Author Archives: Allegra Goodman

Fiction and Museums

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Earlier this week, Allegra Goodman wrote about being a world artist and writing “Jewish” fiction. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.

Some people do their best thinking in the shower. I do some of my best thinking in museums. I feel at peace surrounded by paintings. In libraries or book stores I can’t help but read like a writer. I can’t prevent the what ifs and the oh but I’d do that differently response. In a museum I’m an enthusiast. Since I’m not a visual artist, I’m more easily dazzled.

Last year I visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts with two friends, a painter and an art historian. (It sounds like a joke, doesn’t it? A rabbi, a priest and a minister walk into a bar…) The three of us had a lively discussion of the merits of various paintings in the Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto exhibition.
“Look at that brushwork,” said the painter as we gazed at one portrait.

“But there are issues with the larger composition,” said the art historian.

I startled them with my own criterion for a good portrait. “It works if the eyes follow you as you cross the room.”

Wandering through galleries takes me away from the page and into a world of color. I like to think about the problems and possibilities of visual representation: the way Van Gogh uses the color green. The way Degas reveals the weight and clumsiness of ballet dancers even as they aspire to grace. The way Auerbach builds up layers of paint on his canvases so that his studies become palimpsests and also excavations. When I look at paintings I think about the way artists capture the world and how they develop character. I also think about economy in art. Writers and painters have this in common: the right detail can tell a whole story. Think of the eyes in Rembrandt’s self portraits: insouciant in the early paintings and then so dark, weary and knowing later on. Consider Ralph’s dying words to Isabel in Portrait of a Lady. Velasquez’s Venus and the turn of her neck. William Carlos Williams’ celebration of smallness and specificity: “so much depends / upon / a red wheel /barrow.” God is in the details, and the artist’s hand in every line.

Allegra Goodman has been blogging for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series. Her new novel, The Cookbook Collector, is available for pre-order. Find her on Facebook and her website.

Posted on July 2, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

World Artists

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On Monday, Allegra Goodman wrote about writing “Jewish” fiction. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.

Albert Einstein famously declared himself a citizen of the world. As an artist I’d like to do the same. That doesn’t mean masking the particulars of my experience or my heritage—it means communicating them more broadly. The artists I admire most are world artists. They thrive on this sort of communication. Let me give you some examples.

Composer Osvaldo Golijov is a Jew who grew up in Argentina, studied in Israel and settled in the United States. His work layers South American rhythms, klezmer riffs, sacred chant, classical and popular genres. You can hear a cantorial wail in the clarinet part of “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” and you can hear kaddish in his “Pasion segun san Marcos” along with a rocking Venezuelan choir, drumming, rigorous fugue and carnival. Golijov weaves all these threads together to create a new music greater than the sum of its parts.

Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Japan but works in England. His diverse work includes Remains of the Day, a novel about an English butler on the eve of World War II, and Never Let Me Go, a dystopian novel about a group of children schooled to sacrifice themselves for society. His fiction is both English and Japanese, treating themes of conformity, self-sacrifice, the ideal of honor, and the price of reticence.

My colleague at Boston University, Ha Jin, is a Chinese poet and novelist writing in English. He has not visited China in many years, and he has not lived in America for very long, but he uses this to his advantage, writing about both China and America from an outsider’s perspective. Ha Jin turns the experience of the stranger in a strange land into a central motif in A Free Life. His work is a profound meditation on defamiliarization—moving from one language to another, from one culture to another. From country to city in Waiting, from immigration to naturalization in A Free Life. Worlds conquer worlds. Individuals discover the possibilities and the costs of reinvention.

All of these artists use cultural difference as a medium. They layer specific themes and idioms with tremendous subtlety and confidence. It’s not a new way to work, but it seems to me an exciting way. Begin with what you are. Use what you know, and your art will speak to more people. As James Joyce wrote in Switzerland many years ago: “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”

Allegra Goodman’s new novel, The Cookbook Collector, is available for pre-order. Find her on Facebook and her website, and come back all week to read her posts for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.

Posted on June 30, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Writing “Jewish” Fiction

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Allegra Goodman’s new novel, The Cookbook Collector, will be released next week. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.

Jewish literature means different things to different people. It can mean writing by a Jewish author, writing about Jewish culture, writing about Jews, or writing about Judaism as a religion.

I don’t always write about Jewish people, but I am always a Jewish author. I don’t always treat Judaism either as culture or as religion, but sometimes I do—notably in my first novel, Kaaterskill Falls (1998), which is about a community of Orthodox Jews who summer in upstate New York.

When Kaaterskill Falls came out, some readers assumed that my own religious beliefs paralleled those of the protagonist, the pious and imaginative Elizabeth Shulman. This was flattering to me, because I loved the character. However, I am her author, not her sister. I did not infuse Elizabeth with my own hopes and fears, nor did I share her history. Readers asked: What is it like to write about your religious beliefs? Again, I was flattered by the question. I was creating a character with her own religious beliefs.

People assume that writing is self expression, and to some extent they are right. The tricky part is that fiction writers express themselves by displacing their experiences, transposing their beliefs, coding their feelings. A novel is closer to dream than memoir. Therefore, while my work is deeply personal, it is not autobiographical. That’s what makes my job so satisfying. I am not Elizabeth Shulman, the Orthodox mother of five, any more than I’m Sharon Spiegelman, the bohemian seeker in my second novel, Paradise Park (2001).

Indeed, I think of those novels as part of a larger project—a kind of “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience” in which I explore the spiritual lives of two very different Jewish women in America. Elizabeth lives a highly structured life, and longs for autonomy. Sharon lives in a wilderness of choice, and longs for structure and guidance. My relationship to these characters? I’m both and neither.

As an artist I take religion as a rich subject. I’m fascinated by belief, by ritual, by the way that people define themselves and search for meaning. Religion is but one of my subjects, however.

My third novel, Intuition (2006), is about a group of cancer researchers. None is particularly religious. The Jews among them are quite assimilated. This is a novel about belief and doubt, about trust, about generational tension, about ritual and tradition—but I write of belief and doubt as powerful forces in scientific investigation, about trust within an intellectual community, about generational tension, ritual and tradition inside a laboratory. Intuition is a book about science and also a book about the soul.

My new novel, The Cookbook Collector, is a novel about identity, particularly buried Jewish identity. It is also a novel about technology and its discontents. It’s a book about the longing
for authenticity in a virtual world, about trust and betrayal and the need to connect. Most striking, The Cookbook Collector is about the displacement of desire.

I’m fascinated by the way we read cookbooks instead of cooking, collect material things instead of living, pursue fame and fortune instead of loving. I ask — what happens when we wake up? What happens when we declare, as Orlando does in As You Like It — “I can live no longer by thinking”? This is a human question. In the end, dreams and thoughts can’t substitute for real life. It’s a modern question. Our virtual connections and our cyber world can’t substitute for face to face conversation. And it’s a Jewish question. Jews are often  tagged “the people of the book,” but Judaism is a religion in which actions speak louder than words. For me, writing Jewish fiction means enjoying these multiple valences.

I don’t see “Jewish-American” or “Jewish woman” or “Jewish artist” as either/or propositions. Nor do I view Judaism narrowly as culture or religion or ethnicity. As an artist I think of Judaism as an additive rather than exclusive quality. Perhaps you can tell from this that I am the daughter of a Jewish philosopher!

Allegra Goodman’s new novel, The Cookbook Collector, is available for pre-order. Find her on Facebook and her website, and come back all week to read her posts for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.

Posted on June 28, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy