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Paule Lévy. Figures de l’artiste : identité et écriture dans la littérature juive américaine de la deuxième moitié du XXe siècle

Presses universitaires de Bordeaux, 2006. 193 pages
Ellen Levy
p. 325-326
Bibliographical reference

Paule Lévy. Figures de l’artiste : identité et écriture dans la littérature juive américaine de la deuxième moitié du XXe siècle. Presses universitaires de Bordeaux, 2006. 193 pages

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1At the heart of this well-researched and elegantly written study of the figure of the artist in Jewish American literature lies the vexed question of what it is to be a Jew in a post-Shoah but also a post-pogrom world—the America of the second half of the twentieth century. Paule Lévy introduces the question that provides a thread of continuity through the diverse writings treated in Figures de l’artiste in a masterly introduction that places her authors in the context of social history (immigration patterns, assimilation) as well as critical history (the reception of minority fictions). The existential, aesthetic, and ethical questions posed by Jewish identity, that "en-plus inassignable débordant toute définition" (Jankélévitch, quoted 14) are posited, and the role of the lost past, of the shtetl and of the mama loshn, Yiddish—all of her authors are of Ashkenazi descent—is evoked. Lévy embraces with courage and insight a literature whose quintessence is to be irreducible, concluding her introduction with this fine (anti-)definiton of her corpus: "Une littérature qui finira pas faire du questionnement son unique vérité et du doute son unique sagesse" (22).

2The following chapters focus on a selection of texts whose metafictional nature brings to the fore the effort to find a voice and to articulate facets of identity. The first three chapters are devoted to that prestigious triumverate of Jewish American letters (or, as Bellow quipped, their Marx Brothers): Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth. Lévy explores the common ground (verbal brilliance, a taste for the grotesque and the parodic and for the multiplication of planes of reflection, a gleeful fearlessness in the face of the unresolvable and the indeterminable, an instinctive proclivity for the practice of quasi-Talmudic pilpul in the examination and turning over of issues), but also probes their differences (Bellow’s intellectual breadth, Malamud’s feel for the parabolic and the surreal, Roth’s controlled unleashing of the audacious, the provocative and the carnivalesque). These masters of the verb, despite the differences of their subject matter, all display an uncanny ability to pass through levels of language with dizzying facility, from eloquence to street talk, by way of academia and Yiddishkeit, their artist creations providing scope, as well, for a critique of American society.

3The three following chapters are devoted to women writers: Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen. The challenging work of Ozick is examined in the light of her doubts concerning the compatibility of Judaism and representation, of the Law and the imagination. The more intimist, feminist, committed work of Olsen and Paley is approached with the generosity that characterizes the authors themselves and gives rise to sensitive textual analyses of a selection of their stories. A common thread is found in the work of these otherwise disparate writers: the role of the feminine in the process of transmission.

4The final chapter of the book looks at the singular career of Henry Roth whose four-volume Mercy of a Rude Stream, which began to appear in the mid-nineties, broke a sixty-year silence. Lévy offers a brilliant analysis of the elements in the later work, which seems poignantly to speak from the edge of the grave, that unite it to and distinguish it from the author’s celebrated early novel, Call It Sleep (1934). Summing up the ways in which, despite the author’s atypical trajectory, l’œuvre of Henry Roth shares common ground with other Jewish American artists, she writes:

C’est parce qu’elle affirme la prééminence du souci éthique, parce qu’elle fait de l’identité une ligne de fuite, parce qu’elle conçoit le Paradis comme perdu, la Terre Promise comme hors d’atteinte et le sens comme provisoire. Et que, dès lors, la seule patrie permise, le seul terrain d’élection c’est bien évidemment, le texte. (168)

5Lévy’s book is arranged to make it easily accessible for those working on individual authors, but its usefulness far outreaches this modest goal. It is a treasure trove of fine analyses and brief, penetrating, treatments of a plethora of subjects: a study of parody in the chapter on Bellow, for instance, or of the stylistic role of oral expression in the chapter on Paley or, again, of Bibilical echoes, particularly of Ecclesiastes, in Henry Roth’s late tetralogy. These are only three examples of many possible. The book is studded with stimulating quotations from the author’s wide-ranging readings in literary criticism, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and Judaica. The bibliography with which the volume ends will be of great interest to future researchers in the field, both to those who return to the canonical authors studied here and to those who turn to the new generations who have already begun to walk in their footsteps.

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Bibliographical reference

Ellen Levy, « Paule Lévy. Figures de l’artiste : identité et écriture dans la littérature juive américaine de la deuxième moitié du XXe siècle », Caliban, 23 | 2008, 325-326.

Electronic reference

Ellen Levy, « Paule Lévy. Figures de l’artiste : identité et écriture dans la littérature juive américaine de la deuxième moitié du XXe siècle », Caliban [Online], 23 | 2008, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 24 February 2020. URL :

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About the author

Ellen Levy

Université de Toulouse, UTM, CAS

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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