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  • The Writer Uprooted: Contemporary Jewish Exile Literature
  • Ranen Omer-Sherman
The Writer Uprooted: Contemporary Jewish Exile Literature, edited by Alvin H. Rosenfeld. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. 254 pp. $19.95.

Though not overtly indicated by its broad title, The Writer Uprooted, this book's eleven essays all consider the works and identities of Jewish Europeans who immigrated to the United States. Many were raised under the totalitarian systems of Communism or Nazism and thus have profoundly personal understanding of matters such as the burden of the writer in the aftermath of genocide, the painful ordeals of displacement, and the opportunity to build something new. Rosenfeld, like Werner Sollors in his capacious Multilingual America, is particularly interested in questions raised by the incongruence between these writers' linguistic affinities and their new home: "What . . . is one to make of the fact that one of Romania's most formidable intellectuals does his writing—in Romanian—from an apartment in New York City's Upper West Side?. . . . Or how does one explain the fact that one of Poland's most prolific authors . . . manages to keep his Polish language and Polish Jewish sensibility alive while living in . . . Virginia?" (p. xiv). Rosenfeld demonstrates that numerous examples of such "continuities and discontinuities" (p. xv) inform the lives and works of a remarkable range of well-known figures (Henryk Grynberg, Geoffrey Hartman, Eva Hoffman, Norman Manea, Lara Vapnyar) as well as lesser-known poets and writers. Each reveals a deep acquaintance with the arbitrary and contingent nature of existence, the ambivalent consolations of literature

The most examined writers represented here are Grynberg and Manea, whose own essays are included alongside critical considerations of their oeuvre. In "Nomadic Language," Romanian-born Manea invokes Kafka's "I am nothing but literature" to launch his consideration of language, expatriation, and the writer's identity. George Steiner has also been a formidable influence [End Page 196] on his largely affirmative sense of exilic vocation, though this comes with a caution to those who might uncritically sentimentalize this condition: "A writer's integrity and his inner self are inseparable from his language. They become variable and indefinably foggy when he is robbed of his native tongue. The doubts he has always had to hem in can gain the upper hand in the ambiguity and uncertainty of his new situation" (p. 16). But ultimately Manea is sanguine, heralding our age's exciting promise of cultural hybridity and geographic dislocation, the prospect of transcending narrow nationalisms: "It is not impossible that this new century will see a great German poet of Turkish descent, or French-Algerian or Japanese-Australian" (p. 21). As for Grynberg, a Holocaust survivor born in 1936 Warsaw ("sentenced to death at the age of five" [p. 73]), he recalls the mutterings of the 1950s: "'Grynberg should make up his mind whether he is a Polish writer or a Jewish writer'" (p. 52), despite his manifest devotion to Polish language and culture. A writer who overheard such words could not help but feel an exilic consciousness. Catastrophe makes Grynberg feel the urgent, ultimately secular, mission of the writer. Today he describes himself as "a post-Holocaust Yom Kippur Jew, who easily fasts but is unable to pray, and in the race against time cannot abstain from writing on Saturday" (p. 71).

Morris Dickstein's "Questions of Identity: The New World of the Immigrant Writer" is especially valuable, a lucid and instructive account of the Jewish immigrant figure in the context of 20th-century American literature. His far-ranging but admirably succinct analysis begins with such crucial developments as the comparatively recent interest that reversed decades of critical neglect of Jewish immigrant writers such as Abraham Cahan and Anzia Yezierska. As others before him, Dickstein explains how Bernard Malamud's stories deprived the figure of the immigrant of their full complexity "as fully individualized characters pursuing a personal destiny. In tune with the existential mood of the moment, they were transformed into living metaphors, bearing the whole form of the human condition" (p. 111). He concludes with a rewarding discussion of recent young immigrants from Russia such as David Bezmozgis, Gary Shteyngart, and Lara Vapnyar, whose acclaimed short-story collection...


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