Page 26 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 43

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
protest too much. The problem, I hasten to add, is not that Roth
makes regular raids on his autobiography — other, greater writ­
ers have not found this a particular handicap — but, rather, that
Roth, for all his stylistic dazzle, writes from a decidedly limited
cultural perspective. This is painfully apparent when one con­
siders how tied his work is to the surface details of American-
Jewish life and how superficial his grasp of such a life is.
BELLOW’S VISION
By contrast, Saul Bellow moves easily between cultures high
and low, between the Jewishness that informs characters like Mo­
ses Herzog or Artur Sammler and the giddy promises of America
that keep an Augie March moving. Even as a “promising” writer,
Nathan Zuckerman had a touch of the wiseguy about him; Great
Books, Big Ideas, Artistic Principles were so much fodder for his
rebellious canon. What the early Modernists called the “adver­
sary culture” was reduced, in Zuckerman’s case, to petty squab­
bles and temper tantrums. How different — in tone, in execution
— is this portrait of the American-Jewish intellectual’s “educa­
tion”:
He [Zetland] was encouraged to be a little intellectual. So, in
short pants, he was a junior Immanuel Kant. Musical (like
Frederick the Great or the Esterhazys), witty (like Voltaire),
a sentimental radical (like Rousseau), bereft of gods (like
Nietzsche), devoted to the heart and to the law of love (like
Tolstoy). He was earnest (the early shadow of his father’s
grimness), but he was playful, too. Not only did he study
Hume and Kant but he discovered dada and surrealism as
his voice was changing . . . He talked about the importance
o f the ridicu lous, the pa radox o f playful sublimity.
Dostoyevsky, he lectured me, had it right. The intellectual
(petty bourgeois-plebian) was a megalomaniac. Living in a
kennel, his thoughts embraced the universe . . . He was a
learned adolescent, was Zetland.
I have quoted at length from “Zetland: By a Character Witness”
(included in Bellow’s latest collection,
Him with his foot in his
mouth),
less because it stands as a loving, and nostalgic, reminis­
cence of Isaac Rosenfeld, his boyhood friend, than because it is a
vivid evocation o f how “cu lture Jews” like Rosenfeld and