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Promised Lands, Times Literary Supplement Review by Morris Dickstein

2016 May 9
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by Morris Dickstein
Times Literary Supplement
April 13, 2016
Victoria Aarons, Avinoam J. Patt and Mark Shechner, editors
978 0 8143 4055 4
Benjamin Schreier
978 1 4798 7584 7
Hana Wirth-Nesher, editor
978 1 107 04820 1

In 1959 a long essay appeared in the TLS (anonymously, of course) that took notice of an important new turn in American writing. It had a vague, slightly patronizing title, “A Vocal Group: The Jewish part in American letters”, as if the headline writer were not quite sure what to make of it. The author, an unknown young critic named Theodore Solotaroff, had been suggested to the paper’s Editor, Alan Pryce-Jones, by a friend from the University of Chicago, Philip Roth. Roth had recently published a handful of audaciously gifted stories that made him a controversial figure in that vocal group. The article caught the eye of Norman Podhoretz, the newly appointed Editor of Commentary, and on the strength of it he hired its author as an assistant editor. Solotaroff would eventually make a major mark as an editor and writer; Roth would go on to become, well, Philip Roth.

The essay covered considerable ground, taking in not only important post-war Jewish novelists such as Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud but also the acute young critics who helped to clear a space for them, especially the literary intellectuals of the Partisan Review circle – Lionel Trilling, Leslie Fiedler, Alfred Kazin, Philip Rahv and Irving Howe. In his article Solotaroff returned to Fiedler’s account – in an essay published the year before in ­Midstream magazine – of the “breakthrough” exemplified by Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March(1953), notably his shift from small-scale, carefully crafted fictions to messier, more ambitious works, as well as his ability to write from inside the mind and heart of his feelingful protagonists (Herzog was not yet on the horizon). In writers like the hell-raising Fiedler and the newly emboldened Bellow, Solotaroff saw “a willingness to revolt, to take chances, to trust one’s own instincts and insights and standards, to risk a crushing failure and even ridicule”. By casting Augie as a descendant of Huck Finn, Bellow had ­overcome the provinciality of pre-war Jewish writers to work within the American grain, filtering national motifs through an urban Jewish sensibility. A singular shift had taken place: a literary landscape previously dominated by modernists such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, and by social novelists left over from the Depression years, among them John Steinbeck and James T. Farrell, had begun to make way for new outsider groups, especially Jews and blacks.

Today that Jewish literary renaissance is sometimes said to have run its course during the first two or three decades after the war when these writers did their best work. Its ­oft-quoted but premature eulogy was delivered by Howe in the introduction to his anthology ­Jewish-American Stories (1977): “Insofar as it draws heavily from the immigrant experience, it must suffer a depletion of resources, a thinning-out of materials and memories”. “There just isn’t enough left of that experience.” But that “insofar” left an opening through which dozens of younger writers have since clambered, among them a new wave of young immigrants from the former USSR. Instead of dying out once those tenement memories had been washed away by suburban assimilation, Jewish-American writing has unexpectedly flourished over the past two decades. The New Diaspora, edited by Victoria Aarons, Avinoam J. Patt and Mark Shechner, is only the latest and largest of a series of anthologies that make a strong claim for these recent writers, most of them more unambiguously comfortable in their Jewishness than were their predecessors. A few of those included are older (among them Curt Leviant, Edith Pearlman and Joseph Epstein), others (such as Steve Stern, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Ehud Havazelet) have been publishing since the 1980s, while some are already well known though a good deal younger (including ­Jonathan Safran Foer, Nathan Englander and Dara Horn), along with other writers just ­finding their footing.

They come with a far greater variety of backgrounds and subjects here than one would have found in the post-war generation. Included are the children of Holocaust survivors as well as new immigrants, a writer from South Africa, with its significant Jewish minority, stories about Sephardic Jews, stories set in Israel, and an abundance of stories by women. Much of the writing looks less personal, more densely cultural than the work of their predecessors. Some of it feels like the product of creative writing courses or advanced degrees in Jewish Studies. Bellow and his contemporaries grew up in Yiddish-speaking households, often very poor, a world in which family ties were dominant and sex was unmentionable. Formed by experiences so different from those of their parents, they crossed a deep divide which left them insecure, emotionally hungry, fickle in love, and self-obsessed. Different forms of psychoanalysis – Freudian, Reichian – served as the background music to their lives, sometimes even the foreground one, as in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). They looked to psychoanalysis for validation, for liberation, but also to fathom explosive inner tensions and contradictions. Once upon a time, say the editors of this volume, “the insistent ‘me, me, me’ had a force and implacability that made the obsessional self virtually a cornerstone of Jewish writing in America”. Now, they note, “gone are the anxious, phobic, dislocated Jewish protagonists for whom America is a landscape of frustrated desire. In their place, we find history”. This more expansive cultural reach can be traced in Roth himself in the contrast between early books like Portnoyand later ones such as American Pastoral (1997) and The Plot against America (2004) – books caught up not simply in personal demons but in the convulsions of several decades of American life.

