Friday, December 01, 2006

Daniel Fuchs

As I said in my first post the other day, I plan to address Jewish literary and cultural matters beyond poetry per se, so I observe with great pleasure that David R. Godine, having recently brought Charles Reznikoff back into print, is also reprinting the work of Daniel Fuchs. Fuchs (1909-1993), although highly praised by the likes of Alfred Kazin and John Updike, remains of the one most underread of Jewish American writers. Godine has just brought out what was previously known as The Williamsburg Trilogy under the title The Brooklyn Novels, with a new introduction by Jonathan Lethem. The three novels which make up this trilogy, Summer in Williamsburg (1934), Homage to Blenholt (1936), and Low Company (1937), present a panorama of post-immigration life in Jewish New York which in every way rivals Henry Roth's more famous Call It Sleep (1934). Like Roth's novel, Fuch's work was influenced by Joyce, especially the Joyce of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the first of the three books in particular follows the development of a young man, the child of immigrants, who aspires to be the chronicler of his Brooklyn neighborhood while simultaneously freeing himself from its poverty and provinciality. But Fuchs is a much funnier writer than Roth, and his vision of the life of the streets, though certainly quite dark, is less tragic and more absurd. Roth vanished into obscurity, only to emerge at the end of his life and publish his multi-volume Mercy of a Rude Stream. Fuchs, by contrast, broke up his next novel into short stories, sold them to popular magazines, and headed out to Hollywood where he became a successful screenwriter (he won an Oscar for the screenplay of "Love Me or Leave Me"). Godine published The Golden West: Hollywood Stories last year; it includes Fuchs' last novel, West of the Rockies (1971).

There is a passage in Summer in Williamsburg which has always served as a touchstone for me in regard to the ways in which Jewish-American writers have negotiated the problems of assimilation and the loss of religious traditions under the social and cultural conditions of modernity. Replete with mock Yiddish and Hebrew, it is a lengthy description and ironic homage to
...these mysterious men in their black, shiny caftans, in their skull caps, these old men who come together in the evenings to play tick-tack-toe with the great Talmud, itself brought down miraculously through the centuries. In our time we must admire and respect this fervor, this tradition. They are true heroes in a world of puppets and therefore we do not understand them. These old men who find synagogues in a tenement basement store with the terrible toilets facing the back yards. These old men nodding over the yellow, holy-odored volumes, arguing in a straight line of tradition that extends over the world in width, in depth to the earliest times, in length to God himself. What dimensions, what awful dimensions, what wonderful men as they spit generously on the dirty floor.
This passage deserves some Talmudic exegesis of its own. As Walter Benjamin might say, it is a perfect instance of cultural transmission as catastrophe. Fuch's comedy depends upon a disquieting blend of the familiar and the alien, of the heimish and the remote. Something Jewish is being passed from older to younger generation, and the means of transmission, as is traditional in Jewish culture, is the Book. But what is certainly not being passed on is Talmudic wisdom, but instead the bittersweet knowledge of its loss, as seen from the perspective of a young, Americanized generation, already a bit nostalgic for a way of life it knows very well yet cannot call its own. The text that is the vehicle of this experience is no longer the religious tome but the resolutely secular modern novel. The novel exposes the world of "synagogues in a tenement basement store with the terrible toilets facing the back yards." But in doing so, it reveals itself as one of the "puppets" of modernity, and if it is any way heroic, its heroism lies in its powers of self-deflation.

This is early Fuchs; later, that ironic power of self-deflation will become more completely Americanized. He migrates from Jewish college boys and old talmudists, to Jewish gangsters and pimps, to Jewish agents and producers. By the time he writes about the Hollywood studio system, he will move brilliantly between the registers of the cynic and the moralist, leaving the line of tradition he describes above almost completely behind. He never quite comes to see Hollywood in the apocalyptic terms one finds in West's The Day of the Locust. He was very much a part of the industry for a long time, but he could cast a cold eye upon it as a novelist, and, I think, as a secular Jew. Sometimes he seems to be dancing around the Golden Calf. But the next instant, he's smashing it to bits.

No comments: