The Marginally Jewish Reader: Nathanael West

By Ken Gordon

Published December 23, 2009, issue of January 01, 2010.
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Once upon a time, David Mamet picked up Abraham Cahan’s “The Imported Bridegroom,” and in the course of perusing the book, he later wrote, “I discovered in myself the racial type of the lapsed Talmudist.” The first time I read of Mamet’s discovery, in the preface to the playwright’s “Writing in Restaurants,” I cheered. I wanted to be a lapsed Talmudist, too. Not that I really knew from Talmudists (I know Talmud the way Bart Simpson knows of long division), and I was uncomfortable with Mamet’s “racial” talk, but his “lapsed Talmudist” sounded considerably better than “ignorant secular Jew” or amorets, as they say in the mameloshn.

Truth is, my method is Talmudic. When I read, I ask myself, and the text in hand, endless questions, questions that often engage with the various texts I’ve read over the years. This hypertextual mess sometimes clogs up the margins of my books and slows down my writing, particularly when I want to speak clearly to a general audience, as I often do as editor of JBooks.com. The one time I actually addressed Mamet’s phenomenon was in an essay for the journal Sh’ma, titled “On Being a Marginally Jewish Reader.”

Turns out, I’m not alone here. Literary critic Adam Kirsch recently wrote in Tablet magazine that “when the American Jewish critic sits at the table and examines a text,” he follows the example of the authentic Talmudists. Kirsch then asks, “Yet how can a commentator be said to belong to a tradition that, in fact, he does not possess?” It’s a damned good question, and one I hope to address here.

Over the course of this series, I will apply this type of reading to something other than my own work. The columns will consider material from or referred to by Josh Lambert’s “American Jewish Fiction.” Lambert was the editor of JBooks.com before I was, and often contributed to our site over the years, so he and I have a lot to talk about. This first installment concerns novelist Nathanael West. So, let the conversation begin.

Ken Gordon is the editor of JBooks.com.


24 — Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust
By Nathanael West
LIVERIGHT, 1933. 213 PAGES.
RANDOMHOUSE, 1939. 238 PAGES.

“Men have always fought their misery with dreams. Although dreams were once powerful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio and newspapers. Among many betrayals, this one is the worst.” So muses Miss Lonelyhearts, and the sentiment could stand as the motto for both of these exquisite short novels. More powerfully perhaps than any other artist, Nathanael West argued through his fiction that imagination and fantasy had been commoditized and debased by the mass media (what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer would later call the “culture industry”) and that people have consequently been stripped of their sympathies for one another. And just think: West never even saw television. Imagine how he would have felt about that.

West’s novels manage to be hilariously funny while remaining resolutely grim, in part due to his genius for stark and shocking violence and uncompromising exaggerations. The setup for Miss Lonelyhearts sounds like a hoot, but it turns into a nightmare: a young intellectual man takes a job, as a joke, as a newspaper’s advice columnist. Soon, though, “the joke begins to escape him”; the letters he receives “are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice … inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering.” He hears from the ill and the abused, and he has no idea what advice to offer. The one answer that works reliably—Jesus—he’s not thrilled with, being a nonbeliever himself. The Day of the Locust, meanwhile, takes on the mother of all dream-devouring industries: Hollywood. Tod Hackett, an artist wasting his talents as a scene painter, is the focal consciousness through which the excesses and revulsions of La-La Land are observed. That prostitutes figure into this critique shouldn’t surprise anyone, but the raw violence against animals—quails getting their heads snapped off, a cockfight in which two birds tear each other to bloody pieces—ups the ante in terms of disaffection. The disorienting scene in which Tod strolls through a studio lot, passing in a few minutes lifelike sets of deserts and Paris and Greek temples and Napoleon’s Waterloo, the trappings of which will end up sooner or later on a garbage heap, is postmodernism avant la lettre and a gorgeously self-contained exposition of how 20th-century culture grinds up all that is fine and grand from the past in its inexorable and insatiable jaws.

What does any of this have to do with the Jews? Quite a lot, actually. For one thing, West, the son of immigrants from Russia, was born Nathan Weinstein (he changed his name, legally, at the age of 23); it’s up for debate as to how West’s Jewishness inflected his literary perspective. For another thing, though, both before and after West’s time, Jews have been highly involved in both newspaper advice columns—not just the prominent Ann Landers, Dear Abby, and Dr. Joyce Brothers, but also Abraham Cahan, who penned the famed “Bintel Brief”advice column in the Yiddish Forward —and, of course, in the movies (for the story of Jews in early Hollywood, see Neal Gabler’s history, An Empire of Their Own, published in 1989). In his short career—he died at the age of 37, having produced little enough fiction that it can all fit comfortably in a single volume— West took seriously the ways that the technological and cultural shifts of the 20th century changed the way we think and feel, and though his vision was unremittingly bleak, it has for that precise reason remained distressingly relevant for American Jews and for everyone else who lives in a media-saturated world.

