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!
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • 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.