(Note: This article continues our study of the individual volumes that make up Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time". "The Guermantes Way" is quite lengthy, consisting of two very large chapters, so we will cover each chapter in a separate piece.)
When he was a child in Combray, the protagonist of Remembrance and his family would take long walks. They would follow one of two "ways". The first was the way toward the town of Meseglise-la-Vineuse. This was known as the Meseglise way, or "Swann's way" because it led past Tansonville, the Combray villa of Charles Swann. The second way was the "Guermantes way", so named because it passed by Guermantes, the mythic estate of the aristocratic Guermantes family. We followed "Swann's way" in the first volume. In volume three we take up the "Guermantes way".
Young M. had long been obsessed with the Guermantes family, aristocrats who dated their origins to the early middle ages. But they remained elusive to him, an image in his imagination: "I pictured them either in tapestry, like the Comtesse de Guermantes in the ‘Coronation of Esther' which hung in our church, or else in iridescent colors, like Gilbert the Bad in the stained glass window ..." (Swann's Way). As the first chapter of the third volume opens, M. and his family have moved into an apartment in a wing of the hotel particulier -- city mansion -- of the Duke and Duchesse de Guermantes. The Guermantes no longer represent the feudal past of Combray for our hero, but rather the Faubourg Saint-Germain. This is the quarter in Paris that is home to the aristocracy and high society. The Duchesse de Guermantes "has the highest position in the Faubourg Saint-Germain".
M. becomes obsessed with the Duchesse: "it became all the more essential that I should be able to explore [ ... ] the ‘salon' of Mme de Guermantes"; and he begins, literally, to stalk her. (M. relates many of his strange actions, such as spying on Vinteuil's daughter and her lesbian lover in Swann's Way, or obsessively following Mme de Guermantes, in a matter-of-fact, unabashed way. He is, after all, aspiring to be a writer, so the search for knowledge and experience transcends the need for privacy on the part of his subjects. We will encounter more of his undetected observations later in the next volumes.)
At any rate, M. is in love with Mme de Guermantes from afar, and he pursues her in earnest: "Now, every morning, long before the hour at which she left her house, I went by a devious route to post myself at the corner of the street along which she generally came, and when the moment of her arrival seemed imminent, I strolled back with an air of being absorbed in something else, looking the other way, and raised my eyes to her face as I drew level with her, but as though I had not expected to see her."
All of M.'s skulking about trying to catch glimpses of the Duchesse earns him nothing but irritation on the part of Mme de Guermantes, along with rebukes for his behavior from his family servant, Francoise. Ever resourceful when in love, however, M. hits upon the idea of visiting his friend Robert Saint-Loup at his barracks in the town of Doncieres. Ostensibly, the trip is to allow them to spend some time together, as Saint-Loup has had difficulties getting to Paris on a regular basis. But the ulterior motive is that Oriane, the Duchesse de Guermantes, is Saint-Loup's aunt. M. thinks that he might get an introduction to Oriane, the object of his adoration, through the good graces of her nephew.
M. spends a wonderful time at Doncieres with Robert. He stays at an old hotel, full of charm and character, recommended by his friend, and he dines almost every night with Robert and his fellow soldiers, who get on quiet well with our young protagonist. He observes them performing military exercises, and becomes interested in the military arts. He also secures a promise from Saint-Loup that Robert will arrange a visit for him to the Duchesse of Guermantes, on the pretext of viewing some of her paintings by the artist Elstir, who is a friend of both young men. This military setting also gives Proust the opportunity to introduce the real-life Dreyfus Affair, which began with the conviction for treason of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, for allegedly passing secret documents to Germany during the disastrous Franco-Prussian War. The Affair blew up into a huge scandal when it became apparent to many that Dreyfus was innocent. France was divided for years over the Affair, which had distinctly anti-Semitic overtones. The Dreyfus Affair, and whether characters in the novel are Dreyfusard (for Dreyfus), or anti-Dreyfusard (against Dreyfus) is a thread that will weave itself through the next several volumes.
