Building a Portable Canon

By ILAN STAVANS

There is something profoundly Jewish in the art of anthologizing. What else is the Bible if not the most influential anthology ever? And isnít the Talmud a collection of authoritative voices from diverse epochs, assembled in anachronistic fashion, with rabbis in one century debating with those in another?

In recent times, Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, and Irving Howe, among scores of others, had the urge to anthologize. Their objective was to offer, for the diasporic Jew, a sense of roots or perhaps tradition.

My own urge to anthologize is the result of my translingual, multicultural journey. When I immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the mid-'80s, I found that American Jews suffered from a frightening nearsightedness about the world at large, especially the Jewish one. In some way, they are still in the post-Talmudic period. This nearsightedness also included ignorance of Jewish life in Hispanic civilization. My native home had been an immensely nurturing place to be, but lo judŪo, things Jewish, were almost completely absent from Mexicoís cultural landscape. I was in need of a home in New York, not only physically but spiritually. As I began to write a novella and to embark on a handful of stories, eventually collected in The One-Handed Pianist, my self-imposed mandate was to enlighten others about the milieu in which I was raised. I understand the role of the writer to be a surveyor of emotions and ideas as well as a bridge builder, not only across different constituencies but across cultures. Writers ask challenging questions and navigate the inner paths of the mind and heart, offering insight into unexplored areas of the collective psyche.

As I sought precursors and successors, I found authors from Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and elsewhere in Latin America. The majority of them were not translated. I received a grant to render a selection of these works into English. I was curious to find out if this tradition, in which I inserted myself, amounted to a counterpart to that of Abraham Cahan, Henry Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud. At the time I was ignorant in the ways of the New York publishing industry. I found myself an agent but the most I ever got from her were letters of rejection: a total of 22. I was constantly told, by one editor after another, that Latin America was a land of forgotten colonels, epidemics of insomnia, and storms of butterflies. Even if Jews actually lived thereópeople were doubtfulótheir experience was of little consequence. A small publishing house finally acquired the manuscript. When it finally appeared in 1994, as Tropical Synagogues, it was greeted with enthusiasm. It is in print more than a decade later and a new edition is scheduled for this year.

The publication gave me confidence to explore the universe of Hispanic Jews. But I didnít want to build a ghetto devoted exclusively to their endeavor. So I breached out, imagining an anthology of Jewish stories that included these writers and a myriad more from the Ukraine, France, South Africa, Israel, Britain, and elsewhere. I also, almost simultaneously, collected stories about Latinos in the United States. I soon found I was in love with the format. Intelligent anthologiesóand scores of them arenít worthy of the adjectiveómake the reader look at the world differently by bringing disparate voices together in a symphonic mode. I almost donít watch TV, except for baseball. Iím a movie aficionado. I also spend enormous amounts of time reading. Therein my most frequent activity: I read in the privacy of my home, I read to my children, I read with my students, I read on the InternetÖ My favorite genre is the essay but Iím a devotee of poetry and stories from all over. For years I mainly read what was current but age has made me more impatient. Iím disillusioned with the novel: it has become too tacky, too self-conscious. As of late I find myself rereading the classics.

While I read, I invariably ask questions and look for symmetries: is Flaubertís Madame Bovary modeled as a response to Cervantesís Don Quixote? How does Don Quixote differ in the Spanish original and in English translation? In the Jewish canon specifically, why was Emma Lazarus so attracted to Heinrich Heine? My first instinct is to read books in pairs, to alternatively read paragraphs from different books as if they belonged to the same narrative. I love the Emersonian concept of the Almighty as the Author of Authors: He dictates, we transcribe.

Translation remains my principal attraction. Iím fascinated by the quest of the translator to render a work of art to a culture that is alien to it. Translation for me is a way to reach out, to be less parochial, to go beyond the disaster of the Tower of Babel. Iím interested in language in the Platonic sense and in its earthly manifestations. These interests are more emphatic when it comes to the Jewish diaspora: how does a Greek-Jewish author like Alberto Cohen approach the French language in Belle du Seignor? Is the Hebrew of Anton Shammas, the Michigan-based Palestinian author of Arabesques, a ďJewishĒ tongue?

Iíve done around half a dozen anthologies, called ďomnibusesĒ in the past. Iíve also edited the oeuvres of authors such as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Pablo Neruda. I understand these endeavors as another aspect of my role as a cultural critic.

Iím always the one who initiates the idea for an anthology. Iíve learned from Tropical Synagogues never to take no for an answer. On occasion Iíve welcomed the invitation from a friend in the publishing industry to engage in a project. The majority of these invitations are driven by sales, though. I recognize the importance of economics in the book business, of course. Yet a book is important not because it sells but because it opens peopleís eyes. What is enlightening is not always marketable.

I own a substantial collection of anthologies of the last 150 years. It includes works edited by Ernest Hemingway, Alaine Locke, and Edmund Wilson. Needless to say, even when a book doesnít address Jewish life per se, as is the case of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, which Iím currently completing with the help of a stellar editorial team, my approach is shaped by my worldview. It couldnít be otherwise: an anthology is a portable library, and libraries, like books, reflect the personality of the owner.