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On the Bookshelf

Literary lives: as the Seder nears, books by tale-tellers, praiseworthy and otherwise

Josh Lambert
April 18, 2011
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

Tonight, every practicing Jew, or at least every Seder-attending one, has a responsibility to tell some stories: As the traditional hagaddah puts it, “the more you sit around telling the tale of the Exodus from Egypt, the more praiseworthy you are.” Does this facet of Jewish life—regular storytelling sessions and literary seminars, conducted in the dining room, from childhood on—help to explain why Jews have distinguished themselves as some of the finest scholars of literature in the United States?

Harold Bloom actually does credit his Jewish childhood as having preconditioned his career choice: “My vocation as a teacher was Jewish in its origin,” he remarks in The Anatomy of Influence: Literature As a Way of Life (Yale, May), a meditation on his lifelong ardor for the Western canon. Bloom—a Yale eminence of whom it has been reported that he could “read a thousand pages an hour” as a young man and that he once recited a rather long poem from memory, backwards, while drunk—is not exactly known for having a low opinion of himself—yet he also acknowledges his limits: “How,” he asks, “can Jewish culture be extended by deep reading of The Merchant of Venice or Song of Myself? It cannot, and I must acknowledge that this is not my role.”


Marjorie Garber and William Deresiewicz are two more Jews, who, like Bloom, taught in Yale’s vaunted English Department—but who, unlike him, did not get tenure there. Garber’s career took her onward to the English department at Harvard, nebekh, and she now publishes on everything from Shakespeare’s plays, to cross-dressing, to the erotics of real estate. Her latest, The Use and Abuse of Literature (Pantheon, March), breezily poses all the axiomatic literary questions that get raised, and never answered, in introductory English courses: What is literature? What’s it good for? And what should we do when yet another falsified Holocaust memoir garners international attention?

Deresiewicz isn’t exactly a fan of Garber, finding in her new book mostly “mildewed commonplaces and shot-springed arguments … half-chewed digressions and butt ends of academic cliché.” This sort of takedown isn’t unprecedented, either; since leaving Yale, Deresiewicz has established himself as a freelance critic more than willing to serve up a hatchet job of an overpraised young writer like Zadie Smith or Nathan Englander. His memoir, A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter(Penguin, April), makes clear why he’s so unforgiving of contemporary writers: Next to Jane Austen, who doesn’t look like a clumsy hack?


Some critics and literary scholars vent their spleen—or at least exercise their imaginations—in novels of their own. Alan Cheuse received his PhD in comparative literature for a dissertation on a Cuban “boom” writer, Alejo Carpentier, before beginning to write fiction and to review books for NPR. His most recent novel, Song of Slaves in the Desert: A Novel of Slavery and the Southern Wild (Sourcebooks Landmark, March), makes for a nice Passover conversation starter, as it deals with the slave-holding Jewish owners of a South Carolina plantation in the years before the Civil War. Like Cheuse, Adam Lifshey was trained as a scholar of Spanish and comparative literature; his first novel, As Green As Paradise (Scarith, January), tells a mythical tale of villagers harried by an “inquisitioner” in a new world colony, evoking, obliquely, the history of conversos and crypto-Jews who established communities in Latin America. David Unger’s novel The Price of Escape (Akashic, May) likewise features a European Jew who, escaping persecution, winds up in Latin America. In this case, Samuel Berkow gets out of Hitler’s Europe before the invasion of Poland, only to discover that the natives of Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, have an impressive gift for bamboozling newly arrived refugees. Unger himself immigrated to Florida as a child, and he writes in English, but when he’s not writing novels, he translates some of the most interesting Latin American authors, including Rigoberta Menchú, Nicanor Parra, and Elena Garro.


Other novelists devote their nonfictional energy not to scholarship or translation but to publishing: Among the best contemporary examples of this phenomenon is E.L. Doctorow, who, before writing The Book of Daniel and Ragtime, was the editor responsible for Ian Fleming’s James Bond thrillers and for Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes, among many other titles. Doctorow’s latest book, All the Time in the World (Random House, March), offers a mix of his best short stories, some previously published, some not, from the 1960s to the present. One of the finest is “A Writer in the Family,” about a Jewish teenager in the Bronx discovering what fiction can and can’t accomplish.

Stuart Ross, meanwhile, has been a fixture in the Canadian small press scene for decades—as a founder of magazines and of book fairs, as a columnist and editor, and as a publisher of chapbooks written by himself and by other authors. Though he is known mostly as a poet, his latest book is a novel, Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew (ECW, April): It begins with the, ahem, inglourious vengeance murder of a neo-Nazi by a woman in Canada who lost relatives in the Holocaust and follows her son’s responses, sometimes through performance art, to other traumas.


Bill Zimmerman’s response to having lost relatives in the Holocaust was to throw himself into political activism in the United States: He was there in Mississippi, in the march on the Pentagon, at the Democratic convention in Chicago, in Hanoi, at Wounded Knee. He tells his war stories in Troublemaker: A Memoir From the Front Lines of the Sixties (Doubleday, April), relating run-ins with Abbie Hoffman and César Chávez and suggesting the strength and courage necessary for true radicalism. Radicalism didn’t stop in the ’60s, either; Susan Rosenberg’s An American Radical: Political Prisoner in My Own Country (Citadel, March) describes the ordeal of the author’s 16 years in maximum-security prisons after she, a daughter of middle-class Upper West Side Jews who was already on the FBI’s most wanted list for her political activities, was caught in 1984 behind the wheel of a U-Haul loaded with 740 pounds of dynamite.


Garber’s book suggest that literature is all about inspiring questions. By that measure, Gilbert Gottfried’s Rubber Balls and Liquor (St. Martin’s, April) is very literary, as it raises a great number of questions. To wit: What idiot gave Gilbert Gottfried a book deal? Why would they think it would be a good idea to present the textual remarks of a comedian whose single comic asset, his astonishingly annoying voice, is entirely lost on the page? Are there literate Gottfried fans out there? Wouldn’t anyone who can read, and surf the Internet, realize that Gottfried tells the world’s moldiest, corniest jokes? Why does Gottfried’s audience laugh at these stinkers? And, finally, does the desperate embrace of minor celebrities by respectable book editors indicate the final stages of intellectual Armageddon?

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.