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Identity and the British-Jewish novel

American Jewish writers flourish, but Englishness and Jewishness seem mutually contradictory.

In 1937 the teenaged Irving Howe, future literary critic, excitedly unwrapped the very first edition of Partisan Review and read the short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” by Delmore Schwartz, written a couple of years earlier over a July weekend when Schwartz was 21. The story is about a young man who goes into a cinema and sees on the screen the unfolding images of his own parents’ courtship, including a trip to Coney Island culminating in a marriage proposal, which causes the narrator to rise from his seat and deliver one of the funniest pay-offs in literature.

What amazed Howe was the depiction of American Jewish life: of the struggling immigrant, the dogged pursuit of education at the Harvard, Oxford and Sorbonne of American Jews – City College of New York – and the intellectual wastrel generation that followed. Schwartz’s early genius burned out almost at once: he drank, went mad and was found dead in a flophouse in 1966 aged 52. I first came across him in the late 1990s when I read Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, a fictional account of their relationship – one soaring, the other squalid and forgotten. Bellow picked up where Schwartz was unable to continue: into the novel, where American Jewish life belonged; because if you are Jewish, as the Israeli novelist David Grossman has pointed out, you are already stuck in a big story – the Old Testament is one great epic novel.

Published in 1953, Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March is not the story of a Jewish American but the story of Americans and of what it means to be one. When Bellow died, in 2005, I wrote of him: “His vigour, vitality, humour and passion were always matched by the insistence on thought, not the predigested clichés of the mass media or of those on the left, which had begun to disgust him by the Sixties.” He operated within the widest of modern contexts: “[A] writer about conscience and consciousness, forever conflicted by the competing demands of the great cities, the individual’s urge to survival against all odds and his equal need for love.”

The trick to achieving greatness is for the particular to become the general. Augie March was the American Everyman, and the American Jewish novel, like the Bible, is a document writ large and with energy; it is the consequence of the arrival of huge numbers of immigrants from a continent of race laws to one in which the idea of freedom was a kind of amphetamine for the seeking, striving man and woman. Even across the border in Waspish Canada, the New World provided literary opportunities for Mordecai Richler.

In the early 1990s, an American Jewish academic arriving in Britain to take up a teaching position told me that she did not believe there were Jews in England, and if there were, they were not real Jews. Why? “Because the English talk with la-di-dah accents and hold their cups of tea like that,” she said, crooking her little finger. It was not the first time the unreality of my identity had been pronounced. British Jews arrived here from the same places, at the same time and for the same reasons as American Jews stepping off the boat at Ellis Island. The difference was that we did not, as Philip Roth has noted of his countrymen and women, make our contribution to the national identity along with all the other immigrants – the Italians, the Poles and the Irish. The national identity here was formed centuries earlier. By the time it was susceptible to alteration, Jews were out of the running. We were not part of Project Empire Strikes Back; instead, we have been co-opted (to our surprise) into the enterprise of British colonialism in the Middle East.

If Augie March is Everyman, the British Jew is an oddity; we’re so out of kilter with universal experience that we are a minority taste. When, in 2002, I published a novel called Still Here, a reviewer in the Telegraph pronounced it “too Jewish” and justified her criticism by saying she could say that because she was Jewish herself. A remark like this in the Washington Post would bring down the wrath of Aipac. Was Monica Ali’s Brick Lane too Bangladeshi?

Perhaps this remark came out of the tendency of Anglo-Jewry not to draw attention to itself – to change your name, not to look too Jewy, to include an oath of allegiance to the Queen in Saturday services, to be decorous, unassertive and to swallow slights. Without continental Europe’s history of occupation and extermination, we are the dull relations, so out of fashion that we still carry what has become, for liberal intellectuals, the dishonourable baggage of Zionism.

