This year was a kind one to three great Jewish writers; two of which seemed to never get the respect they deserve, and another who has unjustly fallen into the honorable mention category of the great writers of the 20th Century. Saul Bellow, I.J. Singer, and Bruno Schulz have all had some of their works re-released or reassessed in 2010.
Saul Bellow is a victim of the underrated/highly rated trap. He’s a big name–even the sound of it has resonance and power–but I wonder sometimes if anyone is really even reading him anymore. Heck, Harper’s just asked that this month. He has two books to be released this year, so hopefully the answer will once again be, “yes.”
A lot of fanfare has been made in anticipation of the release of Saul Bellow: Letters, and for good reason: Bellow was a great correspondent who wrote to cache of literary lions from Philip Roth to Bernard Malamud. In Letters, Bellow writes inspiring notes to younger writers, who no doubt looked up to him, as well as admonishing fellow Nobel laureat, William Faulkner, for being anti-communist, and for supporting the anti-Semitic poet, Ezra Pound. You get the full spectrum of the man, from the testier moments to his lighter side. His sincerity and goodness is best illustrated by a letter to Isaac Bashevis Singer, congratulating –in Yiddish, no less– the writer on a Nobel award that Bellow himself had won two years prior. A letter in September of 1966 to colleague Richard Stern, sees Bellow make mention of a memoir of D. Schwartz — that book would not come out until 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning (fictonal) novel, Humboldt’s Gift.
Humboldt’s Gift is included in Bellow: Novels, 1970-1983. Whether you want to buy three novels in one, or simply want to adorn your bookshelves with another Library of America title, these three late-period novels are all worth your attention.
Bellow himself was an admirer of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Bellow first translated Singer’s story of the simple old country dweller, Gimpel The Fool, in 1953. But Bellow was also in on the secret of Isaac’s older brother, Israel Joshua Singer. Bellow’s name adorns the cover of the newest reissue of I.J. Singer’s, The Brothers Ashkenazi, calling it “a wonderful novel.” With all due respect, Mr. Bellow, that is something of an understatement.
After reading The Brothers Ashkenazi, it’s clear that I.J. Singer was the stronger writer of the two brothers; as the book moves beyond the shtetl tales of magic and evil that his brother would become famous for. It’s a picture of greed, tradition and family; losing faith and longing for the past, as well as providing a fine sketch of shtetl life in the early days of the 20th Century. While Isaac had the flair of a master storyteller, Israel was the better writer. I thought of Tolstoy, or even Dickens, throughout so much of this The Brothers, but all the while, I.J. Singer is nostalgic in a way even Proust would have admired. This is not a book just for fans of Jewish books, but for readers of all kinds of great literature.
Finally, here is to hoping that 2010 will be remembered as the year that Bruno Schulz, one of the greatest Polish Jewish writers of the 20th century, finally gets an audience worthy of his work.
While the tragic story of Schulz’s death during WWII is just one of millions, his works need to be celebrated as masterpieces by an audience wider than than fellow writers John Updike and Philip Roth — or as inspirations for the Brothers Quay stop motion animation films.
In the last year, Jonathan Safran Foer has became the latest writer to champion Schulz; going as far as to using the late writer’s book, The Street of Crocodiles, as the starting point for his own own book/art project, Tree of Codes. Schulz’s work has flirted with capturing the attention of a larger audience in the past, soliciting nods from Cynthia Ozick and David Grossman. Unfortunately, neither of them had the crossover appeal of Safran Foer, who might finally bring the man (who should be considered Poland’s Kafka) to the audience he’s deserved all these years.