How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel
By Leah Garrett
Northwestern University Press, 275 pages, $34.95
Which works of Jewish literature do we remember, and which do we forget?
The story we like to tell about American Jewish literature in the mid-20th century is that in the 1950s, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth leapt to prominence with books that pulled off the trick of making Jews’ experiences relevant to everybody. Those writers remained prominent for half a century, and Roth, the only one still alive today (though allegedly retired), can still make the Internet take notice by griping about Wikipedia orhaving a birthday party. Over many productive decades, these three writers picked up every major prize open to Americans, from the Pulitzer to the Nobel.
Even before this “breakthrough,” though, Jewish writers were already doing just fine, thank you. (more…)
By Ben Lerner
Faber & Faber, 256 pages, $25
Call it the “Zuckerman effect,” after Philip Roth’s most famous fictional alter-ego: A young writer breaks out with a smart, entertaining novel that allows or even encourages his readers to confuse its fictional protagonist with its author. Then comes a follow-up, which plays even more forcefully with the line between fact and fiction, both because it is natural for the writer to examine his newfound condition using the tactics that made the first book a hit, and also because the literary market is prepared to pay him handsomely in the hopes that his celebrity, such as it is, represents potential sales.
In other words, what happened to Roth after “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and to many other writers both before and since, is now happening, writ relatively small, to Ben Lerner. (more…)
Your Face in Mine by Jess Row
Riverhead Books, 384 pages, $27.95
Jess Row’s first novel, “Your Face in Mine,” has an inevitable quality to it. Can it really have taken this long for a writer to connect the increasingly widespread conversation about the construction of gender that’s raised by trans-rights activism — which recently reached another watershed when Laverne Cox, a trans actress, made the cover of Time magazine — to that most primal of American subjects, race? (more…)
“Visible City,” by Tova Mirvis
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $24
Tova Mirvis is hardly the first Jewish writer to pine, in exile, for a land that she’s left. Still, there’s something fetching, even touching, about the wistfulness of a Jew relocated to Boston, longing for the Upper West Side – which is what inspired Mirvis’ new novel (her third), “Visible City.” (more…)
This fall marks the half-century anniversary of the first Grove Press paperback of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, the edition through which that notorious dirty book, first published in Paris in 1934, finally reached hundreds of thousands of American readers rather than handfuls. (more…)
The Little Bride
Riverhead Books, 320 pages, $15
In her classic 1912 memoir of immigration to the United States, “The Promised Land,” Mary Antin notes: “A long girlhood, a free choice in marriage, and a brimful of womanhood are the precious rights of an American woman.” Tell that to Minna Losk. (more…)
Since when did multilingual archival research become a required skill for young Jewish novelists? (more…)
In the fall of 1924, Ludwig Lewisohn had all sorts of worries: He’d left his wife in New York and run off to Europe with a younger woman, and, on a recent jaunt to Poland, all the “filthy, starved, oppressed” Jews in Warsaw’s ghetto had depressed him. Clearly, he needed a therapist. Since he happened to be in central Europe, and since he never did anything by half measures, he had a friend lend him a room on Wahringerstrasse in Vienna, and went straight to Sigmund Freud. Though Freud, who lived a couple of blocks away, was happy to psychoanalyze him, Lewisohn ended his treatment after a few sessions. According to his biographer, Ralph Melnick, he feared “the loss of his anxieties” would be “the destruction of what had driven him as a writer.” (more…)
In 1967, a failed playwright named Harold Cruse published The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, his provocative dissection of black culture. A fierce opponent of integration, Cruse turned a caustic eye on Lorraine Hansberry, Paul Robeson, and nearly every other prominent black thinker of his era (and those that came before it; the Harlem Renaissance, in his view, produced no work of real merit). He reserved special loathing, however, for a novelist by the name of John Oliver Killens. “Neither the originator of a single new concept, style, or exposition whether in literature or politics,” Cruse carped, “Killens has been the neutralizing temporizer, the non-controversial, moderating lid-sitter par excellence.” (more…)
Everyday Jews: Scenes from a Vanished Life
By Yehoshue Perle
Translated by Meier Deshell and Margaret Birstein
Yale University Press, $38.
One of the fascinating things about nostalgia is how well it ages. While science fiction can turn to kitsch in as little as a decade, personal histories often grow richer, and more valuable, with the passage of time.
Take, for example, Yehoshue Perle’s autobiographical Yiddish novel, Yidn fun a gants yor. When the book – which was recently translated into English as Everyday Jews – first appeared in Warsaw back in 1935, it already bore a subtitle reflecting its focus on the past, its more or less Proustian recherche du temps perdu. (more…)