Monday, October 10, 2011

Saul Bellow on the "metic" writer

In this week's NYReview of Books, Saul Bellow, until his death a member of the BU faculty, meditates on the Jewish writer as an outsider, commenting on the larger phenomenon of the writer as the outsider, especially in the context of the US, a land of immigrants:

In twentieth-century Europe the métèque writers appear in considerable numbers. Métèque is defined in French dictionaries as “outsider” or “resident alien,” and the term is pejorative. The word appears in the OED as “metic,” although it is not in general use here. The novelist Anthony Burgess refers to métèques and makes a strong defense of the métèque writer—the nonnative who, being on the fringe of a language and the culture that begot it, is alleged to lack respect (so say the pundits) for the finer rules of English idiom and grammar, for “the genius of the language.” For, says Burgess, the genius of the English language, being plastic, is as ready to yield to the métèque as to the racially pure and grammatically orthodox:

If we are to regard Poles and Irishmen as métèques there are grounds for supposing that the métèques have done more for English in the twentieth century (meaning that they have shown what the language is really capable of, or demonstrated what English is really like) than any of the pure-blooded men of letters who stick to the finer rules.

Burgess’s Irishman is Joyce, his Pole Joseph Conrad, and we can easily add to his list Apollinaire in French, Isaac Babel, Mandelstam, and Pasternak in Russian, Kafka in German, Svevo in Italian (or Triestine), and for good measure V.S. Naipaul or Vladimir Nabokov. Indeed it is not easy in this cosmopolitan age to remove the métèques from modern literature without leaving it very thin.

I might have asked Agnon how well the Arabic of Maimonides had been translated into Hebrew. I lacked the presence of mind then, and even here my remark is slightly out of place.

In the US, a land of foreigners who may or may not be in the process of forming a national type (who can predict how it will all turn out?), a term like métèque or metic is inapplicable. To renew the purity of the tribe was a French project, and a man whose French is acceptable to the French is, at least in the act of speaking, a claimant to aristocratic status. But gentile New York and Brahmin Boston never dominated American speech, and the aristocratic pretensions of easterners were good for a laugh in the rest of the country. Yet when our own metics, the Jewish, Italian, and Armenian descendants of immigrants, began after World War I to write novels, they caused great discomfort, and in some quarters, alarm and anger.

Irving Howe has noted in a reminiscence of the Partisan Review days that

portions of the native intellectual elite…found the modest fame of the New York writers insufferable. Soon they were mumbling that American purities of speech and spirit were being contaminated by the streets of New York…. Anti-Semitism had become publicly disreputable in the years after the Holocaust, a thin coating of shame having settled on civilized consciousness; but this hardly meant that some native writers…would lack a vocabulary for private use about those New York usurpers, those Bronx and Brooklyn wise guys who proposed to reshape American literary life. When Truman Capote later attacked the Jewish writers on television, he had the dissolute courage to say what more careful gentlemen said quietly among themselves.

Capote said that a Jewish mafia was taking over American literature and New York publishing as well. He was to write in a later book that Jews should be stuffed and put in a natural history museum.2

I owe too much to writers like R.P. Warren, who was so generous to me when I was starting out, and to John Berryman, John Cheever, and other poets, novelists, and critics of American descent to complain of neglect, discrimination, or abuse. Most Americans judged you according to your merit, and to the majority of readers it couldn’t have mattered less where your parents were born.

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