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Children of Sebald?

Jacques Austerlitz’s study, from W.G. Sebald’s Austerltz

Over at ZEEK: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture there is an intriguing essay coauthored by Mark Shechner,  Thane Rosenbaum, and Victoria Aarons called “The New Jewish Literature.”  The three write from the perspective of being the jurors for the past five years for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, which is awarded annually to a Jewish writer living in the United States.  The essay’s authors detect a new generation of Jewish writers in this country, supplanting the old image of the Jewish-American writer made famous by Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, and others.

In much of the best newer fiction, the arias of “me, me, me” have faded into choruses of “us, us, us,” with the “us” being the Jews as a collective body. Many of these writers are not just disinterested in the self-referential, self-analyzing, self- gratifying, self-scrutiny, but they no longer question their connection to the tribe. Gone is the self-loathing and turbo- charged assimilating; the newer writers take it as a given that they are Jews. The Jewish stereotype is no longer being assisted by the Jewish writer: Gone are Roth’s shiksa-chasers, Malamud’s beleaguered, beaten-down and luckless Jews, Bellow’s exhausting intellectuals and demotic sharpies; Ozick’s Jewish writers and intellectuals trapped between two worlds and memories; Henry Roth’s immigrants who will never shake off the Ellis Island stench. There are no longer Jewish mothers and references to bagels and baseball and assimilationist dreams.

Shechner, Rosenbaum, and Aarons refer to a handful of recent examples and outline the three main “developments” that they see in new Jewish fiction in America:

1) The growth of historicism and the emergence of the collective self, the “we” and “us” of the historical self replacing the “I” and “me” of earlier fiction; 2) The appearance of the researched novel as a vehicle for this historicism. In this regard, writers like Houghteling and Orringer might be considered “children of Sebald,” after the German writer W.G. Sebald who pioneered a style of meditative scholarship that has had a powerful effect on subsequent writers; 3) The outlines of a new transnational or diaspora writing that recalls a century’s earlier condition of Jewish writing under the powerful influences of Zionism, Marxism, the Haskalah, the Yiddish renaissance, and the vernacular (Russian, Polish, German, Czech, French) revivals of a century earlier. This transnationalism, however, is no longer scattered across European soil but concentrated on our own.

Josh Lambert, at Tablet, follows up with an essay called “Archive Fever,” in which he suggests “another vector of influence”: “the positioning of creative writers within the university and on academic payrolls.”  Referring to Mark McGurl’s book The Program Era, about “the explosive proliferation of MFA programs in creative writing.”  Lambert evaluates some of the same books mentioned “The New Jewish Literature” and comes to a different conclusion:

The archival turn exemplified by these recent novelists may have less to do with Sebald’s influence or with the blandness of contemporary Jewish life in the United States, then, and more with the status of literature in our culture. A literary novel is much more likely to be a credential for tenure these days than a popular entertainment, and some of our novelists—whether formally employed by universities or just having been educated by them—increasingly resemble our academic scholars. Whether or not this is salutary, and whether or not we like it, the archival turn reflects how our authors get paid, and if this current crop of emerging Jewish novelists is any indication, some get paid to teach us Jewish history.

I’m not in a position to say anything about recent Jewish fiction writing in the US, but I will say that Lambert’s argument leaves me cold.  For one thing, I’m not cynical enough to say, as Lambert does, that “a cynic would say that this development reflects the feeling among young American Jews that there is nothing poignant about their lives” or to suggest, as Lambert does: “why wouldn’t a student like [Sara] Houghteling want to write fiction set in, say, France, if a fellowship were forthcoming that would fly her to Paris gratis and cover her croissants?”   These are not reasons that writers are sourcing their work in the archive.  I think the authors of both essays miss the point that the archive has served as one of the most potent tropes for writers and artists for nearly a half century.  Take, for example, the 2008 exhibition at New York’s International Center of Photography called Archive Fever (probably based on the title of Jacques Derrida’s 1998 book Archive Fever, which is likely the uncredited source for Lambert’s essay title) and reviewed here by critic Jerry Saltz.  This exhibition covered some thirty years of contemporary art, including Christian Boltanski, Sherrie Levine, Andy Warhol, and others.

Or check out Charles Merewether’s 2006 book The Archive (MIT Press).  Here I’ll quote the publisher’s blurb.

In the modern era, the archive—official or personal—has become the most significant means by which historical knowledge and memory are collected, stored, and recovered. The archive has thus emerged as a key site of inquiry in such fields as anthropology, critical theory, history, and, especially, recent art. Traces and testimonies of such events as World War II and ensuing conflicts, the emergence of the postcolonial era, and the fall of communism have each provoked a reconsideration of the authority given the archive—no longer viewed as a neutral, transparent site of record but as a contested subject and medium in itself.

In short, I don’t think it is accurate to say that any group, whether Jewish writers or academic-based writers, have a corner on the now well-established tradition of exploring the archive.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. krh #

    I believe Derrida’s Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression dates from 1998 (at least in English translation).

    July 24, 2011
    • Kevin, I’m sure you are right. I’v added the Derrida reference as the likely source for the Lambert essay title. Thanks!


      July 25, 2011
  2. Arnold Mosselman #

    Through your blog I learn so much about Sebald and his surroundings, thank you so much! The picture you show here of a reading room, is the room of the poet Stephen Watts, a good friend of Sebald, see this article I found on the internet:
    Stephen Watts wrote an tribute in Saturn’s Moon, and a very moving poem dedicated to Sebald.
    I’m looking forward to many interesting posts from you!

    August 8, 2011
    • stephen watts #

      Just as a matter of interest or of accuracy, the photograph referred to is not of my room (though it does bear a close resemblance to my room in Aldgate East) but is, I think, the room of a colleague of Max at UEA. Max was a close friend of mine & I did write a tribute to him, & the poem, in ‘Saturn’s Moon’ & walked with him quite a lot in the Whitechapel & Spitalfields that I know so well.

      September 15, 2012

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