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Butcher Boy

What makes the guts of a novel Jewish?

Shelley Salamensky
February 27, 2009

This year’s winner of the National Jewish Book Award in Fiction is…not a Jew.

Does it matter?

Like previous winner Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, Peter Manseau’s Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter
attempts to re-envision and revive the Jewish—and, specifically, Yiddish—literary tradition for the 21st century.

The difference is that Manseau is Catholic. A noted writer on religion, he is the son of a renegade priest and an ex-nun, and has lived as a monk. Songs is based on Manseau’s stint at the National Yiddish Book Center where, like his nameless protagonist, he helped salvage abandoned texts. The novel interweaves the memories of Itsik Malpesh, an aged Yiddish poet, with the quandaries of Manseau’s alter-ego—book center worker turned Malpesh translator—over interfaith romance and identity today.

Catholic in a world of Jews, the young hero learns to “pass.” It is, he discovers, “less a matter of acting than not acting. You can become part of a given . . . people (‘our people,’ as it were), simply by letting yourself serve as a mirror for those around you.” In Malpesh’s sage words, what a man is “in his heart” may diverge from what he is “in his pants.” Where the “Jewishness” of the Jewish novel resides is a similar question. Must it derive from first-hand experience? Jewish writers from the late 19th century on have expressed anxieties that while the disappearing Jewish world of their grandparents was “authentic,” their own is diluted by assimilation—a sham. Young Jewish novelists today, such as Foer and Nicole Krauss (Foer’s wife and the author of The History of Love), tend to bridge that gap through open acknowledgment that their works are acts of imaginative reconstruction. Manseau’s reconstructions are not different in principle, although his ties to Jewish life are different in kind. Meanwhile, Jewish writers who build upon other traditions, such as Philip Roth, whose novel The Human Stain revolves around an African-American character—tend to be praised for the creativity and courage to make the leap.

Though Manseau does not attempt to pass as Jewish himself, suspicion of his motives may linger. Common thinking posits that “Jews buy books”—and, since Foer’s debut, the Jewish book market has been relatively hot. Songs, however, seems too keenly researched, deeply and earnestly labored, to be a shoddy cash-in scheme.

Manseau’s tribute to “the great” Yiddish “masters” the novel lists—“I.L. Peretz, Chaim Grade, Mendele Moykher Sforim”—is clearly offered with respect, and the jaunty tones, fleshly concerns, and nudnik characters of Yiddish lore reproduced with affection.

It was after my Tuesday shift on the garment floor . . . . [Sasha] sat with her head slumped back and a wet cloth draped over her eyes . . . .
“Don’t you feel well, Sasha?” I asked.
“I’m pregnant,” she said, which was proving to be a useful answer to almost any question.
“Well, I have news that might brighten your mood,” I said. “I have been waiting to do so until I could tell you in person. I suppose some poets might prefer to leave a note, but I—”
“What is it, Isaac? . . . [T]ell me, and then be quiet for awhile.”

Manseau relies heavily on pastiche, a mash-up of imitation and invention employed, similarly, in Everything is Illuminated and The History of Love. The balance of convention and artistic license can prove tricky to maintain. The name Malpesh—Yiddish for “monkey piss”—seems drawn more from Expressionist slapstick than the oft-crude but wryer wit of the models Songs otherwise follows. In the same way, an extended joke in the novel about blood libel comes off, in style, as less shtetl, more shtick. Charges of error have been leveled by Jews at Jews, for instance against Nicole Krauss for “carelessness” with historical dates, and against Michael Chabon for eulogizing Yiddish in his essay “Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts,” when it was not dead yet. Who should be free to do what with the Jewish legacy is already a battle. Yet it may be one of the internecine kind, in which bickerers, however heated, halt to yell at the outsider, “You stay out of this!”

As outsider, Manseau cannot, perhaps, help but misstep. His greatest error in this regard—which is also the book’s strength—is in taking Jewish literature for Literature with which any writer may do as she likes. Songs is highly literary in its ambitions. Its apparent influences, among many, include Bruno Schulz, Günther Grass and Vladimir Nabokov. Like Pale Fire, Songs is a textual terrarium constructed as a narrative of a mythical figure, here Malpesh, with commentary by a subsidiary, even parasitic character, the unnamed translator. So clever is this confection that the common reader of today, unversed in Yidlit, should nonetheless be able to recognize the hallmarks of the genre, as well as what in it is being tweaked, and to travel the translator’s arc along with him from intoxication to exhaustion with it. Like Pale Fire as well, Songs is, finally, a book about literary structures, conventions, communities—books themselves. That it is set among the People of the Book is more than appropriate. Yet, in Manseau’s hands, a ripping yarn about an aged whaler and a worker in a scrimshaw hut would be as masterly. Do Jews absolutely need to be in this novel? Is some essential drive from, or struggle with, or vision of the future of Jewish life essential to it?

Songs has a story to tell involving Jews, and is better than much of what has been written by Jews about Jews. That may be enough. It also echoes worries central to Jewish life over identity: Jewish history here turns out to be less religiously and ethnically “pure” than it might seem at first. Luckily, today’s America, with its multicultural ethos, skewing us-and-them divisions, presents a remedy. As Songs ends, Haredim, Muslims, a Yiddish-speaking Filipina, Malpesh, the young man, and his Jewess gather in Coke-commercial harmony. Conflicts, though not necessarily resolved, conclude neatly. The Catholic worker may or may not get the girl, may or may not now cast his lot with Jews, may or may not put what was in his pants back in his pants for the next religio-cultural adventure.

Everything Is Illuminated continues to resonate when it’s through. Its motivating force—the raw desperation of a generation of Jews lost in white-bread America to reclaim the salty, greasy, messy mameloshen motherlode it knows must be out there—is palpable, and it is slow to loose its energizing, irritating, sweaty grip. The demand it makes, in parting, is no less than that Jewish literature and life completely regain and remake themselves. Songs, by contrast, reads less as part of the never-ending tale of Jewish life than as a travelogue. The reader may reflect, with warmth and satisfaction, upon the excursion, but is politely and firmly released by the tour guide. Where Songs is coming from, and where it’s going when it ends, is not fully clear.

Past National Jewish Book Award winners have ranged from the epic (My Glorious Brothers, 1949) and the blockbuster (Exodus, 1959) to the deceptively salacious (Raquel: The Jewess of Toledo, 1957) and dissolute-sounding (Apathetic Bookie Joint, 1980). Winners have included the famous—Malamud, Singer, Bellow; a fraud—Binjamin Wilkomirski; and at least one non-Jew—John Hersey for his Warsaw Ghetto-based novel The Wall. It is tough to say what makes a novel Jewish. Songs may or may not be. If it is not, it is not necessarily because Manseau is not. And more important is what the success of Songs indicates about the vitality of the tradition. Is this occasion not what Jewish literati, long schooled in the fear of being marginalized, have waited for? Even the multiculturalist movement, casting the particular as universal, has largely passed Jews by. Only recently has the Jewish novel achieved trans-cultural cool. That a non-Jewish writer can enter into it—and would want to—must mean that it has finally become mainstream.

Shelley Salamensky is a scholar and writer. Her work has previously appeared in Tablet, as well as The Paris Review, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Review of Books, and elsewhere.

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