Further reading: Jay Martin’s biography, Nathanael West: The Art of His Life (1970), unearths the story behind the author’s career, while Critical Essays on Nathanael West (1994), edited by Ben Siegel, gathers dozens of varied responses to the published works. In several essays, including Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Leslie Fiedler also offers exemplary readings of West’s work. The grotesque dark comedy West refined became much more prevalent in the decades following his death; Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, and Flannery O’Connor are three major authors who in different ways owe stylistic debts to West.


It’s worth noting that this short novel features a character named Homer Simpson (played by Donald Sutherland in the 1975 film). It’s not the only time a work of pop culture has shoplifted a character’s name from a serious work of literature: “The Producers”’ Leo Bloom had a literary ancestor in the Leopold Bloom of “Ulysses.” But then, so what, everything’s fair game in postmodern cultural appropriation. Lambert is right to link Tod’s stroll through the movie-studio to the 20th-century’s appropriative relationship to the past. In that scene, West out-Jamesons Frederic Jameson, long before FJ’s 1991 “Postmod-ernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.”

For those of you keeping score at home: Tod is the German word for “death” (see, for instance, Paul Celan’s famed “Todesfuge” or, for the monoglots out there: “Death Fugue”) and Hackett seems to be an interfaith marriage between Beckett, as in the peerless modernist author, and “hack,” which is a word we might well apply to a Hollywood sellout like Tod. The conflict of self-loathing and artistic ambition is, they tell me, rather common in Hollywood, and West, who did his time there, would know.

Some of the most accomplished players in our major aesthetic arenas have changed their names. Bob Dylan. Woody Allen. Susan Sontag. Three names known to all cultured people, three self-chosen sobriquets. Now a case could be made that Dylan is really Robert Zimmerman (that Allen is Allen Konigsberg and Sontag was Susan Rosenblatt), though I can’t imagine anyone seriously entertaining such an argument. The pen names of our arts-and-letters triumvirate have been uttered too often, by too many people, to be usurped by their birth names.

In West, Jewishness is subtext or invisible. But compare his novels to the Coen brothers’ “Barton Fink” — which surely never would have been possible without West — and how much undisguised Jewishness is squeezed in there. Think of “Lebowski,” and now think of “A Serious Man.” Notice how, with “A Serious Man,” the Coens no longer need to smuggle in Judaism as a joke. The movies ain’t what they used to be, Jew-wise.

To many Jews the word “dream” immediately recalls Herzl’s “If you will it, it is no dream.” Of course, some Jews may know the line only from Walter Sobchak in “The Big Lebowski.” But some know it from both Herzl and the Coen brothers. A brilliant Jewish critic recently wrote me an e-mail joking about being, in the words of Walter S., “shomer [f—-g] Shabbos….” The fact that a very serious Zionist critic, who happens to be religious as well (though she admits to using the phone on Shabbos), would quote Sobchak says a lot about how high and low mix in Jewish culture.

This suggests that he’s Jewish (i.e., a “nonbeliever” in Jesus = Jew) when it seems that Miss Lonelyhearts doesn’t exactly buy into, let alone discuss, traditional Jewish beliefs.

The school of Leslie Fiedler calls West “an even more egregious example of Jewish Christolatry” than J.D. Salinger, who has a very famous short story about prayer that runs, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Fiedler says that West “made no attempt to hide his own mythological identification and that of his characters with the self-proclaimed Jewish messiah rejected by his own people.” This is countered by the school of Harold Bloom, which says that West is “a significant episode in the long and tormented history of Jewish Gnosticism.” He adds that Gershom Scholem’s essay, “Redemption Through Sin,” is “the best commentary I know upon ‘Miss Lonelyhearts.’ I once attempted to convey this to Scholem, who shrugged West off, quite properly from Scholem’s viewpoint, when I remarked to him that West was manifestly a Jewish antisemite, and admitted that there were no allusions to Jewish esotericism or Kabbalah in his works.” This fascinating and weird reading is capped off with the following Bloomian remark: “It is a melancholy paradox that West, who did not wish to be Jewish in any way at all, remains the most indisputably Jewish writer yet to appear in America, a judgment at once aesthetic and moral.” Your head can’t help but agree with Fiedler’s sense that West is a wannabe Christian, but your heart must admire Bloom’s interpretive chutzpah.


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