Like Woody Allen, I can remember a childhood when being Jewish caused me a certain deep unease, partly because of the shadow caused by the Holocaust and partly because of the anti-Semitism of some public school teachers. My parents whispered when they spoke Yiddish and even when using the word “Jew.” As I write Allen’s biography, I continue to be astonished at how boldly Jewish he has been in his films from the start, even constantly invoking his feelings about the Holocaust. And perhaps that is why a younger Jewish generation, more removed from those anxieties and memories, takes this aspect of him so casually and even may regard it as just an aspect of his neurotic comic persona.
The reality is that this candor was—and continues to be—revolutionary, just as ground-breaking as Allen’s other writing and comedic gifts, which burst upon the scene in the 1960s and have remained as astoundingly fresh and revelatory today as they were then. (Allen had good company in Lennie Bruce, Nichols and May, Mort Sahl and Shelley Berman.) Allen’s work has deepened with the years, just as its Jewish content has continued to grow and unearth windows into his soul—but nowhere more so than in his most avowedly Jewish film, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), in which his Orthodox Jewish past was treated (despite Allen’s religious skepticism) with a certain reverence and love. Sometimes that reverence is expressed with comedy, as with the compassionate but luckless subject of Broadway Danny Rose; but who can doubt not only the affectionate Jewish show-business ambiance of this heartfelt film but also the haunting words of simple wisdom that Danny ascribes to his Uncle Sid about how to conduct a moral life: “Acceptance, forgiveness, love.” (Words which are repeated twice, first by Danny/Woody and later by Tina/Mia.) A love for Israel has recently been expressed by Allen in his statement of support last October in the Jerusalem Post. Speaking of the double standard applied in the barrage of criticism of Israel, he said:
“I do feel there are many people that disguise their negative feelings toward Jews, disguise it as anti-Israel criticism, when in fact what they really mean is that they don’t like Jews.” Continue reading
Stephen Dixon is, in my opinion, the best and most overlooked American Jewish fiction writer in the country. If I left out “Jewish,” he would still be the best. He has just published his 32nd book, a novel entitled His Wife Leaves Him, which is partly based on the death of his own beloved wife. Like Philip Roth,Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Beller, Jennifer Belle, Jonathan Lethem,Bruce Jay Friedman, and such predecessors as Saul Bellow,Henry Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Daniel Fuchs, Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, and Wallace Markfield, Dixon’s Jewishness is not an orthodox or institutional one, but simply a fact that informs and haunts much of his work. It is hard to understand Dixon’s obscurity; he’s a two-time National Book Award finalist and has won four O. Henry Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award. In 1994 the Boston Globe wrote that “It will take writers twenty years to catch up with what Stephen Dixon is doing.”
His output is mind-boggling: in addition to his novels, he has published hundreds of stories and is completing a new book, Late Stories, with hundreds more. Nevertheless, Dixon is not about quantity or longevity. Dixon is about freshness and quality. Among his gifts—which include narrative inventiveness without a trace of pretension or convolution, a hilarious sense of humor, and a memory that seems to evoke every single thing that has ever happened to him—he writes the most moving and lasting love stories I have ever read. Among them are his immortal story Sleep, in which the narrator imagines, with infinite pain and loss, the death of his wife.
And now we have in His Wife Leaves Him, perhaps the most complete love story ever written in the history of American letters. And it too is a story told in the face of death. Martin’s wife, still young, is diagnosed with a degenerative disease that, over the years, is unrelentingly cruel and ultimately fatal. I am certain that American literature has never created a husband who gives of himself so deeply, so fully, taking care of his wife even to the point of physical exhaustion. And it is a story told without false sentimentality or embellishment, which renders it all the more touching and believable.
Martin Samuels, the protagonist, has spent the first forty years of his life bumbling about—as a bartender, actor, reporter, wanderer in Paris, but always a dedicated writer—in search of a true love.
