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December 21, 1984 - Image 12

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1984-12-21

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

12

Friday, December 21, 1984 THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

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BOOKS

Doctorow the poet

BY JOSEPH COHEN

Special to The Jewish News

The diversity in the fiction of
American Jewish writing never
ceases to amaze me. Bellow's work
is philosophical, Roth is into corn-
edies of manners and sociological
stereotyping, Malamud has
emerged as a master of fantasy,
Heller is a master of satire, Singer
is the great modern kabbalist,
Mailer is the polemicist, Potok
dramatizes the struggle of Jewish
theological concerns against the
overwhelming attractions of sec-
ularism, and Ozick concentrates
on the plight of the Jewish artist
in America, who, having aban-
doned Hebrew, is constrained to
express him/herself in a foreign
language, English.
And then there is Doctorow who
is different still.
How does Doctorow differ? For
one thing, he is emerging as a
poet. He has, you might say, just
come out of the fictional closet.
He's been in there for a long time,
though he's opened the door occa-
sionally in the past, most notably
in his previous best-seller Loon
Lake (1980) where his lyrics ably
encapsulate his themes. He has
some similarities with these other
Jewish writers: he holds in com-
mon with Bellow a fondness for
pitting evil against good in an
old-fashioned context, with Heller
a penchant for satire in comically
lamenting our century's inversion
of values, with Mailer an obses-
sion for political justice, and with
Ozick a perception of the universe
in terms of Einsteinian relativity
and a need to storm the barricades
of language and create new forms
of expression.
Yet he remains fundamentally
different in his being driven by
the poet's passion to capture all
the meaning of life in a few cen-
tral metaphors.
At one point in Lives of the
Poets: Six Stories and a Novella
(Random House), Doctorow,
speaking to the reader through
the voice of his protagonist, says
in discussing an 'adulterous bet-
rayal suffered by a friend, "Think
of it as a metaphor and it will
begin to work for you as it has
worked for me." The function of
metaphor in Lives of the Poets is
analogous to the function of the
lake in Loon Lake: it is a mirror
reflecting and objectifying all
human experience. In that reflec-
tion and objectification, the mean-
ing of life is made clear.
The actions which comprise
much of human experience are
often destructive and dishearten-
ing. The novella from which the
book's title is taken is a prolonged
compendium of marital and sex-
ual discord, confirming re-
peatedly that writers never end
up with whomever they start out
with (Doctorow's own marriage
seems to be the exception!) and
here, because Doctorow is more
the poetic craftsman than the fic-
tional narrator, his observations
about the vicissitudes of life are
pearls of wisdom which must be
prised by the reader from between
the locked shells of his oyster-like
metaphors.
The locked-in metaphors in
Lives of the Poets remind me of
Yehuda Amichai's recently re-
leased _collection of translated
short stories, The World Is a

E. L. Doctorow:
A poet in prose.

Room. Not much happens in them
either, but they are filled with
metaphors which work effectively
as substitutes for narrative ac-
tion, binding their images to us by
a remarkably impressive lyri-
cism, as spectacular as it is consis-
tent. The same poetic qualities of
imagery and lyricism are present
in Doctorow's stories. It is the
poetry that counts, not the tales.
This is Doctorow's most Jewish
work since The Book of Daniel.
The opening story "The Writer in
the Family," is set in the Bronx in
the 1950s. Jonathan, the pro-
tagonist, is a Jewish adolescent
mourning the death of a sales-
man, his father, a lovable failure

"Lives of the Poets:
Six Stories and a
Novella," by E. L.
Doctorow, (Random
House).

who has left behind his own aged
mother in a nursing -home. She is
not told of her son's death.
Jonathan is coerced by an aunt
into impersonating the father
through letters until, as a young
writer, he refuses to compromise
his integrity further and rebels
against the perpetuation of the
lie.
Jonathan is obviously the
young Doctorow who early in his
career came to grips with the
question of a writer's integrity. It
continues to be a major issue in
his thought. (Another story,
"Willi," is peopled by Jews living
in Galicia in 1910 and is indebted
to Henry Roth's Ca lat Sleep.) The
novella again gives us Jonathan
the writer, now in his 50th year in
a mid-life crisis, forcing his per-
sonal world to crumble, hoping to
recover his youth before the last
goodbye.
It isn't so much Jewish char-
acters or settings, however, that
make this book Jewish. Much
about it is far more American
than it is Jewish. I have a hunch it
was influenced substantially by
Eileen Simpson's Poets In Their
Youth, published in 1982, an

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