Hugh Nissenson Essay - Critical Essays

Nissenson, Hugh (Vol. 4)

Nissenson, Hugh 1933–

Nissenson, an American short story writer, is concerned in his fiction with the religious aspects of contemporary Jewish experience in America, Europe, and Israel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

Nissenson is, as far as I can recall, the only genuinely religious writer in the whole American Jewish group. His fiction represents an attempt to follow the twisting, sometimes treacherous ways between God and man; his stories reach out for Jewish experience in Eastern Europe, in Israel, and in America, in an effort to discover what Jews do with their faith in a God who so often seems conspicuous by His absence. Where other Jewish writers haul in forefathers by their pious beards to provide scenic effect, or symbolic suggestiveness, the introduction of such figures in Nissenson's work is an act of serious self-examination: can the God of the kaftaned grandfather still be the God of the buttoned-down grandson, especially with the terrible shadow of the Holocaust intervening between then and now?…

A Pile of Stones offers welcome relief but hardly an indication of a change in the current trend of American Jewish fiction. It allows one to hope for more writers who will try in varying ways to observe the Jew as a real human being, but what seems immediately in prospect is a continuing parade of Jews as holy sufferers, adepts of alienation, saintly buffoons, flamboyant apostles of love—in all the twisted, grinning masks of a literary convention that keeps literature from making imaginative contact with reality.

Robert Alter "Sentimentalizing The Jews" (originally published in a slightly different version in Commentary, September, 1965), in his After the Tradition (copyright © 1969 by Robert Alter; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., and used with their permission), Dutton, 1969, pp. 44-5.

These lucidly conceived small-scale stores ["In the Reign of Peace"] are enlisted in a large enterprise. Not in the sense that they aspire to be novels-in-little, as some short fiction does, mistaking inscrutability for breadth or psychology for an idea, but rather in that they have a subject of uncommon scope. The subject is simultaneously elusive and persuasive: what Christianity means by grace, Zen by satori and Judaism by kavanna—understanding in the grip of benediction.

Hugh Nissenson, in brief, possesses what can be called the theological imagination. In this he is by no means unusual among American writers generally—the late Flannery O'Connor is perhaps pre-eminent among the fictive theologians, followed by John Updike and, sometimes, George P. Elliott. But the Jews, a people supposedly charged with a predisposition for the spiritual, have up till now given to American letters no single visionary fiction writer, whether major or minor….

Nissenson is an another line. He means to sink into Godhood itself, though tentatively, circumscribed by the notion that the economy of simplicity is the whole of craft. Since he is for the moment alone in his reach, his limitations are unimportant. I think it is a limitation, though, that this second book of stories is no more than a continuation of "A Pile of Stones," his first. Both are short volumes, and, though separated by seven years, they might have made one book without anyone's being aware of any difference in style or movement. But this can be a self-imposed restraint, after all—a corollary of the perfectionist temperament. By and large these are meticulous stories, perfected, polished, as a result often radiant. The strength of Nissenson's prose is not in what he puts in—the clean dialogue avoids idea-mongering, and there is no luxuriant visual or verbal surface to this fiction—but in how he omits.

Still, what matters beyond such questions of density and finish is the power of Nissenson's consuming pre-occupation. He is the first American Jewish writer to step beyond social observation, beyond communal experience, into the listening-places of the voice of the Lord of History….

Not all the stories are this masterly, but each one signifies, sustains, interprets and fictionally enriches a text. Each is a midrash, a revelatory commentary….

Only two stories take place in America…. This is a deeply curious circumstance; it is as if, in Nissenson's imagination, contemporary America cannot accommodate the profoundly Jewish theme. His stories might almost be recent translations from the Hebrew; some of them suggest a kind of Sabra mimicry. One wonders at the implication. There is a Talmudic dictum which observes that when Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jewish people went into exile, so did God. America may or may not count as "exile"; nevertheless for Nissenson, at least in these stories, and for whatever reason, the voice of God is not heard in America.

Cynthia Ozick, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 19, 1972, pp. 4, 22.

For Nissenson, as for Hemingway, the modern world is defined by war, bloodshed, and dying. The title In the Reign of Peace is finally no less ironic than the title of Hemingway's In Our Time because each story deals significantly with violence and death…. In contrast to Flannery O'Connor, Nissenson does not use violence and death to demonstrate the presence of the miraculous amidst the mundane. His stance, instead, is suggested by the narrator's question at the end of "The Throne of Good": "Is it conceivable that any good can come of it?" Even the intensely religious Uncle Mendel of "Going Up," who believes that "He who keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep," ends in despair after surveying the carnage of war: "He never sleeps. One forgets. It wouldn't be so bad if I believed He was asleep."

Nissenson's stories place him firmly in the tradition of twentieth-century American realism begun by Sherwood Anderson. Unlike such contemporaries as Stanley Elkin, Thomas Pynchon, and Joyce Carol Oates, Nissenson shuns weird, absurd, and implausible events and characters; he does not write a modern version of the romance in which the ordinary is exploded by the fabulous or in which fact and fiction are inextricably blurred. Instead, he often recalls Hemingway, especially the Hemingway of In Our Time, Men Without Women, and Winner Take Nothing: thematically, in the stark and unsentimentalized depiction of man's alienation from the traditional sources of comfort and solace; technically, in the weight borne by proper nouns and concrete, factual details, in the stripped syntax dominated by the simple sentence, in the prominence of dialogue, and in the pervasive irony. At his most effective, I think, Nissenson is as good as Hemingway, particularly in the poignant, delicately balanced "In the Reign of Peace" and in the harsh, powerful "Forcing the End." His use of the first-person point of view in "Charity" and "The Crazy Old Man" is as masterful and subtle as in Hemingway's best first-person narratives, "In Another Country" and "Canary for One." Few American writers have been capable of crafting short fiction as clear, forceful, and aesthetically satisfying as the finest stories of In the Reign of Peace.

Donald A. Daiker, in Studies in Short Fiction, Summer, 1973, pp. 291-92.