Fathers and Sons
by Adele Wiseman
Viking. 346 pp. $3.95.
Possibly because it is a first novel, and in some ways better than many first novels, and possibly too because it was written by a serious young woman with a gift for rhetoric, The Sacrifice has been overpraised. A novel about Jews—idealized, stereotyped, and suffused with a kind of ethnic and domestic sentimentality—it does not give us much more than a series of conventional and fragmentary improvisations on an over-ambitious theme (“a novel of fathers and sons,” as the dust-cover puts it).
The events and situations of The Sacrifice are drawn from a palimpsest of familiar tales. Abraham and his wife Sarah (their surname we never learn) are Ukrainian Jews who have fled to Canada with their only surviving child, Isaac, after a pogrom that has cost the lives of two older sons, Moses and Jacob. They settle in a town we never learn the name of, at a time referred to eventually as the Depression. Abraham, a butcher by necessity, finds work in the meat shop of a robust vulgarian, Hymie Polsky, whose bovine mistress, Laiah, is the relish of wagging tongues. While Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac take turns reminiscing about dead sons and past catastrophes, life goes on with comparative tranquillity. Isaac reaches his manhood, marries Ruth, an orphan, and (brings her into his parents’ household, where the four of them live in love and harmony despite occasional arguments provoked by Isaac’s expounding of the Darwinian heresy. When Isaac and Ruth have a son and name him Moses Jacob after Isaac’s dead brothers, Abraham believes that God is at last rewarding him for all his suffering and loss. Soon, however, the grieving Sarah dies. Then Isaac is invalided after indulging a rash heroic impulse—he rescues the Torah from a burning synagogue—which strains his already weakened heart. Within a year he too dies, and Abraham is left with his daughter-in-law and grandson. Overcome by a sense of loss, he rapidly becomes estranged from them, and falls into the habit of taking tea with the aging but still lively Laiah, to whom he is obliged to deliver meat. After a bitter and vindictive argument with Ruth one evening, he rushes to Laiah, and in the midst of her attempts to seduce him, suddenly goes mad and slaughters her with a bread knife—re-enacting the traumatic event of his youth (told in the opening pages) in which he was compelled by his master, a village butcher, to substitute for an unavailable shochet by performing the ritual slaughter of a cow.
After the murder, Abraham, under a delusion that he has killed all his sons, is committed to a madhouse. With the exception of Chaim Knopp, a chicken slaughterer who has become Abraham’s best friend, the members of the Jewish community refuse to forgive, and deliberately forget, him. Years later, Moses Jacob, a sensitive youth with an exceptional musical talent, haunted by the dishonor and guilt his grandfather has caused him, visits Abraham for the first time. Unexpectedly he is moved to awe, love, and tears, and perceives in the old man a kind of holiness and power which is in some phylogenetic way imparted to him:
“And for a moment so conscious was he of his grandfather’s hand on his own, of its penetrating warmth, of its very texture, that he felt not as though it merely lay superimposed on his own but that it was becoming one with his hand, nerve of his nerve, sinew of his sinew; that the distinct outlines had disappeared. It was with the strangest feeling of awakening that he saw their hands fused together—one hand, the hand of a murderer, hero, artist, the hand of a man.”
Moses is to pick up the thread of conflict and reconciliation where his father and grandfather left off, to fuse madness, sanity, homicide, and holiness into one harmonious being. Abraham the murderer, Isaac the hero, Moses the artist—all are to become as one in him.
What happens in the novel, however, has little to do with the characters to whom it happens; scarcely any of them are adequately related to what is supposed to be going on. The only characters who achieve a degree of credibility—the gossip Mrs. Plopler, the butcher Hymie Polsky, the chicken shochet Chaim Knopp—do so by way of their hollow ring of familiarity. They are not individuals, really, but types of Jews, and as such afford interest only to those who take their comfort in what they are well acquainted with.
Even Isaac, who next to Abraham was meant to be the most distinct and individual character in the book, emerges as another familiar, albeit more complicated, idea of a Jewish type. He is an aspect of the Eternal Jew, who affirms his heritage by acting at crucial moments in direct contradiction to all those forces of secularization and self-interest which he believes to have shaped him. It is another attempt to portray that self-consciously ironic type of modem Jewish hero who has been regarded as existentialist and traditionalist, atheist and believer, intellectual and innocent at one and the same time—a type who is supposed to resolve within himself the warring elements of that duality mankind has been fighting a losing battle with for so long.
