Jewish New Year: Great Jewish Writers

In light of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year which begins tonight, I thought it a fitting occasion to celebrate some of the greatest Jewish writers whose works have continued to leave a great impact on literature of all kinds. It is fair to acknowledge that many are considered, at least in my opinion, some of the best writers at all of all time.

Beginning with perhaps one of my favourite authors of all time, Franz Kafka’s obscure yet simultaneously accessible works have held the benchmark of great surrealist fiction for come time, and will undoubtedly continue for many more years. My favouriye of his works, The Castle (1926) and The Metamorphosis (1915) are exemplary works of the kind of fiction that was termed Kafkaesque, to denote the nightmarish, unexplainable state of events that one finds oneself in. Oftentimes Kafka’s work bares a striking similarity to Poe’s macabre sense of death and misfortune, particularly his In the Penal Colony (1941), featuring one of the more bizarre, imaginary machines of any piece of fiction. The Castle meanwhile exhibits Kafka’s characteristic sensation of class and social impenetrability, explored through devastating though at times witty prose. Kafka is one of the most popular subjects for analysis, though it’s Imagined Cities’ (2005) author Robert Alter’s simplistic though intriguing insights into Kafka’s works in relation to the city that are particularly poignant, highlighting the theme of isolation that was so central to Kafka’s works: “The city for Kafka is above all a place where one is alone, and his parrable-like short narrative pieces remind us repeatedly. In a few of them, the aloneness is dramatised by the stance of the speaker at the window, looking out into the street.”

Kafka’s case is a particularly interesting one, as his work was notoriously meant to have been burnt by his publisher and friend, Max Brod. Refusing his friend’s wishes, Brod went ahead and published the works that Kafka wished to be burnt. It is a strange sensation to know that while the world has been graced with Kafka’s works, it was, as Howard S. Becker notes in his Art Worlds (1982), ultimately not of the decision of Kafka for us to read them. As such Kafka’s work carries with it a sense of guilt, in my opinion, and emerges as one of the more significant bodies of work to have ever been published. After finishing his diaries in particular I was overcome with a feeling of disturbed voyeurism, enjoying what I had read though at the same time knowing that the author for whom I had developed so much admiration for did not want me to read the source of this esteem.

Often when one is writing about Jewish writers, the inevitable greats emerge: Philip Roth, Henry Roth, a still somewhat neglected Clive Sinclair, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow. Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep (1934), Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953) and Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) are excellent works of fiction, possibly regarded as the magnum opus of each author, respectively. My favourites of Roth (a difficult choice given the number of his books) include the short but captivating The Dying Animal (2001), in which Kafka’s rare work also makes an appearance, and the racing (and racy) Sabbath’s Theatre (1995), which features Roth’s well-known ‘dirty old man’ archetype character. Portnoy’s Complaint, a notorious addition to the list of banned works in Australia during censorship due to its masturbatory themes, is another great work of Roth’s.


The relationship between Bellow and Singer, as discussed in Matthew Aspey’s interview with Lester Goran, shows the often conflicting and intriguing nature of these writers:

ASPREY: You say in your memoir that Singer didn’t like Bellow. Yet Bellow translated—

GORAN: ‘Gimpel the Fool’.

ASPREY: ‘Gimpel the Fool’, which is a wonderful story, and a wonderful translation, too.

GORAN: Yes, Bellow put his heart and soul into it. He was anxious for the world to acknowledge Singer in the same way as he had. But Singer’s distaste for Bellow was as primitive as it could be. He was scared—with me too—that people would say, “This is not Singer’s writing, this is Saul Bellow’s writing…”

ASPREY: You’ve said that Singer was insistent that you take a translator credit even if you didn’t consider yourself a translator so much as a kind of assistant.

GORAN: This was on Isaac’s part a kind of favor that he did. Mostly he did it with women. He would be trying to get connected to some woman somewhere and he would call her a ‘translator’ and the thing wouldn’t get published because she would mess it up grammatically. He felt I was a miracle worker at the beginning. He had ten stories published in a row and he hadn’t really been hitting that well, even before the Nobel Prize, and the same thing after. We did okay.

Asprey’s great article on experimental realism in Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep can be found here:

The influence of these writers stretches into various categories, including musical. While Virginian post-rock band ‘Gregor Samsa’ got their name from the doomed protagonist in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Australian rock band ‘Augie March’ were evidently lovers of Bellow’s work.


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