In the months preceding its publication, Jean Hanff Korelitzâ€™s Admission received more than its share of tabloid-style hype, all of which focused on, letâ€™s say, the nonfiction aspect of the novel: the glimpse Korelitz offers of the Ivy League admissions process, a subject of rabid fascination for the American middle class.
In fact, while the novel is very much about that process — it follows a Princeton admissions officer through one application season — itâ€™s really a sort of latter-day Victorian novel, a thick, satisfying page-turner in the vein of Eliot or perhaps Hardy, with a lovely, maddening heroine at its center. That heroine, 38-year-old Portia Nathan — the admissions officer in question — finds her carefully constructed life begins to unravel during the very months when she must read through thousands of undergraduate essays.
Portia is Jewish, but her ethnicity (for she is deeply secular and somewhat self-consciously assimilated) doesnâ€™t truly come into play until the novelâ€™s third section, a flashback to her college years at Dartmouth, when she finds herself slightly alienated from her prep school peers. Raised by a radical feminist mother in Northampton, Portia isnâ€™t quite your typical Dartmouth student, and at first she falls in with the campusâ€™ tiny Bohemian fringe. The group is led by Rebecca Marrow, â€œa flower of Ashkenazi frizz in a sea of limp WASP coiffure,â€ who runs a salon of sorts in her cinderblock dorm room, serving smoked salmon and French wine to the poets and actors and other refugees from the Greek scene.
But Portia has, perversely, been nursing a crush on Tom Stadley, a handsome jock and (of course) member of the schoolâ€™s most conservative fraternity, whose mother is rumored to be a rabid anti-Semiteâ€”and who himself, according to Rebecca, has a â€œthing for Jewish girls.â€ Midway through their sophomore year, Tom turns his attention to Portia, asking her at the start of their courtship, â€œYouâ€™re Jewish, right?â€ Recalling Rebeccaâ€™s offhand comment about Tomâ€™s romantic inclinations, lovesick Portia knows that she should simply answer â€˜yes,â€™ for this is, strictly speaking, the truth.
And yet she pauses, â€œturning [the] question in her addled brain,â€ thinking over the varying ways in which she could answers, the various truths available to her: that she is an atheist, that she cannot speak Hebrew, that she never knew her father and he actually might not be or have been Jewish. â€œHer religious upbringing was limited to the brass menorah Susannah had produced one year when she was small, lit two nights running and abandonedâ€¦on the mantelpiece, and also to Susannahâ€™s brief flirtation with feminist seders.â€¦.â€
Her musings, in short, perfectly define the peculiar situation of the secular American Jew, complete with her slight discomfortâ€”a discomfort she canâ€™t quite articulateâ€”that in answering â€œyes,â€ as she finally does, sheâ€™s somehow admitting to a whole host of stereotypes and clichÃ©s, somehow turning herself into an object. And yet this, for the moment, is what she wantsâ€”to be the object of Tomâ€™s affection, no matter if heâ€™s drawn to her because of misplaced ideas about sensual, passionate Jewesses.
Here in the U.S., Margaret Drabbleâ€™s novels are nowhere near as widely read as those of her older sister, A.S. Byatt, perhaps because they, to a one, seek to explore — or, perhaps, “interrogate” might be a better word — contemporary British society, in rather the way Philip Roth probes the uncomfortable corners of the American psyche. I lived in London in the mid-1990s — and suffered through a weird and surprising bout of anti-Semitism, which somehow did little to harm my love for the city — and, thus, Iâ€™m particularly attached to her 1996 novel, The Witch of Exmoor, a comedy of manners set in and around London during the period of my sojourn there.
The novel is told in bold, masterful strokes — including a bossy, Forster-like narrator (â€œBegin on a summer evening,â€ she instructs at the novelâ€™s start. â€œLet them have everything that is pleasantâ€). The story concerns a trio of grown British siblings, the daughters of a famous feminist writer whoâ€™s gone slightly mad in her old age, who take up residence in a gloomy old hotel by the sea and obsessing over her allegedly-Viking ancestry. While her son, Daniel, has chosen a cheerful British bourgeois for a mate — who happily tends to the garden of her country home, while ignoring the mounting evidence of her sonâ€™s crack addiction — her two daughters have â€œmarried out.â€ Grace, the elder, has wed a handsome Guyanese politician, David Dâ€™Anger, a self-designated emblem of and spokesperson for the New Britain. Rosemary, the youngest, has claimed Nathan Herz, who is, of course, Jewish.
Drabbleâ€™s agenda, in assigning her characters these most multicultural of spouses, is purposefully transparent: This is a novel about the evolving fabric of British society, in which — contrary to popular mythology — a David Dâ€™Anger or a Nathan Herz can be as perfectly English as a Daniel Palmer, and in which the days of the Daniel Palmers wielding all the power (all the seats in Parliament) are decidedly over.
But rather than a happy melting pot, the England of Drabbleâ€™s novel is a land of eternal outsiders, each more alienated than the next, which is precisely what makes Nathan Herz such a surprising, thrilling, and attractive character. Raised poor in East Finchley, now a wealthy ad man with a sleek, modern flat in the newly fashionable East End (the area his grandparents â€œworked day and nightâ€ to flee) Nathan is ostensibly more of an outsider than any of the others, including his Guyanese brother-in-law, and yet it is he who has the ease and self-possession to scoff at the silly scuffles and pretensions of his adopted family and, in the larger sense, his fellow countrymen.