Such a wider historical purview is less of an advantage to the writer than it might appear. Titanic self-absorption and obsession are woven into the fabric of American literature, going back to Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. Roth’s own Sabbath’s Theater (1995) is a late example. The work of the post-war writers was often deployed around a loosely autobiographical protagonist – a Herzog, a Portnoy, suffering in extremis, wallowing in self-pity, oscillating between accusation and anguish – that gave the novels an incandescent intensity rarely found among the more recent writers. It connected them to modernist themes of anxiety, displacement and alienation going back to Dostoevsky’sNotes from Underground and Kafka’s stories. In its place the younger Jewish writers, feeling far more secure, bring a deeper knowledge of Judaism, especially the Orthodox Judaism in which some of them were raised. (The background of the earlier generation was more likely to be in secular Yiddish culture and working-class socialism.) The traumas of the new writers rarely pivot on sex and repression, or the toll exacted by overbearing, uncomprehending parents or lovers. Their lives have been more free and open, more privileged. Many of them have lived in Israel, know Hebrew, and find more drama in the Jewish past than in their own middle-class upbringing. They feel equally comfortable as Jews and Americans, and this loss of urgency or tension can leave their ­stories feeling more anecdotal. When drawn to extreme situations, they are more likely to focus on the aftershocks of the Holocaust, taking stock of the damaged lives of survivors and the “second-hand smoke” breathed in by their children. One of the more powerful Holocaust stories in The New Diaspora, “There Are Jews in My House” by the immigrant writer Lara Vapnyar, is about a woman who takes in a Jewish family under the Nazi occupation, at the risk of her life, only to report them, with a seemingly irrational compulsion, when their presence becomes a burden to her. Though the writer was born in the Soviet Union long after the war, this tale feels experienced, not researched.

“Minyan”, by another immigrant writer, David Bezmozgis, who was born in Latvia, looks back at the human remnants of the world of two generations past. It turns on the difficulty of finding a quorum of ten men, a minyan, to keep an Orthodox service going, but it’s really about the bonds of unconventional love, the weight of the past and the shipwreck of old age. Speaking of traditional prayers and rituals, Bezmozgis writes, “most of the old Jews came because they were drawn by the nostalgia for ancient cadences. I came because I was drawn by the nostalgia for old Jews. In each case the motivation was not tradition but history”. This is a story about survivors, alone and vulnerable, as observed, with rare empathy, by someone much younger; its nostalgia is hard-edged. Another deftly atmospheric offering is Ehud Havazelet’s “Six Days”, a family tale in three generations and the first of a sequence of autobiographical stories from his book Like Never Before (1998). Havazelet, who died in November 2015, grew up in an Orthodox family, his grandfather an eminent Brooklyn rabbi, his father a Yeshiva University professor. Here the dreamy father teaches in the Hebrew day school that the son attends, and the story unfolds alternately from their different points of view. “The impression he always got approaching his father’s classroom was of books as an ocean, his father adrift among them, possibly going down.” At home, when the boy calls him for a meal, “his father would look up from his books every time like a man shocked from dreaming, alarmed, happy, smiling to see him”. It is not hard to see why the son might become a writer, but also why he would rebel against the religion of his forebears.

Just as the post-war novelists were in step with a fractious group of remarkable critics, the current surge arrived in tandem with the expanding academic field of Jewish Studies. This has now produced both a masterly work of synthesis, The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature, edited by Hana Wirth-Nesher, and a sweeping postmodern critique, The Impossible Jew by Benjamin Schreier. It has been more than four decades since cross-disciplinary area studies such as Women’s Studies and Black Studies began to offer alternatives to traditional university departments. As offshoots of the politics of the 1960s and the ethnic pride movements of the early 70s, they provided some redress for past exclusions. Often they were politically motivated ways of meeting the demands of minorities and integrating them into the curriculum. Developing later, Jewish Studies never quite fitted into this political pattern, since Jews had already gained acceptance as academic insiders, not rebellious outsiders. Jewish-oriented scholarship had attracted little general attention, but blatant discrimination, still rampant after the war, had long since ebbed. Moreover, no one loved the Western canon, from the Greeks to the Modernists, more than the newly fledged Jewish authors. For all its anti-Semitic threads and overtly Christian values, this was fundamentally a humanist tradition, secularized by the Enlightenment, that had helped to effect Jewish ­emancipation.

Both Wirth-Nesher and Schreier fret about the marginal position of Jewish Studies in the academy, especially in English departments, but they respond to it differently, Wirth-Nesher by compiling thirty-one long essays on every facet of American Jewish literary achievement, Schreier by indicting work in the field itself as backward and unadventurous: in his words, “undertheorized”, “nationalistic” and “identitarian” in its methods, politics and ideology. Schreier admits jauntily that he is “criticizing the people I want to convince”, writing “a polemic, full of vitriol and bile”, but his goal is elusive if not misguided. Was there ever a chance that Jewish Studies would be warmly welcomed into the various networks of American and minority studies currently imbued with the politics of anti-Zionism, boycott and divestment? For the usual minority studies theorists Jews are no longer the designated victims but the oppressors. Besides this political mismatch there is a conflict over method. Most Jewish Studies scholars continue to work in traditional ways, empirically, connecting texts and fictional characters with historical agents and the social realities of the wider world. Up-to-date Cultural Studies theorists instead tend to be text-oriented, politically driven critics of ideology. For them identity is socially or linguistically constructed. By this light the Jew cannot be defined ethnically or genetically. While it strikes a radical pose, this anti-essentialism, grounded in the postmodern critique of the unified subject, is today’s academic orthodoxy, at least in the humanities, if not in Jewish Studies. In line with the theorists, Schreier describes identity as inherently problematic, always in formation, and enlists writing and scholarship as vehicles for “de-stabilizing” and reconstructing it rather than representing that which is already known. He questions the historicism that connects the text to the world and resists reading literature for what it is “about”, a word he likes to put between scare quotes.