When he encounters Gwen, he finds everything he has been looking for: a truly beautiful, gentle but strong woman of exquisite kindness, sensitivity and literary sensibility, a person of the highest moral standards who shares his values and passions and is ready to start the family he has been yearning for.
She is a translator of the Russian literature he reveres, with a profound knowledge of the literature of the Gulag, Nazism and the inspiration of the Soviet Jewry movement. And she is Jewish, not a small matter to him. Gwen says, “Though I’m by no means a religious or observant Jew—at most, I’ll buy a box of egg matzos for Passover, though I’ll continue to eat bread and rice over the holiday—my Jewish identity is very strong and important to me because of my family history. In fact, the reason I’ve never been seriously involved with Gentile men since high school, or really only one and not for long, is because I never felt they could understand my experience of growing up as the daughter of Holocaust survivors.”
Although he is Jewish, he has not dated a Jewish woman seriously before. “That’s why I said before,” he tells her, “that I was glad you were Jewish. Fact is, for want of a better word this moment—maybe because I am so thrilled—I’m thrilled.” Everything about Gwen fills Martin with gratitude, and it will be a procreative life filled with their children, beautiful environments (Maine, Riverside Drive) and a passionate immersion in creative work—work they both engage in. Martin cries at his own wedding. His mother says, “It shows how sensitive you are and how much she means to you. I’m only saying I never saw or heard of any groom doing it before, and I’ve been to plenty of weddings. I can just imagine how you’ll react when your first baby comes out and you’re in the room.” This kind of dialogue, affectionate, funny and sad, richly steeped in a lived history, is totally representative of Dixon.
The novel is a summing up of the totality of a marriage, its incredible joys, epiphanies, smoldering sensuality, tenderness and moments of frustrated rage as Martin is engulfed, in the later stage of the marriage, in an endless round, night and day, of ministering to Gwen in her terrifying decline. And Dixon summons Gwen back to life unforgettably through her dialogue, and we see a precious person, a brilliant character, rendered real and palpable.
It’s hard to believe that Dixon’s encyclopedic memory has left a single thing out of this account of an extraordinary marriage. Dixon manages it not only through memory, but with a particularly intimate, vulnerable style of writing, a writing of deep feeling in which nothing is held back, even though it is artfully shaped and the ordinary details and tedium of life are transmuted by a master novelist. Dixon is an obsessed writer (great ones usually are) but he is not solipsistic; his work encompasses everyone he encounters and paints with vivid colors. He blankets the reader with specifics, but specifics so unique and compelling that they have universality. His work will stand as a penetrating record of what a man’s love for a woman can be, and what it means to be a humane, sensitive, flawed, passionate participant in life in our time.
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The reissuing of my novel about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Red Love, as an e-book this month is a joyful moment for me. When the book came out, the Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz, a month before she died, wrote that “This is a novel that represents life and is true to history, combining imagination with the documentary record, written with bite and black humor, tempered by compassion for the betrayed sacrifices, the lives lost.” Elie Wiesel wrote that my book has “fascinating events and amazing perception.”
I remember as a small boy in Queens how the sky seemed to darken for me when I heard of the Rosenbergs’ execution. It was an event I could not get out of my memory. Soon I would be drawn to the American Communist Party. I felt a kinship for these well-read, cultured and passionate souls who yearned for a kinder, more compassionate world. As I learned more about Stalin’s crimes and anti-Semitism, it was inconceivable to me that these people who I so admired, who had so much humanity and love for their fellow man, revered a system that even Nikita Khrushchev admitted in 1956 was bathed in the blood of tens of millions of people. The USSR allied itself with Hitler during the Hitler-Stalin pact, murdered millions in the Gulag, destroyed Jewish life in the Soviet Union and murdered the major writers and artists who comprised the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Yet I came to understand that for these American true believers, the Soviet Union had once symbolized paradise, where there were no such things as anti-Semitism, economic exploitation, poverty and racism. The contradiction between the sincere goodness of the people I met in the Communist Party and the justifications they presented for a totalitarian regime became for me a personal and professional puzzle to resolve. Continue reading