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Jews, Have Pity!

A Perfect Peace

by Amos Oz, translated by Hillel Halkin
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, 374 pp., $16.95

Women and Angels

by Harold Brodkey
Jewish Publication Society, 157 pp., $30.00

The true hero of A Perfect Peace—something which, we shall be unsurprised to hear, doesn’t exist—is a kibbutz, Kibbutz Granot, populated largely by ex-Russians and ex-Poles, and looking “as if it had been built out of blocks by an intelligent child.” The problems arising in this “place-in-progress” are listed in documentary fashion: the youth (or native-born) problem, the elderly (or settler) problem, the Arab problem, the Diaspora problem, the housing problem, the soil and water problem, the sex problem. Given the principled insistence on personal freedom, the last-named problem is unlikely to find a communal solution; it is where the elderly problem (those horrid old godfathers hugging power to themselves) overlaps with the youth problem (those long-haired feinshmeckers hooked on “murderous Negro sex music” and what old Yolek jeeringly calls “self-fulshmillment”).

The inhabitants of Kibbutz Granot—and of Amos Oz’s most engaging novel to date—are such as to make the place look like an intellectually up-market mad-house: either preternaturally loquacious, even oratorical, or abnormally taciturn, racked by violent passions or gnawed at by inward anguishes. The whole land, Major Chupka comments, is swarming with freaks. This is Old Testament country, as well as a modern national home; Gilead is not exactly theirs nor is Moab their washpot, and the troops of Midian prowl around, crossing the border to sabotage their water pumps.

What makes this state of affairs understandable to the outside reader is a modest effort of the imagination. What most alleviates and invites is the occasional touch of charming and apposite humor, conflating past and present. An Arab youth on trial in Haifa for peeping at a woman undressing in a Jewish quarter cites in fluent Hebrew the precedent of King David and Bathsheba, and is let off with an admiring caution. A man with a Hungarian accent is caught in the act of thieving and relapses into the bad old days, crying out in Yiddish as a policeman approaches, “Gevalt! Jews, have pity! Gevalt!” A Jewish businessman threatens to starve himself to death outside the Tel Aviv city hall unless the ex-communication of “the late philosopher” Baruch Spinoza lifted.

It is the winter of 1965, a winter between wars. Yolek’s son, Yonatan, wants to leave the kibbutz where he was born and raised, to get right out of the country; he feels that his life is passing fruitlessly by in a smoke-filled room clamorous with tedious argument. It’s not that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, though this wouldn’t be surprising when you live in a desert. Simply, Yonatan’s father is an old fighter, formerly a cabinet minister, and his mother, Hava, is an aggressive, excitable woman, bursting with character, and he isn’t allowed a life of his own. “Nobody is public property,” or the property of his parents, his wife, his kibbutz, his country, even. Yonatan is sure that his life is somewhere else, waiting for him to come and lead it.

Just as he wants out, so Azariah, a wandering child of the Holocaust, wants in; for him the kibbutz is a place of joy and community, where “people still relate to each other,” and justice resides. He is, he confesses, useless, but “even the broken clock is right twice a day.” A pedant and a bull-shitter, and yet oddly charismatic, rattling on in platitudes and rhyming proverbs (supposedly Russian), Azariah is splendid, a creature from Dickens by way of Dostoevsky. In between abusing himself as a fink and a liar, he plans to “blaze new trails and demolish old shibboleths,” first taking over Kibbutz Granot and eventually running the whole country.

That Azariah should arrive just as Yonatan is about to leave must look like blatant engineering, yet—as “the late philosopher” declared—what strikes us as pure coincidence can often be destiny. During the interval while Yonatan is plucking up heart, or heartlessness, to clear out, Azariah joins him and his wife, Rimona, a childless, frigid, and apparently imbecilic young woman, to form a remedial ménage à trois. He is disbelieved when he invokes Spinoza on the confusion of cause and effect, and rightly claims that Yonatan didn’t go away because he moved in but Yonatan moved him in because Yonatan was going away. Hava agitates to have him expelled, but for one thing he has turned out to be a pretty good mechanic, something the community badly needed.

Attention is diverted from him when a violent and farcical row breaks out among the village elders, a repercussion of the sins of their youth and a prefigurement of the future. Is Yolek truly the father of Yonatan, or was it Benya Trotsky, the lovesick student from Kharkov who wrote poems to Hava and ran away twenty-six years ago, shortly before she gave birth? Mr. Benjamin Trotsky is now a hotel tycoon in Miami Beach, eager to reclaim his hypothetical son and make him heir to an estate which, in cash, is worth ten or twenty kibbutzim. It can well be that Yonatan—if still alive—is on his way to the States. “Does Trotsky have the family jewel? Yes or no?” Yolek roars at the unfortunate emissary, who has arrived with a return ticket to Miami in Hava’s name. Kibbutz Granot prepares to fight Mr. Trotsky all the way.

Yonatan has gone abroad, though not to the States. He crosses the Jordanian border in the direction of Petra, meeting with strange, not to say freakish, adventures on the way. In one of the book’s several schmaltzy patches, overwritten (I would guess) rather than overtranslated, he discovers the pleasures of uninhibited sex: “Your name is Woman,’ he said to her, in his basso profundo, ‘and mine is Man.’… Woman he said woman I never knew that a woman could be like this.” Major Chupka spots him far afield and returns him briskly to the kibbutz (“Okay. I’m back”), where he finds his barren wife with child—by which of the two men is a matter of no particular concern—and smelling now not of bitter almonds but of ripe pears.

Yet the most admirable, the most touching of Oz’s portraits is Srulik, the music man, sexless and self-disparaging, a stolid German living uneasily among high-strung Slavs, outstanding in being one of the few people around who are not much larger than life. Without compassion, he muses, vision and imagination turn cannibalistic. There will always be pain in the world, but we should do our best to reduce it, “even if slightly, even if for a time.” When Yolek slips into senility, Srulik is elected kibbutz secretary and, despite his fear and trembling, proves an efficient one. In his gentle way he emerges as the near-saint we had suspected him of being. It is he who conveys a balanced and rhetoric-free view, a view we may take as the author’s own, of the kibbutz movement and of the country of Israel. “To some extent we have truly made better people of ourselves.”

Amos Oz must be his country’s most persuasive spokesman to the outside world, the literary part of it at least. Harold Brodkey surmises that Jewish sacredness is “the highest level of transcendence yet reached,” and Women and Angels is published in a series of books “planned to stimulate the definition and growth of Jewish culture in America.” To what extent he is representative of Jewishness is a question beyond my capacity.

But not, I would venture, beyond Leon Wieseltier’s. In a sensitive essay printed in The New Republic* he comments that the first two of these “parts of a larger work nearing completion” are “nasty revisions of the most platitudinous of all premises of American Jewish fiction, the son’s trouble with the mother (in this instance, with the foster mother, too).” While agreeing that the pieces are chiefly impressive in establishing Brodkey as “an unpleasant man immensely alive”—though isn’t “immensely” too big a word?—I would think that they are more boring than nasty. In “Ceil” the narrator, Wiley (because it recalls his original name, Isaac) Silenowicz, talks about his real mother, a Russian Jew who died when he was two. With the help of his adoptive mother, Lila, and other witnesses, he draws a picture of her which, for all its heaped-on concrete details, remains abstract. The daughter of a reputedly wonder-working rabbi, she was both regal and peasantlike, or gypsyish, or like a Red Indian; exotic, not Jewish-exotic but Tatar-exotic, “Byzantine, Saracen”; bookish, good at arithmetic; obstinate, a genius at business; honest, but a good liar; a good sleeper; she liked Garbo; she could live on cabbage or on air; she was sure of herself, and had a cruel laugh. In some respects, though not all, she resembled the poet Mandelstam; albeit he was “considerably more civilized,” they were “deathful and lifeful in similar ways.”

Actions speak louder than statements, and enactments more forcefully than descriptions. There is little evidence here of a specifically novelistic gift; much of it reads like an extended obituary produced by a team of more than usually fanciful computers. “Oh, you don’t have any grip on what she was like,” Lila tells Wiley. But it is not his fault that his real mother died before he could know her. The second piece suggests that it was his adoptive mother’s fault that she went on living throughout Wiley’s adolescence. Neither she nor S.L., his adoptive father, was kind to him in “the essential ways”; at times he didn’t think they were so bad, at times he did; at least S.L. had the grace to go away and die without fuss. Poor Wiley could never do right in Lila’s eyes:

It upset her to see high spirits in me or a long face; and a neutral look made her think I’d forgotten her predicament; she hated any reference to sports, but she also hated it if I wasn’t athletic—it reflected on her if I was a Momma’s boy.

(That’s the Jewish mother for you, especially when she is dying slowly and painfully of cancer.) Lila demands the love she is too ugly and sick (and too demanding) to inspire. When Wiley tells her that unselfishness and generosity and concern for others will ease her pain, it is no great wonder that she should scream and throw an ashtray at him. “Her temper astounded me. Where did she get the strength for such temper when she was so ill?” In a moment of what resembles self-understanding, he concludes that “the I is what in you most hurts other people—it makes them lonely”; but he doesn’t take the thought to heart, it is merely “an untrained exercise of intellect.”

Toward the end Wiley changes tack and assures Lila of her kindness, bravery, and selflessness, of the many sacrifices she has made on his behalf. “Of course it was a swindle all the way,” yet it worked: she became patient, even-tempered, almost gentle. This affords some relief, however ambiguous. Otherwise it seems to me chiefly the syntax that might almost persuade us, rightly or wrongly, of the writing’s profundity:

She was like a creature without a shell and without claws and so on—she was rather a soft person—and she sort of with her mind or mother-wit made a shell and claws, and needed, and wanted, and pursued people, men and women, who would be part of her—of her equipment—who would care about her and outfit her and help her. She fawned on such people to get them to like her until she felt, correctly or paranoiacally, that they didn’t care about her, that they had failed her; then she would assail them behind their back for practice and when the scurrility was polished she’d deliver it to their faces.

