Tag Archives: jewish american fiction

National Book Award winners, part 13: 1960’s Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth.

28 Oct

(I’m falling behind with the writing of these. Must redouble my efforts.)

In 1960, Philip Roth won the National Book Award for Goodbye, Columbus, a novella with five short stories. It’s a very, very, very fine book, his first, and the beginning of an immense, in many ways unparalleled, literary career.

He beat out many established authors, including Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Louis Auchincloss, John Hersey, Shirley Jackson, Robert Penn Warren and John Updike. Roth was just 26.

The title novella follows two young people falling in and then out of love. It’s a superb piece of work, fun to read and funny, heart-breaking, evocative, precise in its descriptions and insights. It captures the plunging experience of first love and the dulling realization of that first love’s inadequacies.

The magic of the novella is that the narrator knows he doesn’t want to marry this woman, but he can’t quite admit it to himself. So he gets to play the victim in his own thoughts, even as he works to sabotage the relationship he says he’s trying to save. It’s a remarkable trick, capturing this contradictory impulse in a way that is subtle, convincing, often funny yet melancholic.

Philip Roth's first novel and it's very, very good.

Philip Roth’s first novel and it’s very, very good.

The short stories are all strong. “The Conversion of the Jews” follows a young boy at a Jewish school who keeps getting punished for pointing out inconsistencies in his rabbi-teacher’s thinking. “Defender of the Faith” follows a Jewish lieutenant who begins to despise the petty manipulations of a Jewish enlistee underneath him; he begins to actively work against the enlisted man. Both are great. The other three are fine, too, if a little weaker.

He can flat-out write. Here he is, describing the parent’s house of the narrator’s love interest:

 

The basement had a different kind of coolness from the house, and it had a smell, which was something the upstairs was totally without. It felt cavernous down there, but in a comforting way, like the simulation caves children make for themselves on rainy days, in hall closets, under blankets, or in between the legs of dining room tables. I flipped on the light at the foot of the stairs and was not surprised at the pine paneling, the bamboo furniture, the ping-pong table, and the mirrored bar that was stocked with every kind and size of glass, ice bucket, decanter, mixer, swizzle stick, shot glass, pretzel bowl—all the bacchanalian paraphernalia, plentiful, orderly and untouched, as it can be only in the bar of a wealthy man who never entertains drinking people, who himself does not like to drink, who, in fact, gets a fishy look from his wife when every several months he takes a shot of schnapps before dinner.

 

Evocative and punchy, but also insightful, hinging on that phrase “was not surprised,” that reveals all the nastiness the narrator hasn’t admitted to himself. Masterful.

2.

My praise doesn’t come lightly. I’ve (mostly) avoided Roth for a number of reasons.

  1. He has an immense body of work, with no easy entry point.
  2. I felt immensely letdown by The Prague Orgy, one of the Zuckerman novels. The blurbs on the back all praised it.
  3. Roth is a mercurial writer who often engages in meta-fictional tomfoolery. His particular brand is the blurring between his fiction and his life. I’m not a huge fan of the narcissistic school of fiction, where every novel is just another chapter in the author’s actual life (this includes Tom Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, etc.), only augmented with the tools of the novelist.
  4. Roth’s mid-90s novels—The Human Stain, American Pastoral among them, the novels everyone praises so much—left me cold when I tried to read them.
  5. Portnoy’s Complaint is brilliant, hilarious, and wonderful . . . until it isn’t. Something about the novel breaks down—his defenders would say the narrative fractures to mirror the fractured psyche of the fragile narrator—and near the end it’s a hot mess. I read this first, and felt I understood Roth, and rightly or wrongly, that he held no future surprises.

3.

But for a serious reader of American fiction, Philip Roth has to be read and considered. This is a difficult task. I must put my misgivings aside.

Roth, like Cheever, Salinger or Mailer, is as much a brand as an author. He used his personal life so well and so often—the divorces, the criticism, the controversies, and so on—that it’s tough to separate the author from the work.

And partially because of this, Roth’s body of work is difficult to digest. He’s published some 27 novels. He’s won numerous awards. He’s big-hearted, funny, yet cutting and vicious, satirical, diamond-edged. His writing is (almost) always clear, often beautiful.

Roth does everything great writers do—he’s intriguing, tough-minded, probing, insightful, ambiguous about the right things. He carries righteous anger and empathetic love side by side for his characters.

He remains a potent force in American fiction. He has a handful of big themes—sex, assimilation, aging, death—alongside his big issue, the plight, rigor, strength, and neuroses of the Jewish-American. He’s pungent on the issue. After his early success, he was accused by Jewish intellectuals of providing ammunition to anti-Semitic forces. He then looped this response to his work back into his fiction, detailing Jewish writers struggling with this exact same criticism. He inserted himself into novels, or a facsimile of himself. The meta-fictional games are wearying, childish even, and others do it better. (They probably reached their zenith in John Barth’s Chimera.)

