[ITNA; 2023]

Through the gossip mill of history, we hear of a mythical Jew. This man attended the court of Pontius Pilate during one fateful Passover, and heckled that other, much more famous mythical Jew. Versions differ, but most accounts have this man, sometimes known as Buttadeus (“to strike god”), kicking Jesus in the tuchus on his way to the crucifixion. Jesus proclaims that the man shall not die until the Son of Man comes into his kingdom, thereby cursing him to wander the earth until the second coming of Christ. Somewhere, still, he wanders.

Some say this man is perpetually old and haggard. Some say he ages until he turns one hundred, at which point he regresses to the thirty-year-old he was when Jesus cursed him, and so on. Many say he was a shoemaker. A few imagine that he has a day of rest on Christmas. The variations of the myth reveal much about the historical and political context in which they were reproduced: A wandering signifier, this mythical man shows us to ourselves. The earliest extant written account of the myth comes from thirteenth-century England, just a few decades before Edward I expelled the entire Jewish population from the Isle. A sanctimonious seventeenth-century text renders him as a pitiful figure, a living caution to his coreligionists around the world. In a famous series of mid-nineteenth–century wood panels by the French illustrator Gustave Doré, the weary Jew wanders sublime landscapes with a large staff, his floor-length beard billowing like a plume of smoke. In one panel’s inscription, townsfolk gather to heckle “the weird senescence of that wondrous man.” He’s an exotic curio, amusing and harmless until the next economic bust demands a scapegoat. And in the twentieth century, the myth accrues new significance as hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees flee the atrocities in Europe, while much of the rest of the world looks the other way.

I thought of this peripatetic figure as I read Bruno’s Conversion, Tsipi Keller’s new novel. Set in the present day, it follows one Bruno Kirsch, a fifty-five-year-old professor of French literature, over the two days leading up to Christmas. When we meet Bruno, his non-Jewish girlfriend of seven months, Mary, has just abandoned him during their Miami Beach vacation. While Mary makes her way back to Manhattan, Bruno is left alone in paradise to wander and to think. He rides a bus to the gaudy Aventura mall with a group of local Cubans (“In his Jewish heart, he was a minority sympathizer”), contemplates the concrete monotony of the place, and returns without buying anything. He strolls the Miami Beach Boardwalk among the Hasids and resents them for making him feel both excessively and insufficiently Jewish. He reads Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and feels a mystical kinship to von Aschenbach, that other cursed wanderer. In the novel’s latter half, Bruno pursues a one-legged woman he meets at a local cafe, Suzie, which eventually leads, as in Mann, to his thrilling demise. Alone on Christmas Eve, he’s forced to contemplate his ambivalent spirituality, his uncertain morals, and his possible failures: as a professor, a son, a lover, and a Jew.

Bruno’s exuberant free indirect discourse—marked by that distinct coupling of exhaustion and mania that seems often to attend veterans of the academy—propels the novel. Like Saul Bellow, often considered a progenitor of post-war Jewish American fiction, Keller is much more interested in the texture and motion of thought than she is in plot. For Keller, thought is action: “Indeed, as he liked to tell his students, the real drama often took place not in the visual and tangible, but in the murky domain of one’s idle thoughts.” Here the narrator lays out Bruno’s personal philosophy as well as a meta-commentary on where the novel locates drama.

Bruno’s central quandary is an ancient one: How do I become a better person? He is aware (though not aware enough) that he ought to treat women better, that he could be kinder and less selfish. The answer, he thinks, resides in the Mexican coastal town of Akumal, where he dreams of settling down and finally writing the narrative of his late father’s experience during WWII. Bruno has been to Akumal only once before, but he experienced both an intense vitality and a psychic peace there. Now, facing a personal crisis in Miami Beach, he dreams of moving there for good and finally becoming the person he wishes to be:

In the main, he wanted to love every day of his life, every day that was still left him. Love every day of his life and feel that it was meaningful. Only in Akumal—he thought—where he had discovered in himself the language of his soul, would he be able to commune with his true, higher nature and gather the necessary love and focus to write his father’s book.

This fantasy is what he wants to want, but he knows perfectly well that he would become just as cynical and neurotic in Akumal as he is in New York. His egoism entails that his general disposition weathers changes in geography, and he’s self-aware enough to at least recognize that. He will continue to toil in relative obscurity as a professor of French literature—a language, comically, he doesn’t speak very well. He will continue to argue and tell stories, and when he’s not arguing or telling stories he imagines doing those things. “Why, why did he even bother to press his point of view? What was it that drove him to argue with people over politics, personal issues, and other quibbles? Why couldn’t he have pleasant, rather than contentious, conversations going on in his head?” Yes, Bruno is woefully out of touch with his own mind, but the book does not make light of these questions. In fact, its answer to them is that conflict, debate, and contentious rather than pleasant conversation are an ethics of survival.

