Thursday, May 11, 2017

`And He Is, of Course, Unknown, Lost'

Fortunately, love confounds criticism. If our reading is exclusively high-minded, if we admit only acknowledged masterpieces into our high-walled sanctuary, we run the risk of turning into insufferable prigs and missing out on a hell of a lot of readerly pleasure.

Among the least guilty of my pleasures are the three Brooklyn novels published by Daniel Fuchs (1909-1993) during the Great Depression:  Summer in Williamsburg (1934), Homage to Blenholt (1936) and Low Company (1937). I read them for the first time in 1975, in the 1961 compendium volume titled Three Novels, and every few years I read them again.

There’s an irresistible sprightliness to Fuchs’ prose, a celebrative openness to the world, despite the occasional grimness of his subject matter: Summer in Williamsburg opens with a suicide. To get a flavor of Fuchs’ work, consider that Farrar, Straus & Cudahy in 1956 published Stories: Jean Stafford, John Cheever, Daniel Fuchs, William Maxwell. Fuchs is perfectly at home in that company. Critics called him a proletarian writer, but that’s to mistake a coincidence of history for a stylistic certainty. I started reading Fuchs’ novels again after reading Odessa-born Boris Dralyuk’s translation of Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2016). For this non-Russian reader, who has read four earlier translations of Babel’s stories (including Red Cavalry, translated by Dralyuk in 2015), Babel has finally arrived in English. Readers familiar with the last century of Jewish-American writing will hear familiar dissonant harmonies in Dralyuk’s Babel. In his introduction, Dralyuk writes of Babel’s Odessan Jewish gangster Benya Krik:    

“What really keeps you hanging on Babel’s every word are the words themselves, that rich Odessan argot. As Froim the Rook says of Krik, `Benya, he doesn’t talk much, but what he says, it’s got flavor. He doesn’t talk much, but when he talks, you want he should keep talking.’ This, after the gutsy Benya barges in on the one-eyed gang boss and declares, `Look, Froim, let’s stop smearing kasha. Try me.’ Once Froim gets a taste of that `kasha,’ he can’t help giving Benya a try.

“The language of Odessa, with its Yiddish inflections and syntactic inversions, its clipped imperatives and its freight of foreign words, was in the air all around me as I was growing up. Little did I know that a similar melting pot, New York’s Lower East Side, had made a similar `kasha’ out of English at around the time Benya’s archetypes were raising hell in Moldavanka. When I discovered the novels of Samuel Ornitz, Michael Gold, Henry Roth and Daniel Fuchs, the plays of Clifford Odets and the stories of Bernard Malamud, I felt right at home.”

Fuchs remains in print thanks to Black Sparrow Press, which reissued the trilogy in a single volume in 2007 under the title The Brooklyn Novels. He remains among the perpetually rediscovered writers, famous for being neglected. In an essay he published in Commentary in 1988, Fuchs recalled discovering in 1926 that a teacher at his high school, Adolph Gillis, had published a novel set on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Though Gillis taught Ivanhoe and Silas Marner,

“. . . he abandoned those gray, timeworn narratives as inconsequential, as I myself had done, and wrote in a raw, new, modern realism, dealing with characters and a background that were breathtakingly familiar to me and at hand. Nowadays I am sometimes mentioned—because of my 30’s Williamsburg books—as a forerunner of the American Jewish novel, a distinction which leaves me blank and uninterested, mainly because my work derived from Mr. Gillis’s novel, got its start from it, and he is, of course, unknown, lost.”

As is Fuchs, who wittily titles his essay “Three Books.”

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