Page 21 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 42

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ROSENFELD / AMERICAN JEWISH LITERATURE
13
ROTH’S JEWISHNESS
O ne can’t make quite such large claims fo r Philip Roth, bu t no
one who has read his early fiction — with whatever deg ree o f
pleasure, ou trage , embarrassm en t, o r pain — can easily recover
from the satirical mercilessness and up roa riousness o f
Portnoy's
Complaint
(1969)
and some o f the stories collected in
Goodbye,
Columbus
(1959).
T h e shame, anger, ridicule, scorn, and adm i­
ra tion tha t these books evoked are telling, and what they tell has
much to do with the intensities and ambivalences o f family
feeling, o f certain shocks o f recognition tha t a re unsettling when
released so openly into the public realm . They tell as well tha t
Roth is an au th o r who canno t be avoided.
No r can B e rna rd Malamud be, even if with him Jewish writing
has seemed at times to remain stuck in its imm igran t phase. Far
more than most, Malamud has been drawn to the gray and re ­
stricted tones o f the Depression years, and much o f his best fic­
tion —
The Assistant
(1957)
and the stories o f
The Magic Barrel
(1958)
— mines the ha rdsh ip and the pathos o f the ea rlier immi­
g r a n t decades an d th e i r imm ed ia te a f te rm a th . In re ad in g
Malamud it is best to pay atten tion to tones o f feeling and subtle
tu rn s o f imagination and no t primarily to ideas, although he has
tried to b ring certain ideas to life and even to cast them in Jewish
term s (when no t dissolving them a ltoge ther in the abstractions o f
some wished-for universal morality). He wins his place, and it is a
p rom inen t one, no t as a result o f philosophical d ep th (though
tha t is Bellow’s streng th), bu t because he has been able both to
domesticate the Jewish muse within the naturalism o f the Am eri­
can novel and to follow h e r into the phan tasm agorical and
su rreal realms o f p u re r imagination. Malamud, in short, is the
prose-poet o f a certain strain o f Jewish striving beyond limitation
and defea t — at his best, the Chagall o f American Jewish fiction.
Are the re o th e r writers one would be moved to describe in
these terms, and thus lay some claim to as p e rm an en t presences
within the corpus o f American Jewish writing? Among ea rlier
figures, I take perverse p leasure in the work o f N a thanael West,
and I would no t be quick to let go o f
Miss Lonelyhearts
(1933),
any
more than I would want to lose some o f the high moments in the
comedies o f Wallace Markfield, Stanley Elkin, and Woody Allen.
I f th e re is, in fact, such a th ing as Jewish h um o r — one feels it,
laughs at it, is fortified by it, even if one is unable to satisfactorily