Commentary Magazine

Anglo-Jewish Writing

To the Editor:

If proof were needed that it is almost impossible for anyone who was not brought up in it to understand the nuances of the English social system, Mr. Dan Jacobson provided it in his article, “Jewish Writing in England” [May]. Mr. Jacobson, a little disingenuously, perhaps, asks “if someone who has lived in England, on and off, for only ten years can speak of ‘us’?” His own subtle misapprehensions implicitly give the answer.

First, however, one must question the article’s premise; that Anglo-Jewish writing has been disappointing. . . . By way of justification, Mr. Jacobson beats the dog with the old stick of American-Jewish writing, but the comparison, for reasons which I hope to show, is misleading and superficial. Most Anglo-Jewish writers of my own generation willingly defer to the superior achievement of American-Jewish writing, just as most English writers would defer to the general superiority, over the last twenty years, of the Americans. But the Anglo-Jewish writer, in effect, is only beginning to emerge, and should still have his best work in front of him. . . . Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker, Bernard Kops, Gerda Charles, Frederic Raphael, Bernice Rubens, Gillian Freeman, Peter Shaffer, Jon Silkin, Dannie Abse, are for the most part under the age of thirty-five; and it is certainly arguable that some of the playwrights among them are currently doing better work than any of their American equivalents. . . .

In England, as Mr. Jacobson points out, the cultural tradition has been long and solidly established. This has created special problems for the Anglo-Jewish writer, just as the nature of American experience has given special opportunities to the American-Jewish writer; but they are not quite the problems Mr. Jacobson suggests. Above all, the difficulty has been that of adjusting to an alien culture, and it is this, in turn, which has produced the long latency period which has only just come to an end. The sheer size of the American-Jewish population—interacting with the special character of the United States—did make a difference, though Mr. Jacobson may discount it, but it made it in a complex and oblique way. Through their very numbers, and the heterogeneity of a melting pot which never melted, the American Jews were able to retain their identity. Thus, the work of writers such as Bellow and Malamud, however “American,” has been informed by the rich tradition of the East-European Jewish culture. A further effect of the size of the American-Jewish community—especially in New York—is that it has created the possibility for diversity and, with it, the phenomenon of the American-Jewish intellectual, who has done so much to fructify the imaginative life of his country. . . . Contrary to Mr. Jacobson, the American-Jewish community has been given no license to “test within its own experience” the nature and assumptions of its society. It is able to do so for two reasons: partly because that society is still composed largely of ethnic groups, partly because the . . . phenomenon of America is still one of passionate immediacy. . . .

Where Mr. Jacobson is right is to infer that the Anglo-Jewish community is peripheral to the English experience, but this, rather than disqualifying the Anglo-Jewish writer from taking his place in English letters, has merely given him a different place, and made his travail longer.

Mr. Jacobson is quite wrong when he says that English society “resists the attempt of anyone outside it to re-order its affairs or even to share quietly in them.” Certainly it is the nature of a well-established tradition to resist alien interference, but the English have always been perfectly happy to let other people “share,” though as individuals, rather than as groups. Perhaps the best example was provided, several hundred years ago, by the Huguenots, but ever since then, England has provided generous opportunity to the foreign “immigrant.” It is a country without racial myths, in whose affairs, besides, the Scots and the Irish have played a salient part.

Not the least of the difficulties of the Anglo-Jewish writer is the very openness of English society, together with the closed, hermetic nature of his own. . . .

Clearly this must, in Mr. Jacobson’s words, “have inhibited a strong, distinctive literary exploration of Anglo-Jewish experience,” but the nature of the Anglo-Jewish community has had as much to do with it, if not more. As Mr. Jacob-son wrote, it is an audience in perpetual need of comfort and reassurance. I would think that in its uneasy materialism, there is little to distinguish it from American-Jewish society, but for the fact—as I have said—that the American-Jewish community is large enough and heterogeneous enough to provide its intellectuals with a group and a life of their own.

Within the Anglo-Jewish community, no such life exists, a fact determined not only by its size, but by the impact of the surrounding dominant culture, and its availability to Jewish writers and intellectuals. They know one another, they meet one another, but they do so in a context which is not specifically Jewish. Within the community, cultural activity is inevitably marginal, trivial, and evanescent. . . .

Of contemporary Anglo-Jewish writers, only one, Gerda Charles, has remained within the community, and both her novels and her occasional public statements testify to her extreme difficulties. An Orthodox Jew, she has complained that she finds nothing better than casual tolerance for her beliefs among other Jewish writers, yet no recognition of her possible use within the Orthodox community itself. Yet even Miss Charles’s most successful and best-realized novel, The True Voice, is largely set in a non-Jewish ambience. . . .

Harold Pinter has solved this problem with heartening success, because his work is essentially symbolic. Manifestly informed by Jewish experience, clearly owing much to Kafka, it still makes brilliant use of English speech rhythms for its purpose. . . . Arnold Wesker, though he began, in his first full-length play, Chicken Soup with Barley, with an East End Jewish family, has since gone much farther afield. Roots, critically his most successful play, is set in a community of Norfolk peasants. . . . Alexander Baron’s The Human Kind, probably the best English stories to come out of World War II, has no overt “Jewish” content at all—though again, those in search of a Jewish detachment, a certain Jewish way of looking, can find it.

All this suggests that there is a function for the Anglo-Jewish writer in English letters, however difficult it may be. . . . The Anglo-Jewish writers who have emerged since the war benefit from a certain vigor, a certain lively detachment, at a time when English society has set fast in outmoded patterns. The very tension between their Englishness and their Jewishness provides their best hope of creative activity, whether they write about Norfolk farmers, professional footballers, Welsh tramps, or British infantrymen.

It will be time enough in twenty years to pronounce on the validity of their work. Meanwhile, their problems are more complex, their opportunities greater, than Mr. Jacobson has suggested. . . .

Brian Glanville
London, England

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