A New Fictional Take on the Classic Tale of the Aging Jewish Intellectual https://mosaicmagazine.com/picks/arts-culture/2020/07/a-new-fictional-take-on-the-classic-tale-of-the-aging-jewish-intellectual/

July 2, 2020 | Adam Kirsch
About the author: Adam Kirsch, a poet and literary critic, is the author of, among other books, Benjamin Disraeli and The People and The Books: Eighteen Classics of Jewish Literature.

Named for the Manhattan neighborhood whose main feature is Columbia University, Joshua Henkin’s novel Morningside Heights tells the story of Spence Robin, an acclaimed professor of English literature, in the twilight of his life. Adam Kirsch writes in his review:

Many novels have been written about aging Jewish intellectuals, but Morningside Heights takes an unusual approach. The book’s main action begins in 2005, when Spence, still only in his fifties, is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Henkin charts Spence’s rapid decline in painfully authentic detail. At first, he merely loses his train of thought while lecturing; a few months later, he’s soiling himself and wandering out of the apartment. This means that Spence, unlike Saul Bellow’s Herzog or Philip Roth’s Kepesh, can’t tell his own story or even be an active presence in it. Instead, he is a problem that must be dealt with by other people—in particular, by [his wife] Pru and his son, Arlo, from his first marriage, who are the book’s real protagonists. As they emerge from Spence’s shadow into the sunlight of Henkin’s narrative attention, the reader sees how both their lives have been shaped, for good and ill, by their intimate connection with a great man.

Spence and Pru are both Jewish, but they have different ideas about what that means. Spence was raised in an entirely nonobservant household and even changed his too-Jewish name: “My Christian name is Shulem,” he jokes early in their relationship. When they marry, Pru insists on bringing in a service to kasher their kitchen. But in Morningside Heights, it is easy to be and feel Jewish without practicing Judaism, and Henkin shows how Pru slowly starts to compromise.

Read more on Jewish Review of Books: https://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/8038/sundowning/

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