2016-06-30
It is said that every generation squabbles with its immediate forebears and takes refuge in its grandparents with whom affinities are not outweighed by the curse of closeness. And for the latest gaggle of young Jewish American writers, the parental burden must weigh particularly heavy for it's their parents’ generation who produced the twin deities of Jewish fiction, and the reining titans of American letters: Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Who could possibly touch index finger to keyboard knowing that their own efforts could be compared to those literary immortals? As it turns out, the younger generation of Jewish writers.

Michael Chabon, Dara Horn, Nicole Krauss, Shalom Auslander, Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Rosen, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, and David Bezmozgis have engaged in an end run around Roth and Bellow, taking comfort in their grandparents, both literally and metaphorically--choosing to render unto Caesar what is rightfully Caesar’s. This batch of Jewish writers have found an alternative canon, a new set of influences, and a shared sensibility and subject matter that unites them in their collective, if unconscious, opposition to their stiflingly brilliant fathers.

Borrowing heavily from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie, these young Jewish writers take from magical realism its sense of a mystically attuned world, one where the impossible becomes everyday, and where history is invested with paranormal qualities. Lost books, crumbling photographs, paintings, and tombstones all possess mystical properties and represent a past that has crumbled into dust.

Writers like Horn and Krauss are not only Jewish by birth, but find the inspiration for their work in Judaism and Jewish history. Books like Chabon’s new “Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” Krauss’ “The History of Love,” and Rosen’s “Joy Comes in the Morning” take their inspiration from Judaism (as opposed to the rebellion against religion) to an extent unimaginable to Roth or Bellow. “Joy Comes in the Morning,” about a female rabbi in contemporary New York, and Auslander’s debut story collection “Beware of God,” much of which centers around the stunted lives of the ultra-Orthodox in New York’s suburbs, require a deep familiarity with Jewish practice and tradition, not to mention Hebrew and Yiddish.

While never denying their heritage, both Roth and Bellow sought to take the particular essences of their Judaism and render it collective and American--rarely, and sparingly, acknowledging religion or the European past. Roth is obsessed with the past, no doubt, but only his own Newark past---staunchly American and entirely disconnected from the older Jewish past in Europe. The famous opening sentence of Bellow’s “Adventures of Augie March”-- “I am an American, Chicago born”-- is as notable in this regard for what it does not include as for what it does. Bellow is not a Jew, not an outsider, but purely an American. Their successors have chosen to unlink that chain, and render Judaism mysterious once more. For some, this comes via a distinctly un-Bellovian (or Rothian, for that matter) emphasis on the religious matter of Judaism; for others it is a return to Europe and the lost essence of the European Jewish past.

As for the younger writers, their formative influence is undoubtedly that of Holocaust education. Born after the trial of Adolf Eichmann, writers like Horn and Krauss are children of the teaching of the Holocaust, taught from the earliest ages of the horror of 6 million dead, and duly informed of its unimaginable particulars. The Holocaust informs their work as it never could for their elders, forged too close to the Holocaust’s fire to engage with it in their fiction. The centrality of the Holocaust goes hand in hand with a fierce nostalgia for what was destroyed by the Nazis, and a concomitant romanticization of the European Jewish life that it erased. The grandchildren of European immigrants and Holocaust survivors find inspiration, of a literary and moral kind, in their grandparents’ struggles. Magical realism’s sense of the world made strange is empowered by the presence of the Holocaust as a barrier forbidding access to the past. The Holocaust renders pre-World War II Jewish history as quasi-imaginary, a wonderland of innocence--something it obviously was not. But its stark presence athwart the 20th century makes magic, which, for the better and for the worse, seem to be a regular part of Jewish life and something reflected in these books.Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated,” with its comic shtetl romanticism, is the prime mover, but “History of Love,” Horn’s “The World to Come,” and “Yiddish Policemen’s Union” also look to a lost, Jewish Europe for inspiration. The Judaism of American strivers has been replaced, literarily speaking, by the Judaism of immigrants and Yiddish speakers. Chabon imagines a Yiddish-centric Jewish state on the brink of collapse in Alaska, and Horn and Krauss, along with Safran Foer, juxtapose the American Jewish present with its Eastern European antecedents for effect. Europe and America, the Jewish past and present, are re-linked in these works--the damage of the Holocaust in some small part undone by their symbolic labor.

The coincidence of Chabon and Englander publishing long-awaited new novels in the same month, earlier this year, highlighted their shared concern with Judaism growing in strange ground, whether it is the alternative-world Alaska to which the remnants of Eastern European Jewish culture has been transplanted in “Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” or the real-world Argentina under its repressive 1970s military dictatorship in Englander’s “The Ministry of Special Cases.” Jewish history, no longer merely a nightmare from which American Jewish writers struggle to awake, is now a fruitful source for new material. Whether this is a positive development, the undoing of years of regressive ignorance of Jewish roots, or a final nail in the coffin of genuine Jewish experience, replaced by a novelist’s simulacrum of an all-too-painful history, is a matter for debate.

This historical bent marches arm in arm with a taste for a unique brand of literary endeavor. The new Jewish magical realists have selected an alternative batch of Jewish predecessors as inspiration, replacing Roth and Bellow with more approachable figures like Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick, and Mark Helprin.

To some critics, the combination of magical realism and Jewish history is the epitome of sacrilege; the cutesification of horror. The Holocaust, to the dismay of literary critics like Lee Siegel, has become another opportunity for schmaltz and false uplift--European Jewish culture’s descent into madness and terror as rendered by Roberto Benigni, not Claude Lanzmann.
The Jewish past, rhinestoned with kitsch, becomes a merit badge of politically acceptable ethnic suffering, suffocated of all life, shaped into a single, ever-falling teardrop. There is undoubtedly an element of unnecessary romanticization in their recurrent use of the Holocaust as exclamation mark, as an undeniable indicator of moral seriousness, but the seeming omnipresence of the Holocaust is also a reflection of the impossibility of fully grasping its enormity. The Holocaust, in their work, is the ending to a fairytale gone terribly wrong.

In their straining toward authentic Americanness, Roth and Bellow rarely, if ever, acknowledged that Judaism was a religion and culture with its roots elsewhere. The newer generation of Jewish writers, children of Roth and Bellow in their disinclination to follow in their masters’ footsteps, have rendered Judaism three-dimensional once more. They have sought to link Europe and America, and the Judaism that once was with the Judaism that is. In so doing, Jewish culture has regained (for better or worse) a touch of magic.
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