousness of a single girl, had disappeared from American literature by 1974.) Anya is a story of enduring the Holocaust, from assimilation in comfortable circumstances in Warsaw to the burden of surviving death in the Kaiserwald concentration camp, narrated from within the events. Fromberg Schaeffer’s advantage was the very distance from Jewish tradition that she was so honest in acknowledging. As Alan L. Mintz said in his astute review for COMMENTARY, Fromberg Schaeffer’s “universalist perspective” gave her the resources to

illuminate a neglected and troubling aspect of the Holocaust: the fact that vast numbers of Jews, many more than we like to think in our idealizations of the six million, faced the extermination camps with little idea of why they were there and even less of the role they were being forced to play in a millennial Jewish drama.

This is not in any way to fault Fromberg Schaeffer, nor to minimize her achievement. She was candid about not being an observant Jew. And though Wayne C. Booth compared her early in her career to Cynthia Ozick, she represented a different Jewish literary strategy entirely. Where Ozick abandoned the religion of art for Jewish learning, Fromberg Schaeffer remained unshakably committed to the literary ideal. She lived by writing.

At least that’s how I came to know her. While an undergraduate at Santa Cruz, I founded a literary magazine with Raymond Carver that was called Quarry. An ad soliciting manuscripts in the New York Review of Books brought in nearly as many envelopes as John Payne dumps before the bench in Miracle on 34th Street. Among them were poems by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer — not quite good enough to publish, but good enough to ask for more. She gladly complied with our request, and complied again after the next encouraging rejection, and again after the next. She never gave up. And over time I came to admire her a great deal. Susan Fromberg Schaeffer was probably not a great novelist, but she was and is the kind of writer upon whom a living literature depends — hard-working, indefatigable, utterly devoted to the life of words.

Update: Here is a tender and grateful personal memoir by Fromberg Schaeffer’s former student Edward Byrne, who blogs on American poetry at One Poet’s Notes.

The American Jewish novelist Susan Fromberg Schaeffer died last Friday in Chicago. The cause of death was complications from a stroke.

Perhaps best known for Anya, her 1974 “Holocaust novel,” Fromberg Schaeffer ought to be better known for her variety, the diversity of her talents, her refusal to plow the same postage stamp of earth over and and over again. She wrote twelve novels, and only rarely wrote about the same subject twice. She wrote about the rural culture of 19th-century New England, Russian Jewish immigrants to the U.S., a woman who murdered her romantic rival, the Vietnam war, Greta Garbo and her West Indian housekeeper, a lecherous poet who drives two of his wives to suicide. And in addition to six volumes of poetry, she also wrote autobiographical novels about academic women who battled depression and professional discontent.

Fromberg Schaeffer spent her entire working life in the university. After earning all three degrees at the University of Chicago (her 1966 PhD dissertation was on form and theme in the novels of Vladimir Nabokov, “the most intellectual novelist to write in English since James Joyce,” as she described him), she took a teaching job at Brooklyn College, where she met her husband Neil J. Schaeffer (author of a 1999 biography of the Marquis de Sade). They had two children, a boy and a girl, and remained married until her death.

The daughter of a wholesale clothier, Fromberg Schaeffer was born in Brooklyn on March 25, 1941. She attended public schools in Brooklyn and on Long Island. Her family had emigrated from Russia two generations earlier. Although she was bashful about describing herself as a Jewish writer (“I’m not trying deliberately to write on Jewish themes,” she said in an interview), she wrote two Jewish-themed novels — Love (1980), a multigenerational saga of a Jewish immigrant family, and Anya.

