Ozick’s Opening Salvo

newyork1971

The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories by Cynthia Ozick. 270 pp. Knopf, 1971.

Cynthia Ozick’s ear for the vernacular cadences of Jewish-American English is equal to the great writers of her generation. Like Saul Bellow, Grace Paley, and Philip Roth, she writes dialogue that seems to leap from the page and grab you by the shirt. She can be as funny as those masters, too, but otherwise Ozick goes her own way. She’s a challenging and cerebral writer intensely engaged with Jewish identity, history, and mythology.

Ozick’s first story was published in the journal Prairie Schooner in 1956. Her first collection, The Pagan Rabbi (1971), doesn’t reach back quite that far. Most of these seven longish stories were first published in periodicals between 1966 and 1971, with a concentration of activity at the turn of the decade. Her prose is always a delight, but among a couple of unqualified successes several stories seem slightly suffocated in the fusty air of their historical-mythological inspirations.

‘Envy, or Yiddish in America’ is the masterpiece of the collection. It recounts a point of crisis in the life of Hershele Edelshtein, a 67-year-old widower, an obscure poet, who doggedly, provincially, even quixotically equates Jewish culture almost exclusively with the Yiddish language. After forty years in America, he resents the “puerile, vicious, pitiable, ignorant, contemptible, above all stupid” younger American novelists defining Jewishness for the contemporary world. He reads them ravenously. Edelshtein has always been a provincial who never saw the great European capitals — “for him Western Civilization was a sore point,” Ozick writes with a particularly Bellovian cadence. Western Civilization is a “pod of muck.”

After the genocide of Europe’s Jews and the adoption of Hebrew in the new state of Israel, Yiddish literature is dying — “lost, murdered”. It is a loss unique to history:

Of what other language can it be said that it died a sudden and definite death, in a given decade, on a given piece of soil? Where are the speakers of Ancient Etruscan? Who was the last man to write a poem in Linear B? Attrition, assimilation. Death by mystery not gas.

Edelshtein contributes poems to his friend Baumzweig’s biannual Bitterer Yam (Bitter Sea), a Yiddish language journal that is forgotten and almost without subscribers, enduring only because of the philanthropic bequest of some long-dead laxative manufacturer. Poor Edelshtein earns a meagre living as a lecturer on the death of Yiddish literature to synagogues and community centres. Here we are on the pathetic fringe of the poetry world, and the Yiddish fringe at that — a double whammy of obscurity. Roberto Bolaño would have liked this milieu.

By now the only shot at writerly immortality — even writerly recognition — is English translation. The only translated Yiddish writer is Yankel Ostrover (clearly inspired by Isaac Bashevis Singer), the man who once cuckolded Edelstein. Ostrover is celebrated and feted by Americans for his stories of a fictional Polish shtetl. Edelshtein and Baumzweig, ageing Yiddishists, are united by their jealous hatred for a man they call ‘Pig’ for his white skin that appears like “a tissue of pale ham.”

Edelshtein writes to Ostrover’s New York publishers to attack their star author as well as beg for a translator. The publishers pass on the opportunity because “reputation must precede translation.” That smarts, and Edelshtein fires off a riposte to these “Jews without tongues.” Next Edelshtein tries to persuade some of Ostrover’s put-upon translators to take up his cause. One rejects him with a hilarious letter describing the thankless and ill-paid work of the translator. She writes of a gruelling session with Ostrover and his meddling wife as they struggle to come up with a more idiomatic word for ‘big.’ “We go through huge, vast, gigantic, enormous, gargantuan, monstrous, etc., etc., etc., and finally Ostrover says — by now it’s five hours later, my tonsils hurt, I can hardly stand — ‘all right, so let it be “big”. Simplicity above all.’”

Ozick must have had the inside dope on Singer’s methods. Lester Goran, one of Singer’s translators in the 1980s, told me how their work sessions would sometimes remind him of the fate of the man forced to read aloud to his captor in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’. “I often felt like I was being held prisoner by Isaac,” Lester told me. “We would finish up and I would be stunned. My ears would be ringing with boredom.”