In Isaac the author has given us a characterization which in its way is as typical of the pedestrian idea of the secularized Jewish intellectual as her minor characters are of the Jewish folk. Both are clichés; both are unable to tell us enough about people who Miss Wiseman would like us to believe are vitally affected by, and somehow at the heart of, the complexities and contradictions of our times.
It has often been said that the Jews are endowed with a canny ability to remain essentially Jewish while becoming for all practical purposes “like unto others.” The nature of this apparent phenomenon, however, has yet to be understood. Miss Wiseman avoids the problem by bestowing upon Isaac all the trappings of the intellectual—the books, the “new ideas,” the skepticism, and the pains of introspection—while keeping him safely within a Jewish context that spares him (and her) any encounter with the world which those trappings must imply. Thus his schism never really sees the light of day, but remains internal and abstract. What the author is saying to us most clearly is not that he was caught in the contradictions between his “self and what he perceived to be real and true, but rather that he was finally above and beyond all such contradictions, was finally and profoundly a Jew. All he had learned and thought and felt, she conveys to us, were somehow not as important or genuine or admirable as his ultimate act of affirmation, and in no way were they truly opposed to it. “We really mean the same thing,” Isaac concludes Whenever he thinks about the stubborn orthodoxy of his father’s notions—and herein lies the virtue that Miss Wiseman would have us discern.
Abraham, the central figure of the story, is an idealization of the immigrant Jewish patriarch which is so completely dependent upon an emotional and familial involvement with Judaism that he becomes a bit too sticky, as it were, even for the writer; two-thirds of the way through the novel she tries to put some sinew in him by plunging him into the harsh, ugly quarrel with Ruth which precipitates his murder of Laiah. This scene is the first and only attempt made to prepare us for the murder, an act which we are meant to understand as the consummation of Abraham’s tragic fate, having its roots, we must recall, in the guilt and conflict consequent upon his youthful experience of killing a cow. Abraham’s narration of this boyhood event, however, is itself a piece of literary fantasy quite dissociated from the Abraham of the last hundred pages. Its intention, rather, seems to be to establish, without a shred of irony, the character’s particular chosenness: his archetypically “cosmic” sensibility, his complex experience of evil, and his profound virtue and benignity. It is also an occasion for Miss Wiseman to indulge her imaginative religiosity, and is turgid with the echoes of ancient sacrifice and the Biblical tale which gives her main characters their names:
“But it was not until after I had been forced to take a life that I really changed and was no longer a child. Not only did I see in that moment the depths of baseness in a man, but when I turned, trembling, to face the beast, I approached another mystery. Who has to take a life stands alone on the edge of creation. Only God can understand him then.”
This kind of expression does not for a moment render the murder of Laiah a credible event. On the contrary, it tends to do just the reverse. It must be remembered in this connection that the greatest modern characterizer of murderers and madmen, Dostoevsky, took special pains to single out and accentuate in various ways those twists of nature in them which had most to do with their particular corruption or disease. But there is nothing in the recounting of Abraham’s slaughter of the cow that legitimately suggests an incipient murderer or psychotic. No unwieldy disturbance attaches to the event, either for the author or for her character; it is all ingested, absorbed, assimilated, and verbalized. Nor does the passage contain anything that establishes the author’s right to manipulate her protagonist in the gratuitous and “tragic” way she finally sees fit.
What is most disappointing about Miss Wiseman’s novel is that in trying to deal so sympathetically with the relations of past and present, it fails to reveal the enormous and perhaps irreparable chasm that has opened between them for modern man. Miss Wiseman seems not really to have experienced this rift, and intones in its place the lofty notes of affirmation and rebirth. Hidden in the structure of her tale is an intimation of a kind of alienation of Jew from Jew, but it is an intimation never brought to life. What she has actually given us is a domestic melodrama with vitrually no social background. For a story which leans as heavily upon the facts of suffering and disruption as this one does, it is a wonder that so few of the realities behind those facts are permitted to appear.