Hugh Nissenson Nissenson, Hugh (Vol. 9) - Essay

Nissenson, Hugh (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nissenson, Hugh 1933–

Nissenson is an American short story writer, novelist, and essayist. Contemporary Jewish life forms the subject matter for most of his fiction. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Hugh Nissenson established himself as a writer of consequence with two volumes of short stories, "A Pile of Stones" (1965) and "In the Reign of Peace" (1972). All these stories except one dealt with Jews…. All of them were written with fine control, in a style distilled, compassionate, just. And dominating most of these stories was one agony: the existence of pain and cruelty and evil in a universe that itself exists within a divine mind.

Now Nissenson has written a short novel ["My Own Ground"] pursuing that theme further. (p. 6)

The teeming, struggling, yet communal old East Side life saturates these pages. The conflict between the precipitate claim that has been laid to new territory and the realization that full adjustment is yet to come—this is a deep counter-theme. (As the title indicates.) The true action is the persistence of evil and chaos, taking somewhat new aspects in the potential New Paradise. (pp. 6-7)

[The] book has some feeling of discomfort, of maladjustment.

The first cause of this discomfort is the form that Nissenson has chosen. Because everything must be set down by [the narrator], a great deal that has happened "offstage" must be recounted to him. The book is full of narratives—of past lives and of recent doings. This cools the immediacy of the events, and it also leads to some similarity of diction….

All this tends to some flatness of characterization, a touch of the stereotype….

Fundamentally there is some strain between the material and the novel form itself. This is felt early, in the first 50 pages, before the shape of the main action—which compensates somewhat—begins to be clear, but it never completely disappears. Unavoidably the suspicion arises that the dimensions of the novel are being forced on a substantial short story, that the author thinks the way to write a novel is to distend a story. A lot of the material … could have been condensed or omitted. More important, Nissenson, especially hampered by his structural device, has not yet mastered the differences in characterization between the story and the novel. In his stories he handles his people well, "people," as Frank O'Connor said of short-story characters, "whose identity is determined by their circumstances." But the characters in a novel face more options and go through metamorphoses. Nissenson's people here are stretched, rather than developed.

Does Nissenson feel some sort of obligation to "move up" from the story to the novel? I hope not. He is a fine writer of stories and, for one reader at least, could just go on writing them. He is not—not yet—an equally good novelist, though of course nothing is precluded to a man of his abilities. (p. 7)

Stanley Kauffman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 4, 1976.

[In My Own Ground, Nissenson is] not simply concerned to recapture unsavory types, who in any case can be found in Yiddish language literature itself. There is a long tradition of conflict between proste (vulgar) and edel (refined) types in both Jewish life and literature. For the first time, though, I believe, we are being shown Jews who are utterly debased spiritually….

[The] vulgarity is all in [the] characters, never in [the] prose. Nissenson, moreover, gives My Own Ground the literary structure of a descent into the underworld….

Nissenson's Hannele ends by committing suicide in horror at her own degradation…. It seems that the old tradition is inescapable, after all. (p. 30)

Peter Shaw, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), April 10, 1976.

My Own Ground is a slender museum. Hugh Nissenson's themes are elemental and abstract. I sense that he's been laying off on his bets. Look, Nissenson implies, maybe you won't agree with or understand the premise of my novel, but at least you'll pick up some hard information…. Objects, events, processes, their authenticity will stand guarantee for less researchable matters: passion and spirit and human worth.

My Own Ground isn't a Jewish novel. It's too Jewish for that. The Jewish novel, so-called, has always been a second- or third-generation artifact. Nissenson's people are still East European…. Guilt, high-class ethical refereeing, those are primary themes of modern Jewish fiction. But guilt, to adapt Wordsworth's formula, should best be recollected in tranquillity, not at the presser's bench. A Bellovian or Malamudian hero has leisure; he's in the business of judging, himself and civilization. Usually, usually reluctantly, he chooses involvement, crashes America as if it were some goys-only social club. (p. 737)

Young Jake Brody, Nissenson's first-person protagonist, seems more a utensil than a hero. It will be for his children to write the Jewish novel…. He's a double immigrant, from Russia, from the Lower East Side. In second- and third-generation Jews, I think, emigration—particularly to materialist America—was cud for a leisurely guilt…. But Jake Brody is a survivor; he doesn't choose involvement. He just sees. Though Jake has tranquillity enough in Elmira for recollection, there is little feeling and less guilt. As Jewish heroes go, he's a disgrace to the profession.

