On the outside looking in: a Jewish writer's lot

By Amanda Craig, March 4, 2010

A novelist in our society is an outsider, as is a Jew of course. Small wonder that so many novelists are Jewish. As a writer, I am interested in subjects that are universal - crime and punishment, love and family, the conflict between ambition and goodness and, of course, being an outsider and an exile. Yet they are also particular to Jews. Being both author and Jewish means you belong to everyone and to no one.

Every sensitive, "alienated" teenager responds to Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Camus's classic L'Étranger, to Hamlet and to poets of loneliness like Keats and Emily Dickinson. The outsider is very vulnerable but also privileged to be granted unique insights: both of these are almost prerequisites for creativity.

A Jew is in a similar position to a writer, and yet our two greatest authors, Shakespeare and Dickens, both drew on a crude, antisemitic stereotype to create Shylock and Fagin. True, Shakespeare briefly allows Shylock to be a human being; and Dickens, once he got to know a real Jewish family who told him how offensive Fagin was, removed all references to race in later editions of Oliver Twist. But why pick on Jews in the first place? Well, apart from the authors' perennial dance with poverty, writers - outsiders - also tend to want to belong, and Shakespeare and Dickens were both feeding the common taste.

Jewish writers are not beyond this tendency to identify with mainstream society. Look at Proust, bringing imaginary aristocrats into the cork-lined room. Look, too, at Irène Némirovsky, in her case pushing out her own people with her distinctly antisemitic portraits of Jews.

The first Anglo-Jewish novelist of note, Disraeli, was far too socially ambitious to write about other than gentile heroes. The first great portrait of a good Jewish man was created not by a Jew but by a Christian woman who knew well what it was like to be ostracised - George Eliot. Daniel Deronda has the world at his feet, but no purpose in life until he discovers his true parentage, and destiny.

Jewish writers are always at their funniest and most profound when observing this longing to find a place in the world. The inner voice that, like Bellow's Henderson cries out "I want, I want" is present in everybody, but the outsider Jew is always more alert both to the "I" and to the "want". Philip Roth, Linda Grant, Howard Jacobson, Elinor Lipman and, most recently, Naomi Alderman have written superbly on the anguish of wanting what you can't have.

My own heroine, Polly, in Hearts and Minds responds to her Jewishness by constant apprehension of threat, which is why she is a human-rights lawyer. Although I have a Jewish family, the Viners, recurring in my novels Polly is the first to whom I've given my own recurring nightmare of having to run from the Nazis with a child on each hand. I was born long after the Second World War but, like Polly, took in compassion - and fear - with my mother's milk. It is what makes me a satirist, a feminist, a Jew and, of course, a novelist.

Amanda Craig will be discussing 'Writing to Change the World' at Jewish Book Week this Sunday at 11am at the Royal national Hotel, Bedford way, London WC1

Last updated: 4:35pm, June 3 2010


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