Edelstein may be a mediocre poet with an inflated sense of self-worth, but to his credit he checks his self-pity. After all, what is his dilemma in the scheme of his people’s suffering? He carries the burden of survivor guilt. He is a man who has lost everything, including the eyes and ears of his people. His crisis turns ugly as he pursues a young Jewish woman who knows one of his poems. Will she translate for him?

Not all of the stories in The Pagan Rabbi unite Ozick’s cerebral exploration of Jewish life with such zest, humour, and moving tenderness. At times she jumps into the downright bizarre. Remember Alexander Portnoy’s exasperation at his parents’ extreme naivety, their scepticism that “there are women who are homosexual persons”? “Momma! Poppa!” Portnoy cries. “There are people who fuck chickens!” Well, in title story of her collection Ozick gives us a rabbi who fucks a tree. I am not sure how this subject could ever be the basis for anything but bawdy comedy, but Ozick plays it straight. Or maybe I just missed the joke. Obsessed with ‘free souls’, a rabbi goes madly pagan in a public park, copulating with a tree who appears to him as a dryad. She helps him separate his soul from his body and he hangs himself. The rabbi’s dense letter of romantic mythopoeic pedantry is quoted at length.

‘The Dock-Witch’ is another metamorphosis story about a woman emerging from wood — in this case the lyre-strumming figurehead on a ship’s prow. The narrator is a young man from Ohio, a former landlubber now living in New York. His provincial kin frequently pass through the city on their way to the port to take superficial European vacations. The man-destroying siren who hangs around the docks sets her sights on him.

The main character of ‘The Suitcase’, a very finely constructed short story, is Gottfried Hencke, a former WWI air force pilot for the Kaiser, a German long-resident in America. The setting is New York, Hencke’s son’s self-funded art exhibition. Gottfried Jr. has a rich and stupid gentile wife as well as a Jewish mistress, Genevieve. Hencke is at pains to insist he admires Genevieve even if she relentlessly provokes him with suggestions he is a Nazi sympathizer. He rejects any culpability for the Holocaust. He wasn’t there. “Who could be blamed for history?” he thinks. Hencke is haunted by the thought of his sister’s eleven year old daughter, killed by Allied bombing. But finally, desperate to prove his innocence in the surprise theft of Genevieve’s pocketbook, Hencke opens his suitcase and exposes his underwear, even though he has not even been accused of the crime.

Ozick has subsequently published another five collections of short stories. For some reason her Collected Stories, which rounds up everything to 2006, has only ever been published in the UK. In The Pagan Rabbi we meet a still-maturing writer, with one long novel already to her credit (Trust, 1966), sketching a preliminary map of what would become her terrain.

Edinburgh, November 2017

 

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Lester Goran: Wiseguy

LESTER GORAN: WISEGUY

Lester Goran? I’m going to steal one of Saul Bellow’s opening pitches:

Sure, I knew the guy. He was wonderful.

Lester was only an occasional writer of comic fiction, but that’s what I read first—one of the funny books. As a result, his big kindly grin in person didn’t surprise me at all. And yet, practically beatific as he drove me around Miami, Lester said he considered William Trevor and Joyce Carol Oates his two best living writers. Okay, LG, but not really wisecrackers. Worlds of grimness!

“Yeah, they play it pretty straight,” Lester said.

Lester had grown up poor in Pittsburgh and read the proletarian fiction of James T. Farrell (vintage grimness). Then he’d joined the army, gone to university on the GI Bill, written his thesis on Henry James. It was an unlikely identification—the underclass tenement kid and the aristocratic expatriate. “I was here and James was there…and yet we both saw the world very much the same way: greed, manipulation,” Lester told me. “His eye was so cold.” He didn’t think middle-class critics could grasp James’ writing about loneliness.

I figured he liked Chekhov, too.

“Oh, yes,” Lester said with reverence.

Now, I can’t think of a writer who doesn’t revere Chekhov, but with Lester Goran the influence seems unavoidable. The unsentimental compassion for the small and large tragedies of ordinary people, of lives blighted by loss or mere lost opportunities. What sustains Goran’s characters through the darkness is the hope of transcendence through acts of imagination, no matter how pathetic or bizarre or borderline crazy—a corset with magical properties; a romance with the ghost of an Episcopalian preacher; aiding and abetting ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd. For most of his writing life Goran bound himself to the honorable task of sketching the lives of humble Pittsburghers—the underclass of the Hill District (disguised as ‘Sobaski’s Stairway’) and the Irish working class of Oakland—restricting his prose to what he called the “earnest expression of the consciousness that my characters are capable of.”