Schreier’s book is a narrow but bracing polemic, difficult, repetitive, clotted with jargon, yet burning with a fiery sense of purpose. Like many fierce polemics, however, it is directed at something of a straw man. After all, no literature worth its salt treats its characters as unproblematic representatives of an abstract, self-evident biological category or social type. Few literary works figure in The Impossible Jew and the handful brought forth tend to stack the deck. One of them is not literature at all but “Under Forty”, a symposium from 1944 of younger intellectuals appearing in the Contemporary Jewish Record, the forerunner ofCommentary. Asked to identify specifically Jewish elements in their work, critics like Kazin and Trilling demurred, recoiling from the organized Jewish community, affirming their own Jewish roots but refusing to be labelled or hyphenated. Trilling, though acknowledging his Jewishness as “one of the shaping conditions of my temperament”, wrote: “I do not think of myself as a ‘Jewish writer.’ I do not have it in mind to serve by my writing any Jewish purpose. I should resent it if a critic of my work were to discover in it either faults or virtues which he called Jewish”. He admitted that 1944 was an awkward moment, amid untold suffering, to distance oneself from one’s fellow Jews, but insisted that “the great fact for American Jews is their exclusion from certain parts of the general life”, fostering “a willingness to be provincial and parochial”. It was this “general life”, the appeal of the Western and American mainstream, that called out to him.

Schreier ingeniously mobilizes such refusals to explore the gap between merely biological origins and more complex identities forged in the work of cultural production – the space, as he puts it, “between genealogy and vocation, between group and action, between text and archive”. But the goal for Trilling and his contemporaries was not a “de-stabilized”, postmodern identity. Shaking off the constraints of the ghetto and the social barriers still confronting Jews, they instead laid claim to the universal identity that Western culture, democratic freedoms and (for a time) Marxist politics seemed to promise. They were reaching for the full range of human possibility, not for self-realization as Jews; nothing could be further from the flaunting of ethnic or racial origins that came into fashion with multi­culturalism. It makes little sense to turn the New York intellectuals into postmodernists avant la lettre, simply because they found it limiting or ghettoizing to see their work described as distinctly Jewish.

Schreier finds a better match for his argument in Philip Roth’s key novelThe Counterlife (1986). Roth’s typical identity games, his refusal of any ethnic claims on him, whether from American Jews or from zealots in Israel, do suggest that identity is fluid and malleable, in formation, not merely given, especially in the ways that writers perform variations on their own experience. Accused of being simply an autobiographical writer, little able to make anything up, he evolved his own form of postmodern invention, not as theory but in defence of his own creative process, conjuring up alternative plots as well as an alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. Writing about Israel, Roth discovered that for him the diaspora was actually the promised land, the place where he could forge his own loyalties. But it’s hard to see how his late work could be any kind of model for Jewish Studies, as Schreier argues it should be.

If Solotaroff’s essay was a moment of recognition for Jewish-American writing, the Cambridge History marks a milestone in its institutionalization. In 2003 Wirth-Nesher and Michael Kramer edited a Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature, but the new volume is conceived on a grander scale. Like the editors of The New Diaspora, Wirth-Nesher affirms the multiplicity of Jewish writing – and the fluidity of Jewish identity – by spreading her net as widely as possible. The book includes essays on historical periods, on major genres, on American writing in different languages – Yiddish, Hebrew, Ladino – on Canadian and Latin American Jewish writers. There are thematic essays on literature set in Israel, on New York as a location and subject, on the black–Jewish dialogue, on the treatment of the Holocaust, on translation, anthologies, intellectuals, popular culture, film, Jewish humour, graphic novels. The book is as catholic in style as in its profusion of topics. Some chapters cover many works, though never in the numbing catalogue style that once made most literary histories seem such a bore – hopelessly superficial. Others build an argument on a handful of exemplary works. The editor has clearly given free rein to her contributors, holding them only to an intelligent standard and a welcome clarity of style. Only a reviewer would read the book straight through but in fact it reads particularly well. Even the overlaps make good sense. Some writers such as Abraham Cahan, a pioneer of both Jewish journalism (in Yiddish) and American Jewish fiction (in English), or the poet and early Zionist Emma Lazarus, reappear in several chapters since their protean careers can be usefully grasped from different angles.

