Some Irwin Shaw Stories

A few years back I enjoyed reading Short Stories: Five Decades, a collection of sixty-four stories by Irwin Shaw. Shaw was a successful author of radio plays, bestselling novels, nonfiction, and much else. His parents were Russian Jews who emigrated to the Bronx, and his stories from this volume that have stayed with me tend to be those that deal with the twentieth-century Jewish experience.

“Retreat,” for instance, occurs soon before the Germans withdraw from Paris. A German major sits down at a café table with a Parisian Jewish saxophonist who by force of his wits has barely survived the Occupation. The German vainly seeks forgiveness. When he argues that the worst things that have happened in Paris are not the fault of the German army but of the Gestapo, the Jew replies, “I do not recall seeing the Gestapo in Paris until after the German army came in…” It’s a good line in the way Bogart’s lines talking back to the Gestapo in “Casablanca” are good… uplifting, but not ultimately believable, which may be why the story feels more commercial than literary…

“The Passion of Lance Corporal Hawkins” is told from the viewpoint of a British soldier who helped liberate Belsen but is now fighting to keep Jews from landing in the British Mandate of Palestine. The problem here is that Shaw’s own Zionist views come across so overwhelmingly that Hawkins’s own thought processes never become credible. The story might have worked better if Shaw had simply gone with an Israeli viewpoint character.

But he may not have felt this was an option – my sense is that Shaw wanted always to write as an American first, and as a Jew second. I think of something Cynthia Ozick wrote about Isaac Babel, comparing Babel’s stories with his 1920 Diary — the stories edit out not all, but most, of the Jewish suffering that pervades the Diary. As Ozick puts it, only six of thirty-five stories in Babel’s The Red Cavalry touch on the suffering of Jews, a theme which entirely pervades the Diary.

Shaw may have exercised an equal restraint. His story “Act of Faith” deals with the fear of a Jewish-American soldier, returning from World War Two, that his family’s lives will be threatened by anti-Semitism in the U.S. At the end of the story, the soldier’s faith in America and in his Army comrades wins out. When I compare the story with another story by a second-generation American — Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith,” about an American Jew who takes advantage of his Jewishness to avoid pulling his weight in the U.S. Army – I realize that none of Shaw’s stories contain an unsympathetic Jewish character. And why should they, he might have asked? Haven’t the Jews been libeled enough?

But while the stories “Act of Faith” and “Defender of the Faith” are driven by the same anxiety about the future of the Jews, Roth’s story is stronger. Roth has always been willing to write things that will make people dislike him, and that may be part of his greatness.
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