In My Father’s Closet: Considering the Jewish Novel, Saul Bellow, and Bruce Bauman




STREWN AT THE BOTTOM of my father’s closet in the guest room of our neocolonial tract house was a wide selection of paperback novels. My father always returned home to Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, a small, grassy middle-class suburb, with his small blue vinyl suitcase teeming with the bestsellers of the day picked up in airports as he traveled the world, attending astrophysics conferences, observing from telescopes in far-flung places — such as atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii — or from NASA airplanes in suborbital space. This veritable library of his was not limited to elite works of literature, historical novels, or mid-list titles as they were called then. Notable soft porn titles appeared among what was then defined as breakout literature by Jews.

My father moved out of the bedroom he shared with my mother when I was 13 years old. It was 1978. Their union, like many ill-fated marriages waited for the kids, and would not dissolve until I had graduated from high school, my younger brother in his senior year. In the interim as my father’s work took him to California more routinely, I began availing myself of the contents of his closet, in an attempt perhaps to bond more closely with a man whose attention I both rejected and yearned for in equal measure.

I trusted my English father’s taste. Early on he had introduced me to the joys of satire, waxing on about the talented cast of Saturday Night Live when they first appeared on NBC in 1975 — the minimalist comedy and hilarious pratfalls of Chevy Chase, the Gerald Ford impersonations, Weekend Update and the News for the Hard of Hearing. Not permitted to watch television after 8:00 p.m., I managed to sneak in episodes, hiding in the stairwell, waiting for that rare occasion when I would be permitted to join my father, and share in his amusement.

My father and I were born on the same day, April 18. As young as five, I remember badgering him from the back seat of his red Rover for answers on all conceivable topics — “But why Daddy? Why? Why?” Ignoring my endless inquiries, he drove on in silence. Our shared birthday did not translate into the same proclivity for long unrestrained conversation. Later on, I tried gaining my father’s attention by engaging him in passionate reviews of football, a sport he routinely tuned into on weekends. Positioned before our small black-and-white TV, in a beige velour bucket swivel chair, my father watched on half-asleep. “Daddy?” I would ask, hoping to cheer on a favored team. “Which team to do you want to win? The black team or the white team?” Sharing in an emotional identification with my father was a vain hope. “It doesn’t matter,” he would mutter, as he napped between long stints at Bell Labs, where he worked on superconductivity and the detection of the cosmic background radiation of the Big Bang.

As the years passed, work took my father to California and Hawaii more and more. Determined to keep tabs on my elusive parent, desperate to keep the maelstrom of my mother’s undiagnosed psychosis at bay, I turned to his books. Bored over long summer breaks, I stayed awake through the night, reading: Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, the long historical novels and agit-prop of Leon Uris, Armageddon and Exodus and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk surfaced along with Kurt Vonnegut’s satiric novels Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Jailbird. Reading these wry, fantastical books, I was assured of some common ground when my father returned home for a week or more. Among my favorite reading were the “entertainments” and “novels” as Dad called them, by Graham Greene: The Quiet American, Travels with My Aunt, The Power and the Glory, Our Man in Havana.

There was a nasty shock delivered through a hasty introduction to Philip Roth’s parodic and wildly sexual breakout novel Portnoy’s Complaint. Inexperienced in the matters of sex and subtext, I mistook the protagonist’s fiction for fact. Midway through the book, hyper-neurotic Alexander Portnoy describes to his mother his fears of getting the clap, and the subsequent physiological effects. Too young to know better, I took the grotesque description of genital dismemberment to be a literal one. Having never encountered a fully naked adult male, I felt overcome by panic and immediately shut the book. Gleaning such details in my father’s bedroom only made matters worse. Browsing this brightly covered book, I felt like I had encountered my father in a state of psychic undress.