After his sojourn at Doncieres, M. returns to Paris, where his grandmother has become quite ill. Saint-Loup also returns to Paris, for a brief time. He forestalls setting up a meeting with his aunt for M. to view her Elstirs. Instead, the two friends go to meet Saint-Loup's mistress, the woman who has been making his life miserable with deception and infidelity. They travel outside of Paris by train to a suburban village, where his mistress, Rachel, has been living. The village has lost its old luster, comprised now of modest homes, but it has been transformed into a place of beauty by the flowering of the pear and cherry trees. "On our way to her house we passed a row of little gardens, and I was obliged to stop, for they were all dazzlingly aflower with pear and cherry blossoms ..." Saint-Loup leaves M. to admire the gardens, and fetches Rachel, whom our protagonist instantly recognizes as "Rachel when from the Lord", the prostitute whom he could have had in a brothel for twenty francs. She is now an actress, and the three of them go on to lunch and then to the theatre, during which time Robert and Rachel quarrel and make up, only to quarrel again. The image of the low class village made attractive by the flowering fruit trees nicely parallels the character of Rachel, a low class ex-prostitute now made attractive by her wiles as an actress.
After leaving Robert, M. goes to call on Mme de Villeparisis, the old friend of his grandmother with whom they had spent much time with at Balbec. She is giving an afternoon party, and although her salon is not nearly of the same caliber as that of the Duchesse of Guermantes, it is our protagonist's first entry into a Parisian social gathering, and a chance for Proust to do what he does best: skewer the society types and their hanger's-on, expose their snobbery and lack of education, and show us a vast and amusing swath of Parisian life in the confines of a dinner party or soiree.
Mme de Villeparisis' salon is attended by M. de Norpois, the diplomat and friend of M's father, who is also Mme de Villeparisis' long time lover. The salon is also populated by some minor members of the nobility who are required to attend because they are relatives of Mme de Villeparisis, and because they are not received at more the fashionable salons. Also in attendance are an eccentric cast of characters who include M. Pierre, a historian of the Frond (a civil war in 17th century France), Bloch, M.'s old school friend who was now a rising dramatist, and M.'s old neighbor Legrandin, who reveals himself to be an insufferable snob, trying to pretend that he doesn't know M., while taking every chance to flatter Mme de Villeparisis. The Marquise herself (Mme de Villeparisis is a titled Marquise) is sitting at a drawing table in a black bonnet, surrounded by watercolors and paintbrushes, where she has been painting still-life floral pieces, using flowers in various vases as models. The Duke and Duchess of Guermantes arrive, obliged to attend because Mme de Villeparisis is Oriane's aunt. She sits briefly next to M. and remarks on seeing him walking, but in a pleasant way. In the meantime, Bloch (Dreyfusard) has been trying to badger M. de Norpois (anti-Dreyfusard) into revealing his feelings on the Dreyfus case, to no avail. Bloch then, being still rough around the edges, ill at ease in society, and rather obnoxious to boot, commits a horrendous faux-pas. He means to compliment Mme de Villeparisis by making a gesture toward her painting, but he only succeeds in toppling over a glass container containing apple blossoms, spilling all the water on the carpet. At the same moment, the historian of the Frond, with his back to Bloch, complements the Marquise by saying "You really have a fairy's touch." Bloch, thinking this a jibe at him, responds insolently: "It's not of the slightest importance; I'm not wet." The party continues with more bad behavior on the part of the social upstarts, continued snobbery on the part of the aristocrats, and a general expression of anti-Semitism by the society types, centered on the Dreyfus affair.
M. leaves the party in the company of M. Charlus. Charlus offers to take M. in hand, to guide him through the maze of society and life, and offer M. some of the vast wisdom and learning that he has acquired over his life. Charlus then launches into an insane tirade against Bloch and his family, suggesting that the Blochs, being Jewish, should re-enact the David and Goliath story at a salon, with Bloch pere being Goliath, and in which Bloch fils as David would smite him, for the amusement of all, and then top it off by giving his mother a good thrashing. After this startling conversation, Charlus reiterates his offer to guide young M through the world. He then hops into a carriage and is off, vanishing into the night. The chapter finishes in melancholy. M.'s grandmother's illness has continued for some time now. Her doctor orders her to take some exercise, thinking that this will speed a cure. M. thus accompanies her on an outing to the Champs-Elysee. The weather is fine, but his grandmother is not. She has a slight stroke, and M. takes her to see nearby Professor E, who at first has little time to examine her, having a previous appointment to dine with the Minister of Commerce, and is irritated by the thought of interrupting his social affairs to occupy himself with a patient, even an old family friend. But the Professor does have a look at her in his examining room, and the prognosis is not good. "Your grandmother is doomed," he tells M. "It was a stroke brought on by uremia." M. takes her home, and his mother at once realizes that the grandmother will die. And thus, the women who accompanied him to Balbec, the woman who encouraged his reading, his beloved grandmother, becomes rapidly more ill and finally dies. M.s mother is plunged into a deep grief from which she never quite recovers.
