Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe
The Schmooze

Chabon and Alter: Is it Esprit d’escalier or Trepverter?

Robert Alter discussed “tough Jews” with Michael Chabon on March 18 as part of the Berkeley Seminars in Modern Jewish Culture Lecture, but there seemed to be a gap in the Jewishness.

Alter, the Berkeley professor and great critic of Jewish writing, interviewed the Pulitzer Prize-winning Chabon and asked about the author’s exuberant style, the inspiration for Chabon’s novel, “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” (his counter-historical novel of a Yiddish homeland in Alaska that the Coen brothers are reportedly filming) and other topics that those who have been following Chabon’s career — and that seemed to be just about all of the 200 or so attendees — had probably heard before.

But one expression spoke volumes about the writers of Jewish literature today, and what cultural touchstones they reach for most naturally.

Chabon said that one of the pleasure of writing novels was the chance to speak in voices other than his own, to impersonate, and also that unlike in real life there is time to think-up the perfect rejoinder to a comment. The characters will wait for the novelist to formulate a response. But in life, those perfect comebacks arrive as esprit d’escalier, staircase wit, words that come too late, when you’ve already left the room.

Saul Bellow used another word for the phenomenon in his 1964 novel Herzog. Herzog was reminded of his “long-dead mother,” who referred to such moments with the Yiddish word trepverter.

Even in 1964, Bellow felt it was incorrect for Herzog himself to use trepverter unselfconsciously, but Herzog could quote it as part of his Jewish experience. Today, such a usable Jewish past has almost completely receded into oblivion, and Jewish writers reach for French to extend expression, not Yiddish.

Chabon is not to blame, but it is an open question whether such writers can produce Jewish literature.

Engage

  • Events

    Haart to Haart

    Virtual

    Dec 7, 2022

    7 pm ET · 

    A conversation with Julia Haart and her son Shlomo, stars of Netflix's 'My Unorthodox Life,' about the new season and much more.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.