Page 20 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 42

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12
JEW ISH BO O K A N N U A L
is not biblical lamentation, nor is it anything like the heart­
rending cry of the medieval chronicles, but it is sorrow-laden all
the same and recalls, if anything, something o f the tone of voice
one hears in writings by German-Jewish writers some decades
earlier.
Call it, if you will, the literary expression o f the Jew’s anxious
contestation with modernity, or the voice of an unwanted but un­
avoidable Jewish dilemma: the dilemma of cultural displace­
ment, abandonment, loss. One must, as well, be cognizant o f the
omnipresent ironies, the saving qualities o f humor, the back­
ground noises of boisterous city streets. Nor should one forego
hearing the accents of Jewish nervousness, ambition, illusion,
hope. What I am trying to describe, in whatever inadequate
shorthand, is the emergence o f a Jewish style, a style that was to
carry at least one prominent strain o f American Jewish writing
beyond the limitations of the early immigrant novel to something
more energetic and inventive, something that begins to make it­
self felt in Saul Bellow’s
The Adventures o f Augie March
(1953).
No one who read that book shortly after its publication could
easily miss the exuberance and expansiveness o f voice that en­
tered American Jewish writing with Bellow’s third novel. His two
earlier books, however well crafted, however interesting, were
minor performances.
Augie March,
however episodic in structure,
however conceptually unresolved, was freer, bigger, and infin­
itely fuller of promise.
In Bellow’s case the promise was to be fulfilled in
Herzog
(1964)
and
Mr. Sammler’s Planet
(1970), books that have already won
their place in the emerging canon of American Jewish writing.
With them, as with
Henderson the Rain K ing
(1959) before them,
Bellow, the most intellectually resourceful o f our writers, devel­
oped the Novel o f Ideas (or Novel of Jewish Ideas?) in a way that
no English-language writer since George Eliot had done so
ambitiously and so well. Since the principal carriers o f ideas in
Bellow’s fiction are Jews (Moses Herzog, Artur Sammler) or
Jews-disguised-as-gentiles (Eugene Henderson, Alfred Corde), a
whole new dimension o f American Jewish writing has been
opened up, a dimension that marks a significant advance not only
in this body o f writing but in modern American literature as a
whole.