A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity, and Memory

A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity, and Memory

A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity, and Memory

A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity, and Memory

Synopsis

Focusing on the way Jewish history -- particularly the Holocaust -- and tradition inform postwar Canadian and American Jewish literature, A House of Words offers innovative readings of the works of such influential writers as Saul Bellow, Leonard Cohen, Eli Mandel, Mordecai Richler, Chava Rosenfarb, Philip Roth, and Nathanael West. Norman Ravvin highlights the concerns that these disparate writers share as Jewish writers as well as places their work in the context of the broader traditions of multiculturalism, post-colonial writing, and critical theory.

Arguing that Jewish North American writing is too commonly discussed as part of the mainstream, neglecting the Jewish aspects of the works, Ravvin places the writing of Bellow, Richler, Cohen, West, Mandel, Roth, and Rosenfarb within the Jewish context that the works demand. Ravvin depicts a Jewish cultural landscape within which postwar writers contend with community and identity, continuity and loss, and highlights the way this particular landscape is entangled with broader literary and cultural traditions. He considers Bellow and West alongside apocalyptic narratives, discusses Cohen in relation to the counterculture, examines Mandel's postmodern view of history, and looks at autobiography and ethics in Roth and Rosenfarb.

At once scholarly and poetic, A House of Words will appeal to the general reader of Canadian, American, and Jewish literature and history, as well as to specialists in these fields.

Excerpt

Jewish writing since the Second World War has been burdened -- or, one might say, inspired -- by the past. Like the turn-of-the-century Yiddish writers who doubled as ethnographers and returned to the shtetl to capture what they feared was a dying world, novelists and poets today continue to brood over their losses, their missed opportunities, and the incongruous coincidence of their good and full lives, experienced in the shadow of so much ill fortune across the sea. We read of Philip Roth's youthful happiness in Newark, of Mordecai Richler's ribald joy in watching St Urbain Street from the front stoop, of Eli Mandel's baffled view of his ancestors' difficult career as Jewish sodbusters on the Saskatchewan prairie. Saul Bellow waxes sentimental about his childhood on Montreal's Napoleon Street, and Leonard Cohen --half mythologizing, half satirizing his austere uncles, the pillars of Westmount Jewish life -- finds his youthful world so plush and secure (and ultimately disappointing) that he flees it for an itinerant bohemia, the "dismal business," as he has called it, of guitar picking. But for these writers and others it is not enough simply to depict their varied North American upbringing. Each is drawn into a kind of family romance with what Roth has called the "shadowy, cramped" world of the past (Zuckerman Bound 458) and is motivated by a "nostalgia for the dark intensity of events that preceded" their birth (Finkielkraut 24).

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