Wriggling in this small space, we attempt to write novels. No one has anatomised the narrowness of the corridor we live in better than Anita Brookner, who shows exactly how Jews try to “pass”, to cower inside their flats and present an ironed-handkerchief smile to the world. Howard Jacobson has long resented being called the British Philip Roth, preferring to term himself the Jewish Jane Austen. But where, asked Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian a couple of years ago, was the “rolling, full-on, querulous and combative tone that characterises not just Jacobson, but the kind of Jewish writing that comes from America?” For Lezard, the American Jewish voice – with its scope and argumentativeness – is the true Jewish voice, as if the US is the defining literary identity of the Jews. It is not. There was Kafka, Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, Bruno Schulz. There are, living, David Grossman, Aharon Appelfeld, Orly Castel-Bloom, Etgar Keret and Amos Oz. All five are now subject to cultural boycott.

The US dazzles and obliterates, whereas the British Jewish experience is one of an uncertainty of identity, of a difficulty in establishing yourself as an individual soul or an ethnic voice. A month or two ago Ken Livingstone enraged and alienated many British Jews when he said he could not accept the idea of Jewishness as an ethnicity. It was a religion, pure and simple. The outcry was possibly the first time British Jews fought back and said to the political establishment, “Don’t you dare define who we are.”

The late American critic Leslie Fiedler said that Jews were the naturals at becoming the voice of the modern US, because they were the ones with the longtime experience of immigration, of starting afresh and not looking behind you. In a country of hyphenated identities, anyone could carry their story with them and still reinvent themselves. It took me until I was over 40 to write my first novel because I had no idea whose voice would be talking: would it be that world of my parents, the nervous, though financially successful children of pogrom immigrants who locked themselves into a suburban ghetto outside which they heard, magnified, the howling of the anti-Semites? Or that of my education, privately paid-for, blue-stocking, feminist and aspiring to escape from the ethnic torture of home? I felt yanked in two directions, Israel Zangwill pulling on one arm, Margaret Drabble on the other.

I solved this problem by writing every novel from the point of view of an outsider: one who escapes from home to make a journey, or arriving back there, finds him or herself alienated. This is the backbone of everything I’ve written, largely missed by reviewers. It arises from that place of contradiction, or not exactly knowing what my true identity was, partially concealed under a bland name chosen by my parents from the label of a whisky bottle after a letter arrived from an anti-Semitic organisation threatening to track down their children and kill them.

My novel When I Lived in Modern Times was not a novel of Israel or of Zionism but of the Anglo-Jewish fate not to feel at home anywhere; to leave post-war London for the Zionist dream of Palestine and find yourself alienated by language, heat and indifference when you get there, and with more in common in your collective memory with the British policemen and their wives, swapping catchphrases from ITMA. Ironically, it was my first novel to be published in the US, although only after it won the Orange Prize. American publishers did not need Jewish voices from Britain; they had, they said, enough of their own. Howard Jacobson has had the same difficulty. An American bookseller reported the puzzled looks of his customers when he described The Finkler Question as from the pen of a British Woody Allen.

For Englishness is this and Jewishness is that. The two seem mutually contradictory: one all tact, reserve, meaningful silence, the other none of those things. Had we only gone en masse to Ireland, we might have fared better in a country where the English language is spoken and written with the same lost traces of a suppressed one. The greatest literary Jew and the greatest work of literary chutzpah was written out of there. As Beckett said, the Jews think too much and drink too little. It is for me a more attractive fusion than the puritanical soul of England.

Linda Grant’s most recent novel is “We Had It So Good” (Virago, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?

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Beyond the frame: the best recent graphic novels

Neel Mukherjee is moved and unsettled by everything from psychological realism to ghost stories.

Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening (Harvard University Press, £16.95) is a book not quite like any other. First of all, this graphic novel was his doctoral thesis at Columbia University. Second, the book is entirely non-narrative – it doesn’t tell a story but instead explores and is powered by a series of ideas about how the human mind produces meaning. It takes on the problem that Jacques Derrida and others identified as “logocentrism”, the primacy of words over images in the western philosophical tradition, but then goes about the critique of the idea in a completely different, evidence-based way.

