Monday, November 7, 2011

A Jewish Writer in America

The New York Review of Books recently ran the first part of a previously unpublished essay written by Saul Bellow in l988 entitled “A Jewish Writer in America.” In the first section of the essay which appeared in the October 27th issue of TNYRB, Bellow recounts how he incurred the wrath of the great Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem when he described himself as an American writer then a Jew. “Scholem immediately placed me among those German Jews who had done everything possible to assimilate themselves…” Bellow recounts another discussion with the Israel novelist S.Y. Agnon who insisted “that the proper language for a Jewish writer was Hebrew” and paraphrasing Agnon remarks that “One’s language is a spiritual location, it houses your soul… And when the door of the gas chamber was shut many of the German Jews who called upon God for the last time inevitably used the language of their murderers, for they had no other.” Bellow quotes the first line of The Adventures of Augie March in the essay, "I am an American…." And then later on goes on to expound on the subject of the outsider, “meteque” in French, quoting Anthony Burgess who says, “If we are to regard Poles and Irishmen as meteques, there are grounds for supposing that the meteques have done more for English in the twentieth century…than any of the pure-blooded men of letters who stick to the finer rules.” Bellow points out that Burgess is talking about Joyce and Conrad and then goes on to enumerate, Babel, Mandelstam, Apollinaire, Kafka, Svevo, Naipaul, Pasternak and Nabokov as examples of outsiders who have shaped “modern literature.” The essay is wonderfully simple and complex at the same time, simple in the introduction of concept of the “American writer and a Jew” which got Bellow into so much trouble about with the venerable Scholem (whose letters to Walter Benjamin, with their dichotomization of Zionism and socialism, iterate a variation on a similar theme) and complex in the way he spins the tale of his own artistic development. Rather than either immigrating to Israel or returning to the World of Our Fathers, he chose to remain an outsider in an adopted culture. An outsider can be a victim, either through circumstances beyond his or her control (genocide) or through collaboration, in which he or she hides his identity for survival (assimilation). Bellow chose another path allowing himself to be swept along by the tide of great polymathic modernists, who exulted in their metic or outsider status.

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