Such prismatic viewpoints accord well with a more mobile and contingent sense of identity. Leaving aside the Orthodox establishment, today only stand-up comedians and die-hard racists cling to the usual stereotypes about Jewish identity. Repeated efforts to define who was a Jew and what constituted Jewish literature have now given way to an emphasis on hybridity and complexity. The range of the Cambridge History reflects a refusal to close down the subject and police its borders. In another era, the Jewish moguls set out to create Hollywood as an American industry by bleaching out nearly all trace of its Jewishness, indeed of ethnic origins altogether. This was assimilation with a vengeance, a faux-American dream, classless and homogeneous. As Jonathan Freedman shows here in his essay “Jews and Film”, this later lost its hold when actors and directors such as Barbra Streisand and the Coen brothers came to “use the film industry to carve out new (and not unproblematic) itineraries for themselves in eras of ethnic revival, gender revolution, and postmodern hybrid identity formations challenging the very category ‘Jew’ itself”. The same shift can be mapped in literary history. Allen Guttmann’s pioneering work of 1971,The Jewish Writer in America, tried to tell the whole story as a single narrative, focused on individual authors and on the transition from immigration to assimilation. Wirth-Nesher’s book is based on the understanding that no master narrative can ever be convincing: to encompass a history marked by alternative paths and serious ruptures we must move (in Dan Miron’s terms) “from continuity to contiguity”.

The contributors to the History are attuned to such dissonance and discontinuity. Anita Norich’s probing essay on the “Poetics and Politics of Translation” questions whether translations from the Yiddish somehow betray the language, not out of inaccuracy but by suggesting “that Yiddish has no audience or future . . . . Translation becomes, potentially, a form of obliteration”. On the other hand, it can also be seen as “an act of resistance to history”, a “defiant gesture aimed at preserving the traces of a culture that underwent dreadful transformations”. This may be especially true now that “translation has increasingly been understood as serving the original text and not the innocent reader. The reader is made to work harder, to perceive his or her own language as strange. Translators are now more likely to foreignize the target language rather than obscure the ­differences between source and target”. Like such translations, the new Cambridge History is all about difference. In her excellent piece about Jewish literary anthologies, Wendy I. Zierler resurrects the work of Leo Schwarz in the 1930s, books like The Jewish Caravan (1935) and A Golden Treasury of Jewish Literature (1937), works of serious ethnic pride that were once ubiquitous gifts for every bar mitzvah boy. From there she traces a path to rigorously critical anthologies like Howe’s and Eliezer Greenberg’s influential collections of Yiddish poetry and prose and the comprehensive Norton anthology of 2001, the first that laid out this literature as canonical work for classroom use.

The vigorous renewal of Jewish-American writing today remains a genuine surprise. The very assimilation that was thought to have thinned out its material and toned down its voice has instead given impetus to new ways of being Jewish and of writing about it, yet today’s Jewish writing is also completely entwined with the main lines of American ­literature. Long ago a graduate student who had grown up a Catholic told me how much she envied Jews. When she stopped believing, stopped taking communion, she said, she became an ex-Catholic, but secularism, even atheism, were simply alternative ways of being Jewish. This was partly because Jews, confusingly, were an ethnic or national as well as a religious group, but also because even then, in America at least, Judaism, free of any central authority, had a much greater tolerance for diversity. In subsequent decades, younger Jews, in line with the American belief in self-making, took up that freedom wholeheartedly. Religious rituals like the Passover seder, which once brooked little variation, are now tailored to every taste and spiritual need, from the most traditional to the most individual, from strictly Orthodox to feminist, gay, or vegan. The same can be said about the new writers. Finding their own way, they work out of an embarrassment of choice, not the burden of necessity. Time will tell whether this proves to be a source of power.

Ways of Being Jewish, Times Literary Supplement April 13, 2016

2016 April 18
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Read Morris Dickstein’s Review of THE NEW DIASPORA: The changing landscape of American Jewish fiction, THE IMPOSSIBLE JEW: Identity and the reconstruction of Jewish American literary history, and THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF JEWISH AMERICAN LITERATURE.

Listen to the TLS PODCAST: Being Jewish Being American in which Toby Lichtig talks to Morris Dickstein about the ever-evolving relationship between Judaism and American literature.

Published: 13 April 2016

Ways of Being Jewish

In 1959 a long essay appeared in the TLS (anonymously, of course) that took notice of an important new turn in American writing. It had a vague, slightly patronizing title, “A Vocal Group: The Jewish part in American letters”, as if the headline writer were not quite sure what to make of it. The author, an unknown young critic named Theodore Solotaroff, had been suggested to the paper’s Editor, Alan Pryce-Jones, by a friend from the University of Chicago, Philip Roth. Roth had recently published a handful of audaciously gifted stories that made him a controversial figure in that vocal group. The article caught the eye of Norman Podhoretz, the newly appointed Editor of Commentary, and on the strength of it he hired its author as an assistant editor. Solotaroff would eventually make a major mark as an editor and writer; Roth would go on to become, well, Philip Roth.

