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On the Bookshelf

Romantics, old and new

Josh Lambert
October 25, 2010

With the death of Belva Plain last week, we lost another Jewish romantic. If not precisely a peddler of shund love stories, nor a Harlequin novelist per se, Plain, like Erich Segal, churned out an enormously popular oeuvre—reportedly, some 25 million copies of her books have been printed to date—all of which was smothered enthusiastically with good, old-fashioned shmaltz. Have no fear, though: Even with Plain gone, the Jewish romance is still alive and kicking, though it sets forth these days with varying levels of sentimentality, historical fancy, and bodice-ripping verve.


Joseph Skibell’s A Curable Romantic(Algonquin, October), for one appositely titled example, guides readers back to fin de siècle Vienna, where a young Jewish clerk lusts after a young lady he spots at the theater one night with a certain Dr. Freud. Evincing its own lust for history, folklore, and collisions of the two, Skibell’s book introduces its protagonist not just to the granddaddy of psychoanalysis, but also to Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, the Jewish doctor who invented Esperanto. Further complicating matters is the hero’s father, who speaks entirely in Biblical quotations, rendered here in Hebrew characters as well as in translation—and, finally, one tenacious dybbuk.


Concerned as much with the failure of romance as with its successes, Andrew Winer’s The Marriage Artist(Henry Holt, October) likewise evinces a fascination with the mating habits of Jews in pre-WWII Austria. It shuttles between the contemporary New York art scene and 1928 Vienna, where a young boy learns the art of ketubah embellishment from his Ostjude grandfather. Love isn’t exactly idealized in the novel (lovers argue, undermine each other, divorce, and throw themselves out of windows), but Winer’s art critic protagonist protests that loving “painfully” is inevitable, at least for him and his Russian Jewish flame: “Was there any other way for two people to love each other … when they were each married to someone else?”

If Winer’s novel’s structure—alternating chapters that link Jewish characters across a linguistic and/or historical divide, with a touch of typographical whimsy thrown in at the end for good measure—were to be named after its most iconic practitioner, it would have to be called Foerian Alternation.The History of Love (2005), by Nicole Krauss, is a prime example of that narrative strategy (and before publishing it, Krauss married the technique’s namesake). Great House (Norton, October), her third novel, ups the ante, joining four narrative strands, through its characteristically alternating chapters set in New York, Jerusalem, London, and Oxford. Given their ambition and playfulness, there’s reason to fear an exponential series developing between these two talented writers: Foer’s next novel featuring 16 intertwining stories, Krauss’ 256, then Foer’s next 65,536, ad infinitum.

The index case of Foerian Alernation was, of course, the popular Everything Is Illuminated (2002), in which a young writer with the same name as the book’s author confects a magical, technicolor vision of a Ukranian shtetl that owes more to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the fables of Jorge Luis Borges than to anything that Jews have ever said or done. Which is to say that Foer’s project was precisely not to write what has now been published, with a preface by Foer himself, as The Heavens Are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod(Pegasus, October). In it, Avrom Bendavid-Val attempts to uncover the actual history of the locale that Foer’s protagonist employed as a blank canvas upon which his imagination could run riot.


Like Foer’s and Krauss’ clever children and adolescents, the protagonists of Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares(Knopf, October)—a follow-up by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan to their tikkun olam­-mentioning, Michael Cera-driven-adaptation-producing Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist—are at times impossibly charming. In the words of one blogger: “It’s just so so so so so so so CUH-YUTE—the romance!” The novel gets started during Christmas break when boy meets girl’s Moleskin notebook (at the Strand! among J. D. Salinger’s books!) and follows the 16-year-olds (in alternating chapters!) as they trade dares and flirt and act pretty damn adorable. Oh, and there’s also, unsurprisingly, a “gay Jewish dancepop/indie/punk band called Silly Rabbi, Tricks Are for Yids.”


Naomi Ragen’s take on contemporary Jewish romance is much less happy-go-lucky: Her latest novel,The Tenth Song (St. Martin’s, October), begins with a woman delighting in “the answer to every Jewish mother’s prayer” who will soon marry her daughter, a Harvard Law student, when a piece of bad news arrives: her accountant husband’s arrest “for transferring money to support terrorist organizations that are responsible for the deaths of American soldiers.” This impels the whole family to travel to Israel, where they can reconsider their values.


Before romance novels began crowding the racks at supermarkets, there were romantics: the 19th-century kind, like the composer Gustav Mahler. The British novelist and classical-music journalist Norman Lebrecht makes a decidedly personal case for the continuing relevance of that particular sort of romantic in his widely pannedWhy Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World(Pantheon, October). Among other aims, the book pushes what one reviewer describes as Lebrecht’s deeply held, though not widely accepted, belief that Mahler, who converted to Catholicism so as to take a gig directing the Vienna Court Opera, “was not … uneasy about, or in flight from his Jewish background, but rather fully and even happily determined by it.”


All romances end. Even the passionate, eccentric ones, like the marriage of the Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter and his second wife, Antonia Fraser—“the working-class Jewish boy from the East End and the Catholic aristocrat with her title,” who found common ground in their mutual membership in what she calls “the Bohemian class.” Fraser, a biographer, chronicles their relationship in Must You Go?: My Life With Harold Pinter (Nan A. Talese, November), a mix of her diaries and more recent reflections, which one reviewer has described as having “at times a bosom-heaving, lace-handkerchief-fluttering quality.” Torrid as the relationship may have been—it began, scandalously, with an all-night, extramarital lovemaking session that Fraser recalls—it could not outlive Pinter’s death in 2008. Except in the form of this book, of course, where, like other literary romances, it will outlive all of us.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.