I finished reading Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road yesterday. It’s a wonderful book – a straightforward action-adventure story in the very old style but lifted way into the stratosphere by Chabon’s mastery of language.
Simply it’s the story of two petty conmen and adventurers, Zelikman a pale, blonde Frank armed with an incongruously long thin sword (it’s referred to early on as “bodkin” but it sounds like a modern épée) and Amram, an aging, muscular African wielding a rune-laden Viking axe, who become caught up in courtly machinations in the triple-crowned court of Khazaria – north of the Black Sea.
So far, so fairly standard fantasy.
But one of the things that makes Gentlemen of the Road interesting (apart from the almost flawless writing, the clever dialogue, the unusual depth of characterisation, thematic complexity and the gripping adventure story) is that it’s working title (as the Afterword reveals) was “Jews with Swords” – almost every character in this novel from the Ethopian axe-man to the hopeless henchman Hannukah are Jews. Khazaria is a kingdom of Jews. The traders who wander the silk route are Jews.
The book itself is a really entertaining read – fast paced, witty in places, sombre in others, but always beautifully written. Plus the production in the Sceptre hardback version, with an evocative green and gold cover and wonderful pen and ink drawings made the book a stunning object in itself.
But it is some of the points raised by Chabon’s Afterword, that I want to discuss here.
Chabon deals head on with why a writer firmly established in the mainstream as a major proponent of the genre he calls “late-century naturalism” (whose key features he helpfully defines as “disappointment, misfortune, loss, hard enlightenment, bleak grace. Divorce; death; illness; violence, random and domestic; divorce; bad faith; deception and self-deception; love and hate between fathers and sons, men and women, friends and lovers; the transience of beauty and desire; divorce…”) should suddenly wander off into the murky world of genre.
He does not repudiate his past work, he’s proud of it (as he deserves to be) but, he says: “It’s just that here, in Gentlemen of the Road as in some of its recent predecessors, you catch me in the act of trying, as a writer, to do what many of the characters in my earlier stories – Art Bechstein, Grady Tripp, Ira Wiseman – were trying, longing, ready to do: I have gone off in search of a little adventure.”
I have to say I found this passage genuinely touching. Chabon is, in many ways, a supremely fortunate writer. Talent and hard work does not always receive both the critical and commercial recognition Chabon has enjoyed. He can afford to take the risk of travelling these side roads, but it would be a mistake of any reader to imagine that this book (or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) are less “Chabonesque” than his earlier books.
Chabon says that many people laughed when he told them he was working on a book called “Jews with Swords”. For Chabon and his (presumably) American friends, the idea of a Jew with a sword conjures up images of Woody Allen in a loincloth (Cohen the Barbarian?), the very phrase “clangs with anachronism, with humorous incongruity”. Yet as Chabon notes the Jewish peoples have had no shortage of warriors or warlike characters. Chabon reflects on how odd it is that the image of a swashbuckling or dangerous Jew seems so anachronistic – though Jews and adventure, is quite another matter.
“From the moment of the true First Commandment, when God has told Abraham lech lecha: Thou shalt leave home. Thou shalt get lost. Though shalt find slander, oppression, opportunity, escape, and destruction. Thou shalt, by definition find adventure. This long, long tradition of Jewish adventure may look a bit light on the Conans or D’Artagnans; our greatest heroes less obviously suited to exploits of derring-do and arms. But maybe that ill-suitedness only makes Jews all the more ripe to feature in (or to write) this kind of tale.”
I think this passage reveals something interesting. I want to call it a bias, but I think it is fairer to think of it as a blindspot in Chabon’s thinking and in his books.
I, for example, have no problem imagining Jews as the bearers of arms. The image that much of the world has of Jews is of Israel. It is of a nation with its citizenry trained and armed and ready for war and of MOSSAD and of high-tech weaponry. In that context the idea of a Jew with a sword (or a rifle) isn’t incongruous at all. Of course people have different attitudes towards Israel – my own, for what they’re worth, are sympathetic to the fundamental existence of the state wrapped up with varying degrees of anger/dismay at the actual actions of its military/government and some of its people – but it seems to me to be odd that a modern writer could muster a range of images of modern Jewishness and not even reflect, however briefly on the image of Jewish Israel.
