“In the early ’50s I was reading Bernard Malamud’s stories, later collected in ‘The Magic Barrel,’ as they appeared... in Partisan Review and the old Commentary,” wrote Philip Roth in a 1986 homage to one of his greatest influences. “He seemed to me then to be doing no less for his lonely Jews and their peculiarly immigrant, Jewish forms of failure than was Samuel Beckett, in his longer fiction, for misery-ridden Molloy and Malone.” For a few decades in the middle of the last century, American fiction featured a strong Jewish voice, world-weary yet wisecracking, in which unconcern—even disgust—toward the world coexisted with fascination with its linguistic and philosophical possibilities. With his existential emphasis, the Jew became the everyman; though the Jewish immigrant now rarely appears as a novelistic protagonist, a great nostalgia for his brand of schmerz persists.
“The Free World,” David Bezmozgis’ novelistic debut, can appear a tempting candidate to take up the kippah. Reviewers of Bezmozgis’ 2004 collection “Natasha and Other Stories” have praised him as a literary inheritor of Malamud, Roth, Bellow, and Babel; last year he snagged a spot on The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list of the best young fiction writers. In cadence, Bezmozgis’ style is strikingly similar to that of Malamud. Superficially, his new novel, which follows a family of Soviet Jews in 1978 who have emigrated from Riga to Rome and now await exit visas to the U.S.A. or Canada, treats similar themes. But though “The Free World” is a novel about Jews, it is not at all a “Jewish novel.” Bezmozgis’ own project places him in the vein of self-proclaimed ‘social realists’ like Jonathan Franzen, concerned with transparency of meaning, precision of language, and a mapping out of the social world.
Bezmozgis, born in Latvia before immigrating to Toronto as a child, has a wry literary voice—the prose equivalent of the raised eyebrow—well attuned to the more absurd aspects of historical events. To Bezmozgis’ émigrés, the disorder of Rome can seem more terrifying than even the harrowing border crossing at Chop. That was at least “cruel and nonsensical in a typical way,” conforming to Soviet logic. Rome, on the other hand, “was dirty. Crime was rampant. To walk near Termini, the central train station, was effectively to surrender your valuables.” Making their life in a strange new city, caught in the troubling space between Zionism and communism, are the younger Krasnansky son Alec and his wife Polina, his older brother Karl and wife Rosa, and Alec and Karl’s father Samuil and wife Emma. All of them travel with a great deal of emotional baggage, related through flashbacks—from Polina’s abortion and desertion of her husband for Alec, to Samuil’s morally ambiguous past in the Red Army. Of these characters Bezmozgis gives by far the greatest narrative time to Alec, whose main interest and skill seems to be seducing women into closets.
A certain awkwardness of phrasing often distracts from Bezmozgis’ narrative. The first few pages feature flat dialogue, with a trace of accent: “Where are you traveling to?” “Chicago.” “No. Is this true?” “Yes, it is true. I am traveling to Chicago.” “Will this be your first time in Chicago?” “Yes, it will be my first time in Chicago.” And so forth. Though his prose elsewhere can be ironic, if heavy-handed, here Bezmozgis evinces no irony at all; nor is he aiming for a Beckettian sort of parody. His word choice is similarly problematic. The first sentence of a debut novel is not, perhaps, the fairest of targets, as it tends to be the sentence at greatest peril of overworking. But here is how Bezmozgis begins: “Alec Krasnansky stood on the platform of Vienna’s Western Terminal while, all around him, the representatives of Soviet Jewry—from Tallinn to Tashkent—roiled, snarled, and elbowed to deposit their belongings onto the waiting train. His own family roiled among them.” “Roiled,” here, is a grammatically odd choice—do people roil?—and with repetition the flaw is compounded.
The numerous rhetorical glitches, however, point to a more serious philosophical issue. In its ambitious attempt to capture all the chaos of three generations of Jews in an alien city—all the “roiling”—Bezmozgis fails to sufficiently flesh out his individual characters. Where this becomes most obvious is with the character of Samuil, whose pro-Stalinist worldview feels like little more than a caricature. Samuil is an outdated relic of the old guard, and his death (after he stubbornly chooses to walk home in the heat of Rome when his tram stalls) forces an analogy to the death of communism. Bezmozgis’ rather obvious point is that Samuil’s descendants, in contrast, inhabit the “free world”—living now in a land where personal relationships reign instead of ideology.
Bezmozgis has clearly done his research (his acknowledgements note both interviews of Soviet emigrants and close study of documents in the New York Public Library). And a great deal of his motivation likely lies in recovering his own past—his native Canada is currently home to the fourth-largest Jewish population in the world, thousands of whom arrived as part of the 1970s wave of Soviet immigrants. But because of this desire to make an argument, the voices of his characters are nearly interchangeable, either dissolving into adjectives—the “gaunt, intellectual-looking woman”—or becoming puppets for plot or ideology.
In addition to writing, Bezmozgis has directed films, including the 2009 Sundance entry “Victoria Day”; he received his Master of Fine Arts from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema. Indeed, it is fair to say that his book reads as a series of scripted scenes—events meant to be seen, aiming for the sharp effect of the visual rather than psychological or linguistic experimentation. The novel is written in chapters focused on alternating characters, and each chapter ends trimly, with an (inconsistently successful) attempt at a flourish. Bezmozgis does occasionally alight on a charming detail: watching his grandchildren play on the beach at Ladispoli, for instance, Samuil marvels at how perfectly they can adapt to any environment, and remembers the simplicities of his own childhood, when his mother would rub sour cream on his sunburnt back. It is a luminous image. But rather than allowing it to linger, Bezmozgis merely rushes on to the next event.
How hollow this feels when held up against the Jewish novel of the 1950s, almost obsessively concerned with pinning down individual characters and small details. There, collapsed into one life or object, the shifting terrains of memory became convincing fragments of truth—hence the magnificent, koan-like power in Malamud’s “The Fixer” of the “half a yellow sugar lump” dug out of a caftan pocket, or the last glass of tea before boarding a carriage in the icy cold. Indeed, a peculiar, potent paradox exists at the root of the Jewish plight—one of which Malamud and other writers were painfully aware, and which Bezmozgis leaves completely unexplored. Russian Jews left their homeland in large part because they believed in something transcending the materialistic, technology-driven Soviet culture. To reconstruct their past solely in the materialistic terms of bare facts would thus be more than inadequate—it would be unethical. This is why so many Jewish writers, in grappling with their past, have approached the subject indirectly, drawing on allegory or paying serious attention to detail rather than attempting straightforward explanation. Bezmozgis takes on the theme of Jewishness explicitly, and yet the degree to which it is absent in the novel, as either subject matter or approach, is striking. At one point, Alec explains his attraction to Polina: “There were very few women who possessed perpetual mystery—who revealed less than they knew and remained, at some level, mysterious even to themselves.” “The Free World” offers plenty of facts, but its superficial clarity only pushes Bezmozgis—and the reader—further from real understanding.
—Staff writer Jessica A. Sequeira can be reached at email@example.com.
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