Anya was one of the first fictional treatments of the Holocaust to find anything like a popular audience. Before its appearance, Edward Lewis Wallant in The Pawnbroker (1961) and Saul Bellow in Mr Sammler’s Planet (1971) had summoned the Nazi war against the Jews to serve as the dramatic background to a survivor’s struggles with postwar American freedom. (Her most direct predecessor, Meyer Levin’s 1959 novel Eva, which also sought to filter the mass destruction through the consciousness of a single girl, had disappeared from American literature by 1974.) Anya is a story of enduring the Holocaust, from assimilation in comfortable circumstances in Warsaw to the burden of surviving death in the Kaiserwald concentration camp, narrated from within the events. Fromberg Schaeffer’s advantage was the very distance from Jewish tradition that she was so honest in acknowledging. As Alan L. Mintz said in his astute review for COMMENTARY, Fromberg Schaeffer’s “universalist perspective” gave her the resources to

illuminate a neglected and troubling aspect of the Holocaust: the fact that vast numbers of Jews, many more than we like to think in our idealizations of the six million, faced the extermination camps with little idea of why they were there and even less of the role they were being forced to play in a millennial Jewish drama.

This is not in any way to fault Fromberg Schaeffer, nor to minimize her achievement. She was candid about not being an observant Jew. And though Wayne C. Booth compared her early in her career to Cynthia Ozick, she represented a different Jewish literary strategy entirely. Where Ozick abandoned the religion of art for Jewish learning, Fromberg Schaeffer remained unshakably committed to the literary ideal. She lived by writing.

At least that’s how I came to know her. While an undergraduate at Santa Cruz, I founded a literary magazine with Raymond Carver that was called Quarry. An ad soliciting manuscripts in the New York Review of Books brought in nearly as many envelopes as John Payne dumps before the bench in Miracle on 34th Street. Among them were poems by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer — not quite good enough to publish, but good enough to ask for more. She gladly complied with our request, and complied again after the next encouraging rejection, and again after the next. She never gave up. And over time I came to admire her a great deal. Susan Fromberg Schaeffer was probably not a great novelist, but she was and is the kind of writer upon whom a living literature depends — hard-working, indefatigable, utterly devoted to the life of words.

Update: Here is a tender and grateful personal memoir by Fromberg Schaeffer’s former student Edward Byrne, who blogs on American poetry at One Poet’s Notes.

Read Less

The Return of Moral Fiction

This past weekend I was in Washington, D.C., to teach a seminar on “American Jewish Fiction and American Jewish Identity” to an a parliament of rabbinical students from the three major branches of American Judaism. Very quickly I was instructed in an important lesson. Literary discussions invariably crumble into a quarrel over first principles, because no one shares any these days. On one side was the postmodern resistance to what one student (a Brown grad) called “the tyranny of the author”; on the other side, an even stiffer resistance to any source of authority outside “Our sages, may their memory be blessed.” One side did not care what an American author had to say about any topic on which the Talmud might be consulted instead (“Who cares what [Cynthia] Ozick says about idolatry?” a young Orthodox Jew cried); the other side did not believe that authors really say anything at all.

To return home to Mark Athitakis’s dissent on Dana Spiotta’s new novel Stone Arabia was a relief, because Mark and I share the faith that great literature says things — things worth listening to — about the human experience. We also agree that Stone Arabia is a wonderful novel. Where we disagree is whether Spiotta’s book is a rock novel, although much more is at stake in our disagreement than the classification of one recent American novel.

Mark argues that Stone Arabia is not a rock novel, because Spiotta treats rock music as “more metaphor than reality, or at least as much metaphor as reality.” And he compares the book favorably to Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, a 1973 novel that is sometimes nominated for the position of Great American Rock Novel. “Spiotta does a few things that could come from the DeLillo playbook,” Mark says, and though Stone Arabia is not “strictly a DeLillo-esque novel,” Spiotta is closely akin to DeLillo in her awareness of “how a subculture can be used metaphorically.”

The comparison to DeLillo cuts to the bone of our disagreement. I myself do not overesteem DeLillo’s fiction; in fact, as I told Mark, I think it stinks. “Pah!” Mark replied. So John Podhoretz brilliantly parodied DeLillo’s word-choked style: “He tergiversated. ‘Pah,’ he finally exhaled, as the teleological horror overtook him.”

