- Unencumbered Exuberance: Four Jewish Comic Novelists of Note
If your enemy is laughing, how can he bludgeon you to death?—Mel Brooks
In the titular essay of Adam Kirsch’s essay collection Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer? the critic and poet recounts the ways in which many of his and my canonical forebears rejected the moniker. He quotes Philip Roth referring to “American Jewish Writer” as an epithet. Saul Bellow was slightly more diplomatic, saying, “I have tried to fit my soul into the Jewish-writer category, but it does not feel comfortably accommodated there.” Lionel Trilling couldn’t find “anything in [his] professional intellectual life” that traced back to his Judaism. [End Page 176]
More contemporary writers have echoed this anxiety. Nathan Englander, for example, told Jewish Currents, “My defense of saying I’m not a Jewish writer, you know, if a story is functioning, it’s universal, that’s it. I get asked this question a lot: Can I give this to my gentile friend? I’m not Jewish, can I read this book? Nobody is asking, can I watch Game of Thrones, I don’t have a dragon. Even if you don’t have a dragon, you can probably follow along at home.”
All of this is fair. Writers can and should fight to shape their legacies in whatever way they prefer. Kirsch closes his essay with a theory about how the label of American Jewish writer became so amorphous that it could be rejected easily:
The text might exfoliate with Jewish meanings in unexpected ways— perhaps even in ways unexpected by the writer himself. Jewishness in American literature, that is, turns out to have the same elusive and perspectival quality that it has in American life. The same person might feel not at all Jewish when alone in a forest, and very Jewish when in a synagogue—or vice versa. . . . It is because American Jewishness is no longer a simple fact of language, community, or belief that it has become a matter of feeling. That might seem like an insubstantial kind of Jewishness, and perhaps it is. But it is the truth of American Jewish life, and any honest literary depiction of that life has to include it. In this sense, an American Jewish writer’s denial of Jewishness can be considered a deeply expressive Jewish act.
This delicious bit of having one’s cake and eating it too, where Kirsch ends, is where I would like to begin. The impulse toward negotiating— or combating, depending on how you want to look at it—their label, bristling at it even in specifically Jewish contexts, is shared by a number of great writers of Jewish descent and feels tightly interwoven with the question of what makes so many Jewish writers so very funny.
To be less abstract: the inclination toward a productive prickliness, toward a questioning for the sake of questioning, is the same inclination that makes tight, cutting, funny prose. Jewish writers such as Englander, Cynthia Ozick, Iris Owens, and Elisa Albert have written books that exemplify this prickliness and questioning in one way or another. In taking Englander’s kaddish.com, Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers, Owens’s After Claude, and Albert’s After Birth together, I hope to illuminate how [End Page 177] these writers, who diverge in many different respects, are unified in the way they can make readers laugh.
by Iris Owens. NYRB Classics (reprint), 2010, 232 pp., $14.95, paper.
Early on in After Claude, originally published in 1973 and reissued by New York Review Books Classics in 2010, Owens’s narrator, Harriet, exemplifies the combative base upon which a great deal of the humor across these four books is built. She and the titular Claude are having an argument in a cab about a film they have just seen...