A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity, and Memory


191 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-1664-6
DDC C813'.54098924




Reviewed by W.J. Keith

W.J. Keith is a retired professor of English at the University of Toronto and author A Sense of Style: Studies in the Art of Fiction in English-Speaking Canada.


The subtitle, “Jewish Writing, Identity and Memory,” indicates the
full scope of this important and brilliant book. Though most of the
chapters are devoted to studies of Canadian- and American-Jewish
writers—Eli Mandel, Leonard Cohen, Mordecai Richler in Canada; Philip
Roth, Nathanael West, and Saul Bellow in the United States; as well as
the intercontinental Chava Rosenfarb—Ravvin’s primary concern is the
Jewish experience in the 20th century, not only

as interpreted by creative writers but as con-tributing to an
understanding of our current cultural dilemmas (hence the crucial
section on the disturbing case of Paul de Man’s collaborationist
writings during the Nazi occupation of Belgium). This is far too large a
subject to be confined to the deliberations of specialists. Ravvin’s
book has something to say to all thinking people.

It is not coincidental that Ravvin has already published a novel and a
volume of short stories. A House of Words, then, is the product of a
fully involved writer who is also an accomplished critic. Obviously
well-read in modern critical discourse, he is not limited by his
circumscribed agenda. As a Jew, he not only understands the full
implications of his subject but he feels it, agonizingly, on his pulses.
Where the pressure to conform to politically correct banality must be
almost overwhelming, he eschews black-and-white judgments, discussing
painful and unpleasant subjects with passionate commitment but also with
a mature integrity. He offers sensitive, independent readings of his
chosen texts, which are at once profound, illuminating, and accessible.
Above all, unlike most academic critics nowadays, he can write: his own
house of words is built on the foundations of a smoothly flowing prose
as welcome as it is rare.

Writing with an earned authority and a quiet assurance, Ravvin is a
young critic respectful of his elders but refusing to kowtow—even to
Derrida. He has enlarged my understanding of every subject he discusses.
In short, House of Words marks a literary critical début of
extraordinary promise.


Ravvin, Norman., “A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity, and Memory,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 16, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/4307.