But there’s an even better reason for not reading his books. Namely, DeLillo’s philosophy of literature. DeLillo prefers the metaphor to the reality of human life. He believes that literature is incapable of decoding the world, it cannot penetrate evil, it fails to light up the smallest inch of human conduct. Nowhere does the inadequacy of his thinking show up any better than in his 9/11 novel Falling Man, which isolates the events of that day from any other aspect of the American character beyond shock and disorientation.

Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia is not a “DeLillo-esque novel,” but its exact opposite. It does not “use” rock music as a “metaphor.” Nik Worth’s music is actual, it is beautiful, but it is also solipsistic. It is entirely self-referential. It is, to borrow one of T. S. Eliot’s favorite terms, self-moved. It is the perfection of a poem. It is, in short, a well wrought urn, removed from history and the fumblings and reversals of the moral life.

As Mark astutely observes, the central conflict in Stone Arabia is “the effect of Nik’s pursuit on his sister Denise . . . who’s left to manage Nik’s real life while he pursues his fake one, willfully neglecting the world nearly everybody else feels obligated to live in.” The novel understands the attractions of removing art from the world nearly everybody else feels obligated to live in. It is sympathetic to the impulse that leads a writer to protest that he is obligated only to metaphor and image, the play of language, the self-perfection of art. In an afterword, Spiotta reveals that the “inspiration” for Nik Worth was “a real-life person, my stepfather,” who is likewise engaged in a “self-documented chronicle of his life as a secret rock star,” and who is a “true artist.” Moreover, the last person thanked in her acknowledgments is Don DeLillo.

Nevertheless, Spiotta’s novel is a warm-hearted criticism of the thinking that would unfasten an art like rock music (or literature, for that matter) from the human society of will and failure. In its quiet way, Stone Arabia is an argument for fiction of moral purpose. Cynthia Ozick once said that, “with certain rapturous exceptions, literature is the moral life.” Dana Spiotta’s new book is reason to hope that American novelists might return to such a view, no matter how many readers may have been trained to want something less demanding.

This past weekend I was in Washington, D.C., to teach a seminar on “American Jewish Fiction and American Jewish Identity” to an a parliament of rabbinical students from the three major branches of American Judaism. Very quickly I was instructed in an important lesson. Literary discussions invariably crumble into a quarrel over first principles, because no one shares any these days. On one side was the postmodern resistance to what one student (a Brown grad) called “the tyranny of the author”; on the other side, an even stiffer resistance to any source of authority outside “Our sages, may their memory be blessed.” One side did not care what an American author had to say about any topic on which the Talmud might be consulted instead (“Who cares what [Cynthia] Ozick says about idolatry?” a young Orthodox Jew cried); the other side did not believe that authors really say anything at all.

To return home to Mark Athitakis’s dissent on Dana Spiotta’s new novel Stone Arabia was a relief, because Mark and I share the faith that great literature says things — things worth listening to — about the human experience. We also agree that Stone Arabia is a wonderful novel. Where we disagree is whether Spiotta’s book is a rock novel, although much more is at stake in our disagreement than the classification of one recent American novel.

Mark argues that Stone Arabia is not a rock novel, because Spiotta treats rock music as “more metaphor than reality, or at least as much metaphor as reality.” And he compares the book favorably to Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, a 1973 novel that is sometimes nominated for the position of Great American Rock Novel. “Spiotta does a few things that could come from the DeLillo playbook,” Mark says, and though Stone Arabia is not “strictly a DeLillo-esque novel,” Spiotta is closely akin to DeLillo in her awareness of “how a subculture can be used metaphorically.”

The comparison to DeLillo cuts to the bone of our disagreement. I myself do not overesteem DeLillo’s fiction; in fact, as I told Mark, I think it stinks. “Pah!” Mark replied. So John Podhoretz brilliantly parodied DeLillo’s word-choked style: “He tergiversated. ‘Pah,’ he finally exhaled, as the teleological horror overtook him.”

