Writers making waves across Atlantic

The JC essay


By David Herman, March 13, 2012
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This is an exciting time for American Jewish writing. Over the past decade, a new wave of young writers has emerged and seems to be going from strength to strength. Nathan Englander's new book of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, has received rave reviews. His recent translation of the Haggadah, in an edition edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, has just been published by Penguin.

A film starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, based on Foer's second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, was released last month; the second of Foer's novels to be filmed. Last year Foer's wife Nicole Krauss released her acclaimed novel, Great House, and Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule won the National Book Award. And Hope: A Tragedy, the keenly awaited debut novel by the iconoclastic Shalom Auslander has arrived in the bookshops.

It's not just Jewish-American fiction that is on a roll. Screenwriters have won awards and acclaim in equal measure. Aaron Sorkin's screenplay for The Social Network, which told the story of the birth of Facebook, won an Academy Award in 2011 and his screenplay for the new Brad Pitt baseball film, Moneyball, was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay this year.

Woody Allen won this year's Best Screenplay Oscar for Midnight in Paris and the Coen brothers were nominated for 10 Academy Awards for True Grit in 2011.

In Aaron Sorkin's TV dramas and film scripts, even if the characters are not Jewish, the rhythms of their dialogue are.

These writers and filmmakers are all familiar enough names. Less well known is the exciting new generation of Jewish American literary critics, especially the group at the New Republic and the New Yorker: Adam Gopnik, Ruth Franklin and Adam Kirsch. Last year, Franklin published an excellent collection of essays on the Holocaust, A Thousand Darknesses, and Kirsch has recently contributed to the Why X Matters series with Why Trilling Matters, a study of the great, mid-20th-century American critic, Lionel Trilling.

The writer and critic Keith Gessen started an exciting new literary magazine in New York, n+1, described by Gessen as "like Partisan Review, except not dead".

Then came The Jewish Review of Books, launched in 2010 and edited by Abraham Socher. The editorial board is a Who's Who of Jewish intellectual life: from Shlomo Avineri and Michael Walzer to Leon Wieseltier and Steven Zipperstein. And there is also Tablet, "a daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture", which launched in 2009. Its contributing editors include a very different Who's Who of (mostly) younger Jewish-American writers and critics - Joshua Cohen and Rebecca Goldstein, Dara Horn, Adam Kirsch and Gary Shteyngart. What these three magazines confirm is that Jewish-American intellectual culture is going through an exciting time. The quality of the reviews in these publications is streets ahead of any British broadsheet.

There are a number of things that are immediately striking about these writers and critics. First, how young most of them are, a new generation on the block. Some of the best-known writers in this group are still in their 30s: Krauss and Safran Foer, Gessen and Kirsch, Horn, and Rudolph Delsen. Others like Englander, Auslander and Lemony Snicket (born Daniel Handler) are barely 40.

Even grizzled old veterans like Sorkin, Allegra Goodman and Michael Chabon were born in the 1960s. In other words, a whole new generation of Jewish American writers have burst on to the scene since the older generation of Arthur Miller, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow.

There was a moment in the 1990s when we thought the golden age of Jewish-American writing was over. It looked as if it was a one-off. Where were new playwrights like Miller, writers like Bernard Malamud and Roth, poets like Ginsberg? In no time we got our answer.

In 1993, the 37-year-old writer Tony Kushner wrote his Pulitzer-winning play, Angels in America. Six years later, Englander appeared with his astonishing first book of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. In the same year, Lemony Snicket wrote the first of his A Series of Unfortunate Events stories for children, a remarkably clever and playful series of novels, and Sorkin's fast-moving White House drama The West Wing emerged, one of the smartest television shows ever written.

The next year, Chabon brought out The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay and, in 2002, Krauss and Safran Foer produced their first novels. After that, the books, screenplays and TV shows kept on coming: including Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Krauss's The History of Love and Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

There is something else these writers have in common. They are very, very Jewish. Think of the opening scene of the Coen brothers' 2009 film, A Serious Man. In a Polish shtetl, a Jew tells his wife that he was helped on his way home by Traitle Groshkover, whom he has invited in for soup. She tells him this can't be true: Groshkover is dead, the visitor must be a dybbuk (evil spirit) and, when he arrives, she plunges an ice pick into his chest. Then we cut to a Minnesota suburb in the 1960s.

In the fiction of Krauss and Foer, Chabon and Englander, we find the same strategy: the attempt to link the old Jewish world with present-day America. The young American heroes of Foer and Krauss try and solve mysteries that come from the dark European past. The opening stories in Englander's first collection begin with the murder of the Yiddish poets by Stalin, and a Holocaust tale. The later stories, however, are set in modern-day Jewish America. Chabon's best two novels, Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, both move between the Holocaust and modern America. They could not be more Jewish, but in the way they play with comic books and detective fiction they could hardly be more American either.