(Once again, thanks to David Richardson for the Proustian portraits).
A book called Why Are Christians Conservative? would be a great idea, but it appears that the book called Why Are Jews Liberals? already exists, the latest work by neo-conservative Norman Podhoretz, who urges his people in the USA to abandon their Democratic party bias and join him on the gung-ho Republican side. Podhoretz's book is reviewed by his peer intellectual Leon Wieseltier, who commandingly rejects Podhoretz's logic in one of the liveliest articles I've seen in this publication this year.
Podhoretz, Wieseltier claims, has become solipsistic in his assumption of conservative values. Economics and family-values hedging aside, the core argument for a Jewish leap to the right wing remains what it always was: the idea that Israel and USA have a common interest in permanent unilateral military domination of the Middle East -- a sad position that Republicans tend to support more than Democrats. I could barely stop nodding my head happily up and down as Wieseltier took this position apart, reminding those who apparently still do not understand this that a difficult peace, not a glorious holy war, is the only hope worth pursuing in the Middle East.
I haven't always loved Wieseltier's articles in the Book Review, but this is a strong performance, and his high-pitched prose is a pleasure to read. Today's cover article begins with a note of Talmudic grandeur:
"There are four types of people," teaches an ancient rabbinical text. "The one who says: What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours -- this is the common type, but there are some who say that this is the type of Sodom. What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine -- this is a boor. What is mine is yours — a saint. What is yours is mine — a villain."
Brothers and Sisters, is this liberal or conservative?
He maintains the pitch, and the article soars. There are well-aimed personal jabs:
In the absence of arguments, Podhoretz offers memories. "Why Are Jews Liberals?" is yet another one of his autobiographies; his life is a gift that keeps on giving.
There are even good jokes:
There was a basis in reality for the Jewish hope in a liberalizing society and a secularizing culture. What else should the Jews of modernity have done -- chanted the Psalms and waited for Reagan?
My fellow NYTBR critic Jim Sleeper has a less positive opinion of Wiesltier's performance over at the Talking Points Memo Cafe. Sleeper finds in Wieseltier a carpetbagging liberal, crawling back to the winning side after standing with George W. Bush in support of the Iraq War in 2003. I disagree with Sleeper's emphasis here: yes, Wieseltier has to take his lumps for eagerly championing the Iraq invasion. But if he was wrong then, he may be right now, and, by god, doesn't everybody have a right to smarten up?
But then Jim Sleeper's piece is also lively, and manages to puncture Wieseltier's balloon once or twice, as when he casts a doubting look on the critic's rabbinical tone:
Much though I share his disdain for Podhoretz's tribal reductions of Judaism, Wieseltier's frequent, weird displays of religiosity make me wonder if Madonna came to sit at his feet while on her way to the Kabbalah.
And really, that's all I want in a good Book Review article (or a good Talking Points Memo refutation). I just want a little wit, and a strong opinion every now and then. Podhoretz's book looks like a loser, but it has already stirred up some good conversation.
I love to read about politics and history, but always prefer books filled with the raw stuff -- facts, details -- over argument and commentary. It's interesting to note that New York Times Book Review chief Sam Tanenhaus has also just published a book that belongs on the same shelf as Podhoretz's, though it appears to reach conclusions closer to Wieseltier's. I'm guessing it won't be reviewed in these pages, but the book is called The Death of Conservatism, and it's worth a look if you find this type of argument interesting.
But if, like me, you prefer the raw stuff, you may be drawn to Nicholas Thompson's The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan and the History of the Cold War, here reviewed by Mark Atwood Lawrence. The book's author is the grandson of the so-called "hawk", Paul Nitze, who argued (against the advice of George Kennan) for an aggressive military response to Stalin in the Cold War, and this relationship promises a unique angle on an important period in our recent past. I would like to read this book, though I may never find the time.
