Page 21 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 29

Basic HTML Version

ew ish
ew ish
novel of Jewish suffering, it seems to me significant that he should
have found it necessary to return to early twentieth-century Russia
to find his proper objective correlative.
What one is led to infer from this peculiar datum is that Mala-
mud, an American Jew seeking his Jewish identity in Jewish
suffering, has not been able to find that necessary ingredient in
the American experience. As a consequence, he has been forced
either to sentimentalize that suffering in an American environ-
ment, as in
The Assistant,
or to depict it in a culture and atmos-
phere alien to him.
The solution to Malamud’s dilemma may lie in Philip Roth’s
notorious novel,
Portnoy's Complaint
(1969). Throughout the
fifties and sixties it was customary in liberal circles to speak about
alienation and about the Jew as the archetypal alienated man,
because of his inevitable estrangement from the hostile societies
in which he found himself forced to live. But while all the talk
was going on, the position of the Jew in America was undergoing
significant, though apparently undetected, changes. Philip Roth,
it seems to me, is the writer who had the deepest and most honest
insight (perceivable as early as 1959 in the story, “Eli the Fanatic”)
into these changes. Distasteful though Roth’s vision may be, its
truth is now being attested to by what is being widely lamented
as a lost generation of Jewish youth. The irony that I believe Roth
saw, and embodied in his fiction, is that the Jew, who has for
millennia been alienated because he has not “fitted into” the domi-
nant culture, is very well assimilated into the general culture;
but now he is alienated because he can no longer fit himself into
Jewish culture, partly because nobody knows for sure any longer
just what that culture is supposed to be, and partly because of the
ease with which it is possible to assimilate into and collect the
hefty rewards offered by American culture. Roth desentimentalizes
Jewish suffering and also Jewish dialect. The language that pos-
sesses a charming quaintness when used by Malamud’s characters
becomes, when used by Roth’s characters, an irritant.
Alexander Portnoy is the type of this new alienated Jew, ali-
enated not from gentiles but from other Jews, including his own
immediate family. Like Bober, Portnoy suffers, but he takes no
satisfaction in his suffering. Moreover, suffering does not bring
him any closer to his Jewish identity. Morris says of the Jews that
“they suffer because they are Jews.” Portnoy sees Jewish suffering
only as a possible cause of sexual difficulties. The “pogroms and
the persecution” are meaningless to him, and to pretend other-
wise would be hypocrisy and sentimentalism. In fact, he finds him-
self persecuted not by gentiles but by Jews.
Portnoy is a male Helen Bober (Morris’s daughter, who also
finds it impossible to experience sexual satisfaction), the humanist