Friday, June 20, 2008

Kakutani, Canin, Judaism, & Me

Ethan Canin is a wonderful writer. Along with Alice Munro and Tobias Wolf, I think he is one of the great short story experts working today. The Emperor of Air is a dazzling collection to which I often return, and the story “Where We Are Now” is one of my favorites of all time. Some of the longer stories of The Palace Thief are also breathtaking.

Canin has a new novel out, and Michiko Kakutani reviewed it in the NY Times today. As usual, Kakutani pulls no punches. Although she praises Canin’s many talents, she again criticizes his skills as a novelist. This is Canin’s consistent fate. His short pieces are gems, but his novels receive relatively cool reviews. In this case, Kakutani points to unskilled plotting and “tired tropes” about social class and paternalism.

But as I read the review I found myself searching for something else. I found myself asking, “Yes, yes, but how Jewish is this book?” When I first started reading Ethan Canin, I was probably unaware of his Jewishness. This is not surprising because Canin describes himself as an atheist and seems to have deliberately avoided the Jewish literature category. This quote is from an interview in the Atlantic:

I've been conscious of not being a Jewish-American writer or a Young Urban Male writer. In a way I wish I were, because it seems easier. I grew up all over the country, moving from town to town when I was a kid, so I never felt a very strong sense of place. My parents were Brooklyn and Queens Jews -- and I was a child in Ohio. I didn't live in a ghetto and yet I had ghetto history in every word my parents said. I remember the first time I set foot in New York: I was twenty years old, and the first time I heard a New Yorker open her mouth I thought, Oh my God I'm home. I realized I'd never been truly comfortable with the outside world before I got to New York. I still think New York is the friendliest city in the country.

Of course the irony here is that I am not Jewish. Indeed, I am not, in any conventional sense, religious at all. But the love of a Jewish woman has made Jewish things important to me. I have learned the pleasures of shabbat; I have worn a kippah; I have learned to bake challah; and I am becoming familiar with the annual cycle of Jewish holidays. I have always had a sense of affinity for the Jewish people, based on their minority status and their long history of oppression, and as an academic, I came to appreciate the traditions of study and debate. Although I remain a goy, I have several Jewish friends who say I am now more Jewish than they are, and I smile when they say it.

So I find myself in the funny circumstance of being a non-Jew and a fan of Ethan Canin who wishes Canin’s writing were more Jewish. I find myself wishing that a man of his enormous talents would display his Jewishness a bit more. And, oddly enough, I see nothing contradictory in this. Perhaps I am more Jewish than I think.

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