In Sorkin's TV dramas and film scripts, even if the characters are not actually Jewish, the rhythms of their dialogue are. Think of strategists Josh Lyman and Toby Ziegler in The West Wing (both of whom are Jewish characters). It's not just their 1960s liberalism that is Jewish, it's the speed and wit of the way they speak. Who could forget Toby Ziegler's machine-gun delivery of his first speech in the very first episode? Or Mark Zuckerberg's first, extraordinary monologue in The Social Network? Or the first appearance by the fat, bespectacled (and very Jewish) stats-man, Peter Brand, in Moneyball?

These new writers have tried to find a way of connecting Jewish themes, characters and history with very American preoccupations, from baseball to the White House, from detective genres to kids in New York. It's a world away from the elegiac memories of the old immigrant neighbourhoods and garment factories in the work of Bellow and Roth or the corner store in Malamud's The Assistant.

But it certainly cannot be said that the new writing is any less Jewish than that produced by Bellow's generation. Quite the opposite. Who could be more Jewish than Nathan Englander, brought up in an Orthodox community in Long Island, his fiction full of women who make sheitels, Jewish summer camps, and Orthodox Jews who won't give their wives a divorce?

His dialogue crackles with Yiddish intonations. He can also write Hebrew: as well as the new Haggadah, he has translated Israeli writer Etgar Keret into English. His new book of short stories begins with a story about an Orthodox couple from Israel who visit old friends in Florida and play a game linked to the story of Anne Frank.

If Englander and his characters could not be more Jewish, the same is true of writers like Foer and Krauss. Before Auslander wrote his novel, Hope: A Tragedy, he penned a memoir - Foreskin's Lament - relating his painful and rebellious early life in a strictly Orthodox household and community in Monsey, New York.

These new writers may be engaged by contemporary America, but they are also considerably more Jewish in their preoccupations than earlier Jewish American writers. One of the most striking aspects of the great post-war generation is how they are haunted by the sense of living at the end of a traditional way of life: the end of values, customs and traditions that mattered to their immigrant parents but no longer mattered to them.

Writers like Bellow, Mailer, Heller and Roth came after: after Judaism, after the relationship with the old country had been broken, after the immigrant neighbourhoods and tenements of the Lower East Side and, above all, after the Holocaust.

As the critic Leslie Fiedler wrote in the 1960s: "Quite simply, he [the Jewish-American writer] does not know in what his Jewishness consists; he is only aware that it is on the point of disappearing." At the end of his novel, The Counterlife, Roth imagines a Jew "without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness." Secular, uninterested in Israel, not very preoccupied with the Holocaust, they both rejoiced in and were troubled by their lack of interest in key aspects of Jewish life and history.

This is why the great Jewish-American novels and stories of the 1950s and 1960s are full of young Jews, unmoored, without an identity. What kind of Jews are they? What kind of Americans are they? Think of Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day, Bellow's Herzog or Eli Peck in Philip Roth's great story, Eli, the Fanatic. They crumble in the face of those whom they consider to be more authentic Jews: rabbis, Holocaust survivors, their immigrant parents who came to the Lower East Side or Montreal from Russia and eastern Europe.

The new generation of young, smart Jewish-American writers could not be more different. They are sure of their Jewishness. They set stories and novels in eastern Europe, in Israel or the Orthodox neighbourhoods in New York. But the crucial difference is that they have not located their Jewishness in the American past, in old immigrant tenements.

Unlike Bellow's generation, the younger writers are less interested in the Jewish American past and more interested in Europe, especially the Holocaust, and Israel. So in Foer's Everything is Illuminated, a curious young Jewish American goes to the former Soviet Union to find out what happened during the Second World War. In Krauss's The History of Love, a young New Yorker, Alma Singer, tries to get to the bottom of a mystery that involves a number of Jewish refugees from eastern Europe during the war. You get the energy of New York and contemporary America played off against the dark history of Jewish eastern Europe and Russia.

This new wave has tried to find a new Jewish American voice, completely different from Bellow, Malamud and Roth, playing with different genres, looking at a different Jewish world that crosses both sides of the Atlantic. The difference can be summed up in one sentence: an older generation of Jewish American writers were not very interested in Judaism, the Holocaust or Israel; the younger generation are very interested in all three, but are trying to find a way of connecting these to their experience as young Americans.

Their Jewishness is right at the centre of the new literary voice they are trying to develop. Not in a pious or sentimental way, but in a thoughtful and intelligent way, and sometimes (though this varies from writer to writer) in a comic way.

As the past few months have shown, this new wave that emerged at the turn of the century has in no way burnt out but is producing some of the best fiction, criticism and screenwriting around. Few critics in Britain, Jewish or otherwise, have yet got its measure and these new American writers have left Anglo-Jewish writing way, way behind.

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

    Last updated: 11:14am, March 13 2012