Is this a reflection of the famous American parochialism we Europeans hear about? Or is it something specific to Chabon?
It’s clear that Chabon has been using his foray into the fantastic to allow him to explore his own attitudes towards what it is to be a Jew. It started in Kavalier and Clay with the pivotal events of World War 2, through the alternative Jewish state of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and here to the loosely imagined history of Gentlemen of the Road. It’s interesting how he notes that the characters in his early (mainstream) stories were “gentiles or assimilated Jews, many of whom were self-consciously inspired, instructed and laid low by the teachings of rock and roll and Hollywood, but not, for example by the lost writings of the tzaddik of Regensburg, whose commentaries are so important to one of the heroes of Gentlemen of the Road.” Not so the characters of his more fantastic novels, who are anything but assimilated. They live in Jewish worlds – whether forties New York, Sitka or Khazaria – but, at the same time, they are far from being comfortable in their Jewish skin – Jews by birth but not necessarily by practice. Not “good Jews” – just Jews who happen to be good.
But I think it is revealing which of the classic elements of the Jewish stereotype/self-image Chabon retains and appropriates for his characters. His Jews remain bookish – the value of learning and of knowledge is never lost on them no matter how far they have fallen down the social order. They love games of strategy – especially chess. They are, both physically and in their imaginations, wanderers – the Afterword compares the Jewish experience to Odysseus’s adventures – bearing a melancholy for a lost home they may never have known.
These characteristics, of course, add up to a sympathetic package, that might even be described as sentimental. Chabon doesn’t consider himself or those he knows and loves as the sort of people who would commit acts of violence or do wrong. There’s a sense that he doesn’t want to think badly about people with whom he has things in common and a sense of nostalgia for days when the Jewish position was more straightforwardly the victims of a history of very great wrongs.
I admire Chabon’s writing a great deal and I think I understand his liberal diffidence about looking at the “reality” of Israel from his secure, American vantage point.
He’s on record as recognising the Israeli state’s fundamental importance for Jews but he’s also clearly remains troubled by what it means to be Jewish. So far, in his fiction, he has steadfastly refused to engage with the implications of the problems that Israel presents for liberal “Jews who happen to be good”. Perhaps he finds himself caught awkwardly between the extremes – there are those Zionists for whom only the unquestioning support of Israel is sufficient while there are plenty of others who will be happy only when the last Jew is driven into the sea. I have some sympathy with Chabon – whatever he says, or whether he says nothing at all, there will be those reading messages into his words (and silences).
And yet, it doesn’t seem possible that an artist of Chabon’s quality can devote so much time to considering what it is to be Jewish and continue avoid the reality of an existing Jewish state and the complexities that creates – Jews as possessors of power, Jews in positions of strength, Jews as corruptible, even Jews viewed as oppressors. Having finished Gentlemen of the Road there’s a distinct feeling that Chabon has completed a circle around something vast. There’s a sense that these books and the worlds he’s created in them have been designed so that he can focus on positive elements of his cultural inheritance without having to look at the problems of the real world. In this sense, it’s almost tempting to dismiss his dabblings in genre since Kavalier and Clay as works of escapism. Is he avoiding the issues? Or should we be more generous and suggest that he is exploring alternatives.
I’m not arguing that Michael Chabon, as an artist who is Jewish, has to write a book about Israel, or that he must justify Israel or that he has to devote some space in all his books to beating himself and his fellow Jews up for the failings of Israel. Not all modern Jewish art needs to take Israel as its subject. But I do think that it is noteworthy that an artist like Chabon has devoted a number of books explicitly to exploring the idea of Jewishness without reference to Israel.