He published nearly a dozen books in this mode. But let’s not forget the rare funny books—what Lester called his “wiseguy” comedies—which gave him a chance to display the dexterity of his prose and his considerable comic abilities.

I discovered one of these comedies by accident in a thrift shop in Sydney, Australia, in the early 2000s. (I think Lester liked the idea of his books scattered around the world from Australia to Iran, emissaries on patient standby.) The book was The Keeper of Secrets (1971). The price: $1. What stood out was not the author’s name—I’d never heard of this Lester Goran—but the Portnoyesque typeface on the plain off-white dust jacket. Its lurid swashes evoked the first Nixon administration and an oppositional attitude embodied not only by Philip Roth but by Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Leonard Michaels, J. P. Donleavy, Terry Southern, Robert Crumb, Frank Zappa, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Elliot Gould, Jack Nicholson, and the ghost of Lenny Bruce: liberated heterosexual mischief fuelled and given moral dignity by outrage at American injustice. Men collecting the late fee on overdue freedom in a frequently hilarious, masculine, virile, sweaty, occasionally misogynist Great American Fuck You.

Of course many books were sold with a Portnoyesque dust jacket around 1971. In the case of The Keeper of Secrets, I guess the designer recognised a few affinities—Jewish irony, a schlemiel with a roster of ex-wives, (slightly) bawdy comedy—and tried to hitch it to a passing mood. But it doesn’t really fit in.

The Keeper of Secrets is Shimen Groff, a mess of a human being but a Nobel Prize contender if only his epic long-in-progress novel, scattered in manuscript across the United States among ex-wives, can be collated and published. It’s the set-up for a road story and riotous farce. Goran freely moves between third and first person to distinguish Shimen’s ideal and actual selves. Ideally Shimen is “dapper, clean, resolute, entirely admirable”; in actuality Shimen proves a slob, unreliable, wilfully obscure, a betrayer—”a forest fire,” Lester told me. But we can hardly hate him. After all, we need novelists. Lester said he was interested in how “the writer draws the conclusions to all of the uncorrelated parts of experience that are moving in so many directions.”

The dust jacket for Goran’s earlier comedy The Candy Butcher’s Farewell (1964) is also a lazy period piece, illustrated in the style of a cheap morning cartoon like Roger Ramjet. Again it fails to communicate uniqueness.

I think Candy Butcher is his best novel, the one most deserving of rediscovery and republication. A ‘candy butcher’ is a seller of sweets at an Atlantic City burlesque house. The titular narrator is Henry Sneffer, Jr., plucky, hopeful, enthused—“Count me in!” is the novel’s first sentence. Henry is born to an absent father and a ‘nurse’ he calls Big Sister with whom he travels across the United States in the 1930s. When Big Sister dies Henry is sent to live with his Uncle Jonas and Aunt Alma in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. He eventually flees to Atlantic City after discovering that Jonas has committed arson at one of his slum properties and has no remorse about the death of a little black girl.

In Candy Butcher the pull between Goran’s ambitions—almost a question of loyalties—is explicitly referenced. Henry, a budding writer, says he “kept one of Uncle Jonas’ rent lists, thirty-six gray names, thinking I would one day write a story about every gray name behind every one of Uncle Jonas’s gray doors. I lost the names with a collection of Unknown Worlds and Amazing Stories, science fiction that Aunt Alma sent to a trash collector for the worth of the paper. I’m sure that, except in the aggregate, none of those 36 names would make anything but bad news as they hanged themselves or slashed with a razor their own image in someone else. They would probably have made…a failure of a book for any young writer dumb enough to try them.”

And yet in his future books Goran repeatedly came back to the gray names, risking novelistic failure for the greater cause of reimagining lost Pittsburgh. He wrote about the sort of people who not only rarely appear in novels, but rarely even register on the consciousness of society. He told me he wanted to return to the subject of burlesque in an altogether darker mode—a novel imagining the life of one of the Green River Killer’s victims. What astonished him was that “most of these women were so anonymous nobody even knew that they were gone.”