There are several highly negative reviews in this NYTBR, but not all are as convincing as Wieseltier's. B. R. Myers pans The Old Garden by Hwang Sok-Yong, a South Korean writer who, I understand, spent time in a North Korean prison and is currently very popular in his own land. I understand Myers' objections to the book's apparently confusing chronological approach and sloppy use of language. But I wish this review gave me a better sense of how this book has been received in Korea, and I also sense insular political overtones to this review, involving sympathies that may or may not stand with the rigid regime of North Korea, that I simply don't understand. I was already interested in hearing more about this book (which is being serialized online by its publisher) and I think I'll look a little further before I accept Myers' rejection of the work's value.
Then, Lev Grossman's The Magicians gets rough treatment at the hands of Michael Agger. I've always found Lev Grossman's pop-culture-minded fictional endeavors weak myself, but Agger's superficial reasons for disliking The Magicians are highly off-putting:
Perhaps a fantasy novel meant for adults can't help being a strange mess of effects. It’s similar to inviting everyone to a rave for your 40th-birthday party. Sounds like fun, but aren’t we a little old for this?
Well no, actually. As far as I'm concerned, if we're talking about the possibilities of literature, nobody is ever too old for anything.
1. After interviewing Philip Roth, James Marcus turned a culturally significant Roth utterance into an audio dance track (via Moby Lives).
2. Sarah Weinman unearths another writer in the Singer family, Hinde Esther Singer.
3. Kenyon Review: "What happens when a poet’s own name is invoked in a poem of her own making?"
4. Adira Amram of the wonderful musical Amram family has released her first record. Looking forward to hearing this!
5. McNally Jackson bookstore in Manhattan now has an Espresso Book Machine. As we pointed out before, Espressos are cool.
6. One interesting thing about this Persepolis fan-fic about the Iran elections, originating in Shanghai, is how well it captures Marjane Satrapi's style.
7. It's an old formula, this "post some ridiculous emails you've received about your blog" blog post. And yet, it's still fun.
8. Michael Jackson read books. Good for him.
9. I'm glad that Bill Ayers has the courage to publish a book, a graphic memoir. Maybe it'll come out on the same day as Dick Cheney's.
10. Once upon a time, Literary Kicks was a website devoted to the Beat Generation. I know some of my early readers wish I had stuck with and perfected that formula, and if I had, maybe Peter Hale's The Allen Ginsberg Project is what this site would have been like. Hale, who works closely with the Allen Ginsberg estate, has been putting high quality stuff up -- rare Kerouac videos, beautiful images, surprising texts, with a wide range of coverage and a friendly touch -- week after week. If you're into modern-era experimental/alternative literature, you might want to follow this site.
I've been working hard, and I really need this three-day weekend coming my way. Hell yeah!
Another surprise guest will be writing this weekend's review of the New York Times Book Review. Check back on Sunday for, I hope, a wholly new perspective.
Till then, just a few links for a happy Spring day.
1. I've always thought Henry David Thoreau's Walden could be the basis of a great play or film. Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence (Inherit the Wind) tried something like this with The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, though this play did not place the center of action in the cabin by the pond. A new play called Walden: the Ballad of Thoreau is making the rounds, and may be showing up on public television/radio as well as on stages around the world.
I don't know anything about this actual play, but I know it's a good idea. A lot of drama took place in that little cabin, and I hope this play captures the essence of the work as well as it should. I assume that the actors in the image above are portraying Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau.
2. Fordham University in Manhattan (NOT, as previously reported, Fordham's campus in the Bronx) will be hosting "Woolf and the City", a Virginia Woolf conference, featuring insights from Anne Fernald, Roxana Robinson and many others.
3. Also at Fordham, Ron Hogan and the Mercantile Library have put together quite a lineup for a fiction writer's conference.
4. The long-anticipated film based on Leora Skolkin-Smith's novel Edges now has a title and a website. I thought Edges was a fine name for a story about Jews and Arabs in Israel and Palestine, but the film will be called The Fragile Mistress, and that sounds fine too. Can't wait to see this one.
