The New New-world Voice

A Generation of Writers From the Former Soviet Union Is Poised To Inherit the Throne

By Donald Weber

Published June 04, 2004, issue of June 04, 2004.

Twenty-seven years ago, Irving Howe offered a sad prediction — now labeled by literary scholars the “Howe Doctrine” — about the fate of Jewish American creative expression. In the Kaddish-like introduction to his 1977 anthology of Jewish American short stories, Howe argued that “the post-immigrant Jewish experience” was exhausted, “its usability for the making of fictions” virtually over. In response to the apparent success of “Americanization” — the embrace of New World ideals by the children and grandchildren of immigrants — Howe lamented, “Does that experience go deep enough into the lives of the younger, ‘Americanized’ Jews? Does it form the very marrow of their being? Does it provide images of conflict, memories of exaltation and suffering, such as enable the creating of stories?”

To judge from the emergence of what might be called a “new” immigrant literature, the “Howe Doctrine” now appears, ironically, to have been quite accurate — indeed prophetic. The stunning emergence of young authors from the former Soviet Union, like Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar, suggests that we are witnessing a “return” to those core themes that have shaped Jewish writing from the beginning: above all, the ordeal of uprooted families in transition, struggling to fathom an often bewildering new world.

And it is not merely a return but an apparent revival, and its newest practitioner graces the scene this month. With the publication of the much-anticipated “Natasha and Other Stories,” the 31-year-old Toronto-based writer and documentary filmmaker David Bezmozgis, who immigrated to Canada in 1980 with his family from their native Riga, Latvia, revisits the “old immigrant narrative” in strikingly new ways.

The “buzz” around Bezmozgis’s fiction started approximately a year ago, when his stories began appearing in The New Yorker, Harper’s and other major literary magazines in a flurry of simultaneous publication. The wait has indeed been worth it. Virtually all the stories in “Natasha” — narrated in chronological sequence by the protagonist, Mark Berman, from childhood until, we gather, his late teens — are brilliantly realized explorations of a range of emotions experienced by immigrant families undergoing the dislocations and disorientations of migration: longing and loss, shame and rage, desire and betrayal. This stunning debut collection announces Bezmozgis as a major literary talent, a writer in apparent dialogue with the core themes of Jewish literature.

Bezmozgis’s collection likely will be compared to Shteyngart’s award-winning “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” (2002), an exuberant, mischievous satire on (among other things) spoiled ex-pat Americans playing in the capitals of Eastern Europe, and Vapnyar’s “There Are Jews in My House” (2003), especially her great story, “Mistress,” a distilled immigrant family drama about the sweet relationship between a grandfather and grandson, both strangely speechless in the New World. Yet for the most part, the tales in “There Are Jews in My House” explore a complex emotional world beating beneath the drab surfaces of life in Russia before any imagined New World journey.

These inevitable comparisons, however, may overlook Bezmozgis’s truly profound evocation, in “Natasha,” of

Jewish families haunted by memories of Soviet-controlled Riga, yet seeking some connection to a long-severed Jewish past. Unlike the antic energy of “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” the stories in “Natasha” are more subdued, inviting us to read beyond gesture, to deeper levels of (Jewish) feeling, allowing us to overhear the more intimate accents of immigrant experience. Rather than embracing a mythic world of promise in the American tradition of immigrant striving, the Family Berman huddles together in a country without equivalent cosmic expectations. Yet they are compelled to grasp any shred of “connection” in the desperate hope of realizing their dream of moving up in the world.

At the same time, Bezmozgis also may be compared to the masters of an earlier generation. Among the works that “Natasha” evokes are “Call it Sleep” (1934), Henry Roth’s harrowing coming-of-age immigrant novel, and Philip Roth’s still wicked, dead-on portrait of American Jews in transition from urban shtetl to self-satisfied leafy suburb, “Goodbye, Columbus” (1959). But unlike, say, Henry Roth’s violent, paranoid Albert Shearl, a tormented father bent by humiliation, taking out his rage by savagely beating his son, Bezmozgis’s fictional father, Roman Berman, manages to survive his New World indignities through strength of character and unconditional love for his family. By contrast, it is the son, Mark, seething with class resentment, who reacts in rage against the world. “I kept to myself, glowered in the hallways, and, with the right kind of provocation, punched people in the face,” Mark confesses in “An Animal to the Memory,” an unsettling story about Jewish identity and the Holocaust. “Congratulations,” his friends offer, unimpressed with Mark’s brash stance, “you’re the toughest kid in Hebrew school.”

Despite Mark’s tough-guy persona and the chafing distance he feels, at times, from the narrow world that has shaped him, the bounded immigrant landscape exerts an enormous claim upon the narrator’s soul. A supremely self-conscious son, Mark accepts his (default) status as the family’s translator, playing the part of good Jewish boy to help his father, who dreams of launching his own massage therapy business in an English-speaking city where he has little linguistic facility and virtually no “connections.”