Goran greatly admired Bellow—the admiration was apparently reciprocated—but didn’t recognise what he called Bellow’s working class “Delphic expressionistic people” who toss arcane philosophical debates back-and-forth like baseball raps or tabloid gossip—wiseguy gab applied to the cosmic. For Bellow, living in a modern city like Chicago stirs and demands contemplation, prompts the Big Questions. His leading characters may be emotional disasters but they are all questing and curious—protagonists with a vengeance—and are surrounded by characters on the make, schemers for success, money, women. Perhaps Goran’s bravest act as a writer was to take his characters as he knew them from the streets of Pittsburgh—often paralyzed, wounded, bewildered, timid, or passive; people haunted by grief, guilt, fantasies, and visions. Sometimes Goran risked inscrutability by this act, his surrender to inwardly directed subjectivities. But damn the consequences—this was Lester’s universe.

As he wrote in the introduction to Tales from the Irish Club (1996):

“No one except a fiction writer would want to perpetuate a cast of all the unremembered delegates from an abandoned time.”

That said, I considered it great news when Lester resurrected his comic mode forty years after Keeper of Secrets in the sequel, Unnatural Expectations, and in a short story cycle about the ‘Air Man’ A. C. Laredo, based on the life of Goran’s immigrant father. I was honoured to be able to publish excerpts from both as-yet-unpublished manuscripts in my capacity as the editor of Contrappasso.

*

The Keeper of Secrets marked the end of Lester’s first period, an impressive run of six novels in a dozen years. Then there was a long silence of more than twenty years broken only by the indie appearance of the historical novel Mrs. Beautiful (1985) and his collaborative translations of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s late stories (I’m discounting the two paperback ‘saga’ novels Goran wrote for money). The intensity of Goran’s second period of publishing activity is extraordinary: five books published between 1994 and 1999. These are a memoir of Singer, the novel Bing Crosby’s Last Song, and three collections of short stories focusing on the denizens of Oakland’s Irish Club (a fourth collection was mooted but never appeared). Suddenly Goran, in his late sixties, had a critically-acclaimed corpus of fifty stories. His earlier novels entirely out of print, he was now best known as a short story writer. This was unusual because he hadn’t concentrated on stories in the past nor sold these ones individually to magazines and journals.

But bibliographies are misleading. Like any writer attempting maneuvers without ever having the good fortune of penning a bestseller, Goran’s published work—twelve books—is merely what he was able to smuggle out to the world as he moved from publisher to publisher. He enjoyed two brief periods of regular publication in a career of more than fifty years. I don’t believe he ever stopped writing. He told me his archives held many other manuscripts, including a novel that was supposed to be published following The Keeper of Secrets but was cancelled.

Although he surely promoted his work to agents and publishers when necessary, especially in the early days, it is difficult to imagine Lester as a hustler. That would indicate a need for outside affirmation. In the brief time I knew him, Lester seemed eminently self-sufficient, a modest man rather chuffed by where he’d found himself. He’d come a tremendous way from his slum youth, but he said the biggest leg of the journey was from the 5th to the 4th Ward of Pittsburgh. He never betrayed a sense of injustice that his work remained largely unknown.

He continued to teach and write into his mid-eighties. He confidently expected to follow his brother’s lead and live to a hundred. His emails to me as he worked on the Shimen Groff sequel and ‘Air Man’ communicated an undiminished glee in the simple act of writing—again, transcendence through imagination. Swapping reports of our respective novel writing, Lester wrote to me on February 16, 2012, in his standard telegrammic style:

“Revived work on Shimen mss., should be done well before 21st century ends. All very exciting. Fun like all hell. Happy to hear you are in throes of creation, all there is between artist and lunacy of the world. Best and thanks. LG.”

Buenos Aires, July 2014

Presented at ‘Goran’s Gifts: A Tribute to Creative Writing Professor Lester Goran’, University of Miami, 24 October 2014; Originally published in Mangrove (Fall 2014)