5. A website about the psychology of fiction. Oh, is that ever fertile territory ...
I'm not sure how long my attack of literary boredom will last, but I hope I'll be all better by the last week in May, when I plan to attend Book Expo 2009 in New York City. I'll even be participating in a blogger book signing during the weekend (more about this soon) so I sure better wake up soon. I tried to cure my boredom with a Wells Tower book, but that didn't help.
Anyway, while I'm here, just a couple of literary links to share:
1. All about Sholom Aleichem.
2. Open Book, a new literary TV show.
3. Tao Lin ponders the meaning of everything at the Poetry Foundation blog. (Sample question: "Do Blogs Help People Accept Death?")
4. Soft Skull lives on!
Have a great weekend, and don't forget to stop by this weekend to check out the guest review.
As the author of the family Holocaust memoir The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, Mendelsohn's appreciation for Littell's novel seems to carry extra weight, and as an expert in classic literature he is well qualified to explain its careful references. Mendelsohn helpfully lays out significant parallels to Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy, and brings not only Jean-Paul Sartre's The Flies but also Herman Melville's Moby Dick into the mix. An excellent read, but can I now be excused from reading Littell's 992 page book? I think I get the main idea now, and I wonder if there is much more to get.
Since I carry my own recurring obsession with the topic of genocide, I can't approach a book like The Kindly Ones without bringing some baggage. If I understand correctly, Littell's intention with this novel is to shove our face in horror, and to shock us by presenting a credibly intellectual and well-adjusted "hero" who is also an unapologetic Nazi and a maniacal sadist. That's fine, but I've already read dozens of books about the Holocaust (Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke was, for me, the most important recent work, William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich the most essential history, Primo Levi's If This Is A Man and Art Spiegelman's Maus the most emotionally resonant stories, and Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil the best philosophical treatment). While I'm all for burying genteel faces in horror, my own face has already been buried plenty.
I also find it inexplicable that we continue to romanticize and rhapsodize about the European Jewish Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s as if it were unique when in fact genocide is so prevalent, so common, so cheap around us. For instance, a vicious, carefully orchestrated holocaust rages in the Sudan right now, as we blog, as we twitter. Reviewers of Jonathan Littell's novel talk about the murder of children and grandmothers, but communities including children and grandmothers are being ground into nonexistence today in Darfur, and very few people seem to think anything can be done about it.
It's ironic that the Holocaust has become such a cottage industry -- shelves in bookstores, museums in cities around the world -- even as "holocaust denial" grows into its own odious cottage industry, taking root from the Vatican to Iran.
I think there's plenty more to be said about the meaning of genocide in the modern world, but I'm not sure I need to read a 992-page indulgence in fictional evil when I can read articles like this, this, this, this or this in today's New York Times.
How can I not like this book? It's a story about college-educated heterosexual male Jewish New Yorkers scrounging with hearts wide open for paychecks, love and, more than anything else, a path to peace in the Middle East.
The main characters in this book are all obsessed, absolutely obsessed, with global politics. One plumbs the contorted history of the Russian Revolution for meaning, another visits Jenin in the West Bank and shares a moving moment with a new Palestinian friend, and another writes an angry book about George W. Bush (it's called The Damage Done) and now contemplates personal ethics (the most difficult kind of all) while trying to figure out his next move. It's a charming portrait of people who remind me very much of myself about half a generation ago, when I was as old as these characters (luckily, since then I have found paychecks and have found true love, though the path to peace in the Middle East remains elusive as hell).
Keith Gessen is previously known as the editor of N+1 magazine, and I like this book more than I like that magazine. When Gessen writes directly about politics he tends to strangle himself in his own pessimism. But when he sketches portraits of himself and his friends strangling themselves in political nonsense, we are able to see the self-deprecating humor that can only mix uneasily with the declarative mode of expression.
Gessen also puts his close identification with Harvard University (where he went to school) into ironic play in All The Sad Young Literary Men. As Jews and Ivy League graduates, these characters must feel themselves doubly "chosen" (and thus certainly bound to disappoint their high expectations, whatever these expectations might be). They are also obsessed with fear of their youth slipping away. Anxiety is certainly this novel's top note.