Hannele, Rabbi Isaac's daughter, is an ethical mercury switch. One week she wants to get shtupped by Schlifka, the pimp, or some client of his; one week she'd prefer sexless housekeeping for Roman Osipovich, an ascetic Marxist. Jake doesn't judge Hannele. Anyway, religion has been outmoded along with homemade purgatives; American genius will manufacture some gutta-percha replacement for the Talmud. It's significant that Jake speaks both English and Yiddish: he functions, throughout, as an interpreter; his narrative style has the self-effacing, precise tone of simultaneous translation. Jake, too, can switch on and off. He'll accept money from Schlifka, who has set him on Hannele's tail. He'll accept lectures from Osipovich, without any commitment. It's the habit of interpreters to noodge events. Jake forces a brutal confrontation between pimp and Marxist, but these are learning experiences, as your child might push its roly-poly, one side, then another, to see how far it will go. Hannele commits suicide: her disinvolvement. Jake heads for Elmira, which, with all due respect to that city, is somewhat analogous.

I don't judge either. I accept Jake's attitude; hell, what's wrong with being a survivor? The tone has aptness to it. But then, as if he distrusted himself, Nissenson hauls Jake back from Elmira for a big Dream Sequence. Typical stuff: earth mother, cannibalism, birth, hot-housed psychodrama. I happen to think you should get one buck off every novel that sports a Dream Sequence…. It clanks here; the terse, impartial narrative is spoiled. Nissenson seems guilty for Jake. The second or third generation has intruded after all. (pp. 737-38)

D. Keith Mano, "The Genuine Article," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1976; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), July 9, 1976, pp. 737-38.

In his last collection of remarkable stories, In the Reign of Peace, [Hugh Nissenson] explores some agonising paradoxes of Jewish life. To summarise the deep unease many of them express, is to minimise the dense, layered effect of the stories—nevertheless, the metaphysical sticking-point is: the truth of the Torah may well shine on the uncouth harshness of much of Israeli experience, or on the monstrosity of the years of the Holocaust, yet to many, it seems to beam no actual light at all. Could it be inapplicable? Are there different sorts of realities? Of course to require a clear understanding from the Torah about the recalcitrance of post-Auschwitz reality could be a demand for no less than a new Revelation, and even the most sensitive of writers are left groping for insights. So perhaps it is no surprise to find that [My Own Ground] has been set in a simpler, earlier time, in the Lower East Side of New York in 1912. New York, where Hugh Nissenson was born in 1933, is therefore presumably the ground—in the sense of place and of spiritual foundations—which is his own.

My Own Ground, written in the first person by the youthful Jake Brody, an orphan of 15 working as a presser for fourteen hours a day, is a backward glance, a place to begin from, a tale of the "days before the flood"—pre-Great War. But the illusion that those days might somehow have been kinder ones is soon shattered…. This evocation of the Lower East Side is quite without sentimentality, recognising human degradation and violence, and might at first seem only a sharp, pornographically frank, disheartening tale.

But the transforming power of the imagination, to which all aspirations and fantasies belong, is the key to the underlying meaning of the book, and its real strength. All the people in it were transplants from the corrupt ground of Europe, where they had been nurtured by the Law, fed on Jewish folk-lore, and finally uprooted by the viciousness of Jew-haters, and the brutalities of the Pogroms. Hugh Nissenson must have listened to many tales in his life, as he captures the physical flavour of memory with chilling accuracy…. (pp. 48, 50)

In the concluding pages, Jake dreams a fearful tale compounded of many of the elements of cruelty, blood and death, experienced in his childhood in Umersk, and later in New York. The gruesome dream is no more ghastly than what actually happened. There can be no real explanation of either. Jake's last response is only tears. The kindly Mrs. Tauber wipes them away. "And the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces," said Isaiah. The ache of the waiting for that time, the desolation before that time, are both implicit in those last quiet moments. (p. 50)

Margot Lester, "The Price of Redemption," in The Jewish Quarterly (© The Jewish Quarterly 1976), Autumn, 1976, pp. 48, 50.