For most of the twentieth century, the historical novel—defined simply by Sir Walter Scott’s subtitle of his first novel in thee genre he made famous, Waverley, as ‘’tis sixty years hence,”—was severely unfashionable. A prestige novel was either a subversive formal experiment like Ulysses—admittedly a novel of the near past, but not a historical novel—or, more frequently, a meticulously wrought novella told from a limited third-arson point-of-view and deliberately excluding contextual arenas such as history Glenway Wescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk being a sterling example. Historical novels (such as Hervey Allen's Anthony Adverse) were left for purely popular readership, and garnered sale,s but were not con sired art. By the end of the twentieth century, matters had reversed course entirely, and historical fiction came back with a vengeance, both from the left (postcolonial fiction, feminist fiction, what Linda Hutcheon termed “historiographic metafiction,”) and from more or less the mainstream (Cold Mountain, Possession, Mason & Dixon) that, though without the rewriting history-from-below agenda of the earlier categories, were using the new permissibility of history in fiction to unsettle established truths.
Just as the modernist exclusion of history contributed to the later stages of modernism being arid and deracinated, so did the postmodern inclusion of history lead to a reductivism, as if history was just a miraculous substrate that could automatically give meaning to a story and make it resonant. Magical realism, with its frequent use of history as a base on with to ground experience and mystery, was an offender in this regard; and, notably, the generation of Latin American novelists the replaced the Boom writers—not all of whom wrote magical realism, but most of whom wrote historical novels—pursued the historical novel as well, but did so in a fashion at once more matter-of-fact and more intimate: as seen in works such as Leonardo Padura's The Man Who Loved Dogs, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Tyrant Memory, and Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas.
A similar development is occurring in US fiction, but from a very different direction. I have previously mentioned Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life and Karolyn Miller’s Under The Red Ribbon as examples of historical fiction by American women writers that is interested in historical settings but do not draw upon history for a source of meaning in itself. Another novel—the best written, in a literary sense of the three--is Ronna Wineberg's On Bittersweet Place. This is s a story of Jewish immigration to the US in the 1920’s from Eastern Europe, but without any of the shtick and stereotypes usually associated with the subject, and also shorn of excessive generalizations about what ‘Europe,” America,” or even “modernity” were at the time. I have a personal stake in this, as my own paternal grandparents made a similar migration from similar circumstances at a similar time, and what little of their experience I was able to talk about with them was very much reflected in the tone and mentality, if not the specific events of Wineberg’s novel.
Bittersweet Place is not a metaphor, but a real street in Chicago, “one long block and narrow like a snake, a street that went nowhere,” and this novel works out of this real datum and develops metaphorical implications out of it that are earned and probative—one thinks of Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabiaas another recent book that does this vis a vis its title and a real place. The idea of the bittersweet can, in the wrong hand, become a smarmy, fifty-fifty compromise between positive and negative, but WIneberg does not strive for emotional balance but for a sense of how the heroine does not let her negative experiences erase her positive ones, how she manages, in her emotional accounting, to keep them on separate ledgers. The writing, --austere, elegant, not without a subtext of pain and anger—strengths this by not becoming too emotional even as it touches highly charged ad personal subjects.
The felicitously named Lena Czernitski is our protagonist and narrator. She is a girl in her early teens whose family has fled Russia after the war (the point is made—pertinently to current circumstances--that the family was fleeing both the new Bolshevik state and the Ukrainian nationalist forces associated with Symon Petliura) and moved to Chicago. Early on in the novel, two traumatic events occur, which I think I can relate without spoiling the entire book, so central are they to the book’s narrative premises. Lena’s uncle, Maurice Roberts (née Moshe Rubolsky, a sour ne’er-do-well who nonetheless is accepted as a member of the extended family, is urged by his sister to be a mensch. This is not remotely in his area of competence, though, and indeed Maurice shows himself to be quite the obverse when he brutally sexually assaults her in a fashion which shocks the reader and makes the entire book more dire and urgent in tone than it otherwise would have been. What is most horrific about Maurice’s violation of Lena is his justification for it. He tells her, “Our people needs secrets to live.” In other words, he is saying that, to survive in a world dominated by hostile Gentiles, Jews need secrets even of their own repugnant making; that in the wake of a religion which clearly does not compel Maurice either theologically or ethically, some other, substitute or ersatz secret, must be concocted, even at the cost of his niece’s integrity and innocence; or that a downtrodden group deprived by his place in the social hierarchy from secrets—elite identities, outsider-excluding institutions like, at the time, the Ivy League colleges—of their own, most forge them by hurting and traumatizing their kin. Maurice s justification is at once so preposterous and so in-character for a particular kind of warped subaltern figure that it puts On Bittersweet Place into a very different moral cockpit than if he had merely offered on justification at all.