Ranging across a wide range of disciplines – the arts, the sciences, popular culture, critical theory – Sousanis argues that the verbal and the visual are inextricably entwined in the production of knowledge. His book enacts that process, being at once a thesis and its illustration (in both senses: example and pictorial representation). It is a book that is dense with the syntheses of ideas, nimble, far-reaching and impossible to summarise. It liberates itself from the standard layout of panels within frames, teaching the eye and mind to read the unfailingly intelligent black-and-white artwork in unconventional and new ways. Unflattening deserves a place as a compulsory textbook in schools.

William Goldsmith’s Vignettes of Ystov (2011) announced an original talent. He is back with his second graphic novel, The Bind (Jonathan Cape, £20), which is set in a Victorian bookbinders called Egret, run by two brothers, Guy and Victor, of opposite temperaments. Guy is prudent and responsible, while the devil-may-care Victor is a rule-bending risk-taker. The making of the most expensive book ever ignites the tinderbox of the destructive dynamics between the brothers, with disastrous consequences for the bindery.

The ghost of the brothers’ dead father, despairing yet powerless, hovers over the events as a chorus of one, commenting on the action, while Goldsmith, as natural a storyteller as he is a dazzling illustrator, keeps wrong-footing the reader, introducing twist upon twist in the corkscrew narrative. The result is utterly delicious, a gripping story that is beautiful to behold. Goldsmith’s restrained palette of greys, orangey browns and umbers gives the book the visual feel of early cinema.

David Hughes’s second graphic novel, The Pillbox (Jonathan Cape, £18.99) transports the structural elements of a ghost story – an unsettled and unresolved past misdeed, its sudden and inexplicable irruption in the present tense and its equally sudden vanishing – to the Suffolk seaside and creates a distinctive creature of it. Quite apart from the stunning artwork – knowing, often painterly, part George Grosz, part Ralph Steadman – the book turns around a cruel deployment of dramatic irony: the characters are refused the bitter illumination that the readers are given.

Jack, an 11-year-old, stumbles upon a Second World War pillbox on the beach and meets a slightly older boy called Bill. The next day, the pillbox is gone and there is no sign of Bill. The narrative loops back to 1945 to give us Bill’s story. It is violent and shocking, but even more shocking is the story of Bill’s sister, Rita, and her terminally ill husband. Hughes has captured something ineluctably English in the combination of seediness, violence, sensationalism and humour; the book’s biggest effect, however, is the resonance of the present-day story, which will leave at least one haunting question ringing in your head.

I’ve always had more admiration than love for Jules Feiffer’s work – there’s something about the messy fluidity of his lines that I don’t warm to – but Kill My Mother (Liveright, £16.99), his first foray into the graphic novel form (at the age of 86), is perfection of its kind. It’s a homage to the ­masters of noir: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M Cain are among the book’s dedicatees. Like Howard Hawks’s film of Chandler’s The Big Sleep (even its screenwriters, including William Faulkner, were in the dark about certain elements of the plot), Feiffer’s book delivers a story of devilish intricacy with remarkable economy: in a single page, he reveals vast backstories. The cast of characters features a needy daughter who wants to kill her mother; the mother, who works for a drunken private investigator and is looking for her husband’s killer; a chippy tap dancer who wants to be Hollywood’s biggest star; a weedy boy who grows up to be a hulky soldier. Kill My Mother spans a decade and its locations shift from Bay City to a theatre of war on a South Pacific island, where the story, a ticking bomb so far, explodes spectacularly.

Adrian Tomine is one of the finest graphic novelists working in the tradition of psychological realism. Killing and Dying (Faber & Faber, £14.99), a collection of six interconnected short stories, has all the depth, shadows, restraint and emotional impact of Alice Munro or William Trevor. There is no finer exploration of embarrassment than the title story about a stammering, under-confident 14-year-old who wants to be a stand-up, much against her unsupportive father’s wishes, but Tomine goes a few steps further and devastates you, changing the entire emotional weather. He is a master of melancholy, of depicting lives running into the sand. He is also a master of the deflating joke, of comedy that breaks the heart. The psychological complexity and depth he is capable of rendering in a few panels is astounding.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide