Herbert Gold Gold, Herbert (Vol. 7) - Essay

Gold, Herbert (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gold, Herbert 1924–

An American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and editor, Gold presents various aspects of contemporary life. His successful novel Fathers is an account of Jewish immigrants in America. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

"Jewish" material has begun to wear thin, even in the hands of the inventive writers,… and the pangs and elations of the Jewish slant have become as predictable as those of the Southern writers a decade ago.

Indeed the innovations of Gold and Malamud and particularly of Bellow … are so widely imitated today that it is difficult to keep a book like Fathers separate from the competition…. As the books proliferate, so do the stock characters, situations, and themes: the typical presented often enough loses its individual edge and fades into stereotype…. It is painfully ironic that … Gold's presumably final effort to come to grips with his background, to capture the pattern of its meaning and the substance of his birthright, should be partly swamped by the wave of "Jewish" fiction that some of its parts have helped to foster. (pp. 238-39)

Fathers is not redeemed by [its] potent conjunction of memory and desire. What one gets, often enough, is the kind of tarted-up nostalgia that provides one of the staples of Jewish fiction. Now, nostalgia is a very trickly literary emotion: it reactivates the past, but it also sentimentalizes it, gives it an unearned increment of significance merely because it was once possessed. Moreover, lacking emotional validity, nostalgia tends to feed on itself and turn perverse: much of the rage for camp that has been afflicting the culture is a systematic perversion of childhood. Be that as it may, nostalgia has a particular attraction for many Jewish writers: some of them, like Gold or Bruce Jay Friedman or Wallace Markfield or Irwin Faust, seem to possess virtually total recall of their adolescent years, as though there were still some secret meaning that resides in the image of Buster Brown shoes, or Edward G. Robinson's snarl, or Ralston's checkerboard package. (pp. 240-41)

I think that the vogue of Jewish fiction, with its heavy component of an outgrown and overworked past, has begun to be as much of a drag on talent as it is a glut on the market. Perhaps it's time to be up and doing again, to carry the search for roots and continuity into the present where it merges with the common plight of old and young, Gentiles and Jews alike. I don't want to discourage anyone, but, as Fathers makes clear, the evocation of local Jewish color has no more claim to intrinsic interest than any other material; only the passions of art can save it now from artificiality, triteness, and irrelevance. (p. 241)

Theodore Solotaroff, "'Remember Those Tissues They Wrapped the Fruit In …?'" (1967), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties (copyright © 1968, 1970 by Theodore Solotaroff; reprinted by permission of The Washington Post), Atheneum, 1970, pp. 237-41.

Frank Curtis [is] a maker of movies for television, and the narrator and leading character of "Swiftie the Magician." There is a Swiftie in the novel, but not often; her few appearances give the book a kind of completeness of shape, and her behavior stands for Curtis's conception of the sixties plus a few years. Swiftie is a trendy dress designer in New York (her shop Jolie Personnel); Jackie, "Mrs. Camelot," is a client. And "… when the Twist came in, and everybody went to dance with Chubby Checkers at the Peppermint Lounge, the girls who would later be linked with Mike Nichols were usually wearing Swiftie's things." A "concealer" of bodies and an exponent of speed injections, Swiftie is hardly worth the "Magician."…

But Gold's book hasn't needed any magic to float it. It has needed—as well as a theme that doesn't puzzle the reader with its tepidity—an attention to technique that would make Frank Curtis, man of his time, and Frank Curtis, satirical narrator of his time, a single, a possible, person.

The problem is not that a member of the club can't be an alert or even a harsh critic of the club. As often as not, satirists will eat their own families. Waugh does, and De Vries, Huxley, Mary McCarthy. The problem is: what kind of member of what kind of club will be a satirist? It's a sure bet that Nixon's post-Presidency book will not be a wicked, a devastating, a merciless, a rib-tickling take-off on his Administration. It's an equal certainty that the Frank Curtis of "Swiftie the Magician" does not have the eyes and ears for narrating any of this book as satirically as he sometimes does. Not the Frank Curtis who makes motorcycle movies; who dreams of doing a "serious" film about the Kennedy time to be called "Imperial Days" (Curtis is one of those idolators who feel that to have been alive with John Kennedy was to have known Jack personally); not the Frank Curtis who adores, without irony, Karen, a substarlet whose brain is made of Mars bars. He is too much the people he occasionally mocks: too concerned with vogueish forms of power, too much of a groupie, too uncritical, to be the critic….

"Swiftie the Magician" is largely careless, obvious and glib. If it were a first novel, its best moments would encourage a reader to hope for a future work without mere moments. As a ninth novel it reads like literary—as against hack—hackwork. Gold may have written it because his profession is writer Write is what he does. But he doesn't seem, here, to be a writer judging himself or his subject or his book.

Richard P. Brickner, "'Swiftie the Magician'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 15, 1974.

Job applications in America these days make a pro forma requirement of a short curriculum vitae (or 'autobiography' for less sophisticated jobs). This personal touch in an increasingly alien world is as meaningless and ubiquitous as the trend in American fiction where, since Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, every eligible writer has felt compelled to make a spectacle of his urban Jewish upbringing….

The trouble with Gold and his ilk is their lack of any substantive occupation. They are the dropouts from the postwar American generation that built the mighty industrial-military leviathan. The literati of the era are proud, as Gold is proud, of having abandoned all that golden opportunity to pursue their romantic dreams of literary stardom…. All of this Gold details in smug condescension [in My Last Two Thousand Years]. Because he is condescending about himself, he thinks he can get away with being condescending about the others.

It is hard to imagine who he thinks would be interested in his lack of a career….

But his meanderings in Europe, encounters with emigré Jews on Caribbean islands, failed marriage, frustrating teaching career and all the rest show only that the experiences got twisted in his mind from being formative influences into being the substance of literature itself.

To answer the question myself, I think Gold must assume that the generation younger than his will lap up tales of the romantic quest in the same spirit that he probably lapped up fictional accounts of other-worldly dreamers. By mocking himself, he adds an element of disillusionment that should go down well with a generation fed up with heroic and hopeful romantics. Despairing romantics are more the style, but how despairing is the man who assumes the world is interested in his self-pitying experiences? Most people have to pay good money to a psychiatrist to get somebody to listen to them. Since he didn't become an accountant, Gold might not be able to afford a shrink, but he doesn't need one, for underemployed, American romantics can call themselves writers—or so Herbert Gold seems to tell us.

Frank Lipsius, "All That Glitters," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Frank Lipsius 1974; reprinted with permission), October, 1974, p. 51.

Gold, who has set out to provide a satiric chronicle of the Sixties, succumbs [in Swiftie the Magician] to his subject matter. He shares the defects of the things he is assailing: writing about the superficial and the frivolous, he writes superficially, frivolously. The single outstanding characteristic of Swiftie the Magician is the inanity of everyone in it—that they are intentionally inane changes nothing. It serves little purpose to cast further jibes at Orange County, the jet set, and aging rock stars. The targets Gold knocks over were already so moldy and tottering they would have fallen over on their own. (p. 110)

Gold is more interested in the droppings of history than in history itself. He has a journalist's temperament, and the book is unrelievedly topical. Curtis [the protagonist] wanders wide-eyed through a world of New Frontier exotics: amphetamine-injecting doctors, jargon-laden moguls, California girls and their kinky sex. The Swiftie of the title is a fashion designer, apostle to the Kennedy-Warhol-Beatles axis, an acquaintance of Curtis's who rises, falls, and dies in the course of the book and against whom he measures the ebb and flow of the cultural tide.

Curtis is a man of moderate ambitions and appetites, an ordinary man in extraordinary times, confronted on every side with passions out of all recognizable scale. Though Gold consistently makes the easy joke and retreats to smugness, it is in Curtis's bemusement turning to bewilderment that he strikes the single authentic note. Gold appears genuinely disturbed at the desperate energy of a nervous decade, the ceaseless flitting from one dogma to another, from one charismatic leader to the next. But he makes no attempt to understand these phenomena; he is content to reproduce them, making the book more a sociological than a literary specimen. (p. 112)

Michael Levenson, in Harper's (copyright 1974 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the November, 1974 issue by special permission), November, 1974.