The essay covered considerable ground, taking in not only important post-war Jewish novelists such as Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud but also the acute young critics who helped to clear a space for them, especially the literary intellectuals of the Partisan Review circle – Lionel Trilling, Leslie Fiedler, Alfred Kazin, Philip Rahv and Irving Howe. In his article Solotaroff returned to Fiedler’s account – in an essay published the year before in Midstream magazine – of the “breakthrough” exemplified by Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March (1953), notably his shift from small-scale, carefully crafted fictions to messier, more ambitious works, as well as his ability to write from inside the mind and heart of his feelingful protagonists (Herzog was not yet on the horizon). In writers like the hell-raising Fiedler and the newly emboldened Bellow, Solotaroff saw “a willingness to revolt, to take chances, to trust one’s own instincts and insights and standards, to risk a crushing failure and even ridicule”. By casting Augie as a descendant of Huck Finn, Bellow had overcome the provinciality of pre-war Jewish writers to work within the American grain, filtering national motifs through an urban Jewish sensibility. A singular shift had taken place: a literary landscape previously dominated by modernists such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, and by social novelists left over from the Depression years, among them John Steinbeck and James T. Farrell, had begun to make way for new outsider groups, especially Jews and blacks.

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What the Shadow Knows Paul Pines in Notre Dame Review

2016 April 18
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by Morris Dickstein

Read Paul Pines’s review of Why Not Say What Happened.

What the Shadow Knows PDF

What the Shadow Knows

Morris Dickstein.
Why Not Say What Happened. Liverwright, 2015.
Paul Pines
There was another light in the room now, a thousand times brighter than the night-lights, and in the time we have taken to say this, it has been in all the drawers in the nursery, looking for Peter’s shadow…
James M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Enter, The Shadow

There are many reasons to pursue Memoir, arguably the most intimate form of literary expression. Augustine of Hippo in his Confessions admitted to once stealing an apple from an orchard, and in so doing linked his personal experience to Adam’s expulsion from Eden, and his life’s work addressing the commission and consequences of Original Sin, but not before disclosing that as a young Platonist with strong appetites, he wished to prolong his wickedness a little longer before assuming the robes of ecclesiastical authority. Rousseau hoped to reclaim his original Innocence by writing an absolutely honest memoir confessing his darkest acts and feelings, among these pissing in a cooking pot, and sexual arousal in response to beatings by a dominating Nanny. Modernist Edward Dahlberg, the disposable son of an itinerant lady barber, unleashes a cry of outraged innocence no amount of disclosure can assuage in the eponymous Confessions of Edward Dahlberg. Enter Morris Dickstein, whose earlier books, Dancing in the Dark, and Gates of Eden about the Great Depression and the apocalyptic ‘60s, mark him as one of the most astute cultural commentators of our time. Now, for his own reasons, he has chosen to become his own subject in his memoir entitled, Why Not Say What Happened, A Sentimental Education.

On the West bank: A New Israeli novel

2015 February 13


First published in the Times Literary Supplement (Jan. 2, 2015)

Among many obstacles to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the settlements established on the West Bank since 1967 seem peculiarly intractable. Part of their purpose was to create “facts on the ground” to inhibit the formation of a Palestinian state. Still, when Israel gave up the Jewish settlements in Sinai in 1982 and again in Gaza in 2005, the settlers appeared to have their backs to the wall. Instead, their influence over Israel’s politics, including the current governing coalition, has never been greater. Though many were drawn by economic incentives, others fit the more swaggering mold of gun-toting ideological zealots, motivated by biblically-rooted religion or nationalism. This is the stereotype that Assaf Gavron sets out to complicate in his new novel, The Hilltop.

Though the issues raised are grave, Assaf Gavron’s tack is surprisingly light-hearted, humorous, satirical. A previous book, Almost Dead, was a slashing, sometimes surreal comic novel about terrorism, including suicide bombing, told alternately in the first person from a Jewish and an Arab point of view. The Hilltop is a more conventional but also more ambitious work, a distanced overview, meticulously realistic, centering on everyday life in one corner of the territories. The setting is Ma’aleh Hermesh C, an improvised outpost of a handful of families on the fringe of an established settlement. It can’t be found on any map – hence can’t be evacuated – because officially it was evacuated years ago. It squats on land whose legal status is absurdly ambiguous. In a page out of Catch-22, it doesn’t exist though its residents are back, living under the protection of the Israeli army.

To Israel’s defense minister it’s become an annoyance, especially after a serendipitous press report draws the attention of the American government, even the president. The aggrieved defense minister feels “he went there to support them, and they spat on him. In any normal country,” he thinks, “ the outpost would have been dismantled and they would have been thrown in jail.” These settlers, though religious, are hardly extremists or militant fundamentalists. They’re hard-working, mostly well-meaning, with little patience for the “lefties” who challenge them. One of the founders, the genial Othniel Assis, simply knows how to play the bureaucratic game, exploiting loopholes and pulling strings whenever the outpost is threatened.

For some, the appeal of the territories is like that of the Wild West. Roni Kupper, whose recent past is clouded in mystery, returns from America to hole up in the outpost with his brother Gabi, who also has been through unspoken troubles. At loose ends, Roni hatches up a scheme to buy artisanal olive oil from a nearby Palestinian farmer and market it to Tel Aviv yuppies. Roni is secular and entrepreneurial while his brother, a loner, has become devoutly religious. Orphaned at a young age, raised by adoptive parents in a kibbutz in the north, they implicitly represent the two divergent wings of Israeli society, both cut off from the rugged, state-building generation of early socialist Zionists. To Roni, who has failed elsewhere, the territories offer a clean slate where he might start afresh. “There are no rules, you can make them up as you go along. It’s so cheap here, it’s another country.” By this point he has burned his bridges, first in Tel Aviv, where he’d opened a string of bars, then in the United States. There, escaping Israel’s “shallow waters of provincialism,” he’d had an improbably swift rise as an investment banker and Wall Street broker, only to be undone by his increasingly desperate financial maneuvers and brought down by the crash of 2008.

