May 31, 2018

Thoughts on some Jewish American Writers, Anne Frank, and a OUAT Coda

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 11:45 pm by chavalah

Philip Roth, probably peeved at something from the American Jewish community

The other week my mother commented to me how surprised she was by the outpouring of think pieces dedicated to Philip Roth’s passing–not knowing that I intended to add my own. đŸ˜›

Philip Roth died at 85 years old on May 22, 2018, Z”L. I may be leaning into something too caustic here, but what irony that it’s the same year that the Nobel Prize for Literature won’t be awarded. Well played.

Roth has been on my periphery as I’m someone who’s invested in the Jewish literary world. I’ve read two of his novels–The Ghost Writer, which annoyed me, and Portnoy’s Complaint, which I loathed. Still, I’ve been gearing myself up to give his collection another try. I’m considering a reading project for the future where I choose from winners of the National Jewish Book Award, so for Roth that would be Goodbye Columbus, The Human Stain and another of the Zuckerman alter-ego books.

The Men Who Love Philip Roth* have told me that I should focus on his later material rather than his earlier stuff. It’s a little more political, slightly more removed from himself (though I’m under the impression that Roth rarely removed himself from the center of his work), and generally less offensive to my lady feels. TMWLPR explain that for them, Portnoy’s Complaint was a sexual and philosophical awakening into what it means to be a man.

I’m not knocking on that, even though I still believe Portnoy’s Complaint to be garbage. I’ll leave the constant and unexplored sexual abuse out of it, and ask how many writers could get away with a main character who never changes and is surrounded by a bunch of cardboard cutout stereotypes? Only one whom the literary establishment has decided is nevertheless a genius, I suppose.

Dara Horn might have the right of it (surprise surprise, the think piece I agree the most with was penned by a woman):

Philip Roth’s works are only curious about Philip Roth. Of course, most writers lead with characters like themselves, and for Roth’s contemporary Jewish readers, his warts-and-all portrayal of people like himself was an honor, inviting them into American literature. But that was the outer limit of Roth’s imagination. His strength lay in those brilliantly rendered characters and voices like his. His weakness was that those voices denigrated just about everyone else.

But I’m allowing myself to move away from empathy for The Men Who Love Philip Roth. Because, like them, I’ve identified writers who prodded my own thoughts about sexuality and what it means to be a woman/person. The first writer I had this experience with is Anne Frank. (And if anyone is writing chiefly about herself, well, obviously she’s a diarist.)

I’ve actually documented the experience of reading Frank’s sexual exploration when I was 14 years old myself. And I’ve monitored, with trepidation, the recent reveal of some hidden, racier pages in Frank’s diary. I’m just very defensive about Anne, okay? Especially in the face of our lewd, “gotcha!” culture, which likes to snicker over corrupted innocence.

Then again, maybe it’s a good thing, as this article brings up in a statement from the Anne Frank House:

“Over the decades Anne has grown to become the worldwide symbol of the Holocaust, and Anne the girl has increasingly faded into the background. These—literally—uncovered texts bring the inquisitive and in many respects precocious teenager back into the foreground.”

One thing that Frank definitely wanted for herself was to become a professional writer. It’s impossible to parse if that would have happened had she lived, or how her outlook might have changed after her experiences in the camps. Survival, after all, is only one variable of what would have been Anne Frank’s life. Still, I would have loved to see her as a towering literary figure in adulthood. Imagine what it would have been like to speak of her in the same circles as Philip Roth. Roth himself imagined Frank as an adult in The Ghost Writer, but only from the outside–she existed as a projection for the male characters. Her only real act of agency was to decide to erase herself. I certainly hope that the reality wouldn’t be so bleak. But sadly, we’re only stuck with our reality, where Frank didn’t live to be 16.

Still, to think more optimistically, as Frank herself tried to do in her diary, she did become a famous writer. I’ve been thinking for awhile about what books I might like to reread (though generally I’m overwhelmed by how many exist that I haven’t read for the first time!) The Diary of Anne Frank is definitely near the top of my list.

Though I’m not sure if I’d identify so closely with Frank’s sexual musings, now that I’m no longer 14. As an adult, I find myself drawn to Meg Wolitzer’s novels for that purpose. Her female characters have experiences, sexual and otherwise, that run the gamut of what I’ve had, want to have or will never have. But they’re still very relateable.