In the wrenching story, “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist,” the father seeks “to improve his chances” by bringing Mark along to meet a local rabbi, hoping that the presence of his bright Canadian Jewish son, able to speak rudimentary Hebrew and sing “Jerusalem of Gold,” somehow will help the father realize his dreams. “Seated across the table from the rabbi,” Mark painfully observes, “my father wrestled language and dignity to express need. I sat silently beside him, looking appropriately forlorn. I was sufficiently aware of our predicament to feel the various permutations of shame: shame for my father, shame for my shame, and even shame for the rabbi, who seemed to be a decent guy.”

Of course, scenes of filial shame may be found throughout immigrant expression, Jewish and non-Jewish. But rather than flight or separation — the memorable response to filial shame in works by Anzia Yezierska, Isaac Rosenfeld and Irving Howe, among earlier writers — what distinguishes Bezmozgis’s Mark is his profound empathy, his desire to see past the father’s humiliation.

As the comic quest for “connections” unfolds, the Bermans find themselves hosted by an orthopedist’s family, parvenus who have invited the greenhorns in bad faith, in order to hear tear-jerking testimony from real-live “refuseniks” about the execrable fate of Jews living in the oppressive Soviet Union. “If it wasn’t too personal,” Dr. Kornblum said, “we wanted to know how bad it really was.” Grasping at any opportunity, “My mother hesitated a moment and then admitted that we had not been refuseniks. She knew some refuseniks, and we were almost refuseniks, but we were not refuseniks.”

Such rich comic moments, born of desperation, fill this story about a family’s doomed effort to impress the hypocritical Jewish bourgeoisie. (“With feigned confidence we strode up the Kornblums’ nicely trimmed walk: three refugees and a warm apple cake.”) In the end, the son is witness to another scene of humiliating exposure, another kind of self-indulgent use by the shady Kornblums. Caught massaging Mrs. Kornblum’s neck in the master bathroom (“She said it was wonderful, my father was a magician, if only she could bottle his hands and sell them”), the father sits helplessly on the bed, beneath “a large family portrait taken for Kornblum’s daughter’s bat mitzvah,” struggling to explain: “He said, ‘Tell me, what am I supposed to do?’ Then he got up, took my hand, and we went back downstairs.”

For Bezmozgis, there are no easy responses to the father’s embarrassment. What are helpless fathers supposed to do in order to achieve a life, a livelihood, in an unforgiving new world? In “Natasha,” achieving dignity involves an altered way of perceiving, really of feeling the world, of approaching what might be called a secular version of rachmones, or compassion.

Indeed, this compassion takes many forms in Bezmozgis’s stories, perhaps most clearly in the powerful final story, “Minyan.” If the unsavory Kornblums offer only false compassion, spilling liberal tears over the indignities of Soviet Jews, in “Minyan” an older Mark Berman gains a lesson in Jewish mercy through the example of the older generation, now retired in rent-controlled, high-rise comfort. “Minyan” chronicles the subterranean intrigue involved with maintaining a minyan of 10 Jewish men for the building’s basement synagogue. Potential renters have to go through the elderly Zalman, the synagogue’s gabbai, who has the ear of the building’s manager, and convince him of their spiritual commitment. Charged with gathering 10 Jews for services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, Zalman alone has the power to decide someone’s residential fate.

In relating this story, Mark confesses a powerful connection to the world of his widowed grandfather, who already lives in the building: “Most of the old Jews came because they were drawn by the nostalgia for ancient cadences, I came because I was drawn by the nostalgia for old Jews. In each case, the motivation was not tradition but history.” This is a grandson’s nostalgia for his grandfather’s nostalgia.

And at the end of “Natasha,” it is Zalman’s voice — the voice of Jewish compassion — that takes over, indeed takes on the moral authority of the tribe:

Let me tell you, I am not a stupid man… my job is to have 10 Jewish men. Good, bad, it doesn’t matter. Ten Jewish men. Only God can judge good from bad. Here the only question is Jew or not… . My concern is 10 Jewish men. If you want 10 Jewish saints, good luck. You want to know what will happen to Herschel? This. They should know I don’t put a Jew who comes to synagogue in the street. Homosexuals, murderers, liars, and thieves — I take them all. Without them we would never have a minyan.

Bezmozgis clearly identifies with, indeed loves, this subterranean world of Jewish outcasts, in the tradition of Isaac Babel’s Benya Krik and other Odessa tough Jews. He also loves his grandfathers (real and fictional) and sees them as the living embodiment of Jewish history. But what does it mean to be a Jewish son (or grandson) in the fiercely loving world of the Bermans, disoriented and unsettled in their Canadian exile? For Bezmozgis, the answer would seem to be in performing acts of memory and compassion as a way of salving the pain of new-world indignity. In this respect, the brilliant stories collected in “Natasha” situate the author within a tradition of Jewish writing, from Babel and Malamud to Bezmozgis’s acknowledged literary mentor, the late Leonard Michaels. Michaels once wrote that he sought a creative realm where “meaning and feeling could walk on the earth,” and Bezmozgis seems to share this quest with him. In this respect, the linked stories of “Natasha” amount to an act of filial faith keeping, in the Jewish literary grain.



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