Books: Of lovely writing, paper bags and congenial homes

Matt Nesvisky fawns over Amos Oz’s ‘Judas,’ frowns at Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Here I Am’ and is left with mixed feelings by an anthology of fiction from the Forward.

Israeli author Amos Oz (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli author Amos Oz
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THIS LITERARY season features a renowned Israeli novelist at the top of his form, an acclaimed American-Jewish novelist at the bottom of his form, and a collection of Jewish short stories somewhere at the middle of the form.
The first compelling element in Amos Oz’s “Judas” is the novel’s sustained and pitch-perfect setting and tone. It’s Jerusalem in winter in the late 1950s. For 300 pages it’s always gloomy, rainy and cold, an atmosphere that reflects the struggling and uncertain Jewish state in its first decade.
Forever wandering those wet and chilly streets and alleys is the book’s second captivating element, a dithering and isolated young intellectual named Shmuel Ash. A third is Ash’s stymied research project: Jewish attitudes toward Jesus, as well as various views of Judas, at once the betrayer and the progenitor of centuries of anti-Semitism. In a recent interview, Oz, 77, confessed that this subject has fascinated him since he was a teenager, and the Judas-Jesus story is evoked in “Judas” to startling effect.
Compounding the story is the situation in which Ash finds himself, and the two highly intriguing characters with whom he becomes involved. Abandoned by his girlfriend, Ash drops out of Hebrew University.
Penniless and totally at a loss, he answers an advertisement on the university notice board. In exchange for an attic room, meals and a small payment, he agrees to become a companion to an elderly intellectual named Gershom Wald, a man embittered by the loss of his only son Micha in the War of Independence. Sharing the household is Atalia, the 45-year-old beautiful but remote widow of Micha. Atalia is also the daughter of the late Shealtiel Abravanel, a Zionist leader who broke with Ben-Gurion and was expelled from Zionist circles because Abravanel opposed the formation of an independent Jewish state. The eccentric Abravanel preferred instead some sort of non-nationalist entity in which Jews and Arabs would live harmoniously side by side. Together Wald and Abravanel embody the philosophical iconoclasm of two figures from Israel’s history, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the highly controversial political and social critic, and Martin Buber and his Brit Shalom peace movement.
So here’s the hapless Shmuel Ash, still engaged in researching Jesus and Judas (among other scholarship, Oz twice references writings on the subject by his great-uncle, the historian Joseph Klausner), and caught between the political views of two fierce ideologues. In addition, Ash is falling impossibly in love with a woman old enough to be his mother.
What meat for a writer of Amos Oz’s range and depth, not to mention the opportunity to explore his own political engagement.
Shmuel Ash, bewildered and striving, alternately listless and aspirational, recalls Fima, the central character in Oz’s memorable 1991 novel of that name. They share the same dank Jerusalem winter; they even urinate in a similar manner. But the poet Fima’s interests were literary; Ash is obsessed by the notion of betrayal, a theme that resonates through his study of Judas, through the story of the Zionist who rejected nationalism, through Ash’s betrayal of his own destiny.
Ash’s dilemmas are serio-comic and are never entirely resolved. Nonetheless, as winter ends, spring arrives. As Oz posits beautifully (in Nicholas de Lange’s deft translation): “Sometimes, towards evening, low dark clouds lay upon the Jerusalem sky, as if winter had changed its mind and returned to rest upon the city, but by morning they dispersed and limpid azure once more spread over the minarets and domes, spires and high walls, winding alleys and iron gates and stone steps and water cisterns. The rains had departed from Jerusalem and only scattered puddles remained. The glazier, the peddler, the rag-and-bone man went again from street to street announcing the arrival with hoarse cries. As if the three of them had been sent to warn the city of a plague or a fire. Geraniums blazed on window-sills and balcony railings. The trees were full of the shrill twittering of birds, as if they had received some sensational news they had to spread urgently all around the city.”
Lovely writing. Lovely Amos Oz.
I never read reviews of a book before I’ve written my own critique, and rarely afterward.
But because I found it so distressing, I eventually read several reviews of American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Here I Am.” Each was decidedly mixed, and some were downright hostile. Nonetheless, this didn’t prevent Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s marketing department from finding advertising pull-quotes like “Eloquent,” “Epic,” “Vital,” “Urgent, “Brilliant,” and, perhaps most curiously applied to a book that never even once made me smile, “Endearingly funny.” None of the reports included: “Made me want to puke.” Until now.