Equally devastating if less immediately traumatic is the death of Lena’s young cousin, Leah Grace, Lena at first sees Leah as the golden child, the one who will be fully American, with an American-sounding name. Leah will be, someone, unlike Lena, ‘cleansed of the old.” But Leah dies as a young child, and it is left to Lena to be the golden one, the cleansed one, or as much of that as she can conjure. This is the opposite issue than if, say, her mother had died, and Lena had to be the leader of the family; she has to instead assume the burden of being the future, being the hope, and while this may seem to open opportunities it is also an additional burden for her to bear on top of those she already has. The death of Leah makes the novel multi-dimensional and bring up an unconventional situation—of a child being affected by the death of a younger relative into becoming a different person—rarely seen in fiction. Leah’s death is an additional spur; along with the desire to do “penance for Maurice's poor judgment,” that propels her inexorably if remorsefully forward. Yet there are countervailing forces in the novel as well: Lena’s boyfriend, Max, is from a more cultivated German-Jewish background and their young love is poignantly and affectinglly portrayed with just enough realism to make the prose tingle. Lena, despite the traumas she has experienced, remains a romantic, and her desire for a “grand love” that would erase ‘awful memory” has something in it of her elder fictional contemporary, Jay Gatsby, and his “romantic readiness.”
Lena’s family and Max’s family are different, though in that Max's father has what the Czernitskis see as intellectual pretensions. that, as Lena’s father puts it, “we don to belong with them: and that they are not “unsere leite”. Lena pushes back that she happens “to like books” and picture an abstract world of beauty and light. Here we have the conflict between immigrant practicality and American dreaming; but also a highly intra-American conflict between says, pragmatism and transcendentalism.
One of the most fascinating aspect of On Bittersweet Place is how quickly the Czernitski family and their relatives become Americanized: how they not only take American names but assume American identities. While reading On Bittersweet Place I realized that I had erred in seeing the problems of my paternal grandparents as Jewish problems, European problems, immigrant problems, when in fact, like the family portrayed here, they had speedily assimilated into American life and adopted its character and mannerisms. If America for these people was the goldene medina, the golden country (this made me think of Jennifer Gilmore’s Golden Country, set in similar circumstances even if at a different emotional pitch) an elasticity which is both a tribute to the resilience of these brave people and the relative pluralism and applicability of American society at the time, even if that pluralism (a word itself coined by an American Jew, Horace Kallen of the New School) was not only limited but, precisely because of this applicability, a bit bland, thin, and superficial. These new Americans, and thoroughly Americans, were yet, though, still outsiders: their problems were American problems compounded by a sense of not totally being in the society’s core group even as, to simplify, they already felt the society’s core feelings, or as much of its core feelings as a polyglot and heterogeneous society such as the US can even have. The problems of Lena and Max, Maurice and William, made me see that I could learn about my paternal grandparents by reading books like Invisible Man, written by an African American, or America Is In The Heart, written by a Filipino-American, as much as books like The Rise of David Levinsky, written obviously by a Jew; that this dual, tantalizing sense of assimilation and alienation that Wineberg’s characters feel was the key to their experience: this is the “narrow bridge” Lena’s father describes the world as being. These people have access to the future, but only along certain limited vectors; and this enabling-disabling paradox frames the course of their lives.
Ronna Wineberg’s vision is, indeed, pleasingly paradoxical: it does not bind the reader to one way of reasoning, An important touchstone for this is when Lena’s father, trying to improve his English, reads negative review of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy: “To me, Theodore Dreiser’s books have no beauty. They are always badly written.” Lena’s father recognizes that this does not mean Dreiser is not worth learning about, that it’s “important to learn about books, even ones you will never read.” This wisdom-reminiscent of a more liberal and inclusive version of E. D. Hirsch’s 'cultural literacy’, is indicative of how On Bittersweet Place does not insist on its own lyrical, austere intimate approach to history as normative, even as we see in its pages how advantageous, as least at our current moment, this mode might be.
On Bittersweet Place is an exemplary novel in itself, but also a lesson in how twenty-first century fiction can use both the thematic scope of postmodernism and the asceticism of mainstream modernism to tread its own path, even if, in this case, the path is a bittersweet one.