He isn’t for everyone. He presides over a small patch of turf. His reputation has protected some of his weaker novels. His Zuckerman novels are, almost to a volume, overrated. He draws much of his great power from his authorial solipsism, narrative arrogance. He isn’t quite as wild as his reputation. His defenders are an earnest, hyperbolic bunch. He has experimented far less than it seems; he’s the literati’s equivalent of Stephen King. He takes less chances than many of his colleagues and there’s some essential middle brow nugget—he’d hate this description—marbled into the bulk of his work.

In the end, he’s always good but rarely great.

4.

1960 was an intriguing year for fiction.

William Burroughs published his (extremely overrated) Naked Lunch. Saul Bellow released Henderson the Rain King (see my thoughts on Bellow here). Richard Condon put out his insane, and deranged Cold War novel The Manchurian Candidate. John Knowles published that school-curriculum mainstay, A Separate Peace. Shirley Jackson (who rules!) put out the very scary, very fine The Haunting of Hill House. Terry Southern—one of the wildmen of literature, but also a bit of a continuous misfire, who never quite lived up to his reputation—released the bizarre The Magic Christian. Kurt Vonnegut published The Sirens of Titan, one of his more traditional science fiction novels. Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Robert Heinlein all released novels. Over in England, Keith Waterhouse and Alan Silitoe each put out their defining works, Billy Liar and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, respectively. And way over in Germany, Gunter Grass published one of the major post-war German novels, The Tin Drum.

A good year for literature all around.

And in theatre! My god, Brecht, Sartre, Albee, Williams, Camus, Pinter, Beckett, Genet and Ionesco all published major plays[1].


[1] Maybe I should be writing about drama instead.

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National Book Award winners, part 8: 1954’s The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow

28 Aug

(I’ve skipped Invisible Man for the moment; the library was all checked out)

1.

The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow, won the 1954 National Book Award. It was Bellow’s third novel, an often breezy story of almost 600 pages.

Augie March is a coming of age, picaresque novel, following the narrator as he makes his way through his youth, meeting a variety of oddball characters. He has a number of jobs. He has romantic encounters. There are lots of little incidents, anecdotes, run-ins, but there isn’t much of a larger story. It’s similar to Of Human Bondage[1]. Without the striving, yearning, heartache, or gravitas. And none of those great starving-artist-in-Paris scenes.

A light, breezy thin novel. At 600 pages.

A light, breezy thin novel. At 600 pages.

2.

Saul Bellow belongs to a group of Jewish-American novelists that had a tremendous impact on American fiction. This group includes Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Harold Brodkey and Bernard Malamud[2]. The post-war era belongs to them. They were a disparate group of writers, dissimilar in style and subject matter, but linked through a tradition-bound religion and a culture that valued intellectual achievements. They also wrote some killer novels.

Jewish people were a seismic force in America at mid-century. Fiction and poetry, yes, but also film, television, music and theatre. Consider the Jewish comedians, as way of an example. Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Zero Mostel, Red Buttons, Mort Sahl, and Don Rickles amongst dozens of others, and you have a game-changing shakeup of American popular culture[3].

Bellow encompasses many of the attributes of Jewish fiction. He’s urbane, self-deprecating, sophisticated, educated, haunted by simultaneous yet contradictory feelings of inferiority and superiority, and living in the black hole of history left by the Holocaust.

Bellow wasn’t a minor novelist. He was a major personality, an early literary celebrity. He was arguably the biggest star of his generation’s serious writers. He won the National Book Award three times, a Pulitzer, and in 1976 he won the Nobel Prize.

He wrote thirteen or so novels, and won the National Book Award twice. When he wants to, he can really cook. Check it out:

After this it wasn’t hard for Jimmy to induce me to go downtown with him, especially on science afternoons, to ride, if there was nothing better to do, in the City Hall elevator with his brother Tom, from the gilded lobby to the Municipal Courts. In the cage we rose and dropped, rubbing elbows with bigshots and operators, commissioners, grabbers, heelers, tipsters, hoodlums, wolves, fixers, plaintiffs, flatfeet, men in Western hats and women in lizard shoes and fur coats, hothouse and arctic drafts mixed up, brute things and airs of sex, evidence of heavy feeding and systematic shaving, of calculations, grief, not caring, and hopes of tremendous millions in concrete to be poured or whole Mississippis of bootleg whiskey and beer.

His prodigious descriptive skills—which are manifold—also form the major criticism of his work. He writes overfurnished, over-adorned fiction. (He certainly isn’t alone.) No one just drinks a beer or watches TV. No one takes a walk, looks at trees. Everything is a torrent of words. Everything is a segue into Bellow’s poetic fantasies. Sometimes, he overwrites. As he’s concerned with memory, his novels bend around the narrator’s memories. They don’t follow a coherent line. His excessive language can be frustrating. He writes like an author of another era, which he is.

3.