But does it scan? Yes, and that's probably why the book seems to be gaining a following even among readers who are not Jewish male Harvard-educated New Yorkers. To the extent that this novel brings up serious issues, I'm sure this is a good thing. I'm not saying I'd like to read a whole lot of novels like this one -- one per decade would probably suit me fine. But I breezed through this book with much recognition and much enjoyment. Here's a little Sartre-esque passage I particularly like:
When you are twenty years old, and twenty-one, and twenty-two, and twenty-three, what you want from people is that they tell you about you. When you are twenty, and twenty-one, and twenty-two, and twenty-three, you watch the world for the way it watches you. Do people laugh when you make a joke, do they kiss you when you lean into them at a party? Yes? Aha -- so that's who you are. But these people themselves laughing and not-laughing, kissing and not-kissing, they themselves are young, and you begin to think, if you're twenty or twenty-one, when you are young, that these people are not to be trusted, your contemporaries, your screwed-up friends and girlfriends -- that it's not because of you that they kissed you, but because of them, something about them, those narcissists, whereas you were asking about you, what did they think of you? Now you have no idea. This is why it's so important to meet your heroes while you are young, so they can tell you.
Debut novels by Mark Sarvas and Keith Gessen: two for two. But how do they stack up?
Gessen has better cover art, and characters I relate to more (though I only went to a state school). Sarvas has the stronger laugh lines, I think, and the subtler flights of prose. Now let's see how far I get with Nathaniel Rich and Ed Park, if I have any time left at all to read this Spring.
I'm also interested in The Delivery Man, the debut novel by Joe McGinniss (in fact I'm about to read this story of Las Vegas depravity and prostitution) and I really like Ed Park's vibrant write-up, which references R. Kelly, Joan Didion and (perhaps too often) Bret Easton Ellis. And I don't know if I will ever dive into Roddy Doyle's The Deportees and Other Stories, one story of which continues the tale of his Commitments, but Erica Wagner's review is fine enough, and so is Ann Hodgman's introduction to Max Apple's The Jew of Home Depot. Four worthwhile fiction reviews, not bad at all.
I've got to dislike something, though, and the attention-hungry poetry critic William Logan provides a big target with his pretentious review of Geoffrey Hill's Treatise of Civil Power, a poetry collection that appears to be incomprehensible without a specialist's knowledge of obscure British history. I know British history better than most, I think, but this book appears to be about as appealing as a hair shirt, and William Logan is way too impressed with himself for being capable of appreciating it. But it's Logan's bombastic phraseology -- "gouts of praise", "hang the cost in moral uplift", "hedge his love with the thorns of attitude" -- that makes me feel like I'm stuck in a dreary poetry hut inside a bad renaissance fair. Enough of both Geoffrey Hill and William Logan; let them enjoy each other, but I enjoy neither.
This Book Review contains enough books with Jewish or Holocaust themes to make me wonder if the editors briefly considered matching the recent Islam Issue with a Judaism issue. Rachel Donadio's closing piece on the early reception of Elie Wiesel's Night is surprising and very worthwhile; I had no idea that this book met with so much rejection and apathy before it became a classic.
On the political front, Jacob Heilbrunn's review of Condoleeza Rice: An American Life by Elisabeth Bumiller is perceptive, though I find myself wanting to echo his restrained commentary more pointedly, as when he says:
Despite their close relationship, Bush had only a hazy notion of what role a national security advisor should play.
and I want to mention that Bush seems to have only a hazy notion of a whole, whole lot of things. And those who have been following political critic Jim Sleeper's recent charges of conservative bias in the NYTBR will find a significant update in the Yale Daily News, which reveals that Tanenhaus discussed the question of the Book Review's alleged lack of political balance at a "tea" with Yale students. Sleeper, interviewed for this article as well, states that Tanenhaus has been on a "charm offensive" lately. Just what we need: another surge.
Well, not with Jews like Michael Chabon around it's not. I'm fascinated by the fact that this quirky writer has somehow made Yiddish buzzworthy in 2007 with his acclaimed new novel The Yiddish Policeman's Union. I'm drawn to this book, even though I have mixed feelings about Chabon's execution of the concept. Maybe that's just because I can't help having high expectations for a book like this.
