Duddy, oh Duddy
As part of my pledge to myself to blog my leisure reading for you, dear Readers, I am going to write about The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordechai Richler. This book has been on my “to-read” list for ages, largely because of the volume of German-Jewish literature I was reading for research and teaching and my need to expand my knowledge of diaspora Jewish literature beyond the German. Business + pleasure = Richler.
A year or two ago, I read Barney’s Version by Richler and it took me a while to get into it. I thought perhaps this was because I didn’t have the necessary Richler/Montreal/Jewish/Canadian literary or cultural background to “get it.” And eventually Barney and his tale grew on me: he was a sheister, a shady businessman, a wealthy man who came by his wealth honestly sometimes and dishonestly, too. Duddy is the original Barney. Or, as a friend here put it: The rub on Richler is that he writes the same novel over and over again every four or five years or so. To this verdict I can only amend: the protagonists age as Richler himself does. Duddy the grubby St. Urbain urchin who schemes to buy land up north morphs into Barney, the middle-aged Montreal Jew with a cabin in the Quebec north woods. And I’ll grant Richler a pretty compelling plot line, if one that is rather well-worn in the pages of twentieth-century literature.
The bummer of reading Duddy for me, though, was that I enjoyed Richler’s craft more than I enjoyed his story. He is a good writer; he draws his characters well; I felt I knew a couple of them and saw what the others represented in the social fabric of the narrative. But the story itself, the plot, just tired me out. The title is a surefire giveaway that this story is entirely Duddy’s own and follows his development (or aging, as Duddy doesn’t really develop at all–he remains a selfish teenager at heart) from the selfish vantage point of his own wants and needs. Duddy is unconcerned with the Yvette, with Vergil, with his peers as he forges ahead with his plans to impress the men in his family. Mom, of course, is dead. Aunt Ida is, maybe, crazy. Women . . . they are so inessential to the drama of the male psyche. I grow weary of such narratives.
Marie Kaschnitz, Ruth Klüger, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein–there are women writing “Jewish” fiction in Germany, Austria, and the US that doesn’t focus on the feminine experience of being the marginalized Jew. (Of course, Klüger and Goldstein and others do remark on the marginality of the female Jew within the observant Jewish community itself.) I see the characters in Kaschnitz’s prose, or in Goldsteins, as being more fully rounded, more accessible (to me?) than the penile-focussed, artist-as-a-young-man characters offered by Richler, Biller, Roth, et al. I tend to reject out of hand the contention that women write for women, or are better understood by women, and men for men. I think my benchmark of good writing is prose that allows any reader to see into the characters, to see the universal in the specific example the author has crafted. As a woman reading, I resent being excluded and marginalized by the text as it comes into being.
So, up on my feminist soap box, I saunter off to read some Margaret Atwood. G’night, Ladies.