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Reviewed by:
  • The Jewish American Novel
  • Gail Berkeley Sherman
The Jewish American Novel, by Philippe Codde. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2007. 279 pp. $34.95.

Philippe Codde's study of the post-war Jewish American novel is the first to use polysystem theory as the framework for its account of novelists from Saul Bellow to Norma Rosen. The second half of the book presents text-centered analysis of seven novelists, framed by the methodological introduction of the more sociological first five chapters. Codde, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Ghent, has published elsewhere on polysystem theory and on several [End Page 193] of the authors whom he discusses in this book (Daniel Stern, Edward Lewis Wallant, Bernard Malamud), but these chapters present new work that complements both his earlier studies and the surge of works on American Jewish literature by such scholars as (to mention examples from the last four years alone) Ezra Cappell, Hana Wirth-Nesher, Victoria Aarons, Ranen Omer-Sherman, Catherine Rottenberg, and Janet Handler Burstein.

After introducing readers to Itamar Even-Zohar's theory, Codde offers polysystemic models of the U.S. political, religious, philosophical, and literary systems, and analyzes their interaction with the "cultural repertoires" of French existentialism, radical death-of-god theology, the Holocaust, and the Jewish Renaissance in American literature of the 1940s through 1960s. In Codde's view, French existentialism and attention to the Holocaust are the motors that drive the American Jewish literary renaissance and its canonical processes. Codde carefully contextualizes the Jewish radical theology debate of the 1960s (Rubenstein; Lelyveld; Berkovits; Fackenheim) in the larger American religious system. Using Even-Zohar's principles, he traces "the popularity of French existentialism within the postwar Jewish American community . . . [to] the 1948 publication of Sartre's Anti-Semite and Jew" (p. 67), delineating "the changing attitudes of the academic philosophical institutions in their gradual embrace of Sartrean existentialism" (p. 68). Most significantly, Codde argues that "[a]s the French existentialist repertoire moved to the center of the US-American literary system, a number of Jewish-American novelists, following in Bellow's wake, incorporated this repertoire into their novels, and when French existentialism reached the peak of its popularity in US-American culture, the Jewish Renaissance became a fact [p. 82]. . . . The penetration of the French existentialist repertoire into the US-American literary system shows . . . on the one hand, the entry of new models of reality . . . into the literary system, and on the other hand, the reshaping of textual models in the literary system, as the existentialist repertoire entails a specific literary [semantic and narrative] model" (p. 85).

Codde draws on the "text-sociological" approach of Pierre V. Zima to discuss the interaction between French existentialist discourse and literary texts of the Jewish-American Renaissance, calling attention to French existentialism's "ideological stance against fascist, totalitarian discourse, and . . . its essentially dualistic nature in the creation of lexical and semantic oppositions" (p. 88). Codde notes that "[a]s a result of this new function of literature—an outspoken engagement or commitment—existentialist literature can clearly be distinguished from modernist fiction on the pragmatic level[;] . . . on the semantic level . . . by its adherence to the semantic fields of consciousness, detachment, [End Page 194] and observation[; and] on a third level, the syntactic, formal level . . . [ by its] revisiting the codes of Realism and even bleak Naturalism" (p. 95).

In the second half of the book, Codde provides chapter-long readings of seven Jewish American novelists' works as shaped by the cultural repertoire thus systematically presented. Most valuable in this work is its attention to Stern, Wallant, Jonathan Baumbach, and Norma Rosen, who have received much less critical attention than Bellow and Malamud, for diverse reasons that Codde discusses. Demonstrating that "French existentialism evolved from indifference to commitment" (p. 117), Codde argues that Jewish American literature develops in an inverse pattern, from the initial "bleaker novel of negativity to the more affirmative novel of creation and commitment" (p. 120) produced by Bellow to the post-Vietnam return to a bleaker novel in the writing of Baumbach and Rosen, whose work begins to be inflected by a postmodernist lexical and semantic repertoire.

Reconsidering the novels of Wallant...


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pp. 193-196
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