- The Washington Times - Friday, April 24, 2009


By Steven J. Zipperstein

Yale University Press, $27.50, 288 pages, illus.

Reviewed by Martin Rubin

Perhaps the most cliched statement about the development of American writers is that for them there are no second acts. Like many (but not all) cliches, it has a devastating and self-fulfilling truth about it.

Never mind that there are striking exceptions that come to mind: Who can doubt that the novels Philip Roth has been turning out at an astonishing rate for the past dozen or so years are head and shoulders above anything else he has written in the half-century since he burst upon the literary scene? But how many American writers have written anything truly great after their Nobel Prize, even if, like Sinclair Lewis, Pearl Buck, Eugene O’Neill and Saul Bellow, that accolade was preceded by a run of stupendous achievements?

But if success is the great killer of long-distance achievement in our literature, what about the role of failure - commercial or other - in snuffing out creativity? It also is all too obviously and manifestly fatal.

And so we come to Isaac Rosenfeld, who was unlucky enough to suffer the slings and arrows of both fortune and misfortune, success and failure, making him perhaps the most promising of American writers who came to, well, if not nothing, the following, as Steven J. Zipperstein writes in this profoundly empathetic study:

“His life was reduced to a cautionary tale: all the promise, the sincere expectation engulfing him (all the more striking in a circle known for anything but selflessness), tended to be put aside. What remained was a story of waste. Time and again, it has been related in much the same terms: directionless charm, genius unachieved. ‘Charm and Death’ is what Saul Bellow titled his unpublished novel about Rosenfeld. ‘Wunderkind grown into tubby sage … he died of lonely sloth,’ wrote [literary critic Irving] Howe. … ‘Isaac was a “failure” … Precocious in everything, and understandably worn out, he died at thirty-eight. Even his dying would be a kind of failure,’ stated [Alfred] Kazin. These were among Rosenfeld’s closest friends, and a good many of them had praised his work when it first appeared.”

Any study of a figure like Mr. Rosenfeld who in the end is remembered as much for the abjectness of his failure as for the brilliance of his earlier promise must seek to answer the crucial question: Why? This in large measure Mr. Zipperstein manages to do, convincingly attributing it to the abstractness of his fiction, the product of his extreme engagement with ideas and philosophical constructs. In a tragic way, the very brilliance of his intellect and the passion he felt for books as the actual vehicles of thought contributed to, if they did not in the end determine, the failure of his artistic product.

Looking back at this mid-20th-century life, it seems that part of this phenomenon lay also in the flawed nature of some of the ideas that obsessed Mr. Rosenfeld: Trotskyism and the now even more discredited and risible philosophy of Wilhelm Reich. Still, it is a valuable snapshot of a time when such Magi did attract some of the best and the brightest and also a salutary reminder of the potent siren songs of false gods.

A book that tells this story of promise unfulfilled and pathetic failure must be a sad one. Yet Mr. Zipperstein has managed to make it a joyful one as well. Mr. Rosenfeld’s life was a messy, sorry affair in many ways, but it is full of incident and never dull. He may not have been able to transmogrify life into art, but he packed a lot of existence into those 38 years on earth. And the book shows his brilliance - it is necessary that it do so if one is to accept its fundamental premise - in all sorts of ways.

What Mr. Zipperstein calls Rosenfeld’s Yiddish translation - it is really more of an adaptation, an ebullient riff on the original - of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a case in point and in itself well worth the modest price of the book. Hailed by Robert Pinsky as the finest poem written by an American in the 20th century but attributed solely to Mr. Bellow who had merely helped Mr. Rosenfeld, it is a marvel of wit and intelligence. Thankfully, it appears in the Latin alphabet - to the enormous benefit of those whose knowledge of Yiddish does not extend to its proper (Hebrew) one. Written by an academic, well-informed by scholarship and fully footnoted, “Rosenfeld’s Lives” is blessedly accessible and eminently readable.

The appearance of Mr. Rosenfeld’s only novel, “Passage From Home,” in 1946 was hailed as a product of genius and continued to be preferred by such exigent critics as Diana Trilling (who likened him to Henry James) and Norman Podhoretz to his friend Mr. Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March,” published some years later. “I can think of no one now writing fiction in whose development I have greater confidence,” Mrs. Trilling wrote.

Of course, that development never happened, and “Rosenfeld’s Lives” indeed goes a long way to showing what a loss it was for American letters. Mr. Rosenfeld’s champions maintained their regard for him and his art, and there are indelible portraits of him in the memoirs of Mr. Kazin, Mr. Howe and, most notably, Mr. Podhoretz.

Even his funeral achieved a kind of immortality in his friend Wallace Markfield’s novel “To an Early Grave” and in the beguiling cult classic movie based on it, “Bye, Bye Braverman.”

“Charm and Death,” that roman-a-clef about Mr. Rosenfeld, was never published, but Mr. Zipperstein tells us that “Bellow readily admitted that Rosenfeld is pictured throughout the ribald ‘Henderson the Rain King,’ published in 1959, where he permitted himself his wildest, most fanciful reconstruction of his childhood friend. ‘All the while I was writing Dahfu I had the ghost of Rosenfeld near at hand, my initiator into the Reichian mysteries.’ ”

When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1976, Mr. Bellow reportedly said, “It should have been Isaac.” It is a testament to Mr. Rosenfeld that, despite everything he did not manage to do in life and in art, such esteem never wavered.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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