It would be nice to report that in Swiftie the Magician Herbert Gold has somehow redeemed a career that hasn't seemed to get anywhere for quite a few years and books. It turns out, however, that after he finished writing about his father and his boyhood in Cleveland, Gold never really had materials for a novel, and Swiftie is notable mostly as an honorable holding action, a serious attempt to do the work he still can do. It is self-consciously about the sixties, Camelot in New York, flower children in California, everyone splitting at the end. It was not a good decade to be With It unless one was very young, and Gold's hero suffers because he has only ambition and slick talent to keep him going, and this isn't enough to keep him from doing what everyone else does. Gold himself suffers because he wants to use the hero to see and comment on the scene while at the same time indicating that this vision is limited, and he just isn't interested enough in his not interesting hero to work out his relation to hero and scene carefully. Which leaves him with his commentary, some of which I found rather good, much better than that in Gold's Age of Happy Problems, though … the good commentary tends to lapse rather too often into easy satire…. Commentary that knows neither fictional surroundings nor the integrity of a vision almost always is going to have troubles with tone and sustenance, but Gold tries hard here to keep it all going, and he knows enough now to see that Swiftie must be a short book; no mammoth Helleresque insistences for him. So even as it disappoints, it does not depress. (pp. 628-29)

Roger Sale, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Winter, 1974–75.

Fathers, a novel written in the form of a memoir, was followed in 1972 by My Last Two Thousand Years, a memoir written in the form of a novel. The two together comprise an informal autobiography and attest to an astonishing reversal of attitude about Jewish history and the individual's place within it. For only ten years previously, in Commentary's Symposium on "Jewishness and the Younger Intellectuals," Gold could forecast that "chicken soup and Yiddish jokes will tarry awhile. But the history of the Jews from now on will be one with the history of everybody else." By the time of My Last Two Thousand Years, he was affirming that "necessary connection to the past that we all need to survive" and confessing his desire "to be continuous" with Jewish life. What had happened in those ten years to effect that kind of reversal? And had it happened, was it happening still, to more than just Gold alone?

The personal element can be accounted for easily enough. Gold, always a prolific writer, had come into his own as a novelist and was beginning to enjoy the rewards of his success, but … he was discovering that success American style—a modern man, Gold adds Girls to Money, Power, and Fame—did not satisfy him. It did not because it could not answer to his needs to feel part of a particular community of men. "What is a Jew and why am I this thing?" was the irrepressible but unanswerable question that shadowed his success and turned it sour. The result, as recorded in his memoirs, was spiritual nausea, a turning away from the satieties of success and a turning against the self: "I hated my life."

From this point on the interests of My Last Two Thousand Years are two-fold: as a critique of the literary life and with it most of the values of cultural Modernism, and as a discovery of a more central identity through an awakening to history. In his role as critic, Gold is as strong in his judgments against careerism in writing and the general commerce of culture as previous literary intellectuals have been avid for these. Having made it as a writer, he knows what literary success in America means, and also what it cannot possibly mean: "Literature is not a nation or a religion." In quest of national and religious ties he has to seek elsewhere—in Europe, where he finds among stray survivors of Hitler the strength of Jewish will, and in Israel, where Jewish will manifests itself to him in the restoration of nationhood and the revival of religious possibilities. These encounters with Jews, unremarkable in themselves, teach Gold a simple but longed-for truth: "I was moved by my kind." His encounter with Israel, made poignant by his being in Jerusalem at the time of a Yom Ha'atzmaut celebration, delivered another truth, one that might be gained for a Jew only in Israel: "History and the celebrators of history were contemporary with one another." Finally, during a quiet moment of reflection in the Judean hills, a long-delayed encounter with himself: "My fate," writes Gold, "was to become what I was born to be."

A beginning, no more than that, but a significant beginning, one that turns a man to history and, through history, returns him to himself. But only to begin once more, for, as Gold readily admits, he has had only a glimpse, albeit a transforming one, of what his destiny as a Jew is to mean, and he knows that he must come to know "more than [he has] thus far told." That requires language, a language that will give proper names to the aura of history that he has discovered within himself and make possible some equivalent discovery without…. Gold, an imaginative writer in search of narrative means, has had intimations of a future but, lacking a way into the language of the past, stands still before an articulate present, that is to say a present continuous with history. That is what he so badly wants and needs, as his last two books persuasively argue, but the argument is almost wholly on the level of will. (pp. 65-6)

Alvin H. Rosenfeld, "Inventing the Jew: Notes on Jewish Autobiography," in Midstream (copyright © 1975 by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), April, 1975, pp. 54-67.