Like Portnoy, my father may also have partaken in the new wildness promulgated by the Great Male Novelists of the day. This was a wildness that had heretofore been reserved for WASPs but was now finding its place in the fiction of Jewish writers, namely Roth and Saul Bellow. “On all levels, the Jew is in the process of being mythicized into the representative American,” remarked Leslie A. Fiedler of Saul Bellow’s appearance on the literary scene in 1957. More humorously, Roth qualified the libertine antics of Portnoy as “Putting the Id back in Yid.” Dark haired, slim and successful, with striking blue eyes and an elite British accent, my father didn’t have trouble attracting female attention. At home in Berkeley Heights, there was little room for liberating sexual exploits; key parties à la Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm were out of the question. This may have been the reason for the disordered trove of books amassing in the closet, and those popular raunchy masturbation novels, identifiably misogynistic by today’s standards: The Big Nickel, by Calder Willingham, a comic work driven by the fantastic sexual reveries of a successful Jewish angst-ridden writer, and The Fan Club, by Irving Wallace, a depraved story about the kidnapping and serial raping of a rapturously beautiful bubble-headed movie star whose ingenious use of her iconic measurements (36-24-36) to signal her whereabouts to the authorities (go figure!) is the means by which she outfoxes her working-class captors.

Not all of the books in the closet belonged to my father. There were those stacks of books, still in the boxes they arrived in from what was then Rhodesia, Africa, my mother’s birthplace. These were sent by my doctor grandfather in a desperate bid to prepare my brother for a bar mitzvah that would never actually happen (sending the books was a more important task, apparently, than keeping tabs on my mother’s questionable mental health). Despite the fact that both my parents were Jewish, we did not participate in any of the rituals of our inherited religion, and the ongoing silence between my mother and grandfather did not deter him from sending more. While my cousins lived on a Kibbutz in Israel, learning Hebrew, we blithely turned our backs on such conventions or cozy family ties. The sitcoms of the ’70s became our main cultural anchor.

My parents had met at Oxford and then moved to New Jersey, part of the “brain drain” of the 1960s. He had found a job at Bell Labs and my family set about fitting into American society. We celebrated Christmas like our Christian neighbors. My father’s parents, English Jews of Sephardic and Ashkenazi descent spanning back to the 1800s, hid their Jewishness from neighbors and club members until their death. They had good reason: anti-Semitism had taken its toll on my family members. My father had grown up under the threat of the German blitzkrieg in World War II, hiding in the bomb shelter at the end of the family garden. He was also the first in his family to attend college, and may have downplayed his Jewish heritage in order to fulfill his economic and intellectual promise. Even in the early 1970s, Jewish scientists were excluded from some of the best academic positions.

Perhaps this was why I gravitated to works of Saul Bellow, rooting through the dense exposition and distinctive interiority for a glimmer of my own Jewish identity — a heritage that was not openly discussed in my household or reflected in the almost exclusively white, Christian suburb of New Jersey in which we lived. It was not the characterization per se that I found relevant but the underlying constraints of Jewish immigrant life.

This immigrant “other” appeared to me in the fitful memories espoused by the titular character of Herzog, Bellow’s most popular work, which remained on the bestseller lists for 42 weeks. I felt the difference between my family’s personal history and that of Bellow’s titular characters: my parents were granted safe passage to the US aboard the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner, entrée to an affluent and professional way of life already in hand. Moses Herzog, on the other hand, had an “ethnic” and uncertain economic past just lurking under the surface.

Herzog was a quintessential Bellovian character — a second-generation American Jew, a disenchanted academic in the throes of a midlife crisis, left by his second wife for his best friend. His “life was, as the phrase goes, ruined.” In the midst of these ruins, Herzog undertakes a “pilgrimage” between the Berkshires, Martha’s Vineyard and New York, intended to help him make peace with an affected mind, and to face his own violent streak and his failure as a father. The book also readdresses his needs for sex and companionship. Much of the narrative is made up of unsent letters to family, friends, government officials, and philosophers, exhibiting an exhilarating and estranging interiority. Herzog’s self-serving wit reverberates throughout: “Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger, I should like to know what you mean by the expression ‘the fall into the quotidian.’ When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?”

