Every Friday, Jewish Currents staff, board members, and other supporters send out a selection of books and articles from other publications we’ve been reading (and maybe the occasional movie or TV show or album). We spend a lot of time developing and promoting our own work, but we want to offer you a look at what else is on our minds.
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Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): I just got my hands on a copy of the recently-released story collection I’d Like To Say Sorry But There’s No One To Say Sorry To by Polish Jewish author Mikołaj Grynberg, translated by Sean Gasper Bye. The book functions as a series of short, fictional monologues, in which Grynberg, best-known in Poland as an oral historian of the Shoah and its generational fallout, channels the voices of successive generations of Jewish and non-Jewish Poles—or, as sometimes happens in these stories, both at once in the same person, either living a double life or having recently discovered a buried Jewish heritage. The stories variously push against or bounce off of or cower from or shatter the postwar silences from which the contours of contemporary Polish life have been drawn. This silence—you might also call it trauma—possesses the speakers, ventriloquizes them, sometimes telling stories other than the ones they speak.
Jewish Currents was the first to publish Grynberg’s work in English: the first several stories from this book made up our 2019 Winter Gift, published under its Polish title: Rejwach (a former editor at The New Press, the publisher of the complete volume, is a JC subscriber). I was deeply struck by these stories when I first encountered them in 2019, and the project as a whole gains something significant through accrual, leaving the reader with the feeling that they are encountering not just a collection of stories, but a taxonomy of the ways the war has been metabolized (or more often, not) by ordinary people. Critically, it also offers a multifaceted portrait of Eastern European antisemitism—from the “good liberal” Pole dressing down the author for “making a fuss” about some antisemitic graffiti, to non-Jewish members of the owning class tormented by accusations of Jewishness from their employees, to a “righteous among the nations” who approaches an encounter with the progeny of the Jew he saved with barely-concealed disgust. I’ve recalled these passages again and again in the last month of fighting in Ukraine. Putin’s “denazification” campaign is a horrific sham. But when the dust settles, questions about Holocaust memory and how they interact with questions of an inclusive Eastern European nationalism will persist. Without any political grandstanding, this book offers a window into the difficulties of these projects through the individual psyche.
P.S. Join us next Sunday, April 3rd, for a dramatic reading from I’d Like To Say Sorry But There’s No One To Say Sorry To, including readings by the translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones, the legendary fiction writer Deborah Eisenberg, and the author himself.
Mari Cohen (assistant editor): I may not be as devoted to alien hunting as my colleague Arielle Angel, but I’ll admit to harboring my own alien fantasies on occasion. Specifically, I have long been fascinated by the specter of alien arrival as an opportunity for rupture and reflection: how might we rethink our base societal structures if we are suddenly forced to confront a perspective completely outside of them? Jewish Currents contributor Hannah Black’s new novella Tuesday or September or the End takes place in a 2020 that is almost exactly as ours was, only a little different: the social democratic candidate Moley Salamanders is making his last stand in the Democratic primary; president Pig is engaged in furious denial as a contagious virus begins to sweep the nation; protagonists and lovers Bird and Dog are locked in the same cyclical argument, in which each both exasperates and relies on the other: must the left adopt pragmatism, using the state as a vehicle for transformation, or settle only for total revolution? One of the main things that’s a little different is that in addition to a global pandemic and an unprecedented nationwide Black uprising, Bird and Dog’s world is beset by the mysterious, sudden arrival of aliens, which is less deux ex machina than butterfly effect for an entirely alternate set of political and personal outcomes. In a moment in which the revolutionary potential of the early pandemic social organizing and the uprising can seem hard to recall, Black’s daring and dreamy narrative asks us to think about what might have been—in the process reminding us to recover the seeds of possibility in what was.
Cynthia Friedman (operations manager): When I was in college ten years ago (wow!), I took a few classes on aging and ageism that were taught by an inimitable professor named Andrea Steiner as part of the Community Studies department that was unique to UC Santa Cruz. The lectures, films, and readings for the classes shaped my thinking on how power and oppression relate to age, and how relatively little attention we (the left, and certainly the younger left) pay to the structural forces—such as widespread segregation and high poverty rates—that we protest against when they affect other communities and identities. Alongside very real material impacts for many people, this failure to prioritize support for older Americans seeds a deep emotional loss in those of us who are still, for the moment, younger: many of us will one day become old, and when we get there, we’ll enter an identity that we have always held apart as if it were a stranger, rather than having been able to see ourselves in it all along.
I had a friend in those classes who, over the years, I’ve kept in touch with sporadically—a handful of letters or Instagram messages sent back and forth over a decade. (One card she sent, pinned to my bulletin board, has a drawing of a topless older woman sitting on a stool, shaded with colored pencil.) Last year, I read a review of Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through, and made myself a note to send a copy to Jayme. The review framed the book beautifully, and I knew she would enjoy it. This year, upon finding the note, I bought myself a copy to read, instead. The book’s narrator shares with the reader thoughts that, clearly, she shares only very selectively outside of her own internal monologue. It’s a real gift to be let in.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): There has never been an artist as deeply implicated in radical politics as the Frenchman Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). Classical as all his work was, thoroughly embedded as it was in the forms and tropes and methods of his time, the show dedicated to him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jacques-Louis David, Radical Draftsman, demonstrates that David applied the techniques he was immersed in for politically radical ends.
This is not a show dedicated to his large canvases; although we have sketches here for his magnificent “Marat’s Final Sigh”, you’ll still have to go to Brussels to see the original. The show is dedicated to showing the development of some of David’s greatest works, like “The Tennis Court Oath” or “The Coronation of Napoleon,” or “The Oath of the Horatii.” We see him experimenting with different poses, with the placement of individuals. The exhibition is full of sheets with grids over which David placed his subjects. The painter’s subjects are all present in their uniqueness, the sketches in the show including the nudes he used as the basis for the posed figures over which he would later paint their clothing, thus ensuring the attire hung correctly. Radical Draftsman is a lesson in the process of figurative painting in the classical period, and would be worth visiting if that were all there was to it.
But David was a radical, one who aligned his art and activities with the Jacobins, counting Robespierre and Marat among his friends. He served on government art commissions, fought to take art from the hands of the elite, and organized festivals and memorials for martyred revolutionaries, men and boys killed by the forces of the fallen monarchy. His Marat was painted to hang in the halls of the National Convention, of which David was a member, sitting on the left with his fellow Jacobins, to inspire its members to defend the gains of the Revolution.
The French Revolution was one that truly aimed to change life, and included here are David’s designs for new uniforms—more like costumes—to be worn by judges and representatives of the people in the new Republic.
David was jailed after the fall of Robespierre, and Radical Draftsman includes a series of stirringly drawn portraits’ of fellow Jacobin prisoners. The rise of Napoleon saw David become the first artist of the new Empire, painting massive works in celebration of the Napoleonic epic. The show and its excellent catalog are agnostic on the subject of David’s sincerity in his work for Bonaparte, which forced him to falsify events in his paintings. Most egregiously, he painted over Empress Josephine in a scene she attended because Napoleon had since divorced her. But the verve, the elan, the fire in his Napoleonic paintings and the careful work in the sketchbooks make it clear to me that for David, Napoleon was above all the man who spread the values of the French Revolution that made them both.