Max Aue, narrator of Littell’s new novel — translated from the book’s original French, in which it received the Goncourt award — is a former Nazi officer. His phrase “ordinary men” recalls the seminal 1993 book “Ordinary Men” by historian Christopher Browning. In it, Browning argued that men in the German police killed Jews not “because they were devils, but because they were humans,” motivated not necessarily by antisemitism, but by peer pressure and career concerns. (Browning writes in his preface, striking a similar chord to Aue: “The policemen in the battalion who carried out the massacres and deportations were human beings. I must recognize that in the same situation, I could have been either a killer or an evader….”)
Here’s an obvious statement: The doctrine of divine election is central to the identity of the Jewish people. What’s less obvious is that the concept of the “Chosen People” — and thus the identity — is less static than one might think. How the Jews feel about being chosen is often inversely related to communal security: The worse life is for them, the more they take consolation in exceptionalism. The doctrine itself has been modified in relation to Judaism’s daughter religions, which claim that their divine election supersedes that of the Jews. More recently it’s been further complicated by relativism, the somewhat paradoxical idea that no religion or culture is better than any other — to the point where many Jews reject the concept of divine election, or at least downplay its chauvinism.
One of the great Russian writers of the 20th century, Isaac Babel was born in Odessa to middle-class Jewish parents in 1894. In his classic “Red Cavalry,” he writes about how he rode with Cossacks in their Polish campaign; and in his comic Odessa stories, he depicts the Damon Runyon-like Jewish gangsters of Odessa’s Moldavanka neighborhood. A protégé of Maxim Gorki, who always protected him, Babel was arrested a few years after Gorki’s death in 1936 and killed by Stalin’s secret police in 1940. This is the first English translation of this short story.
Readers who last encountered Amos Oz in “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” his elegiac and often somber memoir, may be taken aback by the literary sleight of hand he performs in this highly entertaining short novel. Though nearly plotless, and ostensibly a work of postmodern metafiction, “Rhyming Life & Death” never taxes the reader’s patience. Based on a story that Oz published decades ago (“The Author Meets His Readers”), the narrative encompasses a single night in 1980s Tel Aviv. Much of it takes place in the consciousness of a figure known simply as “The Author,” who, while giving a presentation about his new book, finds himself preoccupied with such matters as the peculiar nature of the cult of the author, the imagined lives of the strangers attending his event and the unsettling lust stirred within him by a young waitress earlier that evening.
In her new novel, the British-born and, for the past 20 years, New York-based novelist and cultural critic Zoë Heller (her last novel, “Notes on a Scandal” (2003 was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in England and made into a popular film starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett) casts a shrewd, satiric eye on the Litvinoffs, a dysfunctional, fiercely secular Jewish family shaped by the crucible of the 1960s, devout in its professed “religion” of social justice, unswerving in its embrace of radical politics.
If the charge of fiction is to tell a story that reveals the mysteries of human behavior, Ira Sher is writing for all the right reasons. His second novel, “Singer,” is a book damp with the sadness and confusion of middle-aged men waking up to the muddle they’ve made of their lives.
There is still hope for the novel. In a climate increasingly hostile to fiction that does not adhere to the conservative parameters set by the publishing industry, some writers continue to work according to their own lights. Gabriel Josipovici is remarkable for producing novels that belong to the modern European tradition of Kafka and Proust, yet he writes not in German or French, but in English — and, more remarkably still, out of an English setting.
Finding out exactly how many daughters the famous fictional dairyman Tevye actually has might be a tricky business, but no more so than seeking to discover how many English translations of “Tevye der Milhiker” are available today.