Literature

June 26, 1998

CONTEMPORARY JEWISH WRITING IN BRITAIN AND IRELAND. An anthology. Bryan Cheyette, editor. 336pp. Halban. Pounds 25 (paperback, Pounds 10.99). - 1 870015 68 1.

Launching a series entitled Jewish Writing in the Contemporary World, Bryan Cheyette's programmatic anthology includes twenty-four crisp cuttings taken, since 1963, from nineteen authors as diverse as Anita Brookner, Eva Figes, Harold Pinter, Emmanuel Litvinoff and George Steiner. Cheyette has been keen to validate British-Jewish writing as a literary-cultural category for some time, and his sophisticated introductory essay persuasively argues for the writers and writings chosen. Though addressed mainly to his "bemused students, surprised that authors they had been reading in a variety of contexts also addressed Jewish concerns", this imaginative collection exemplifies an unexpectedly wide-raging approach to "the dominance of an oppressive Englishness". While some rework Jewish representations in the dominant culture (Michelene Wandor on a crux in Daniel Deronda, Litvinoff tackling T. S. Eliot), others refuse to engage head-on, their occasional excursus here deftly caught (Brookner, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala). Valuable juxtapositions may be found among those identified as emigres (Dan Jacobson, Eva Figes, the excellent Ronit Lentin, and the scholar-writers George Steiner and Gabriel Josipovici), who have no need to transcend Englishness and so are freer to articulate history, or to mine a more detached, modernist mode. Some of the youngest writers, Elena Lappin and Jonathan Treitel, offer original contributions, attuned also to contemporary literary constructions of identity relating to gender and sexuality. Cheyette suggests a link with other, perhaps less easily hyphenated writers, like Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi, in terms of confronting a sagging sense of English identity. But the "more plural, diasporic culture" that, he concludes, is replacing "narrow national narratives and gendered identities" is sustained by the same remarkably capacious standard English and by (as Patrick Wright has written) living in an old country. Englishness, like Jewishness, will be with us for some time yet, and this hugely enjoyable anthology helps to show us how. PS

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