But there’s an even better reason for not reading his books. Namely, DeLillo’s philosophy of literature. DeLillo prefers the metaphor to the reality of human life. He believes that literature is incapable of decoding the world, it cannot penetrate evil, it fails to light up the smallest inch of human conduct. Nowhere does the inadequacy of his thinking show up any better than in his 9/11 novel Falling Man, which isolates the events of that day from any other aspect of the American character beyond shock and disorientation.

Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia is not a “DeLillo-esque novel,” but its exact opposite. It does not “use” rock music as a “metaphor.” Nik Worth’s music is actual, it is beautiful, but it is also solipsistic. It is entirely self-referential. It is, to borrow one of T. S. Eliot’s favorite terms, self-moved. It is the perfection of a poem. It is, in short, a well wrought urn, removed from history and the fumblings and reversals of the moral life.

As Mark astutely observes, the central conflict in Stone Arabia is “the effect of Nik’s pursuit on his sister Denise . . . who’s left to manage Nik’s real life while he pursues his fake one, willfully neglecting the world nearly everybody else feels obligated to live in.” The novel understands the attractions of removing art from the world nearly everybody else feels obligated to live in. It is sympathetic to the impulse that leads a writer to protest that he is obligated only to metaphor and image, the play of language, the self-perfection of art. In an afterword, Spiotta reveals that the “inspiration” for Nik Worth was “a real-life person, my stepfather,” who is likewise engaged in a “self-documented chronicle of his life as a secret rock star,” and who is a “true artist.” Moreover, the last person thanked in her acknowledgments is Don DeLillo.

Nevertheless, Spiotta’s novel is a warm-hearted criticism of the thinking that would unfasten an art like rock music (or literature, for that matter) from the human society of will and failure. In its quiet way, Stone Arabia is an argument for fiction of moral purpose. Cynthia Ozick once said that, “with certain rapturous exceptions, literature is the moral life.” Dana Spiotta’s new book is reason to hope that American novelists might return to such a view, no matter how many readers may have been trained to want something less demanding.

Read Less

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.

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.

Read Less

Bellow, Hitchens, and COMMENTARY

One of the pleasures of the just-published Saul Bellow: Letters is the letter about the 1989 dinner with Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens – where Commentary played a dramatic role. Amis wrote about it in his 2001 memoir, Experience; Hitchens described it last year in Hitch-22. Now we have Bellow’s perspective, in an August 29, 1989, letter to Cynthia Ozick.

Amis had invited Hitchens, his best friend, to join him for dinner at Bellow’s Vermont home. On the ride there, Amis warned Hitchens that he “wasn’t to drag the conversation toward anything political, let alone left-wing, let alone anything to do with Israel.” But before dinner, Hitchens spotted something that would soon set him off:

Right on the wicker table in the room where we were chatting, there lay something that was as potentially hackneyed in its menace as Anton Chekhov’s gun on the mantelpiece. If it’s there in the first act … it will be fired before the curtain comes down. … It was the only piece of printed matter in view, and it was the latest edition of COMMENTARY magazine, and its bannered cover-story headline was: “Edward Said, Professor of Terror.”

As Hitchens told it, Bellow made an observation during dinner about anti-Zionism and went to retrieve his underlined copy of COMMENTARY to prove his point, and Hitchens decided he could not allow his friend Edward Said to be “defamed.” And “by the end of dinner nobody could meet anyone else’s eye and [Amis’s] foot had become lamed and tired by its under-the-table collisions with my shins.” On the long ride home, Hitchens explained he had to defend his absent friend — to which Amis responded, “And what about me?” Read More

One of the pleasures of the just-published Saul Bellow: Letters is the letter about the 1989 dinner with Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens – where Commentary played a dramatic role. Amis wrote about it in his 2001 memoir, Experience; Hitchens described it last year in Hitch-22. Now we have Bellow’s perspective, in an August 29, 1989, letter to Cynthia Ozick.

