Books: Philip Roth: The Long and Short of It
by Philip Roth. (Houghton Mifflin, 233 pp. $26)
Philip Roth began his literary career by setting his groundbreaking novella Goodbye, Columbus not in Ohio but in Newark, New Jersey, and its wealthy suburbs. Now, 50 years later, in Indignation, Roth moves his central character, college student Marcus Messner, from the comfort of his Newark neighborhood and family to a small (once-church-affiliated) Midwestern college in Winesburg, Ohio, a fictional town created by Sherwood Anderson. The novel takes place in 1951, with the Korean War raging violently in the background.
Why does Marcus move out? It has to do with a father who becomes obsessed with guarding his only son from serious harm. Without a shred of evidence, Marcus’s father imagines that his previously upright son is frequenting pool halls and bordellos rather than the library.
His father had not always been mad. During the summer between Marcus’s graduation from high school and the beginning of his freshman year at a local college, he had worked happily, in almost idyllic conditions, alongside his father in his butcher store, learning all there is to know about kosher butchering.
But now, the good son will no longer submit to his father’s tyrannies and transfers to the most un-Newark-like college he can find.
At Winesburg College—since this is, after all, a Philip Roth story—Marcus will begin a relationship with an insecure, sexually promiscuous shiksa, several social classes above him. A doctor’s daughter from a place called Hunting Valley, Olivia Hutton eats snails, has a drinking problem, has attempted suicide and is devoted to fellatio.
Given the formerly Christian college’s belief that Jews like to be together, Marcus is assigned to a dorm with three Jewish roommates. One of them interferes with Marcus’s attempts to study and achieve his goal of becoming class valedictorian and so Marcus moves out (his way of dealing with problems). Thanks, perhaps, to his father’s behind-the-scenes machinations, Marcus is befriended by a Jewish BMOC, whose advice to Marcus about getting along with goyim leads to disaster and who will become, as Roth puts it, Marcus’s “Angel of Death.”
What death? Not a quarter of the way through the novel, we are told that Marcus, expelled from Winesburg for being “indignant” with the dean, has been drafted and killed in Korea. He is now narrating the story of the last year of his life from an afterlife, the “realm of eternal recollection.” In the chapter entitled “Under Morphine” and later in a brief epilogue called “Out From Under,” Roth attenuates the supernatural aspect of his novel by informing the reader that Marcus is recalling the details of his 18th year as he lies dying, receiving “mnemonic fuel” from the morphine administered to him in the killing fields of Korea.
The shockingly unexpected announcement of Marcus’s death permits Roth to meditate on death and the afterlife—which the author sees as neither eternal suffering nor eternal bliss but rather eternal remembering. While he is not sure whether this is heaven or hell, it certainly provides an opening for telling stories.
Most captivating of all are the butcher shop stories that, Marcus asserts, “made me me.” These are edifying tales about the integrity of Marcus’s father, who would not sell to his Jewish customers meat that was inadvertently not kashered properly. Marcus, repulsed by his “nauseating and disgusting” chore of eviscerating chickens, is delighted nevertheless with the life lesson he learns from his father: “You do what you have to do.”
The problem with these life lessons is that they are superseded by one’s genetic makeup. As the title of the novel warns us, a Messner will get indignant and defiant and will resist humiliation at all costs, even at the cost of his life. In the end, the novel concludes, the most edifying life lesson of all is “the incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.”
For readers who can look beyond the narrative’s episodic nature or the feeling that they are sometimes listening to a talking head, Indignation is a short novel that is long on reading pleasure. The philosophy is thought-provoking, the episodes often funny, sometimes uplifting and, in places, disheartening. Just like real life.
by Gloria Goldreich. (Mira, 487 pp. $13.95)
Award-winning novelist Gloria Goldreich knows how to craft an absorbing, heartwarming story rich in domestic drama, even if an occasional drawn-out passage describing contentment or joy presages what’s coming (“of course nothing will go wrong”). A big book that spans only 18 months, the plot follows Elaine Gordon—loving wife, successful ceramicist and sudden widow—from Westchester, New York, to Israel, California, Russia, then New Mexico. She is shuttling among her four children (two boys, twin girls), each of whom wants her to stay with them.
While the theme—know thyself—presents itself by way of Elaine’s and her children’s ruminations, the story is embroidered with subtle insights into family relations. We are familiar with these (mostly) assimilated Jews, their middle-class drive, their upscale accomplishments, their hopes and fears. We also know the admirable Elaine, though she does not yet fully know herself.
