Jewish-American Literature and a Jewish-Italian Artist (3 cents)

We have been taking a class given by Professor (emirita) Lilian Kremer over the course of this year. For each session (typically about three weeks apart), we read a novel by a well known Jewish-American writer. For example, this week we read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1960 novel, “The Magician of Lublin”, a story of a “magician”, who lived in Lublin with his wife, when he was not on the road performing, but who had (at the time) at least three mistresses: a skinny, homely woman who was his assistant, a beautiful widow in Warsaw, who wanted him to convert to Catholicism and run off to Italy with her and her daughter; and an abandoned wife in a small shtetl, who had no resources whatsoever and who consorted with thieves and pimps. The book tracks the psychological transformation of the magician as he deals with his multiple entanglements (which for him, for years, were the norm and did not seem entanglements at all), how he “finds religion” so to speak, and how he then goes overboard becoming a penitent who wants so hard to make sure he stays off the wagon, that he boards himself up in a stone enclosure (can you board yourself in something made of stone, I ask?) taking only food from his wife through an opening in one wall. And the moral of the story is?

At any rate, on Monday evening, we attended a lecture on Jewish-American literature by writer and George Washington University professor Faye Moskowitz, a wonderful survey presentation, starting with the earliest Jewish writers in the country (and talking about why there were not more of them), and how the genre expanded when Jewish immigration expanded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and then after World War II, how it mainstreamed, and how it has continued to mainstream, although the themes of the writing have changed, from Jews writing just for Jews without regard to gentile audiences, to Jews trying to become assimilated and rejecting much of their Judaism, to Jewish writers of great variety who are rediscovering or proud of their ethnic and religious background.

In her extremely well crafted talk, she mentioned tens of Jewish writers and particular of their works. The coordinator of the program (sponsored by the Foundation for Jewish Studies and held at Washington Hebrew Congregation) kindly circulated a list of all the referenced books to those of us at the lecture whom she knew how to reach by email. These include a number of contemporary authors (many are women, and Moskowitz described all of them as very young, very pretty and very skinny), a number of whom are immigrants from the former USSR.

Today, Meryle Secrest, Washington based biographer, spoke at the Library of Congress about her most recent book, a biography of Amadeo Modigliani, and a fascinating (illustrated) talk it was.

Modigliani was born in Italy to a French-Jewish mother (from a secular, assimilated family) and an Italian-Jewish father (who was orthodox). He was born as his father suffered serious financial reverses, and his family’s poverty obviously had an effect on the remainder of his short life. Asked about the influence of his Jewish background on his work, she did not really find it, saying that Modigliani was a true cosmopolitan in his thinking, but that he continually identified himself as a Jew to confront prejudice.

Modigliani started as a sculptor and then began to paint instead. He moved to Paris, and Montmartre as a young man, living under very reduced circumstances, and became a member of the artistic circle and included Pablo Picasso and others, known as the School of Paris. Although he was only five foot three, he was apparently very attractive to women and led a very busy social life. Although he clearly drank a lot of wine and experimented with drugs, Secrest said that everyone in his line of work was doing this, and she disputes the generally held belief that he was an abuser as well as a user. His health was always fragile, and when he was only 16, he suffered from a serious bout of TB, from which he was not expected to live. He died, not of dissolution, she says, from a recurrence of the TB at age 35. He left behind him his pregnant girlfriend, and his young daughter, but within a short time after his death, his girlfriend committed suicide by jumping from her parents’ six story Paris window.

She discussed his works, and the criticism of it, as well as the extraordinary prices his art work is not getting at sale: recently, an African-inspired sculpted bust sold for $52 million and a painted nude for $69 million. (Skeptics said it was only because two Russian oligarchs were trying to outdo each other.)

An interesting part of Secrest’s presentation was her discussion of how she went about putting together the information she needed for the book, locating a number of people who had made studies of Modigliani and his surroundings, discovering his first patron’s 80 year old son, who had inherited much archival material, speaking to elderly friends of his now deceased daughter, and locating much other material which has only recently been available.

In addition to showing a number of his works, her slide presentation included many photographs, some vintage and not before available to the public, and some which she herself took.

Having read some of Secrest’s previous works, I know how engaging she is. I look forward to reading this one.

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