I could see a certain Jewish angst pulsing in the wake of Herzog’s foamy, narcissistic torments with the protagonist’s internal letter writing campaign. From Bellow’s depiction of Herzog’s diasporic roots, I gleaned something of my own excised family history. Raised in a Jewish immigrant family in LaRoux, Canada, Herzog’s parents are described:

Rabbi Sandor-Alexander Herzog, who wore a beautiful beard as well, a radiant, broad-strung beard that hid the outline of his chain and also the velvet collar of his frock coat. Herzog’s mother had had a weakness for Jews with handsome beards. In her family too all the elders had beards that were thick and rich, full of religion.

My mother’s grandfather had also been a Latvian Rabbi. I learned that bit of family history when I was 25, on my first trip to Zimbabwe to visit my maternal grandmother. Only then did I begin to understand the suffering my family avoided by fleeing Latvia and Lithuania shortly before the Russian Revolution and making a home in Southern Africa. The venal prejudice of the pogroms and hair-raising danger of exile is threaded through Herzog’s everyday existence, present in his words and in his method storytelling:

I suppose, he was thinking, that we heard this tale of the Herzogs ten times a year. Sometimes Mama told it, sometimes he. So we had a great schooling in grief. […] But all these are antiquities — yes, Jewish antiquities originating in the Bible, in a Biblical sense of personal experience and destiny. What happened during the War abolished Father Herzog’s claim to exceptional suffering. We are on a more brutal standard now, a new terminal standard, indifferent to persons. Part of the program of human destruction into which the human spirit has poured itself with energy, even with joy. These personal histories, old tales from old times that may not be worth remembering. I remember. I must. But who else — to whom can this matter? So many millions — multitudes — go down in terrible pain. And, at that, moral suffering is denied, these days. Personalities are good only for comic relief. But I am still a slave to Papa’s pain. The way Father Herzog spoke of himself! That could make one laugh. His I had such dignity.

According to Irving Howe,

Bellow’s style draws heavily from the Yiddish, not so much in borrowed diction as in underlying intonation and rhythm. […] The jabbing interplay of ironies, the intimate vulgarities, the strange blend of sentimental and sardonic which characterizes Yiddish speech are lassoed into Bellow’s English: so that what we get is not a sick exploitation of folk memory but a vibrant linguistic and cultural transmutation.

Bellow was emphatic in not being labeled a “Jewish writer,” insisting instead on being but an American writer and a Jew. In the oft-quoted article “Starting Out in Chicago,” he ruminates on his authorial identity as a “Midwesterner and not a Jew” remarking, “I am a Jew, and I have written some books. I have tried to fit my soul into the Jewish-writer category, but it does not feel comfortably accommodated there.” Given the range of the non-Jewish characters portrayed in his novels (The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Seize the Day), there is some rhyme and reason to this claim, however spurious it may seem to us now. And yet, even though he was dedicated to writing fiction that encompasses cultures beyond those of his birth home, he never abandoned the Jewish viewpoint during his prolific, notable and long career. In “A Jewish Writer in America: A Lecture” (1988), Bellow finally admits, “So in my first consciousness, I was […] a Jew, the child of Jewish immigrants. At home our parents spoke Russian to each other, we children spoke Yiddish with them and we spoke English with one another.” This is reflected most readily in Herzog, a novel that according to Chester E. Eisinger can be regarded as typically Jewish in the following aspects:

in the pattern of the alienated man and the Wandering Jew to which Herzog, like Joyce’s Bloom conforms. It can be argued that the strong family feeling; the schooling in grief; the enthocentrism; the high value placed on education, intellectual achievement, and art; and even the rejection of despair and nihilism in favor of a humanistic faith in life, all present in the novel, do give the book, when taken together, a discernible Jewish flavor.

Though there are many prominent contemporary Jewish writers (Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer), few share this “discernible Jewish flavor” with Bellow. And yet, I do hear echoes of Bellow’s fiction when reading Bruce Bauman’s work, especially his epic novel Broken Sleep, a riveting exploration of the seismic social and artistic shifts between the ’60s and ’90s, all looking forward to a political future in 2020, with its deeply troubled two-party system. (Full disclosure: I adjunct at CalArts, where Bauman also teaches.) Bauman builds upon the Jewish literary heritage Bellow founded. The Jewish immigrant story and horrors of the Holocaust firmly anchor this sprawling work that spans generations and continents, exploring themes of familial abandonment, rejection, identity, art, politics, and celebrity.