While his brother-in-law (who appears, at the novelâ€™s start, to be a heroic figure) talks a good game about social justice, ultimately itâ€™s Nathan who truly sees the British class structure clearly. It is he who sees through his sister-in-lawâ€™s absurd preoccupation with her garden. Her roses, tellingly, smell like death to him, â€œa rotting, fecal, fungal smell. The smellâ€¦of old England.â€ It is Nathan alone who has no sentimental attachment to that old England, Nathan who is able to enjoy the prosperous and comparatively inclusive age in which he lives.
In the next installment: Jean Hanff Korelitzâ€™s portrait of assimilation.
In her last blog, Joanna Smith Rakoff wrote about how, in her own way, Jane Austen wrote about being an undercover Jewish writer.
Laurie Colwin was, in a way, a sort of heir to Austenâ€™s charms, even if her novels are the opposite of marriage plots: Her female characters struggle endlessly with the confines and meaning of contemporary marriage (contemporary, that is, circa the 1970s and 1980s; Colwin died, at 48, in 1992). Many, if not most, of her characters are Jewish, but none more interestingly so than those in Family Happiness, her most fully-realized novel and a sort of gloss on (or rebuke of) Madame Bovary, a novel about a happily married matron, Polly Solo-Miller Demarest, involved in an ongoing affair with a depressive painter. Who happens, of course, to be Jewish, though you mightnâ€™t guess it if you hadnâ€™t been told on the very first page.
The Solo-Millers are one of those old Jewish families — settled in New York even before the German banking dynasties, like the Schiffs and the Warburgs — â€œmore identifiably old American than Jewishâ€ with vast, dark uptown apartments, and summer houses in Maine, and traditions as labyrinthine and ingrained as any prep school. On Sundays, Polly and her brothers gather around their parentsâ€™ stolid dining room table for smoked salmon on toast pointsâ€”definitely not bagels, that Oestjuden [Eastern Jewish] delight — and subtle chiding from their mother, who has so instilled in Polly her rigid ideas about womenâ€™s deportment and obligations that poor Polly almost has a breakdown, at one point, when sheâ€™s forced to go grocery shopping on a Sunday.
Polly is a wonderful character, struggling, all too humanly, not to understand but to suppress her conflicting desires for â€œcomfort, orderâ€ — and danger and provocation. Colwin by no means ruminates on Pollyâ€™s Jewishness — or that of her family. But for me Colwinâ€™s lack of chatter about exactly how and why the Solo-Millers are Jewish is precisely what makes them familiar and comprehensible as Jews: They exist in a milieu so thoroughly and completely Jewish that their identity (or religion) never comes into question.
It is simply woven into the fabric of their beings, as it is for so many American Jews. For Polly, her affair with the decidedly not-Jewish Lincoln, whose values and temperament are almost the opposite of those of everyone else in her life (everyone else being Jewish, of course), serves as a sort of questioning of her world, a pressing at its confines. In a way, the deeply iconoclastic decision she makes toward the novelâ€™s end — Iâ€™m going to try not to reveal it –serves as a metaphor for the sometimes uneasy, sometimes happy manner in which secular American Jews live sort of parallel lives, at once both fully American and fully Jewish (even if they donâ€™t necessarily think of it that way).
In the next installment: Margaret Drabbleâ€™s pitch-perfect depiction of multicultural mid-1990s London.
Some years ago, when I was a doctoral student in English literature, my more conservative-minded peers sometimes made fun of the critics who practiced a more theory-based form of analysis — the followers of Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, and, in this case, the movement known as “New Historicism” — by saying, with a sarcastic roll of the eye, something to the effect of, â€œRight, and in not commenting on the French Revolution, Jane Austen is really commenting on the French Revolution.â€ Titters would ensue.
They were referring, of course, to the famous lack of historical context in Austenâ€™s much-loved novels, and to the critic Warren Robertsâ€™ then-famous (or, in some circles, infamous) book on the subject, Jane Austen and the French Revolution. Roberts set out to prove that Austen was not just a frippery writer of proto-chick-lit novels about shabby genteel young ladies in search of husbands, but a politically- and culturally-engaged chronicler of the major events of her day, who very much had the French and American Revolutions on her mind while writing Mansfield Park.
As a scholar, I was on the old-fashioned side and, thus, happy to simply read Austenâ€™s novels for pleasure, rather than scrutinizing dialogue for coded ideas about the Napoleonic Wars — which may well be why I dropped out of said doctoral program and began writing my own marriage plots. But, though I laughed along with my classmates whenever that French Revolution comment was uttered, I was secretly attracted to the idea that a writerâ€™s silence on a subject might say as much as her explicit exploration of a subject.
And so it was that years later, when I took a job as books editor of the Jewish culture magazine Nextbook (now Tablet), that I found myself drawn to fiction that was less than straightforward in its approach to Jewish ideas or, more often, identity. It was easy to discuss the Jewish content of, say, The Counterlife or Bee Season. What interested me more — and still interests me — were the ways in which, for instance, a characterâ€™s Jewishness comes into play in a novel (or story) that doesnâ€™t necessarily center on things Jewish.
Thus, over the next three days, Iâ€™ll be looking at a few favorite characters from such fiction, characters who, to my mind, say as much about the state of Anglo-American Judaism (in the cultural, if not the religious sense) as those in more explicitly and obviously Jewish fiction, characters from a few novels of recent decades: Laurie Colwinâ€™s Family Happiness, Margaret Drabbleâ€™s The Witch of Exmoor, and Jean Hanff Korelitzâ€™s Admission.
Joanna Smith Rakoff’s new book, A Fortunate Age, is available now. She’ll be blogging all week right here.