- The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in the Yiddish and American Jewish Novel
Reviewing The Schlemiel as Metaphor by Sanford Pinsker is an exercise in Schlemiel- or Pinsker-Redux in the Rabbit Redux sense. For John Updike it was a bringing back or revisit after ten years; for Pinsker it was twenty. My review of Pinsker's book for Modern Fiction Studies in the summer of 1972 was linked with my consideration of another Schlemiel book at that time—Ruth Wisse's The Schlemiel as Modern Hero.
Two decades ago Pinsker and Wisse were pioneers in that very little had been done on the schlemiel in Jewish-American literature. During the intervening years, however, a large body of pertinent criticism and scholarship has appeared. In revision, Pinsker draws upon some material he did not have access to then; that is a plus, but it is regrettable that he also ignores a good deal.
In both old and new versions, Pinsker concentrates on three important Jewish-American writers who use the schlemiel extensively: I. B. Singer, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud. He noted that for these writers "The schlemiel was a particularly important metaphor." Therefore, much of his analysis is given over to these three writers and their peculiar genius for using the schlemiel.
Singer, the author who wrote in Yiddish, and appeared in English translation almost immediately, acted as a bridge between the old world and the new, in Pinsker's view. Early on, Pinsker unearthed an ambiguous linguistic source for Singer's schlemiel: "Sheluch min 'el," which means either "sent away from God" or "sent from God." So, Pinsker perceived in Gimpel the Fool and other Singer stories a schlemiel who is between two worlds, one in which he may be alienated from God or one in which he may be God's emissary. Therefore, we have at times confused or ambivalent movements of Singer's "fools" to and from their God.
If Singer's schlemiels are "isolated" between two worlds, when Pinsker turns to Malamud he sees them as "moral bunglers" or "ironic heroes." Pinsker then focuses on Bellow's "psychological schlemiels." It is noteworthy that in the chapter [End Page 766] given over to Bellow, the title of the earlier version is "The Psychological Schlemiels of Saul Bellow" and the new one is "Saul Bellow's Lovesick Schlemiels." In Pinsker's update, of course, he is able to draw upon later Bellow material such as More Die of Heartbreak and The Bellarosa Connection. But still Pinsker's discussion of Bellow ends with Herzog; for many Bellow scholars this novel, written about thirty years ago, still stands out as powerful vintage Bellow. In Pinsker's words: "Thus, Moses Herzog leads himself, and us, out of the wasteland and into a country where if it doesn't hurt enough to cry, at least it doesn't ache too much to laugh."
Before Pinsker concludes his new book on the schlemiel, he focuses on two new areas: 1) "Philip Roth: The Schlemiel as Fictional Autobiographer," and 2) "Woody Allen's Lovably Anxious Schlemiels." Pinsker has already written a small book on Roth and so he is able to add new insights to the schlemiel as they relate to Roth. As for Allen, Pinsker summarizes in his preface this way: "Today, Woody Allen's anxious, bespectacled punim (face) seems closer, and truer to our quotidien (sic) experience."
Overall, this revised and enlarged edition is a welcome addition to the ongoing studies in Yiddish and American Jewish fiction, which happens to be Pinsker's subtitle. A short time after the Pinsker and Wisse shlemiel books came out in the early seventies, Joyce Field and I interviewed Bernard Malamud. One small portion of our exchange concerned Malamud's use of the schlemiel and the then-current Pinsker and Wisse books. Malamud's acerbic retort was: "With many apologies, I don't much care for the schlemiel treatment of fictional characters. Willy-Nilly, it reduces to stereotypes people of complex motivations and fates—not...