Anne, I saw as more of a peer, despite the fact that she was born 54 years before me. Wolitzer is a few years younger than my mother, and in my head I’ve slanted her a bit into “the mentor” role. (Especially appropriate now that she’s probed the boomer-to-millennial mentor experience in her latest, The Female Persuasion!)

I’m three books away from having read her entire backlist. So I guess, MWLPH, that she is my Philip Roth. I hope that as time goes on, my fellow bibliophiles cement talk of her contributions to the literary world.

*Yes, there’s been more than one whose approached me, though their outlook is pretty uniform

***

In other Jewish American writer news, Michael Chabon is making headlines again after his controversial graduation speech at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. I’m not going to touch on his Israeli criticism here; it’s been widely covered elsewhere. I’m not even going to touch on his antagonistic attitude towards religion, though it does dovetail into what got my goat. đŸ˜›

I mean ostensibly, I started this blog to grapple with what it means to be a Jew from an interfaith family. And here strides in Chabon, declaring that inmarriage is “a ghetto of two.”

I’m the last person to spit on intermarriage. My parents are intermarried, after all, and I’d rather not forfeit my own life.

But I hate this brand of self-righteousness in dictating what other people should or shouldn’t look for in a marriage. There’s plenty of reasons why Jews should marry other Jews–shared interests and lifestyle choices, for one. Less tsuris over the religious identities of your children. Mutual respect for Judaism’s spiritual, cultural and historical contributions to the world. It’s a step into a larger community, not a retreat into a ghetto.

I’d assume that Chabon didn’t use this forum to air dirty laundry about his own Jewish wife, Ayelet Waldman, but this is a strange counterpoint to her own remarks that landed her in controversy.

I’m not here to pass judgment on anyone’s relationship, but if I were to get snippy about something…why is marriage often understood to be the end all, be all of everything? Particularly for those of us who are single, of course, but even for those in wedded matrimony, you can nurture other relationships. I wouldn’t exchange my Jewish and non-Jewish friends for anything. And if there’s anything that I’d like to rail against, it’s how romance is seen as uber-important, and friendships are often undervalued.


Farewell, Storybrooke.

This last bit doesn’t really fit with the others, but I couldn’t let May go by without bidding farewell to the ABC tv show, “Once Upon A Time.” OUAT was special for it’s focus on several female leads with strong storylines. It’s a show that got more convoluted with time, and this season, which became the final season, served as a reboot of sorts. I still stand by what I wrote last year about how I wish the show had ended. Season seven was overstuffed with new characters, thinly drawn storylines, and some shoddy time travel mischief. And while I’m complaining, I rather wish that “the wish realm” had stayed the sort of place where our real characters could confront their inner demons. Actually, that’s what it turned into for with Rumple, Henry and Regina for the last couple of episodes, and the show was better for it.

I still love the show’s central theme about hope conquering darkness. I can put up with a lot of magic-power opaqueness if that tenant is upheld. I also love that with Alice and Robin, the show finally gave us the fleshed out, same sex relationship that it had been promising. Of course, not all promises could be realized by the end, which is why we got a throwaway line about Lily’s revealed parentage. đŸ˜›

It was definitely time for OUAT to retire, but I’ll miss my weekly sojourn in front of the television, my chats with friends, and listening to the unofficial Once podcast. It’s been a good seven years. And remember the most powerful thing anyone can have: “Hope. Believing in even the possibility of a happy ending is a very powerful thing.”

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2 Comments »

  1. […] Whole lot going on in the literary world. Here’s some of what caught my eye: Annie Prolux won the Library of Congress prize for American fiction, the Nobel Prize in Literature for this year was cancelled due to a sexual abuse scandal, and a Kafka intro to an unwritten novel went for $175,000. I covered other Jewish literary news here. […]

  2. […] Last month I was pretty glib in denouncing Michael Chabon’s graduation speech at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. But in seriously reading the thing, it’s not fair for me to get away with a mic drop. His words aren’t quite so self righteous as I made them out to be, as he grapples with legitimate violence and cruelty that comes out of some “separatist” ideologies of Judaism. […]


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