In the early fifties, Beat culture was percolating. Bop, pop, noir, drug use and nightmares were seeping into fiction, as were aspects of the lower genres of crime, mystery, fantasy and sci fi. Jazz was percolating, too. Innovative, unpredictable, urban, moody, and at times dissonant.

Existentialism + boozy, druggy late nights + transgressive sex + an outlaw mentality + eastern mystical teachings = the Beat movement[4].

There was an enormous bachelor culture in America. Single men stayed up late, drank, shot pool, roamed city streets with black overcoats and even blacker hats. They hitchhiked, worked itinerant jobs, floated like ghosts from here to there. These urban bachelors incubated a hard-living culture of townie bars and wretched hangovers.

Loads of single men + pool halls + bars + lonely postwar despair = 1950s fiction.

A series of high profile indecency trials—most of them around the proto-Beat writer Henry Miller[5]—loosened up moral and aesthetic constraints. These parameters were restrictive, but paradoxically forced writers to be subtle, witty, subversive, clever, and ironic. Fiction was becoming coarser, rougher, wilder, less suave, less dignified.

In the 50s Beat Culture was counter culture. By the end of the 60s this paradigm was the norm.

Bellow is a bridge between the classical formalism of the early 20th century novelists and the jazzy riffs of the Beat writers. In him, we find both.

3.

Well, sort of, anyway. Bellow is droll, he delivers enormous quantity of detail with a slight smirk. He riffs on things that are unimportant to the story, but essential to his idea of his characters. When it works—there’s pages of brilliant, hilarious insight into a wheelchair bound businessman Augie works for—it’s great; when it doesn’t, it’s a slog. A novel relying on mood to get you through almost 600 pages has to be funnier, more crazed. There isn’t enough danger, menace, madness. Augie sort of trudges along, from one episode to the next, punctuated by these pithy little references to his family. He doesn’t build anything, he doesn’t really achieve much, and I suppose this is Bellow’s point. But without the derangement of the senses, without a rawer view of sex, without any propulsive engine to the story, it just hangs together.

March isn’t an interesting a travel companion. He’s too safe. Where’s Dean Moriarty when you need him?

4.

And yet, Bellow justifiably won the award. He won by default. There was nothing else.

1953 was a miserable year for American fiction. March beat out only three notable novels: Raymond Chandler’s superb The Long Goodbye; James Baldwin’s moving and poetic Go Tell It on the Mountain; and William Burroughs’s Junkie[6], which I love, but it’s hardly a novel at all. Bellow also won over Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest (I already wrote about his victory seven years later here), and a number of forgettable pulp novels. Looking at the competition, nationwide, it’s no wonder Bellow won the top award. Chandler and Burroughs weren’t yet accepted by the literary establishment, and Baldwin was a black gay dude writing his first novel. (Mountain is a good novel, but probably a bit overrated; Giovanni’s Room is much better.)

Those dark post-war years. Man with the Golden Arm is partially about the slipping social fabric of a returning veteran. From Here to Eternity is about the ennui and malaise of fighting men during peacetime. And Faulkner’s stories are peopled with wounded veterans and young people going off to war. Bellow’s novel is lighter, fresher, gentler, but it carries inside it a peculiar melancholy at the edges of the story.

5.

I don’t want to be misunderstood: Bellow is a great writer. He can wind a sentence around a dozen different locales and ideas, held together with witty zingers and pithy asides. He’s a masterful wordsmith, has a huge vocabulary, and half a dozen classical allusions on every page. He’s clever, witty, erudite yet cagey.

But, he’s a weak storyteller. He drags. He avoids. He sidelines. He prolongs. The idea is to mirror the fluidity—and unreliability—of memory. But the result is a novel that never quite feels like more than reminiscences. And March isn’t a very interesting travel companion. He’s too safe. Updike would have him sleep with some old ladies and then steal their jewelry. Mailer would have him daydreaming about anilingus. Roth would have him choking on childhood trauma. Malamud would never have written a book like this.

6.

Let me end with a book recommendation. This past year I read Peter Orner’s Love and Shame and Love, a Chicago novel by a Jewish author, covering a lot of similar territory. It’s taut, moving, haunting, yet expansive and beautiful and funny. It’s superior to Augie March in every way; it’s the novel Bellow wanted to write, I think. It didn’t win any awards.


[1] Although not nearly as powerful.

[2] Chaim Potok and Leon Uris should be included too, but they aren’t of the same caliber. Rod Serling, too, but I can’t make up my mind about him. Genius, or just macabre and kind of interesting?

[3] The Yiddish theatre has a long, powerful influence.

[4] I don’t count Charles Bukowski or John Fante as a Beat writers. That would change everything.

[5] Sex + sex + sex + pornography + food + philosophy + stream of consciousness poetry + occasional bouts of poverty = Henry Miller.

[6] His best book and don’t let critics fool you; the more he tried to be writerly, the worse his books became.