For his little brother, “the somewhat detached, somewhat impressionable, somewhat searching Gabi,” the outpost is also a refuge, a hideaway, but it has also given meaning to his restless life. We learn his story, like Roni’s, only in a long Faulknerian flashback. As in a layered tale like Faulkner’s Light in August, though without the same emotional urgency, we make sense of Gavron’s shrouded characters only long after we first encounter them. The boys’ parents, we discover, died in an absurd road accident, killed under fire, not by a stray shell but in a collision with a cow frightened by the shell. Since then Gabi’s life has been punctuated by episodes of violent rage, undermining his place in the kibbutz and propelling him as a teenager to act out and run away. These angry outbreaks cut short his army service and help wreck his marriage, after he becomes abusive to his young son. Almost by chance he gravitates toward religious observance, finding satisfying work and community, even renewed love, in this haphazard setting. Amid the makeshift trailers he begins building a small cabin of his own – itself a miniature outpost – on the nearby hilltop, and this proves therapeutic for him, balm to a restless soul.

To his more skeptical brother, who will eventually decamp for the secular world of Tel Aviv, the settlement feels too much like the kibbutz on which they grew up, “a hole at the end of the world, a small idealistic society, shut off and holier-than-thou.” This linkage to the kibbutz is the settlers’ great pride; they see themselves as rightful heirs to the chalutzim, the early Zionist pioneers who first settled the land. The novel neither endorses nor rejects this claim, centering instead on these two brothers whose lives have come unraveled, one of whom finds peace in the settlement while the other abandons it. The Hilltop has been acclaimed as a political novel, grounded in two years of research in the West Bank, yet its politics are hard to fathom. In interviews Gavron makes clear that he stands with the Tel Aviv secularists and questions the settlement project. Instead he uses fiction to explore the human reality of the settlers’ lives.

Like his contemporary, Etgar Keret, Gavron represents a distinctly new generation in Israeli writing. Though it sometimes echoes the wry, ironic tone of Amos Oz, Gavron’s novel, directed at a wide audience, eschews the symbolic freight and biblical intertexture of so much earlier Israeli fiction. Steeped in contemporary references, his work is not shadowed by the Holocaust or the ‘48 War of Independence. Born to immigrants from the UK in 1968, at home in English, he has retranslated books like Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Salinger’s short stories into Hebrew, along with the fiction of Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander. He feels completely at home in the vernacular and, thanks to a fluent, idiomatic translation by Steven Cohen, The Hilltop reads more like an American novel than a translation. Here people will “let you off the hook,” know how to “score the best weed,” or feel “stressed out.” We’re told that “Gabi lost it sometimes” when his young son “learned exactly which buttons to push to anger his father.” These are not simply verbal turns but reflect the book’s transnational flavor, especially as some of the backstory of both brothers evokes the Israeli diaspora in America. While the brothers’ earlier lives are not always convincing, Gavron fills them in with concrete, closely observed detail. He can tell you what it feels like to land for the first time in a bustling American airport and walk the mean streets of New York. Riding the subway for the first time, Gabi’s impressions take on an almost preternatural vividness.

“He swayed to the metallic rattling over bridges and underground. . . . One hand remained firmly attached to the bag, his eyes fixed constantly on a new target: huge billboards, stretches of tenement housing as far as the eye could see, two black men in baggy clothes, endless graffiti. . . . A chubby and unattractive girl with a blank expression, headphones from a music player wrapped around her head, which was wet at the top. Orange and yellow seats emptying and filling. Doors sliding to open and close. An intercom system that scrambled the words. A hot and stifling small, and different, everything was so different.”

All this is exotic to a young traveler from a small country but, as elsewhere, Gavron’s storytelling gift comes through less in the dramatic turns of a plot than in the more modest interstices of the ordinary, the quotidian.

Gavron surrounds the brothers with a cast of secondary characters as ample as in any Russian novel. Structured as a mosaic of small chapters and multiple viewpoints, the book allows the reader to identify with these diverse, affable, pragmatic settlers; in doing so The Hilltop inevitably lays out a case for them. It satirizes the legal shenanigans and official hypocrisy that empower the settlers, the army that shields them, the American millionaires who support them, but we see the world only from the settlers’ perspective. Except for a few rock-throwing incidents, they live in peace with their Arab neighbors, even join them in opposing a wall of separation, yet – unlike in Almost Dead – the Palestinian voice is never heard.