Amis had invited Hitchens, his best friend, to join him for dinner at Bellow’s Vermont home. On the ride there, Amis warned Hitchens that he “wasn’t to drag the conversation toward anything political, let alone left-wing, let alone anything to do with Israel.” But before dinner, Hitchens spotted something that would soon set him off:

Right on the wicker table in the room where we were chatting, there lay something that was as potentially hackneyed in its menace as Anton Chekhov’s gun on the mantelpiece. If it’s there in the first act … it will be fired before the curtain comes down. … It was the only piece of printed matter in view, and it was the latest edition of COMMENTARY magazine, and its bannered cover-story headline was: “Edward Said, Professor of Terror.”

As Hitchens told it, Bellow made an observation during dinner about anti-Zionism and went to retrieve his underlined copy of COMMENTARY to prove his point, and Hitchens decided he could not allow his friend Edward Said to be “defamed.” And “by the end of dinner nobody could meet anyone else’s eye and [Amis’s] foot had become lamed and tired by its under-the-table collisions with my shins.” On the long ride home, Hitchens explained he had to defend his absent friend — to which Amis responded, “And what about me?”

In his letter to Ozick, Bellow wrote that Hitchens had identified himself as a regular contributor to the Nation — a magazine Bellow had stopped reading after Gore Vidal “wrote his piece about the disloyalty of Jews to the USA” – and as a great friend of Said:

At the mention of Said’s name, Janis [Bellow] grumbled. I doubt that this was unexpected, for Hitchens almost certainly thinks of me as a terrible reactionary – the Jewish Right. … [He said] he must apologize for differing with Janis but loyalty to a friend demanded that he set the record straight. … Fortunately (or not) I had within reach several excerpts from Said’s Critical Inquiry piece, which I offered in evidence. Jews were (more or less) Nazis. But of course, said Hitchens, it was well known that [Yitzhak] Shamir had approached Hitler during the war to make deals. I objected that Shamir was Shamir, he wasn’t the Jews. Besides I didn’t trust the evidence. The argument seesawed. Amis took the Said selections to read for himself. He could find nothing to say at the moment but next morning he tried to bring the matter up, and to avoid further embarrassment I said it had all been much ado about nothing.

Then Bellow broadened the point of his letter:

Well, these Hitchenses are just Fourth-Estate playboys thriving on agitation, and Jews are so easy to agitate. Sometimes (if only I knew enough to do it right!) I think I’d like to write about the fate of the Jews in the decline of the West — or the long crisis of the West, if decline doesn’t suit you. The movement to assimilate coincided with the arrival of nihilism. This nihilism reached its climax with Hitler. The Jewish answer to the Holocaust was the creation of a state. After the camps came politics and these politics are nihilistic. Your Hitchenses, the political press in its silliest disheveled left-wing form, are (if nihilism has a hierarchy) the gnomes. … And it’s so easy to make trouble for the Jews. Nothing easier. The networks love it, the big papers let it be made, there’s a receptive university population.

So many ironies in this episode: only a few months before, Hitchens had learned that his mother and maternal grandparents were Jews, and that he was thus a Jew himself. Today he technically qualifies as part of the Jewish right (and believes that the U.S. military attracts the nation’s most idealistic people). He would write an introduction to a new edition of The Adventures of Augie March and receive a warm letter from Bellow; he left the Nation, in part because of the magazine’s tolerance of Gore Vidal, and he fell out with Edward Said, in part because of Said’s rigid anti-Americanism. Hitch-22 is marred by the occasional eruption of Hitchens’s anti-Zionism (reflecting his longstanding Palestinian blind spot), but it is a fascinating account of an extraordinary life by someone who traveled a long road after that dinner 20 years ago.

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Who First Said That Universalism Was the Parochialism of the Jews?

