I have stared at this draft topic header for a couple of weeks now, debating whether it is worth writing (or rather completing) a post on such a vast topic.* This actually all came about in my mind over reading David Golder and The Finkler Question in quick succession, but then wanting to comment on them but placing them against the work of mainstream Jewish-American novelists. Insane, but that is the only way my brain wants to put the material together. It is worth noting that I come to the topic from the North American context where Jews became "white" a long time ago and one's Jewish experience is left largely up to the individual to decide on how assimilated one will be (and where Jewish intermarriage rates are very high -- to the point where quite a few Jewish advocates worry about the implications for the future where children from interfaith marriages are generally not brought up Jewish).**
Many books and theses have already been written on this, and I would merely add that I agree that the towering trio of American Jewish novelists are Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Of course there is always the Modernist masterpiece Call It Sleep by Henry Roth,† but then late in life Henry Roth produced a quite incredible eruption -- the four volume Mercy of a Rude Stream (completed by Roth but largely published posthumously) and even another posthumous work, An American Type, that was largely the work of his editor going through thousands of pages left behind after Roth's death. (I have to admit I have not gotten around to An American Type, which apparently has at least some surface similarities to On the Road, but I did read all of Mercy of a Rude Stream.) There is no question this later work has caused people to completely rethink Henry Roth, since he revealed that he had incestuous relations with his sister (as well as sex with his cousin) in Mercy of a Rude Stream. To some, this ick factor has sort of spilled back and spoiled Call It Sleep for them. I don't take it that far, but the controversy does seem destined to keep Henry Roth as more of an afterthought than part of the conversation around American Jewish novelists.
One of the more interesting coincidences is that Library of America has been issuing recent editions of the novels (and stories) of Malamud, Bellow and Philip Roth. This will help cement their stature as "American" writers, but there are occasionally strange gaps in the coverage that may lead to some misunderstandings about the core of their work. Philip Roth seems to be the only one that merits getting his entire oeuvre into print from LOA, though with their fourth volume of Bellow LOA comes close to covering him as well, with all the novels and novellas, but missing out on some key short stories.
With Malamud, LOA seems to stop short at the 1960s. I think this is quite unfortunate as The Tenants is perhaps his most interesting novel, and it had its roots in the late 1960s, though it was published in 1971. I would probably also seek out and read his short story collection Rembrandt's Hat (1974). I am not as sure about Dubin's Lives (1979), and God's Grace (1982) sounds like late Vonnegut for better and worse. I may get around to these some day, but it will be a long, long time before I do. So I can understand LOA's reluctance to put out a volume of Malamud in the 1970s and 80s, but I still wish they had found a way to squeeze The Tenants into that second volume. As it happens, I used to own quite a few of his books, but I only read a story or two from The Magic Barrel and I'm fairly sure I read The Tenants, but not The Assistant. I eventually parted with them in one of my many moves (I sort of wish I had held onto The Magic Barrel with this trippy cover).
However, that actually puts me into the target audience to buy the two LOA volumes covering Malamud's work from the 1940s through the 60s. While I am not all that interested in reading a baseball novel (The Natural), the rest are quite interesting, largely looking at Jewish life in the 1950s and 60s when Jews were living cheek-by-jowl with African-Americans in the less desirable neighborhoods, particularly in New York. The Tenants is definitely in this line as well, though it also has some existential overlay where there is a Jewish writer struggling with writer's block and a Black militant author (probably modeled on Amiri Baraka) moves in. (For another obscure novel in this same vein, it is worth seeking out The Bag by Sol Yurick, another Jewish American writer.) By the mid 1970s, Malamud was writing more frequently about Jewish characters outside of the U.S. ghetto and sometimes featuring non-Jewish characters.
Bellow spent more of his career writing about assimilated Jews and Jews outside of Jewish enclaves, certainly relative to Malamud. Perhaps this can be explained by his use of Chicago as a base of operations early in his career. Jews simply are not found in great numbers in the Midwest as they are in the Northeast and California; in fact, according to this survey and Pew, Jews are more under-represented in the Midwest than even in the U.S. South.