Sarah Weinman has high expectations too, since she happens to be a native Yiddish speaker. This gives her a unique perspective on Chabon's outsider's vision of the Yiddish-speaker's world. Many Yiddish speakers bristle at Chabon's condescending use of the language as comic metaphor, Weinman points out. She's also not satisfied by the novelist's felicity with the language:
"... even though I enjoyed the book, I couldn't quite shake the inborn expectations I had in hoping somehow that there would be a more living, breathing personification of a Yiddish-speaking homeland instead of the more ersatz, mainstream-friendly result that is winning Chabon a lot of praise from my critical peers."
My own gripe with the book? I can't go for that movie-set noir pastiche. You've got to be Paul Auster to pull this mystery mood off, and Michael Chabon strikes me as more of a bush-league Jonathan Lethem in the genre territory.
And yet the book's concept fascinates me, and I keep browsing the pages, tempted to dive back in. Perhaps I will. I've always known about the power of modern-era Yiddish writers, from the gentle evergreen humorist Leo Rosten to the awe-inspiring Isaac Bashevis Singer, who I had the honor of taking a class with at Albany State. I love his stories, but my all-time favorite piece of Yiddish-oriented literature is a work of fiction written in English: Envy, or Yiddish In America by the formidable Cynthia Ozick.
In this acidic story, Ozick the bespectacled battle-axe out-Bellows Saul Bellow with a bitter but hilarious portrait of a raging Yiddish writer and translator apoplectic with fury at the fact that another Yiddish-writing associate of his (said to be based on Isaac Bashevis Singer himself) has just become a smashing literary success. It's not clear which infuriates the story's hero more, the fact that Yiddish is dying or the fact that a different Yiddish writer has just hit the jackpot.
It's true that I. B. Singer was a superstar in Yiddish circles. When I came back from college and told my Grandma Clara and Aunt Rose about my class with the unforgettable Nobel laureate they were both impressed, and Aunt Rose told me that Singer's assumed middle name is an inside joke, because "Bashevis" means "Mamma's boy" (I never knew if she was making this up or not, but now I see that, according to Wikipedia, Aunt Rose knew her stuff).
Grandma Clara's younger son turned out to be my father (oh, you haven't heard that story?), who never took an interest in Yiddish as far as I know, but he has a friend from Brooklyn College named Al Grand who has made a name for himself translating Gilbert and Sullivan plays into Yiddish (his recent version of Pirates of Penzance is a hit).
It happens that Sarah Weinman wrote about Al Grand's comments on a previous Michael Chabon/Yiddish controversy in her blog post above, which just goes to prove how small this yiddische world is. Inspired by Sarah's article, I couldn't resist the chance to ask Al Grand some of my own questions, and to enjoy hearing about this language -- the language of my own heritage, though I know nothing about it -- from someone with a lot of knowledge to share.
Yiddish seems to be in the air these days. Why do you think that is?
There are so many organizations, writers, entertainers, etc. who are passionate about keeping Yiddish alive and who are working assiduously towards that endeavor that it would take a large book to answer this questions adequately. But I could do worse than to begin with The National Yiddish Book Center a vibrant, non-profit organization working to rescue Yiddish books and celebrate the culture they contain. Supported by 30,000 members, they are now the largest and fastest-growing Jewish cultural organization in America. Then there's Mendele - a moderated mailing list dedicated to the lively exchange of views, information, news and just about anything else related to the Yiddish language and Yiddish literature. Mendele has world wide subscribers who explore every conceivable topic related to Yiddish. Yiddish courses are taught in colleges throughout the world. A four-week Summer Program in Yiddish was begun in Oxford, England in 1982 and transferred to Vilnius in 1998. Since then, Vilnius University has been home to this highly praised university-accredited course in Yiddish language and culture. In 2001, the course became an integral component of the new Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University. Yearly, it has drawn participants from as many as nineteen countries across the globe. A large number are university students; overall, however, the most varied backgrounds, pursuits, and professions are represented. As I said -- I can go on for the length of a book but I'll stop here.
Do you consider yourself an expert in the language?
