Page 22 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 41

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
city which Bellow articulates. Any exp lora tion o f the ir work has to
begin with the acknowledgment that Bellow’s is the effo rt to write
the American epic while they work with smaller forms.
For Grace Paley as for Cynthia Ozick, the short story and the
novella are more com fortable than the novel. They do no t have
the sweep o f Bellow. They work in a synecdochic mode, seeking
not the evocation and represen tation o f the whole bu t its pa r t tha t
stands for the entire culture. T he marginal world o f the ir charac­
ters and situations stays marginal and does no t seek the revolu­
tionary possibilities tha t make it possible for the epic city to
become transformed into a version o f
the polis.
T he imperial city
is not malleable politically and socially. This is not to appo rtion
blame but ra th e r to com prehend the d iffe ren t purposes and cir­
cumstances o f some con temporary writers.
Where is the city, Dean Corde asks. Everywhere, his colleague
answers.
I f this is true, then city life depends not so much on place bu t on
gesture, tone, and accent. T he u rban condition cannot be
discovered, it must be revealed. We must expect to find the news
o f ou r city ways in accounts o f how private life is suddenly tran s­
formed into public encoun ter. Certain Jewish women writers
have made this kind o f writing available to us, locating in the ep i­
sodic epiphanies o f the ir stories the world o f the city. Consider
only one moment in Grace Paley’s ex trao rd inary story, “A Con­
versation with my F a ther.” Discussing a story she is writing with
her father, the d augh te r -na rra to r defends the u rban possibilities
o f h e r heroine. H er fa the r sees the woman’s life as ended when
she becomes a d rug addict; the d augh te r -n a rra to r protests. ‘“No,
Pa,’ I begged him. ‘It doesn’t have to be. She’s only about forty.
She could be a hund red d ifferen t things in this world as time goes
on. A teacher or a social worker. An ex-junkie! Sometimes it’s be t­
ter than having a master’s in education .’” Father protests. “‘Jokes,’
he said. . . . ‘You don ’t want to recognize it. Tragedy! Plain trag ­
edy! Historical tragedy! No hope. T he end .’” But his d augh te r
knows what city life is about. “‘Oh, Pa,’ I said. ‘She could change.’”
As well there is the ex traord inary mom en t in “T he Imm ig ran t
Story,” when the n a r ra to r recalls her announcem en t “to the sixth
grade assembly thirty years ago. I said: I thank God every day tha t
I ’m not in Europe. I thank God I ’m American-born and live on
East 172nd Street where the re is a grocery store, a candy store
and a d rugstore on one co rne r and on the same block a shul and
two doctors’ offices.” Unlike the sweep o f Bellow’s prose, which is