As a reader, I have a complicated relationship with Bellow. I've read everything except a few short stories, the novella What Kind of Day Did You Have? and his final novel Ravelstein. I thought all of the novels had something of interest, particularly his first four (3 short and Augie March quite long), but from Herzog onwards, it really seems like Bellow was rehashing some private family business -- he was screwed over by an uncle on a business deal or something and the only way to get back at him was to put some version of this into every novel. (This is pure supposition, but it definitely is a recurring theme.) And of course, there are the extramarital affairs. I believe they feature in every novel from Herzog to More Die of Heartbreak. Maybe this was just something in the air in the 1960s through 1980s -- the natural outcome of the sexual revolution. As affairs are common in Philip Roth's work as well (Deception being just one of many novels featuring adultery), perhaps it is something endemic to Jewish intellectuals (I kid, I kid). It is more likely that infidelity may have been seen an endemic of suburban life, as martial affairs are quite common in John Cheever and John Irving and John Updike's work as well (just thinking of a few examples off the top of my head).
As much as I am tempted by the LOA Bellow set, I am not really that likely to reread all these novels. I am fairly likely to reread The Adventures of Augie March and The Dean's December, my favorite two Bellow novels, and I might someday reread Herzog or Henderson the Rain King.
With Philip Roth, his early career seemed to feature Jewish families in Newark, so not too dissimilar from Malamud, though far more emphasis on the family and Roth takes a more comic look at his characters and their situations. His later work is quite varied. He ultimately seems more adventurous to me than Bellow. While the Zuckerman Bound quartet (and arguably Exit Ghost ‡) are not so dissimilar to the realist novels that Bellow specialized in, Roth also used the Nathan Zuckerman character in other meta-fictional ways, not so differently from Dennis Potter where the line between author and character are blurred. Roth also engaged in speculative fiction (The Plot Against America), postmodern fiction that arguably cribs from Paul Auster (Operation Shylock) and experimental novels that are hard to pin down (The Great American Novel, My Life as a Man and The Counterlife). While there is sometimes a touch of misogyny surrounding some of Roth's characters, his willingness to try different things and an embrace of experimental writing (often working off of real-world figures) make him the American Jewish novelist I have ultimately found the most interesting. I doubt I'll ever read all of his novels (or buy any of the LOA volumes aside from Nemeses), but I do expect to read Sabbath's Theatre in the near future and reread Zuckerman Bound in the more distant future. I haven't quite decided when I will get to his later novels, but I will try to find a way at some point.
In contrast, I have decided to completely give up on Howard Jacobson. I find him a very insular writer, writing novels that really are not at all interesting if one is not part of the Jewish community in Britain. In the Finkler Question, pages and pages are devoted to this idea that being Jewish is so interesting that not one, but two, goys try to make the attempt to become integrated into the Jewish community. The book is completely obsessed with how Jews deal with criticism of Israel and how Jews themselves criticize Israel. Finkler himself starts as a major critic of Israel, but then falls for the old canard that only Jews can criticize Israel without being racist. While this may or may not reflect Jacobson's feelings, by this point in the novel, I was so bored that this was the tipping point. There is also a sordid affair (which seems to have started only because a goy wanted to sleep with a Jewess as if her Jewishness would rub off on him while she was rubbing him off) and bad behavior all the way around. I didn't like Kalooki Nights either, though I was simply bored rather than bored and exasperated and mildly offended, as I was by The Finkler Question.
What confuses me is why he is so popular in Britain, or at least why does the literary establishment keep putting him up for awards like the Man Booker Prize. When you look at the average reader's reviews of Jacobson's work, they are pretty lukewarm (maybe slightly more positive than I am) but he is just lionized by most of the British literary establishment. Well, there is always that navel-gazing and insularity about certain authors (in the U.S. there are innumerable, overpraised books emerging from Ivy league writing workshops), so I am not offended by this. However, I do know that where is a reviewer that highly praises Howard Jacobson, then I am deeply out of sync with that same reviewer and I will no longer follow their advice. I could write more, but I think I've said enough.