This built-in advocacy, nowhere explicit, perhaps even unintentional, comes through in the book’s unexpectedly soft conclusion, where it takes on the aura of a timeless fairy tale. Until then, almost the only violent confrontations have occurred in the video games played by a settler’s teenage son, aggressive behavior he comes to regret. In the real world an order finally comes through once again for the army to clear the outpost. At the same time, a drunken group of Purim revelers have gone down in costume on a friendly visit to the nearby Arab village, only to be met by stones, threats, and comical misunderstanding. This encounter draws the attention of the military, so that the outpost itself survives out of a moment’s distraction, the very inattention that has allowed it to slip through the cracks till now. Though not exactly credible, this is in one sense realistic – the status of these settlements is at once illegal and immutable – and it fits the benign logic of the novel, as if nothing very terrible could ever happen here. We finally learn which settlers once torched some of the Arabs’ age-old olive trees, but even such a heinous deed has no consequences. The forgiving spirit of humor, the license of carnival, the humanizing empathy of fiction, has relaxed political judgment and we are left with the workaday ways that ordinary people muddle through.

Marshall Berman, 1940-2013

2014 September 11
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(My longtime friend Marshall Berman died suddenly on September 11, 2013, just a year ago today. To mark his yahrzeit I’m posting some remarks I made at a memorial service  in November at City College, where he taught for over 45 years.)

I first met Marshall in 1958 or ‘59 when we were sophomores at Columbia – can it be that long ago? We arrived at this melting pot on Morningside Heights from different places. He was a secular Jew from the Bronx who’d already gotten a terrific education at one of New York’s elite public schools, the Bronx High School of Science. I was a yeshiva boy from the Lower East Side and Queens, who had finally rebelled against a parochial school curriculum focused as much on Talmud as on English and math. He had been left raw and vulnerable a few years earlier by the early death of his father. Living at home, growing up too soon, he was the man in the family, the source of emotional support for his widowed mother and younger sister, while I had managed (with difficulty) to break away by moving out. Though he was in history and I was in English, we shared a vast intellectual hunger fed by many of the same books: classics of the Western tradition beginning with Homer and Plato, subversive modern works from Nietzsche and Dostoevsky to T. S. Eliot, radical contemporary books by the likes of Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Norman O. Brown, and the Beats.

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My Cousin Harry

2014 July 4
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First published in Tablet (posted July 3, 2014)

My cousin Harry Krug, who died early last year at 88, was related to me only by marriage but he couldn’t have been more braided into my mother’s extended family. This matriarchy was dominated by strong-minded women like Harry’s mother-in-law, my aunt Lily, stubborn and spiky as a Russian peasant, and Harry’s wife Pauline, a force of nature, who had crisp reactions to everyone she knew. The climate of our clan was heated, the atmosphere operatic; the men who married in had to surrender their passports and go native, as my mild-mannered father readily did, trading in his dour Polish kin for some Russian joie de vivre. Harry too jumped in with both feet. Through stormy scenes he remained as genial and unflappable as his wife was volatile. With his generous girth and dark good looks, his twinkly, mischievous smile, it seemed impossible to upset him. Whatever the weather, no one was going to spoil his day.

Pauline and Harry, both born in 1924, met when they were twelve and became high school sweethearts on the Lower East Side. They always planned to marry but the war intervened and he was tapped for what would one day be dubbed the Greatest Generation. A year or so before he died I called him as part of my research for a memoir – he was one of the few people still around who had vivid memories of my childhood. Instead we spoke for an hour about his army experiences, none of which I had heard before, since he rarely talked about himself. Conversations with Harry usually focused on your life, about which he was endlessly curious, joshing, and funny. Unlike New York’s late, voluble mayor, he always wanted to know how you were doing.

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The Best of the Best?

2013 October 30
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by Morris Dickstein

First posted on NBCC Reads (October 29, 2013)

So many of the finest works of the last 38 years have been nominated for the NBCC book awards that it’s almost impossible to choose a single title. Many of the best did not finally win the award, including Irving Howe’s seminal World of Our Fathers, Norman Mailer’s remarkable nonfiction novel The Executioner’s Song, J. M. Coetzee’s best novel, Disgrace, Marshall Berman’s irresistible study of modernism, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Paul Zweig’s unsurpassed biography of Whitman, and Wayne Koestenbaum’s delicious meditation on gay men and opera, The Queen’s Throat, to name just a few. Among those that did win the award, my favorites, singled out almost at random, include Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Joseph Frank’s definitive biography of Dostoevsky, perhaps Philip Roth’s best novel, The Counterlife, C. K. Williams’s collection of poems, Flesh and Blood, Marilynne Robinson’s poignantly intelligent Gilead, and two enduring collections of essays, Joseph Brodsky’s Less Than One and Gary Giddins’s Visions of Jazz. But faced with the impossible demand to select only one title, I’d have to plump for The Stories of John Cheever.

First of all the stories, one after another, are simply wonderful – beautifully shaped, seductively written – the evolving arc of a whole career, brought together with perfect tact. A good dozen of them are among the outstanding stories of the postwar years – quite a batting average. Then too, the book came out at a low ebb of Cheever’s career: his writing had changed, The New Yorker, long his literary home, had begun turning down his work, which had nevertheless been typed, quite wrongly, as a certain kind of New Yorker story, teacup tragedies about predictable material – the genteel, gentile middle class, the terminally boring life of the suburbs – in a predictable tone of bland, well-mannered civility. Also, Cheever’s reception had turned sour; his edgiest novel, Falconer, had hardly been understood by reviewers, let alone welcomed. But reading the stories en masse overturned the stereotypes about him and his work, which now looked much darker and more daring than anyone had realized. There was a dawning sense of his conflicted, surprisingly tormented nature, which would be amply confirmed by the posthumous publication of his journals. Finally, there was the man himself, who charmed the pants off everyone as he accepted the award. I can still recall the wicked grin on his face, along with that wry New England tone of voice, when he said that he was so used to presenting awards to his friend Saul Bellow (whom he hugely admired) that he never expected to take one home himself. It was a performance, one of the most winning I’ve seen, but it was also heartfelt, a long overdue recognition that had to be the best reason for handing out these awards in the first place.