I need to make a correction to my post about faux Jewish-Arab dialogue from last Friday. In it I quoted the distinguished American literary critic Edward Alexander as the author of the quip that rightly noted, “universalism is the parochialism of the Jews.” The source, or so I thought, for that quote was Alexander’s wonderful 1988 book The Jewish Idea and Its Enemies. However, my memory appears to have betrayed me: a look at the original text revealed that, in fact, on page 101 of that volume, while endorsing the substance of this remark, Alexander credits this insight to writer Cynthia Ozick. My apologies go to both Mr. Alexander and Ms. Ozick.

I need to make a correction to my post about faux Jewish-Arab dialogue from last Friday. In it I quoted the distinguished American literary critic Edward Alexander as the author of the quip that rightly noted, “universalism is the parochialism of the Jews.” The source, or so I thought, for that quote was Alexander’s wonderful 1988 book The Jewish Idea and Its Enemies. However, my memory appears to have betrayed me: a look at the original text revealed that, in fact, on page 101 of that volume, while endorsing the substance of this remark, Alexander credits this insight to writer Cynthia Ozick. My apologies go to both Mr. Alexander and Ms. Ozick.

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The 2007 National Humanities Medal

Today, President Bush has awarded the National Humanities Medal to a number of important contributors to American intellectual life. We’re delighted to say that five of the honorees have close ties with COMMENTARY: military historian Victor Davis Hanson, the novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick, Russia scholar Richard Pipes, Harvard professor of Yiddish literature Ruth R. Wisse, and Roger Hertog, a distinguished patron of the humanities and a longtime supporter of COMMENTARY. We’ve made available free of charge some of the major items written by the honorees.

Victor Davis Hanson
Iraq’s Future—and Ours (January 2004)
Goodbye to Europe (October 2002)

Cynthia Ozick
The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination (March 1999)
Envy; or, Yiddish in America (November 1969)

Richard Pipes
Life, Liberty, Property (March 1999)
Russia’s Chance (March 1992)

Ruth R. Wisse
At Home in Jerusalem (April 2003)
Yiddish: Past, Present, Imperfect (November 1997)

Today, President Bush has awarded the National Humanities Medal to a number of important contributors to American intellectual life. We’re delighted to say that five of the honorees have close ties with COMMENTARY: military historian Victor Davis Hanson, the novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick, Russia scholar Richard Pipes, Harvard professor of Yiddish literature Ruth R. Wisse, and Roger Hertog, a distinguished patron of the humanities and a longtime supporter of COMMENTARY. We’ve made available free of charge some of the major items written by the honorees.

Victor Davis Hanson
Iraq’s Future—and Ours (January 2004)
Goodbye to Europe (October 2002)

Cynthia Ozick
The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination (March 1999)
Envy; or, Yiddish in America (November 1969)

Richard Pipes
Life, Liberty, Property (March 1999)
Russia’s Chance (March 1992)

Ruth R. Wisse
At Home in Jerusalem (April 2003)
Yiddish: Past, Present, Imperfect (November 1997)

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Jerusalem: The Scandal of Particularity

On May 24th, COMMENTARY’s editor-at-large Norman Podhoretz received the Guardian of Zion Award from the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies at Bar-Ilan University. The Guardian of Zion Award is one of the most prestigious in its field; past recipients include Charles Krauthammer, Cynthia Ozick, Daniel Pipes, Elie Wiesel, and Ruth Wisse. The full text of Podhoretz’s lecture—Jerusalem: The Scandal of Particularity—is now available at COMMENTARY’s website. (And make sure to read Rick Richman’s take on the lecture at Jewish Current Issues.)

On May 24th, COMMENTARY’s editor-at-large Norman Podhoretz received the Guardian of Zion Award from the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies at Bar-Ilan University. The Guardian of Zion Award is one of the most prestigious in its field; past recipients include Charles Krauthammer, Cynthia Ozick, Daniel Pipes, Elie Wiesel, and Ruth Wisse. The full text of Podhoretz’s lecture—Jerusalem: The Scandal of Particularity—is now available at COMMENTARY’s website. (And make sure to read Rick Richman’s take on the lecture at Jewish Current Issues.)