A “strong determined woman who saw beauty everywhere and created it where she could,” as one of her children observes, Elaine is unprepared for the remarks her children make about her long and loving marriage to their beloved father, Neil, a well-regarded psychiatrist. Ironically, as different as the children are from one another, they all saw their parents as having formed an “enchanted circle” of such perfect understanding and intuition that it veritably made each of them more envious of that relationship than competitive among themselves. As one sister remarks, Mom and Dad were “a cult of two.”
Neil and Elaine Gordon always prided themselves on encouraging their children to go their own way. Only after Neil’s death does Elaine begin to wonder why her much loved and loving children chose the lives they did—the talented, educated, “golden” Sandy becoming the overworked, continually pregnant, Orthodox Sarah living amid threats of suicide bombings in Israel; the beautiful Lisa, a doctor who hasn’t married; Peter, consumed by his West Coast success as a documentary filmmaker; and the youngest, Denis, said to have been the favorite, blissfully living in Santa Fe with his Jamaican lover.
Goldreich adroitly manipulates Elaine’s questions about her children into those of self-examination. At first bewildered, then recalling an adage that “adult children sit on your heart, not on your lap,” Elaine will, of course, emerge from her chrysalis of grief into the “clarity of a wounding honesty,” strengthened in appreciation of her progeny and open to newfound love.
There’s a lot of lore here—about art, medicine, food, dress, widowhood, decorating, photography—and many finely wrought descriptions of the different places Elaine visits: the religious quarter in Jerusalem; the desert in the American Southwest; Los Angeles in all its lure and glitz; Moscow in its chill, especially toward Jews; and the charm of upstate New York in all seasons.
Goldreich shows she’s been around and never more than when she’s exploring the terrain of the human heart. —Joan Baum
BESA: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II, by Norman H. Gershman.(Syracuse University Press, 125 pp. $39.95)
The tradition of besa—keeping one’s word—is so deeply rooted among Albanians that when they committed themselves to saving the lives of Jews during World War II, they did so despite the danger they put themselves in. It is because of the courage and conscience of the mostly Muslim Albanians that the country’s 2,000 Jews survived the Holocaust.
Norman H. Gershman’s black-and-white photographs and captions bring to life the heroic tales of rescuers and the pride of their descendants. For example, in one photo, the family of Ali and Ragip Kraja stand next to a sign they erected that reads: “The Jewish Refugees of Solomon Adixhes and family drank from this nearby well while being sheltered by Ali and Ragip Kraja when being chased by the Nazis.” In an interview, the Krajas add: “We sheltered the Adixhes family out of the goodness of our hearts. We are all brothers and proud of our heritage. If need be, we would do it again.”
The nearly 60 images of the aging children of heroes are accompanied by testimonies and recollections; some display photos of fathers or husbands; others clutch the certificate of the Righteous Among the Nations, awarded to their family by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem. Yet others pose with grandchildren—a new generation to whom the idea ofbesa is being passed.
The images are part of a traveling exhibit of the same name under the auspices of Yad Vashem; upcoming is a documentary, God’s House: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II, about Gershman’s journey to Albania and Kosovo. —Zelda Shluker
The North of God
by Steve Stern. (Melville House, 108 pp. $13, paper)
It is difficult for fiction writers to find homes for their short stories and harder still for their novellas. Along with short works by Henry James, Chekhov, Flaubert and Sholem Aleichem, The North of Godby Steve Stern has a fine haven in Melville Houses’s series, “The Contemporary Art of the Novella.” Stern is beloved for his stories—my favorite is “Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven,” fabulously funny Jewish folklore.
In The North of God, we encounter the kinds of characters Stern has made us familiar with: kin of Chelm’s simpletons, familiars of I.B. Singer’s imps, dybbuks, yeshiva bochers and their temptresses.
At first, Stern gives every reason to believe this will be a jolly romp. Our hero, Hershel Khevreman, a scholar no one likes, is the son of “an impoverished poulterer known as Itche Chicken in his Galician village of Zshldz.”
He is about to marry the wealthy but uncomely Shifrah Puah, “with the pinched face the hue of a biscuit dipped in borscht.” On the eve of his wedding, his classmates concoct a mock wedding, and as these things happen in imaginary shtetls, a dybbuk emerges, the daughter of Lilith in her temptress guise, and she has her way with the groom.