My Life in Fiction

2013 October 9
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First published in The Threepenny Review (Fall 2013)

Novels demand a projection of self that varies with your moods and seasons, the stages of your life. Reading fiction is a way of finding yourself by losing yourself – getting immersed in stories about other people. It makes strange places seem familiar yet defamiliarizes people and places we thought we knew. You could describe it as a kind of possession. Fiction gives us not only access to but ownership of experiences not our own, even as it casts a kind of spell over us, drawing us out of where we are. Rosanna Warren describes it this way in her autobiographical essay “Midi”: “To read is to take possession. But it is also to give oneself completely, if temporarily, to the keeping of another mind, and to enter another world.”

For me as a young reader, that other world had two favorite regions I loved to explore – history, which seemed like a fabulous and richly peopled country, and sports, that fiercely competitive terrain where people from nowhere could make good. Since I was from nowhere too, a bright, ghetto-bred yeshiva boy, son of Americanized immigrants, it gave me bold figures with whom I could identify. I was particularly taken with a series of eight young adult novels by Joseph Altsheler about the Civil War, focused alternately on two cousins, close to each other before the war, who find themselves fighting on opposite sides. These books turned a divided family into a metaphor for a fractured nation pursuing a fratricidal war. First published during the first world war – Altsheler died in 1919 – they focused on major battles and had similar titles – The Guns of Bull Run, The Sword of Antietam, The Rock of Chicamauga – place names that were exotic, hard to pronounce, yet meant America to me, the real America as opposed to New York Jewish world I knew best.

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Norman Mailer and the Nobel Prize

2013 April 11
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by Morris Dickstein

From the Mailer Review, Fall 2012:

[Going through my papers recently I came across the carbon of a letter nominating Norman Mailer for the Nobel Prize in Literature. It probably dates from around 1980 since it refers to The Executioner’s Song as recently published. The PEN American Center no doubt solicited nominations and this was my response. The occasion seemed to demand an exhaustive C.V., a condensed catalogue raisonée, but even in this pedantic format I notice a few  phrases I’m moderately pleased to have written, since they evoke his talent in ways I had forgotten. The reference to André Gide particularly surprised me. Of course Mailer was not the only perpetual nominee never to be awarded the Nobel Prize. On this distinguished list he joins writers from Tolstoy and Proust to Graham Greene, Nabokov, and (so far) Philip Roth, some of them blocked by the dogged opposition of a single figure on the committee, others by their presumed failure to be sufficiently upbeat and life-enhancing, as the terms of the bequest officially demand.  -M.D.]     

Norman Mailer was born in 1923, attended Harvard University, from which he was graduated in 1943, served with the U.S. Army in the Pacific theater in World War II, and returned to write what is still considered one of the best of all American war novels, The Naked and the Dead (1948).  Yet Mailer was not content to continue writing in the naturalistic vein of this first novel. One of the hallmarks of his career is his shifts of style and ambition from book to book. His second and third novels, Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955), remain impressive experiments in allegorical and political writing, especially where they touch on sexual themes. During this period Mailer wrote two of the best American short stories, “The Man Who Studied Yoga” and “The Time of Her Time,” and began a truly extraordinary career as a writer of nonfiction and journalism with “The White Negro” (1957), later collected with his other shorter writings in Advertisements for Myself (1959). Interlaced with a remarkable autobiographical commentary, these writings were truly prophetic and helped usher in the drastic changes in American culture in the 1960s, with their new interest in politics, their fascination with Beat and bohemian countercultures, and their advanced treatment of sex, which was radically new for the still-Puritan American culture of the period.

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Joseph Frank and the Unknown Dostoevsky

2013 March 4
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by Morris Dickstein

As a tribute to the late Joseph Frank (1918-2013), I reprint my review, slightly updated here, of the first volume of his great biography of Dostoevsky, which first appeared in the New York Times Book Review (November 21, 1976).

Some great writers leave books behind that are like monuments, chiseled in alabaster, inviolable, or like tall mountain peaks which must be climbed simply because they’re there. Dostoevsky is one major writer who will never harden into a classic. He forces his readers to grapple with his books in a personal way, with some of the same intensity he brought to writing them. The author of the definitive biography, Joseph Frank, describes “the unusual sense of excitement that Dostoevsky manages to create from page to page, and the almost hypnotic fascination, quite aside from plotting, that he never fails to exercise on his readers.” At moments Dostoevsky seems to reach out and grab the unwary reader by the throat, enclosing us in an atmosphere of emotional violence that is sometimes comical but can also come to feel suffocating.

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