Books give me ideas. I love to be between one book and another. It’s like being between one place and another. I’m always walking – it seems – from one idea to another. I like to retrace my steps because I might stumble – like a schlemiel – across something.
Wandering around New York City, I always make it a point to drop into some of my favorite bookstores and browse the stacks. I am always on the lookout for something rare and out-of-print or something new and relevant to my schlemiel project. Book stores are wonderful places and I always have books that I am searching for and I’m always looking for a new book store. And since writers always give the best tips for where to go, I always make it a point to ask them whenever I can.
I was fortunate this time because I scheduled an interview with the unique poet and performing artist of the new digital age, Kenneth Goldsmith – a compelling and insightful interview into art, culture, and the political in the digital age that I will soon be publishing at Berfrois. (I’ve written on his work recently and had to meet him, especially since he opened a new window onto the schlemiel in the digital age for me in his latest book. His reading of the Netural (Barthes) and the “infrathin”(Duchamp) are of special interest to me.) Goldsmith took me over to the Rizzoli Bookstore. Believe it or not, this was my first time there. After Goldsmith dropped me off and went to work on a new book project on Andy Warhol, I started browsing.
Within a few seconds my eye hit a book that I’ve been wanting to read for a while, Jesse Eisenberg’s short story/short fiction collection, Bream Gives Me Hiccups. After reading an interview with him on the book for Tablet, I knew, without a doubt, that he was looking to (re)create the schlemiel for a millennial audience. I bought the book immediately and the ideas started flowing. Since I usually think in a dialectical and historical manner, I knew that I had to find a book on the schlemiel from another era that could compliment that one.
My feet led me to the Strand Book Store (which isn’t far from the Rizzoli). And I knew exactly what out-of-print book I needed to find and why: Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses. This book, written in the 60s, provides not only a great example of the schlemiel in baby-boomer literature (other than, Philip Roth’s Alex Portnoy or Bellow’s Moses Herzog); it provides an example of the relationship between the schlemiel and his mother as formative of his character.
What is the difference between Eisenberg’s depiction of the mother-schlemiel son relationship and Friedman’s? The difference, I find, is significant. It marks a generation gap. While Friedman’s narrator and schlemiel character – and also Roth and his Portnoy – hold the mother responsible for the schlemiel’s sexual inadequacy (David Biale calls this character – drawing on Woody Allen and Roth – the “sexual schlemiel”), Eisenberg does not. He does this, at the outset of his collection, by making his schlemiel character a nine-year-old boy who is – like I.B. Singer’s Gimpel or Sholem Aleichem’s Motl – dedicated to honesty. His mother – like the community that Gimpel lives in – likes to lie. She is anxious. He is smart, observant. Eisenberg provides the reader with his restaurant reviews which are the product of his dinners with his single mother. I’ll cite the first review – of a sushi restaurant they go to – so as to illustrate this relationship.
One of the things the boy notices is that his mother and others around him are angry and much of this has to do with the fact that they act “as if” all is well when it’s not. (As Hannah Arendt notes in her reading of Heinrich Heine’s schlemiel, the schlemiel character often exposes the ridiculousness of cultural fakery and Eisenberg’s first section is a great example of this hypocrisy.)
The first thing they brought us was a rolled-up wet washcloth, which I unrolled and put on my lap because mom always said that the first thing I have to do in a nice restaurant is put a napkin in my lap. Bu this napkin was hot and wet. It made me feel like I peed in my pants. Mom got angry and asked me if I was stupid.
The angry woman (the waitress) then brought a little bowl of mashed-up red fish bodies in a brown sauce and said that it was tuna fish, which I guess was a lie because it didn’t taste like tuna and made me want to puke right here on the table. But Mom said that I had to eat it because Sushi Nozawa was “famous for their tuna.” At school, there was a kid named Billy who everyone secretly calls Billy the Bully and who puts toothpaste on the teacher’s chair before she comes into the classroom. He is also famous. (4)
For millennials this message resonates because hypocrisy is a major issue. The intelligent schlemiel character sees contradictions while, at the same time, also being naïve and comic (but not contradictory because he’s not lying; he’s simply mistaken). He rebels against his mother by noting these contradictions.