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Weekend Reading

This Sunday, April 15th, is Yom haShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Israeli parliament mandated the creation of this day–which falls on the 27th of Nisan in the Jewish calendar—in 1951, to honor the memories and the unimaginable sufferings of the victims of the Holocaust. Reflecting on the deeper meaning of the Holocaust in COMMENTARY’s very first issue (November 1945), the magazine’s founding editor Elliot Cohen wrote presciently:

[T]he kind of thinking and feeling that set loose this nightmare phenomenon still burns high in many countries, and lies latent in all. We have no gauge to measure the potentialities of this great Nazi secret weapon of World War II. But there are many—and they are not guided by personal hurt alone—who believe that here is a force that, in the political and social scene, can wreak destruction comparable to the atomic bomb itself. It was the ignis fatuus that lured the German people to their doom. It was the flame of the torch that kindled World War II. To resist it; to learn how to stamp it out; to re-affirm and restore the sense of the sanctity of the human person and the rights of man: here, too, our world is greatly challenged. How that challenge is to be met is, of course, of particular interest to Jews, but hardly less to all mankind, if there is to be a human future.

Over the ensuing decades, COMMENTARY has honored the commandment of remembrance by publishing many important articles on the Holocaust—memoirs, fiction, works of historiography, philosophy, religious thought, and literary criticism—by some of America’s and Europe’s most important writers. We present a small selection for this weekend’s reading.

Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: The Perversity of Brilliance
Norman Podhoretz — September 1963

Belsen Remembered
Lucy Dawidowicz — March 1966

Jewish Faith and the Holocaust: A Fragment
Emil L. Fackenheim — August 1968

Iron—A Memoir
Primo Levi — August 1977

Lies About the Holocaust
Lucy Dawidowicz — December 1980

The Lost Transport
Joseph Polak — September 1995

The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination
Cynthia Ozick — March 1999

Krystyna’s Gift—A Memoir
Lydia Aran — February 2004

This Sunday, April 15th, is Yom haShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Israeli parliament mandated the creation of this day–which falls on the 27th of Nisan in the Jewish calendar—in 1951, to honor the memories and the unimaginable sufferings of the victims of the Holocaust. Reflecting on the deeper meaning of the Holocaust in COMMENTARY’s very first issue (November 1945), the magazine’s founding editor Elliot Cohen wrote presciently:

[T]he kind of thinking and feeling that set loose this nightmare phenomenon still burns high in many countries, and lies latent in all. We have no gauge to measure the potentialities of this great Nazi secret weapon of World War II. But there are many—and they are not guided by personal hurt alone—who believe that here is a force that, in the political and social scene, can wreak destruction comparable to the atomic bomb itself. It was the ignis fatuus that lured the German people to their doom. It was the flame of the torch that kindled World War II. To resist it; to learn how to stamp it out; to re-affirm and restore the sense of the sanctity of the human person and the rights of man: here, too, our world is greatly challenged. How that challenge is to be met is, of course, of particular interest to Jews, but hardly less to all mankind, if there is to be a human future.

Over the ensuing decades, COMMENTARY has honored the commandment of remembrance by publishing many important articles on the Holocaust—memoirs, fiction, works of historiography, philosophy, religious thought, and literary criticism—by some of America’s and Europe’s most important writers. We present a small selection for this weekend’s reading.

Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: The Perversity of Brilliance
Norman Podhoretz — September 1963

Belsen Remembered
Lucy Dawidowicz — March 1966

Jewish Faith and the Holocaust: A Fragment
Emil L. Fackenheim — August 1968

Iron—A Memoir
Primo Levi — August 1977

Lies About the Holocaust
Lucy Dawidowicz — December 1980

The Lost Transport
Joseph Polak — September 1995

The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination
Cynthia Ozick — March 1999

Krystyna’s Gift—A Memoir
Lydia Aran — February 2004

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