The majority of Jews in the USA and approximately half of the 3 million Jews in Israel plus a substantial number of French, British, Russian, Argentinian Jews are Ashkenazi Jews of central or eastern European origin who share a religious subculture with Yiddish as its lingua franca. I am not a Yiddish expert in the sense of being academically trained. Also -- Yiddish is not my native tongue -- so in that regard I am also not an expert. However -- I grew up in a household wherein both of my parents, whose native tongue was Yiddish, spoke it constantly. I absorbed it very naturally. I am basically self-taught through the use of Weinreich's Yiddish/English -- English/Yiddish wonderful dictionary as well as his College Yiddish. I also own and consult Mordkhe Shchaechter's Yiddish Tsvey, Dovid Katz's Grammar of the Yiddish Language and numerous collections of Yiddish poetry, novels, proverbs, music, etc.
Have you read Chabon's book and do you have any opinions on it?
I have not read Chabon's book -- but I understand that he has a limited background in the Yiddish language.
I've always heard that Yiddish is a mash-up of Hebrew and German, but when I see it it seems more German than Hebrew to me. Am I missing something?
Although most of Yiddish vocabulary is from ancient German -- still about a fourth or so of the vocabulary is from Hebrew. Take the three words in the title of my piece DI YAM GAZLONIM. The only Germanic element therein is "Di". The word "YAM" means "ocean" both in Hebrew and in Yiddish. And "GAZLONIM" is the plural of "GAZLEN" which means "robber" both in Hebrew and in Yiddish. Thus "DI YAM GAZLONIM" means, word for word "the sea robbers" or in more graceful English "the robbers of the sea". Historically Yiddish stems from medieval German so it retains many of the medieval elements of the German language that no longer exist in modern German. Thus German linguists who specialize in old German studies are interested in doing scholarly studies of Yiddish.
Where do you think Yiddish studies will be 100 years from now?
My hope is that it should continue to live. But prophecy is not one of my strengths.
Can you quote a couple of favorite verses from your Yiddish "Penzance" for us to enjoy? Naturally "Major General" comes to mind but I'd leave it to you to select verses you like.
(breaking into song)
"Ikh bin der Groyser General un ikh bin oykh a guter Yid"
Ikh gey oysrekhnen yetst mayne ale mayles in a Yiddish lid,
Ikh hob a klugn kop un ikh farshtey Einstein's teoriye,
Ikh ken dertseyln ales fun der gantse velt historiye,
Kh'bin zeyer gut bakant mit ale mayses fun de Maupassant,
Ikh tants, un zing, un makh a shpas - ikh bin a mentsh mit groys talant,
Ikh ken gut bakn lekekh un ikh veys fun fotografia-
Ikh ken gut shisn un ikh hob nit moyre far der Mafia!
Ikh lern gut Gemorah un mit Toyre bin ikh gut bakant,
Un alemol bay tog un nakht halt ikh dem sider in der hant
In kurtzn vil ikh zogn aykh ven ikh farendik shoyn mayn lid,
Ikh bin a Groyser General un ikh bin oykh a guter Yid!
Ikh bin a talmid khokhim un an opera zinger bin ikh oykh,
Der "Barber fun Seville" ken ikh gut zingen mit mayn shtime hoykh,
A khale ken ikh bakn un a lokshn kugl makh ikh fayn,
Ikh makh a kiddish erev Shabos un gey glaykh in shul arayn.
In shul ken ikh gut davenen un leynen toyre ken ikh oykh,
Un chiken zup mit kneydlakh es ikh biz es tut mir vey der boykh,
Ikh kokh a Purim tsimes un makh latkes yedn Khanike "anike","lanike","panike", A-HA!
Kh'ken tantsn gut a "hora" un ikh shpil af der "harmonica"
How would one say "Literary Kicks" in Yiddish?
"Literarishe Klep". Note that every "a" is pronounced "ah".
Literarishe Klep says thanks to Al Grand for an interesting interview and a great Yiddish "Major General".
Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a blend of Jewish folklore with detective fiction, a sort of Saul Bellow meets Raymond Chandler. Or maybe if Bernard Malamud wrote haggadic murder mysteries. It begins, as all good noir begins, with the knight-errant detective, a real mensch of a cop named Landsman, called upon in the middle of the night to investigate a mysterious murder. Through the unfolding plot, Chabon draws a richly imagined world of a civilization that never was, a Jewish homeland in Alaska instead of Israel.