In contrast, the opening paragraphs of Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses lays out the problem right away: the issue is not honesty so much as freedom. The mother is responsible for enslaving the schlemiel child and making him fearful. She isn’t even present. She has a surrogate enslave him and this makes her into a royal and powerful kind of figure who just wants to subdue her child from a distance:
Once, when he was five, a Negro woman had been assigned to watch him through the summer, allowing him to wander only twenty paces in each direction. Each time he reached the edge of a building and tried to go around it she would reign him back to her side. He spent the summer a lidless city pavement animal, tied to a chain, wheeling drugged and lazy in the sun. Now, twelve years later, it seemed Joseph was chained again and that there was nothing left to do but stand in front of the apartment house and stretch and try to breathe and wait for the days to pass. There did not seem to be any way for him to get off by himself around some corner. (9)
He is stuck. Joseph’s failures – and Friedman lists one after another – are blamed on his mother. He can’t get around the corner, he can’t be free or successful, because of her. Joseph lacks a sexual libido and because he was never free he doesn’t know how to act on his sexual impulses:
Joseph whiled away some of his days sunbathing on the roof of his apartment building; she (Eileen Fastner, named “Fasty”) would take a chair next to him, lowering her halter straps sophisticatedly and giving him leads on what to expect in the way of freshmen in Beowulf lectures. But she was still “Fasty” to him. (11)
While David Biale notes (thinking of Woody Allen’s characters and Roth’s Portnoy) that the “sexual schlemiel” has a big libido and a small ego, Friedman’s schlemiel doesn’t even have a libido. He’s indifferent. He’s like a “lidless city pavement animal, tied to a chain, wheeling lazy drugged and lazy in the sun.” He is described as a “tall and scattered looking boy”(11). The father doesn’t help either. It seems he and his son have given up while the overbearing mother looks on in disappointment.
The generation gap can be seen in these two portraits of the schlemiel that span a gap of over forty years. The relationship between the schlemiel son and his mother discloses two entirely different concerns. Eisenberg is not concerned with freedom. He’s concerned with honesty and authenticity. His schlemiel character is charming while Friedman’s is not. While there is resentment of the mother in both accounts, there is a significant difference in degree. To be sure, while the reader of Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses (or Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint) doesn’t have sympathy for the mother, the opposite is the case for Eisenberg’s novel. The father isn’t present and one feels pity for the mother, while Freidman’s novel resentment overshadows any pity or empathy. One can understand why the mother lies in Eisenberg’s novel. She is insecure about her identity and herself. She needs some love and some confidence. And she could borrow some of that from her son, a schlemiel, who believes that honesty is the best policy. In Freidman’s novel, one doesn’t get that sense at all. The mother has nothing to learn from her schlemiel son. They are both sad characters without any hope of redemption.
The gap is telling. It made me think, as I was walking through the streets of New York, that millennials have much different priorities. I am from Generation X. I inherited the neuroses of my parents. But I don’t want them. I want something that they seemed to have skipped over or missed. But that’s right.
The sexual schlemiel is a legacy of sorts, but there are other aspects of the schlemiel that we find in, say, Woody Allen, that appeal to Eisenberg. Awkwardness remains, as we can see in Eisenberg’s story. But it has more to do with being honest than with having a big libido and a little ego. The charm of the schlemiel dwells in the awkwardness that comes with honesty and naivite.
But what’s most interesting is that this harkens back to Singer’s Gimpel and Bellow’s Herzog not Friedman’s Joseph or Roth’s Portnoy. In these characters, the charm is in the trust that the schlemiel has for the other. While they may be betrayed or lied to by this or that person, they always give them another chance. And while some people would call them fools for doing so, it seems as if Eisenberg would do the contrary. Although he is comically punished for being honest, he still is conscious of it. His inaction or hesitancy to speak – knowing that he may get knocked – comes out in these little pieces.
Like Bellow’s Herzog, Eisenberg’s nine-year-old takes notes. But that’s their charm. The schlemiel lives on in child-like-men and in men-like-children. As Herzog notes, it was his mother’s love that made him so naïve and sweet. But this is not a bad thing. It’s an awkward thing, for, as Eisenberg shows, sometimes mothers forget and children remember.
That doesn’t make them bad. It shows that sometimes mother’s let social anxiety get the better of them and sometimes children do, too. But society isn’t what counts today (or as Arendt shows with Heine and Chaplin, ever). Honesty does. Experience does. And all experience – for all the things we miss – is comical. We shouldn’t be resentful. Reading Eisenberg, I am reminded about how the schlemiel teaches us to be charitable.
These are my thoughts – between books, generations, and blocks of Manhattan – on the schlemiel.