I know I dissed Vanity Fair magazine in a previous post (see here
), but this
short interview with David Steinberg is outstanding, less for the questions posed, than for Steinberg's cogent and often succinctly funny responses.
I can't wait for Steinberg's outrageously conceived autobiography
to be released next week. Steinberg's comedy routines from the Sixties about Jews, Judaism, Christianity and Christians, and his recurring psychiatrist character, remain deeply funny to me to this day.
One interesting thing: Steinberg, a Canadian Jew whose father was a rabbi, lists his favorite writers as Mark Twain, Philip Roth and Paddy Chayevsky. I was surprised that Steinberg would find Roth more compelling than the Canadian-Jewish writer, Mordecai Richler.
I consider Richler to have a much wider and deeper lens than Roth. Richler was also a more descriptive novelist than Roth. Just read the first few chapters of "Solomon Gursky Was Here"
and tell me there's anything Roth has written that approaches that novel. Anything. Roth's novels' lens strike me as claustrophobic, particularly Roth's obsession with the sexual thoughts of his characters. Worse, an outsider reading Roth rarely "feels" the Jewish section of Newark, New Jersey the way one feels Montreal and Canada as with Richler--or for that matter, Salinas, California with Steinbeck, for another example. Too often, Roth's idea of describing Newark to readers is to name streets and restaurants without giving the reader who did not know these streets or restaurants any feeling of what it was like to actually live there. Personal digression
: I knew the "Jewish section" of Newark only in its last throes of the 1960s as a youngster when I would go with my parents to visit my truly beloved Grandmother, before the riot that devastated Newark in 1967. See this link for a horrible, yet poignant photo from that riot
(WARNING: This link of a Life Magazine cover of this tragic photo from that riot was seared in my young brain when that issue arrived at our family home shortly after the riot). Tom Hayden's now rare book, "Rebellion in Newark" (I found no links available on the web that describe the book with any specificity!) explained, in real time, the riot in sociological and political terms. Ironically, Hayden's analysis was confirmed to me by an old Italian guy who owned a movie theater in Newark, who used to watch my mother in a baby carriage while acting as the film projectionist in the mid-1930s. He never even heard of Tom Hayden, but he used the word "revolution" to describe the riot. He then told me, because he had been nice to black kids (letting them in the theater no differently than white kids when they were a dime short of the price of a movie ticket) his theater was never ransacked or touched. He had an armed guard of black men outside his theater, and at his home, even though he never requested it, throughout the riot.
My Dad was two years behind Roth in Hebrew School in the Jewish section of Newark and fondly remembers Roth being the class "cut-up" (more respectful a description than a mere "class clown"). However, he was upset at Roth's books in the early to mid-1960 for their ripping portrayal of the Jewish families who my Dad continues to greatly revere. My Dad's brother, my Uncle, adores Roth and his novels and says Roth exactly nails it in his portrayal of Jewish families of that time in Newark. I see the virtue in both of their viewpoints, though I think Roth's perspective overshot its criticism and was itself the product of a general libertine rebellion among his generation of Jews against their parents' ingestion of the so-called American "Protestant ethic."
Roth's early novels contained a brutal polemic against his father's sensibilities and work as a salesman that an older Roth later came to regret (see: his non-fiction work, "Patrimony," for example). More recently, Roth's portrayal of the Dad in "The Plot Against America"
is highly reverential! (END OF PERSONAL DISGRESSION
A reader who may doubt me regarding the shallow perspective of Roth compared to Richler should at least compare the perspective Richler shows in "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz"
to Roth's perspective in his book, "Goodbye Columbus"
, both originally
released in 1959. I can see the strength of "Goodbye Columbus" is its powerful understanding of the sexually repressive atmosphere of middle class life in the US which existed at that time. Yet, Roth's novella (there are other short stories published with the main story) contains an ironic element because Roth's narrator subjectively identifies with the lead character. Yet, a post-feminist reading of the lead character reveals a far less likable character than Roth imagined. Richler, however, showed far more self-awareness in his portrayal of the often boorish and supremely hustling Duddy Kravitz. Richler already had a better understanding than Roth of the concurrent economic and cultural forces in which his character acted and to which his lead character responded.
Recently, I tried (again) to read Roth's "American Pastoral," but again concluded Roth lacked a deep first-hand understanding of the political events he discusses. It is was if Roth had to study the political issues the way one would study ancient Greek politics. I seem to recall a feminist oriented writer at the Nation, who was not a by-stander during the Sixties, making a similar point when that novel was released. Richler, on the other hand, reveals remarkable depth in his understanding of the fights among Jewish and Gentile supporters of Trotsky, Stalin, and Debs, for example, and a laser like understanding of the intellectual literary and political fights of the 1930s and 1940s--and is hilarious and spot on in his portrayals of characters involved in such fights.
I admit to being rougher on Roth than is perhaps warranted. But I was reminded of Roth's primacy and Richler's growing obscurity last evening when my wife and I visited our local Border's. There was not one Richler novel in the Border's vast fiction section, yet there were a dozen Roth books, essentially as many Dickens and Steinbeck novels. And of course, the Modern Library continues to release Roth's novels through its much respected publishing house, a decision I expect the Modern Library will regret 20 years hence as a later generation scratches its collective head at the fuss over Roth.
Final comment: Here
is an interview with Richler regarding his last novel, "Barney's Version"
(1998), a novel I did not read until about two or three years ago. The novel is a "memoir" of a television personality in Canada with the footnotes by the man's son correcting errors in the memoir text, all while attempting to solve the mystery of whether the memoirist-father had killed his best friend for having an affair with his wife (and of course, the son's mother). The son's "Afterword" is a brilliant touch. Reading the book, I was amazed at its seamless melding of fiction and non-fiction, its portrayal of a man feverishly attempting to record the events of his life as his memory fails him, the character's random statements that slowly reveal a sense of guilt about his life, and the novel's creative use of footnotes. I was knocked out by this valedictory novel of Richler's, which confirmed why I adore Richler so.
Simply put, both men looked longingly into the mirror of their immediate surroundings, but Richler observed far more beyond, and outside that mirror. Bonus point
: A film based upon one of Richler's other funny and brilliant novels, "Joshua Then and Now,"
is unfortunately not available on DVD, only VHS tape. However, the film is one of the funniest portrayals of Jewish interactions with Gentiles I've ever seen. James Wood is outstanding and Alan Arkin explodes with profound and funny wisdom in every scene he's in. Once you see the film, you'll never forget it or Arkin's character. The film remains an important reference point among various relatives in my family.