But we are jostled from cozy mirth to horror as we discover that Hershel’s story is being narrated by his former classmate, one Velvl Spfarb, as he rides with his fellow Jews in a cattle car headed to a death camp. The ghetto he has come from, and the place to which he is headed, are “North of God,” places of fear, devoid of Divine jurisdiction, places where all stories end.
Why now does Velvl tell the story of Hershel, who became a “dissolute wanderer and corrupter of children”? Because in his Gehenna, where neither prayer nor charity can save from death, Velvl ventures that it just might be possible for his story to keep a young widow and her daughter safe and alive as long as they are spellbound. Now that our own expectations of this tale have shifted, we, too, cling to the transmission of the tale as a fragile sanctuary, a place where—maybe shockingly—even love can be experienced.
The yarn keeps unfolding in a concentration camp. Like Scheherezade, Velvl keeps busy. His Hershel will hook up with the maniacal director of the Pishtipl Players Touring Company, who also may be the face of Elijah the Prophet, at home in an “off-kilter design of the shtetlscape.” Hershel becomes an actor and playwright, offering offensive purimspiels that get his ragtag troupe attacked by soldiers.
Does Hershel die and go to paradise and meet up with his old love? Perhaps, perhaps not. It is but a story of a man surrounded by death.
Stern has been called a magical realist, and that description is apt. Here, in his most sublime and probably most significant work, he allows readers to feel the harrowing history of the Holocaust most palpably present. —Vanessa L. Ochs
Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel’s National Poet
by Nili Scharf Gold. (Brandeis University Press, 445 pp. $35)
As Nili Scharf Gold points out in the opening pages of her solidly researched, intelligently argued study, while all of Yehuda Amichai’s biographers (he died in 2000 at the age of 76) as well as his critics and reviewers acknowledge that he was born in Germany and lived there until he was 12, they treat his arrival in Israel in 1936 as a second birth: “In the Israeli tradition, both the poet and his critics emphasized his Israeliness….” Gold’s revisionist study of Amichai’s life and work is based on extensive material, on travel to (and interviews conducted in) Wuerzburg, Germany, where Israel’s preeminent modern poet was known as Ludwig Pfeuffer, and on a cache of 98 previously unpublished letters written between 1947 and 1948 to a woman identified as Ruth Z.
The result leads to a fascinating study of what Gold calls Amichai’s longstanding habit of creative camouflage, the way he established a mythic Israeli identity by downplaying or underemphasizing bits and pieces of his Germanic background. Gold identified this impulse in Amichai’s work in 1984, (though she did not yet name it camouflage).
Five years later, his poem, “What Did I Learn in the Wars,” testifies, according to Gold, that “‘camouflage’ is a defense that has served him superbly in both art and life.”
Consider, for example, what Gold makes of “Autobiography 1952,” Amichai’s poetic manifesto that camouflages selectively and self-servingly the facts of his life:
After a theatrical opening filled with birth-related imagery, the poem’s speaker (who is exactly the same age as the poet) retells his life story. He recalls his “merry and small” hands at play when he was seven years old (in ’31), but immediately afterwards leaps ahead to when he was seventeen and first learned to hold a gun (“and in ’41…”)…. There is no hint in this chronological narrative, however, as to what transpired between 1931 and 1941.
The missing autobiographical details are sacrificed, Gold argues, to the larger Israeli myth about the parallel identification of Israel and the poem’s speaker.
Amichai’s German childhood had no place in the persona he developed when he began to think of himself as a serious writer.
Whether or not this constitutes what Gold calls camouflage is another matter, and one that is even more slippery when one considers the case of Ruth Z., a woman whom Amichai knew in Jerusalem from 1946 when he was 22 years old, and the long hidden letters onto which Gold shines a critical spotlight.
Once again, camouflage is the way that Gold describes the relationship. Ruth Z. was Amichai’s first adult love, and his letters to her reveal much about his life before the invention of the man destined to become Israel’s national poet. Ruth Z. would not, could not, be a part of this process.
Any biography, however good, is likely to be supplanted by yet another biography, usually a decade later. This will surely be the case with biographies of Amichai. Nonetheless, it is good that Gold’s scholarship has changed the tenor of future discussions because the Israeli myth that the poet consciously embodied has now been undeniably challenged.