At the heart of Bauman’s story is Moses, an allegorical figure, whose diagnosis of leukemia prompts a search for his biological mother and a donor, introducing us to cast of seductive characters: the semi-feral performance artist and sometime-sufferer of schizophrenia Salome Savant and her charismatic son (and Moses’s half-brother) Alchemy, the front man for the world-famous rock band The Insatiables. The novel, rife with hidden secrets and fatal family ties, unfolds on both coasts — against the twin settings of New York and Los Angeles. Weaving together multiple perspectives and timelines, Bauman succeeds at unleashing an intergenerational story, lyrical, tormenting, and fiercely relatable, much like the Bellow generation of Jewish writers.

As with the Bellovian protagonist Herzog, malady sets Moses on his journey. We are introduced to the disintegrating Herzog, for example with this: “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.” While a touch more reliable, a similar angst plagues Bauman’s narrator, who is subject to frequent “daymares,” the threat of which often suggests the frenetic, disturbed letter writing of Herzog:

Moses tried and tried to extinguish these negative, soul-depleting thoughts. He wanted to confess his shame. He wished for a pill that could vacate his memories, erase the spiteful thoughts and primitive urges, the guilt that engorged his empathy and compassion.

No mythical memory-erasing pill arrived. Instead, […]

A plaguelike mix of rain, hail, and vicious winds obscure the last rays of sunset while two hundred cultists glossolate a mocking serenade, countering the braying of drunken Roman guards singing, “99 Jews on the cross/ 99 Jews / if one of them we happen to toss / 98 Jews on the cross.”

These interior states are often quelled not through dangerous enactments (Herzog’s gunplay) but through methods once spurned by the Great Male Artists of yesteryear: productive psychotherapy and the empathy and wisdom of a life partner. Organized in “books” (like a religious text), Broken Sleep is in its own post-assimilationist sense, a Jewish novel — or a novel written by an American writer and a Jew. Through a look at today’s fragmented and assimilated diaspora, Bauman develops its conversation with a fraught past. Our early introduction to Hannah, Moses’s adoptive mother, first inscribes Moses as Jewish, not in the strict religious sense but in a cultural one. She is a shy and good-natured woman, rushed into marriage by the much older Malcolm Teumer, only to be suddenly abandoned by him a few years later. She moves with “the cautious gait of a shtetl Jew.” Echoes of the Holocaust wend through the lives of these characters. Moses’s “adoptive” father Malcolm, (who later turns out to be his biological father) is a former Nazi and the most deadly of distant fathers. In a letter to Moses, Malcolm reveals his identity and a heinous past: “I participated in the elimination of Jews and other putrid and inferior species,” impugning his son: “You did not inherit Salome’s beauty or tempestuous vigor. You are diseased of body and weak in spirit.”

Broken Sleep is rife with mysterious appearances and disappearances. Vicious cycles of abandonment repeat between parents and their children. The bonds of brotherhood however, are reinforced time and time again. Moses has a half-brother named Alchemy, who is beloved by their mother. On the surface, these brothers share little in terms of looks or charisma, yet both are willing to make up lost time with family. Herzog’s pronouncement at the end of Bellow’s novel is writ large in Bauman’s novel: “I really believe that brotherhood is what makes a man human.” In this novel, Alchemy saves his brother’s life, not just once, through a painful bone marrow transplant surgery, but a second time when his mother’s paranoid delusions and jealousy take a turn for the worst.