Is this a distinctly Jewish ethics? In a short 1964 essay titled “On Jewish Storytelling,” Bellow wrote: “Indeed, the Jewish imagination has sometimes been found guilty of overhumanizing everything, of making too much of a case for us, for mankind, and of investing externals with too many meanings.” Bruno specializes in this kind of overinterpretation. He conceives of von Aschenbach as a real person, and when his mother asks who Aschenbach is, he responds, “A friend.” He decides that a burning sensation in his toes is not fungus but rather “God’s subtle way to remind him that he was fallible.” Bruno is always prepared to argue the other side, to offer another interpretation, to nit-pick. This is great fun for the reader and torture for Mary:

“You don’t get it, do you? You always do this. You never really listen to what I’m saying. You must always, always, contradict me.”

Slightly baffled and also a bit miffed, he said, “I wasn’t contradicting you. I was just responding to what you said.”

Unimpressed by the subtlety of Bruno’s distinction between contradiction and response, Mary proceeds to lock herself in the bathroom. Yes, Bruno is querulous, often insufferably so, but I cheered for his pedantic contentiousness, his restless need for debate, his investment in too many meanings, even if it curses him to loneliness. If even the most trivial things are worth arguing over, we will never cease to invent new meaning in artifacts of human culture, in peculiarities of our bodies, and in the motion of our own thoughts.

Bruno’s solipsism, unfortunately for him, sabotages his capacity for relationships. While Keller has offered us a great comedic anti-hero, in the end her novel fails to reach beyond the old stereotype of a neurotic, self-obsessed, self-deprecating man with retrograde views toward women. In contrast to Mann’s novel about a middle-aged man pursuing a young boy, which over a century later still shocks, provokes, and titillates, Bruno’s Conversion already arrives behind the times. I had fun reading it, but I also thought: another self-loathing, womanizing, Jewish professor? Between Bellow and Philip Roth, that terrain is pretty well surveyed. The descriptions of women’s breasts or “the sorry look of his balls” are straight out of Roth or John Updike. This comparison is a compliment to the prose but a critique of an outmoded protagonist indulging in inglorious thoughts without the slightest attempt to engage modern discussions of gender and misogyny, even if it had only been to bash them. If Keller’s iteration of the Wandering Jew myth reveals anything about its context, it may only be that contemporary Jewish literature still lives in the shadow of a few twentieth-century giants.

The year of the novel’s action is not specified. It could take place in the early aughts, or in 2023. Bruno laments the changes in New York after 9/11, but, then again, he is the kind of man who would continue to litigate those complaints twenty years later. We’re meant to believe that Bruno left his phone and laptop in New York, but he’s so out of touch that we don’t quite believe he owns those things in the first place. Presumably, he engages with college-aged students on a regular basis, but the traffic of his thoughts starts and ends before third wave feminism and certainly before any kind of #MeToo awareness. And it’s not just Bruno. At the hotel each morning, Bruno watches a man practicing yoga on the pool deck from their balcony. “‘A fag,’ Mary remarked one morning when she joined him on the balcony.” Bruno responds that he doesn’t think so. “‘And even if he is gay, so what?’ ‘So nothing,’ she said and went in.”

This casual homophobia rhymes with the trite Freudian logic that underpins Bruno’s psychology: “The only woman with whom he was able to find real peace and solace was [his mother] Rose . . . while he yearned for a Rose in his relationships with women, he always, somehow, ended up with an Alexie [his sister]. Or a Mary.” Bruno misinterprets his predicament here: He always ends up with an Alexie or a Mary because, in truth, he always ends up with himself. He can imagine his mother neither dead nor with a man; she’s the Madonna to the many whores swarming his thoughts. Bruno’s father died before he could develop a healthy, mature desire to murder him, so instead he wants to resurrect him by writing the story of his life. Is Keller satirizing men like Bruno? Taunting the kind of progressive reader who has renounced the great phallocrats like Roth and Updike (their loss!)? Perhaps, but it takes a prodigious feat of reading against the grain to detect this level of irony. My sense, ultimately, is that the book is as unaware of its blindspots as Bruno is himself.

At the heart of Jewish American fiction since 1945 are questions of assimilation, identity, faith, and the Holocaust. A handful of contemporary writers continue to engage these themes with renewed ambivalence, both advancing and complicating inherited literary style. Ben Lerner’s autofiction has energized an emerging generation of literature that explores contemporary connections between psychoanalysis (the “Jewish science”), language, Jewish masculinity, and hip-hop culture. The Canadian writer Sheila Heti has delivered a blistering feminist response to Philip Roth. In The Netanyahus, Joshua Cohen lampoons both Zionism and WASP-y academia in the same genius stroke. I overgeneralize, but my point is that all these writers have hit new notes in the very Jewish struggle between comedy and atrocity. They all write with an overwhelming sense of vitality, even as they look back to history and to their parents’ narratives. By contrast, Bruno’s Conversion, like Mann, ultimately leans toward decay. It’s a shame: New York intellectualism and Jewish masculinity have long endured characterizations of fecklessness and masochism, and Bruno reifies rather than problematizes those caricatures. At some point during a long hallucinogenic delirium that constitutes the final fifty pages of the book, Bruno dies, or at least conceives of himself as dying, and in death he returns to a passive infancy, his preferred state. He imagines a Hasidic mother feeding her baby chewed-up banana from her own mouth, and he identifies with the baby. I had high hopes for Bruno’s impressive capacity to interpret and spar, but in the end he settles for mushy banana.

Nathan Motulsky is a writer based in NYC. He is currently pursuing his MA in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

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