Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Background Noise: The Success of American Jewish Writers Means That Novels by British Jews Don't Get the Recognition They Deserve

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Background Noise: The Success of American Jewish Writers Means That Novels by British Jews Don't Get the Recognition They Deserve

Article excerpt

In 1937 the teenaged Irving Howe, future literary critic, excitedly unwrapped the very first edition of Partisan Review and read the short story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" by Delmore Schwartz, written a couple of years earlier over a July weekend when Schwartz was 21. The story is about a young man who goes into a cinema and sees on the screen the unfolding images of his own parents' courtship, including a trip to Coney Island culminating in a marriage proposal, which causes the narrator to rise from his seat and deliver one of the funniest pay-offs in literature.

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What amazed Howe was the depiction of American Jewish life: of the struggling immigrant, the dogged pursuit of education at the Harvard, Oxford and Sorbonne of American Jews City College of New York - and the intellectual wastrel generation that followed. Schwartz's early genius burned out almost at once: he drank, went mad and was found dead in a flophouse in 1966 aged 52. I first came across him in the late 199os when I read Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift, a fictional account of their relationship - one soaring, the other squalid and forgotten. Bellow picked up where Schwartz was unable to continue: into the novel, where American Jewish life belonged; because if you are Jewish, as the Israeli novelist David Grossman has pointed out, you are already stuck in a big story - the Old Testament is one great epic novel.

Published in 1953, Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March is not the story of a Jewish American but the story of Americans and of what it means to be one. When Bellow died, in zoos, I wrote of him: "His vigour, vitality, humour and passion were always matched by the insistence on thought, not the predigested clich s of the mass media or of those on the left, which had begun to disgust him by the Sixties." He operated within the widest of modern contexts: "IN writer about conscience and consciousness, forever conflicted by the competing demands of the great cities, the individual's urge to survival against all odds and his equal need for love."

The trick to achieving greatness is for the particular to become the general. Augie March was the American Everyman, and the American Jewish novel, like the Bible, is a document writ large and with energy; it is the consequence of the arrival of huge numbers of immigrants from a continent of race laws to one in which the idea of freedom was a kind of amphetamine for the seeking, striving man and woman. Even across the border in Waspish Canada, the New World provided literary opportunities for Mordecai Richler.

In the early 1990s, an American Jewish academic arriving in Britain to take up a teaching position told me that she did not believe there were Jews in England, and if there were, they were not real Jews. Why? "Because the English talk with la-di-dah accents and hold their cups of tea like that," she said, crooking her little finger. It was not the first time the unreality of my identity had been pronounced. British Jews arrived here from the same places, at the same time and for the same reasons as American Jews stepping off the boat at Ellis Island. The difference was that we did not, as Philip Roth has noted of his countrymen and women, make our contribution to the national identity along with all the other immigrants - the Italians, the Poles and the Irish. The national identity here was formed centuries earlier. By the time it was susceptible to alteration, Jews were out of the running. We were not part of Project Empire Strikes Back; instead, we have been co-opted (to our surprise) into the enterprise of British colonialism in the Middle East.

If Augie March is Everyman, the British Jew is an oddity; we're so out of kilter with universal experience that we are a minority taste. …

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