The Inveterate Dreamer: Essays and Conversations on Jewish Culture, by Ilan Stavans

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Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. 306 pp. &24.95.

In The Inveterate Dreamer, Ilan Stavans poses perhaps the question of modern Jewish culture: what unites secular Jews from around the world, if anything? Does Jewish identity, and more specifically, Jewish literary identity, cross national and linguistic borders? His collection of essays offers an unqualified argument in the affirmative. Raised in Mexico and currently a professor of Spanish at Amherst College, Stavans is uniquely positioned to assess the broad field of modern Jewish literature. His essays, book reviews, and interviews are evidence of his linguistic and cultural fluency. He showcases Jewish authors writing in Spanish, English, Hebrew, Romanian, Russian, Polish, German, and Italian. His goal, as he states in the Preface, is to fight provincialism, "to shape a balanced canon that transcends time and place." In two of the most interesting essays in the book, on the Jewish canon, Stavans addresses the relative importance of language, history, and memory in defining a literary tradition. While he investigates the function of all three elements in constructing a canon, he ultimately argues, in "A Matter of Choice" that it is the reader, not the writers, whom we must look to in deciding what counts as Jewish literature: "this question of who is and who is not a Jewish writer can only be handled when one applies the famous `law of reciprocity' to it -- that is, when one leaves it for the reader to decide" (p. 248).

What The Inveterate Dreamer offers, then, is Stavans's recipe for modern Jewish literature. His vision is often refreshing and eye-opening. His many essays on Latin American Jewish writers open up a whole new world of Jewish literature to American readers, most of whom are schooled largely on European and American writers of the past century. …