Herzog is a decidedly modernist text, marked by explicit interiority, existential questioning, and a focus on universal good. Broken Sleep, on the other hand, is clearly postmodern, defined by the lack of a master narrative or singular quest. Bauman’s novel is also identifiably feminist, in a way that separates the text from its predecessors. The story is narrated in chapters that alternate primarily between Moses and Salome Savant, his irrepressibly louche and eccentric biological mother. Salome is a “sensate morphologist” and delusional philosopher of “gravity disease.” “Unreliably unreliable narration is very rare, actually— about as rare as a genuinely mysterious, truly bottomless character,” assays critic James Wood. And Salome is just that: a quintessential Woodsian “unreliably unreliable” narrator, continually shaking us down with her blunt feminist jibes and artful spiritual guidance: “Do not let men or their desires intimidate you, not by physical strength or the demands of marriage or sex. Never let any man dictate the designs of your life,” she counsels the reader. Fittingly, she puts on an art show called Flowers, Feminism, and Fornication, a winking nod to all of those genius female artists — Bourgeois, O’Keeffe, and Schneemann — who left their mark.

Well-rounded female characters were often eclipsed in the fiction of the Great Male Jewish Novelists of the ’60s and ’70s. Salome, however, is almost a Wilde heroine — a femme fatale dragged into the modern age. Moses’s wife, Jay Bernes (perhaps named for the Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg’s disputation that a female J, living in Jerusalem about 3,000 years ago, authored a section of the Old Testament), is another notable female figure in the novel. Jay is an art consultant and a woman whose desirability does not depend on her breast size (this is opposed to Herzog’s desire for full-busted women). Jay is the most steadfast of characters, down-to-earth, dispensing the most heartfelt advice the book has on offer. In Biblical terms, she is a “Hayil”: a woman of worth. A touching moment arrives at the end of the book, when Moses and Jay have a reunion and order and decency, or love, if you will, is restored: “Moses, blinders off, saw Jay at forty-five years old with tiny crevices arching out from the corners of her eyes, the crinkling of her lips, hair dyed to hide the creeping gray, glasses necessary to read the menu. To him, she sparked as attractively as ever.”

There are other ways in which Bauman updates the Bellow playbook. Like Herzog, Bauman’s Moses is a disillusioned academic, prone to affairs with students. And yet, the affair in Broken Sleep results in a very un-Herzogian way, reflecting a contemporary look at a once-hallowed academic perk. Herzog describes to us his student lover as a “a sort of sexual professional (or priestess)” even though “in principle, he opposed affairs with students, even with students like Ramona Donsell, who were obviously made for them.” The affair between Moses and his student Evie in Bauman’s book however, is a queasy encounter, scoring low marks on the scale of coveted misadventures. Of this affair, Bauman writes: “Still incapable of embracing any notion that life has a bottom, Moses allowed himself a dollop of hope that Evie’s arrival, however dubious their ‘relationship,’ signaled at least a lull in his descent.” Only to find “[t]he hope that life’s descent would have a long lull was a gross miscalculation.”

The greatest tragedy in Bauman’s book however, is the disordered relationship between mother and son. Moses’s half-brother Alchemy must be the caregiver to an unstable mother, with no outside forces or family there to intervene. Salome reflects, “When a child becomes father to the mother, the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Broken Sleep makes a strong argument for the participation of fathers, all while deeply grieving their absence.

For both Bauman and Bellow, it seems that it is only books, and literature and fiction in particular, that can attempt to make up for this immense loss. In “Distractions of a Fiction Writer” (1957), Bellow complains bitterly of the issue dogging him and other writers — the novel’s durability or relevance, closing on the following salvo: “A book, any book, may easily be superfluous. But to manifest love — can this be superfluous?” Bellow was politically left; he was a subeditor of an obscure Trotskyist journal. His politics however, were always propounded along with an insistence that fiction remain a central cultural activity.

In reading Bellow’s essays on the necessity of fiction and the rejection of prosperity, I hear echoes of my own now-absent father, who schooled me (for better or worse) in aspirations that turn away from gross material acquisition, for activities that may not be redeemed in legal tender. Fiction can’t fully replace what is missing, but it can help us parse the distinctions between “material and spiritual wealth,” which, of course, is that much more important.

¤

Claire Phillips is the author of the novella, Black Market Babies (11th Hour), and recipient of the Academy of American Poets, First Prize. She is a Pushcart nominee and received a notable mention in The Best American Essays 2015.



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