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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?