The Arty Semite

Rejecting Art for Art's Sake at the Canadian Jewish Book Awards

By Ezra Glinter

  • Print
  • Share Share

The New York literary scene may currently be all caught up in Book Expo America, but in Toronto a smaller literary celebration is being held tonight at the Canadian Jewish Book Awards. Among the honorees are Robin McGrath for her Newfoundland-based novel, “The Winterhouse” (Killik Press) David Sax for his book, “Save the Deli” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and Winnipeg historian Allan Levine for his comprehensive “Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba.”

One of the most impressive winners, however, is a book of essays by Toronto poet Kenneth Sherman titled “What the Furies Bring” (Porcupine’s Quill), in the Jewish Thought & Culture category. As Sherman notes in his introduction, the essays are a response, of sorts, to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when he began pondering the role of literature in confronting cataclysmic world events.

The result is a critical rejection of an ‘art for art’s sake’ approach to literature. “The true writer — not the propagandist and not the giddy experimenter — is engaged in a difficult dialogue with the real,” Sherman writes. His essays thus discuss writers who were most effective at addressing horrific events and circumstances, such as the Holocaust and the Soviet Gulag.

While many of Sherman’s subjects are fairly expected (Primo Levi, Anne Frank), others are less known, though no less heroic. In an essay on the poet Varlam Shalamov, who spent 17 years in the Gulag, Sherman writes that “of the survivors of the Nazis and Soviet camps who wrote about their experiences — Jean Améry, Tadeusz Borowski, Primo Levi, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Evgenia Ginzburg — Shalamov has emerged as the supreme artist.” Sherman further describes Shalamov’s work as “a sort of documentary fiction, fixed in historical experience but transcending history through poetic device.”

Other essays discuss the Warsaw Ghetto diaries of Chaim Kaplan and Vasily Grossman’s writings on Treblinka, as well writers as different from each other as Wallace Stevens — who described poetry as “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without” — and H.G. Wells, whose dystopian novel, “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” Sherman interprets as “an astonishingly exact and detailed analysis of the fascistic personality.” Despite such prescience, Sherman concludes that “authors do not possess crystal balls; whatever is prophetic in their work is built upon the acute observations they make of their own time.”


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Allan Levine, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Anne Frank, Books, Canadian Jewish Book Awards, Chaim Kaplan, David Sax, Evgenia Ginzburg, H.G. Wells, Jean Améry, Kenneth Sherman, Primo Levi, Robin McGrath, Save the Deli, Tadeusz Borowski, The Winterhouse, Varlam Shalamov, Vasily Grossman, Wallace STevens

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.