I found “Here I Am” projectile-inducing for several reasons. Not in recent memory have I read a book so consciously literary – and with such failed ambitions. In 2002 Foer made a fine debut with “Everything Is Illuminated.” In 2005 he followed with the less successful “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Now a decade later he was definitely shooting for the Big One with his autobiographical “Here I Am.” Where’s my paper bag? I’ll be as mercifully brief as possible.
First, the novel, which had the briefest of flutters on the best-seller lists before disappearing into the void, has three main plot lines: one concerning the pending divorce of a contemporary American Jewish couple, a second about the near-destruction of Israel via a massive earthquake and invasion, the third dealing with putting down the aged family dog. The most compelling of these stories involves the dog – and I don’t even like dogs.
Regarding the unappealing couple, Jacob and Julia Bloch: Imagine that Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy finally grew up and got married to a like-minded sex addict.
Imagine that while these ostensible adults basically carry on like children, their three children unaccountably talk like adults.
Regarding Israel, the story is too absurd to merit summary; I’ll mention only that the prime minister appeals for a million Jewish men to come and help defend the Jewish state. Regarding the dog, his euthanizing is very well described. His is the best of the three stories.
But hey, don’t take my word for it, take Foer’s. Let’s allow this ridiculous novel to speak for itself. Meaningless discourse? Oh, yes. For example: “What was that feeling? It had something to do with loneliness (his own and others’), something with suffering (his own and others’), something with shame (his own and others’), something with fear (his own and others’). But also something with stubborn belief, and stubborn dignity, and stubborn joy. And yet it really wasn’t any of those things, or the sum of them. It was the feeling of being Jewish.
But what was that feeling?” And meaninglessness repeatedly in dialogue, such as:
“‘I’m not living my own life?’
‘Whose life am I living?’
‘Maybe your grandfather’s idea of your life. Or your father’s. Or your own idea. Maybe no life at all.’”
And endlessly in Chinese fortune-cookie aphorisms: “Love is not a positive emotion. It is not a blessing, and it is not a curse. It is a blessing that is a curse, and it is also not that.”
I need that paper bag. And not for the fortune cookies.
Newspapers are not the most congenial homes for fiction (all right, hold those snarky comments about the mainstream media). In the 19th century, dailies indeed regularly published short stories and serialized novels. But in the English-language press such offerings long ago fell out of fashion. Not so with the Forward, America’s premier Yiddish newspaper. The Forward featured fiction from its inception in 1897 and amazingly enough continues the tradition to this day.
Thus it would seem reasonable, if not downright inevitable, that someone like Forward staffer Ezra Glinter would eventually assemble an anthology of Forward fiction. After all, “A Bintel Brief,” a collection of Forward advice columns, was published nearly a half-century ago to great praise and remains in print. So why do so many of the 42 selections in “Have I Got a Story for You” fail to generate much excitement? For one thing, most of the stories are better classified as sketches or snapshots rather than as artfully crafted short fiction.
For another, the volume is surprisingly almost totally devoid of humor. For a third, we get rather too many pieces about immigrant women suffering vague, inexpressible feelings of unease. And for whatever reason, many of the best-known of the writers collected here, like Isaac Bashevis Singer, his brother Israel Joshua Singer, Forward Editor Abraham Cahan and “Sweatshop Poet” Morris Rosenfeld, are not being shown at their brightest.
Exceptions are Chaim Grade and Sholem Asch, who demonstrate true power in their evocative stories of the fearsome Old Country.
To be sure, “Have I Got a Story” is hardly without its pleasures. Outstanding are B. Kovner’s eight amusing slices of Brooklyn life featuring Yente and Mendel and their devilish son Pinnie; the aforementioned Sholem Asch’s nightmarish “The Jewish Soldier”; David Zaritski’s heart-wrenching “The Edge of Death”; and two very smart and well-shaped stories by representatives of a latter-day generation of Yiddish writers, both born in the 1950s. In “Hallo,” Mikhoel Felsenbaum (born in Ukraine, living in Israel since 1991) presents a sly and sexy tale of crazy love (marred only by a thud of an ending). And in “Studies in Solfege,” a supremely confident Boris Sandler (Moldova to Israel to the US) proves himself as sharp and as sophisticated a writer as any who ever wrote in Yiddish. Hats off also to novelist Dara Horn for a smart and sweet introduction and to the volume’s 20 translators. Incidentally, all of the stories here are appearing in English for the first time.
Above all, the selections in “Have I Got a Story,” even rendered in English and even in their sketchiest forms, convey a profound sense of shared community and sensibility.
No, I don’t think these very Yiddish stories are nearly as universal as editor Glinter suggests. And by me that’s quite all right.