Popular Jews

Mila 18.
by Leon Uris.
Doubleday. 539 pp. $4.95.

The career of Mr. Leon Uris tells a curious literary and cultural story. It might at first not seem worthy of note that a gifted writer of hard-core trash should three times out of the last four have made the bestseller lists in America—even though the times have accustomed us to somewhat different standards of book popularity. It might also seem quite natural that sooner or later such a writer would turn his talents to blood-and-thunder novels about illegal immigration to Israel and Jewish resistance to the Nazis in Warsaw: these are exciting subjects which only, as it turned out, needed someone of sufficiently strong stomach to make fictions out of them.

Mr. Uris, however, has done a great deal more than merely wax rich and famous—possibilities, after all, open to any American whose commodity finds its proper market. He has become the master chronicler and ambassador of Jewish aspiration not only to the Gentiles but to the Jews themselves. His commodity has in fact found a market far out of proportion, numerically and sociologically, to its special quality. By now it is unlikely that more than a handful of literate Americans have not either read one of his Jewish novels or been engaged in at least one passionate discussion about him with someone who has. I am referring particularly, of course, to Exodus, whose early sales were modest though steady and then Somehow suddenly mushroomed beyond a publisher’s wildest fantasies—and the power of whose effects, both on Jewish morale and on Israel’s public relations, was witnessed by a staggeringly varied mass of readers.

In his review of Exodus in these pages (June 1959), Joel Blocker pointed out that the novel took its form directly from the movie it was meant to become. That is so, but somehow the observation does an injustice to the workings of Mr. Uris’s genre. Movies, after all, have available to their manipulation the actual physical images of beautiful and glamorous people, movie stars. Mr. Uris’s prose writes movie stars, which is no simple matter—especially in view of the postures these stars are given to assume. The muscles of every hero must threaten to rip through his clothing; adolescent heroines must awake to the stirring of strange new feelings within their budding breasts; Christian (possibly frigid) ladies must throw themselves at their brooding Jewish fighter-lovers; foreign correspondents and free-lance pilots must lose their hardened cynical hearts; etc. And all through a vast number of pages and carefully researched historical details.

Mila 18 is an account of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943, and is at this writing third on the best-seller list. The book will certainly never achieve the colossal triumph of its predecessor—if for no other reason than that it has a predecessor. It is, however, undoubtedly consolidating Mr. Uris’s position with the readers of Exodus: for it is the same book, covering slightly different ground—the Jewish heroism of Exodus carried retroactively, as it were, to the Warsaw Ghetto. The author intends, as he says in a foreword to the paperback edition of Exodus, “. . . [to write] about fighting people, people who do not apologize either for being born Jews or the right to live in human dignity.” Left “where they rightfully belong, on the cutting-room floor” have been “. . . all those steeped in self-pity . . . all those golden riders of the psychoanalysis couch.” Such an intention is foolproof. Who in this world would not happily accept an honest-to-God fighting man in trade for someone who rides couches?

This reviewer must confess that she sat down one evening not long ago with a copy of Exodus—after adamantly refusing to read it for two years—and did not move from the chair until morning and the last page. Not only is one, with a book like this, relieved of all the nagging, whining, doubting of most current literature, and provided instead with the refreshment of characters who think simply and act, act, act all the time; one is also on every page succumbing to an irresistible kind of titillation. For Mr. Uris’s work is pornographic—not in the sense of being about, or arousing, sex, but in applying the kind of prurience usually associated with sex to the other human passions. Like the ladies’-magazine fiction from which it derives, it is a pornography of the feelings; and this, while perhaps not as universally affecting as true pornography, has much the same power to set off pure fantasies.

Christopher de Monti held his head between his legs and began to vomit. He vomited until his guts screamed with pain. Page after page it went. The full report of Andrei Androfski, the reports of a handful of survivors of Treblinka and Chelmno and the labor camps.

“God! What have I done?” he cried in anguish. “I am a Judas! I am a Judas!”

The puke and the tears and the pain and the liquor crushed on him and he fell to the floor in a dead faint.

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Nevertheless there remains the riddle of why these books by themselves have seemed to accomplish what years of persuasion, arguments, appeals, and knowledge of the events themselves, have failed to do—why people have claimed to be converted to Zionism, uplifted, thrilled, enthralled by them. A standard answer, of course, is that novels make facts and ideas vivid. But to get involved in comparing the “vividness” of Mila 18 with that of, say, a Swedish documentary film called Mein Kampf would bring us to subtle and technical questions of social psychology.

The real answer to the riddle lies in the unwitting revolution Mr. Uris has wrought: he has for the first time brought off genuine trash about Jews. I say “unwitting” because Mr. Uris writes as he writes; whatever the subject, his sensibility remains what it is. But for his readers, particularly his Jewish readers, he has created the possibility of seeing Jews not as the troublesome and incomprehensible heroes that decent social conscience has always demanded but as the kind of heroes that middle-class dream-life has conditioned us all to make our most immediate responses to. This is of course not to say that nothing bad has ever before been written about Jews under the Nazis or in Israel; in fact, almost nothing good (in a literary way) has. It is to say that nothing has been written about them before without the depressing demands of an inarticulate piety for Jewish experience in Europe; even novels about plushy Jewish life in America are shadowed by it somewhere. “Jewish fate” is always a hint to remind you that this is no easy or pleasurable matter—like the broken glass that is supposed to commemorate national destruction at every wedding. Plunging right into the heart of that Jewish fate at its most terrifying, Mr. Uris has nevertheless created a fantasy that all Americans can at the very least understand and at the most be considerably excited by. It is as if for years and years people who read about Jews had to keep one eye on the next world and now they have been paid off with something for this one.

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