This is followed, rather disarmingly, by: “It seemed hot and airless even to begin to work on imagining what it was like to be my mother.” I don’t find the tale as sadistic as does Wieseltier; it is the grinding egotism of the narrator that is hard to take. It reads like another of those books about people’s mothers, by no means exclusively Jewish ones, in which old grudges are worked off in new bouts of self-pity—books that are fashionable in these graceless and unashamed days when a measure of fame can be achieved through judicious defaming.

The third piece turns to the “Angels” of the book’s title. “Today The Angel of Silence and of Inspiration (toward Truth) appeared to a number of us passing by on the walk in front of Harvard Hall—this was a little after three o’clock—today is October twenty-fifth, nineteen-hundred-and-fifty-one.” Wieseltier is correct in saying that it takes courage to write about God, if that is what Brodkey is doing. But I am not convinced he is right when he says that nothing in the first two pieces prepares us for this third. Much has prepared us. The Angel is subjected to the same cool and simultaneously overheated inspection, from this angle and from that, as were Ceil and Lila. And it is still the beholder who counts for more than the beheld.

And yet there are things to admire in “Angel.” An impressive passage—“The New Figure was white indeed; but the white of all the colors, as if it were dressed in prisms”—ushers in a long string of ponderous capitals—“The Figure had no Great Light or Clarity at first or Clear Dimension or Knowable Perspective”—in the archaic manner of William Blake, who also saw an angel. And this was preceded by quaintly demotic talk of “the sloppy Armageddons of fucking with girls.” The style is often what the first pieces prepared us for. Not being a Christian, Wiley feels no right of immediate access to the Divine as it took human form and suffered accordingly:

Nor do I think prayer is answered by Figures who just as a man being hanged or a woman in childbirth or being fucked is so entirely available to our usages of eyes and thoughts and physical action if we so desire, if we are not prevented, so was Divinity on the cross and is still as Suffering Mother or Father or Son or Wisdom.

But elsewhere there occur truly epiphanic moments: “It was dressed in nothing but indefinability,” and “It was glumly radiant inside a spreading bell of altered light, not the light of a dream, the light of thought.” The style can rise to a new sinewiness and sinuousness as multibranching sentences interweave with one another to progressive and good effect. That the account is highly abstract is, we take it, inevitable, in the nature of angelic things. The witness cannot well be blamed if he is preoccupied with his responses, his own state of mind, and “I wanted suddenly to be like It” is a licit, decent desire. But in “God in this form faced me” we sense the stress waiting for the final word; and it needs a saint to stand very much of the self-indulgent playfulness, the self-regarding exegesis in Brodkey’s narrative.

I was given nothing and I was given everything, I was not tested, I was too much tested…. I was not the most just or good or the most obstinate or the most sly (or sly at all in Its eyes, Its view) among those who were present or was but it was not known.

Sheer Otherness” though it may be, the Angel is “Very Sexual,” and toward the end of the manifestation, which lasts for about one hour, Wiley has an erection. (His ego was erect throughout.) I suppose we could read this as a conventional metaphor of mystics, the carnal standing for the divine, but in our time it seems unaccountably otiose in an angel to induce erections. The magazine racks can do that for us.

Yet these touches of what Wieseltier calls “incomprehensible vulgarity” are almost endearing. Finally—and even though we should be hard pressed to know what the Angel could or ought to have said or done—the disappointment is that It said and did nothing. “It was just flattery to believe The Superhuman would bother with us”—but never mind such unaccustomed modesty, It had bothered to show Itself, or someone had bothered to show It. Yet the apparition is no more than gazed at and drunk in, as a painting is scrutinized by a connoisseur in a gallery.

Wieseltier interprets Women and Angels as a sign and a portent in that here at last is a contemporary American writer who “insists on metaphysics, on the possibility of spiritual incident in the city.” However, Wieseltier’s answer to the question posed earlier is that Jewishness matters little to Brodkey’s literature and Brodkey’s literature matters little to Jewishness. Oz’s Jewishness, Israeliness rather, seems to me genuine and natural, conscientious but as little self-conscious as these things can be in this highly conscious world of ours, as unarguable as the landscapes he pictures with such intimacy. In comparison, Brodkey’s Jewishness, if that is what it is, strikes me as operatic, staged, a matter deliberately chosen rather than enforced.

These two books strengthened a queasy feeling I experienced when reading Isaac Bashevis Singer’s recently assembled memoirs, Love and Exile. The man traveled, he met lots of people, he led a full life, a life rich in those coincidences that are destined—and yet there was never a single gentile in sight. Are gentiles dying out? Or diminished to the lowly status of hostages and go-betweens in a world increasingly managed by others? I was amused, initially, by a review of The Oxford Book of Death in The Jerusalem Post which complained that the goyim were vastly overrepresented in its contents. They do die, the reviewer admitted, “though not nearly as often as Jews.” Could it possibly be that they don’t live as often, either?

Letters

On ‘Women and Angels’ January 30, 1986

  1. *

    May 20, 1985.

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