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  • The Inveterate Dreamer: Essays and Conversations on Jewish Culture
  • Andrea Most
The Inveterate Dreamer: Essays and Conversations on Jewish Culture, by Ilan Stavans. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. 306 pp. $24.95.

In The Inveterate Dreamer, Ilan Stavans poses perhaps the question of modern Jewish culture: what unites secular Jews from around the world, if anything? Does Jewish identity, and more specifically, Jewish literary identity, cross national and linguistic borders? His collection of essays offers an unqualified argument in the affirmative. Raised in Mexico and currently a professor of Spanish at Amherst College, Stavans is uniquely positioned to assess the broad field of modern Jewish literature. His essays, book reviews, and interviews are evidence of his linguistic and cultural fluency. He showcases Jewish authors writing in Spanish, English, Hebrew, Romanian, Russian, Polish, German, and Italian. His goal, as he states in the Preface, is to fight provincialism, “to shape a balanced canon that transcends time and place.” In two of the most interesting essays in the book, on the Jewish canon, Stavans addresses the relative importance of language, history, and memory in defining a literary tradition. While he investigates the function of all three elements in constructing a canon, he ultimately argues, in “A Matter of Choice” that it is the reader, not the writers, whom we must look to in deciding what counts as Jewish literature: “this question of who is and who is not a Jewish writer can only be handled when one applies the famous ‘law of reciprocity’ to it—that is, when one leaves it for the reader to decide” (p. 248).

What The Inveterate Dreamer offers, then, is Stavans’s recipe for modern Jewish literature. His vision is often refreshing and eye-opening. His many essays on Latin American Jewish writers open up a whole new world of Jewish literature to American readers, most of whom are schooled largely on European and American writers of the past century. Stavans has done an important service in bringing to American Jewish consciousness the work of writers like Alberto Gerchunoff, Moacyr Scliar, Elias Canetti, and Isaac Goldemberg. In his passionate celebration of these writers, Stavans inspires his own readers to become Jewish canon-makers as well. Drawing connections, for [End Page 173] example, between Yiddish authors of the late nineteenth century and Spanish authors of twentieth, he shows how these writers from Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico share thematic and stylistic (if not linguistic) continuity with the better known figures of the Jewish literary tradition. In addition to essays on Latin American and Eastern European Jewish writers, Stavans also includes a number of his columns from the Forward on the usual suspects of the American, European, and Israeli intelligentsia: Walter Benjamin, Harold Bloom, Lionel Trilling, Primo Levi, Isaac Babel, Franz Kafka, A. B. Yehoshua, etc. While entertaining, these essays do not have the same freshness and offer fewer new insights for those readers already quite familiar with the works of these writers and the copious critical responses each has already generated.

While Stavans’s breadth is impressive, it is somewhat surprising how skewed the collection is in terms of gender. Of the thirty authors featured in essays and interviews, only one is a woman (the Israeli writer Michal Govrin), and even in this case Stavans, somewhat unselfconsciously, uses part of his three-page review of her book to speculate on what type of book it would be if written by a man. In a book about canon-formation, this imbalance seems to require at least explanation, if not correction. Aside from this oversight, however, the book offers an expansive and much-needed re-vision of the field of modern Jewish literature.

Andrea Most
Munk Centre for International Studies
University of Toronto

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pp. 173-174
Launched on MUSE
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