So I have finally circled around to Irène Némirovsky's David Golder. Like many other readers, I was swept up in the excitement over the publication of Suite Française. There is not much to say other than her story was one of many terrible tragedies, with the additional anguish that she knew things were turning bad but was not willing to leave their home in Paris until it was really too late. They might have managed to get out of Occupied France in time, but it is hard to say. I have not read any of the other recently rediscovered and/or posthumously published works. I'm sure I will some day. Instead I read David Golder, a novel that was published during her life and which basically made her a literary darling of her era. Several writers have commented that David Golder reads very much like one of Dostoevsky's novels, and I can certainly see some connections with The Gambler: the obsession with money and the inability to reign oneself in, even when following a disastrous course. (One might also say that Jewish stereotypes are present throughout Dostoevsky's and Némirovsky's work, though in David Golder she accepts the libel that Jews are always grasping for money but then explains the deep-seated need for security -- money being the only thing that can establish even provisional security for Jews, since titles and often even land could not be held by Jews in many European countries. It worked for me, though many critics continue to argue Némirovsky is anti-semitic.)
I have to say I recognized a bit of myself in Golder -- not the obsession to make money but allowing work to upset family life and even one's health to a certain extent. However, he is one of those people for whom working is central to his sense of self. I can relate to that, though I don't take it that far. It is interesting that Golder "redeems" himself in a sense by getting back in the saddle one last time, though only on behalf of his fairly spoiled daughter and not for the wife who has ridiculed him and lives openly with her lover. I'm not really sure it was worth it. I sort of see David Golder as Silas Marner in a fun-house mirror. Instead of realizing that hoarding gold is a mistake and that family bonds are what matter, David's family is quite horrid and yet his "salvation" is to overlook the trouble his family has caused him and to make one last business venture to accumulate the money his daughter needs. It's a somewhat ambiguous moral to say the least, but it actually was quite an interesting novel. Now that I have zig-zagged all over the place (like Golder who went from continent to continent in his business dealings), I think it is finally time to put this long, long post on Jewish novels to bed (and thus get a bit more sleep myself).
* And whether I am really qualified to write on the topic. Ultimately, I decided that I have a right to express my opinions as an occasional reader of Jewish novels but should not make any excessive claims of understanding the mindset of Jewish novelists.
** One can argue whether this is fundamentally good or bad, but this survey suggests that intermarriage rates, particularly among Jews who were not Orthodox or Conservative Jews has jumped 10% for the most current generation of Jews who were married in 2000 or after (reaching nearly 60%), compared to Jews who married in the 1980s or early 1990s. Prior to 1970, Jewish intermarriage rates were below 20% and the intermarriage rate was generally in the 30% range throughout the 1970s. This tracks reasonably well with my narrative of Jews being assimilated into North American culture basically since the mid 1970s.
† There are some interesting thoughts on Henry Roth versus Saul Bellow here.
‡ I'm actually quite intrigued to learn that in Exit Ghost, Roth returns to the somewhat scorned character, the writer E.I. Lonoff. While Lonoff had long been viewed as a caricature of Malamud, Roth adds the salacious details of Henry Roth's life, making him a composite of Malamud and Henry Roth.
On a different note, it's actually kind of interesting how Zuckerman is sometimes a main character, as in Zuckerman Bound and Exit Ghost, but sometimes he is simply a framing device (I Married a Communist or The Human Stain). Sometimes he apparently falls somewhere in between, which is my take on The Counterlife and American Pastoral. In American Pastoral, Zuckerman pieces together a story from fragments left behind after Swede Levov's death. This reminds me a bit of Jack Fuller's The Best of Jackson Payne with just a dash of Jon Baitz's Other Desert Cities. I wouldn't say I am jumping at the chance to read either of these narrated-by-Zuckerman novels, but I may some day.