Nationalist Complains About Novik

36896898I’m reading Naomi Novik’s excellent recent novel Spinning Silver, which deals with Jews and Christians in a fantasy version of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, apparently in some equivalent of the 16th century.* Much of the plot and recurring themes in the book revolve around money lending and the re-payment of debts. There’s also evil ice faeries, fire demons and spell casting in it. I’ve never read any Jewish historical fantasy before, and I was curious to learn what Jewish readers think about it. So I googled “jewish news review novik spinning”.

The first surprise was pleasant: I had to scroll through lots of general secular news and reviews sites before I found one with a specifically Jewish perspective. This book enjoys wide exposure (including 22,000 ratings on The second surprise was less fun: when I finally found what I was looking for at the Jewish Review of Books, the reviewer Michael Weingrad turned out to be a nationalist grinding his historical axe.

This guy complains that the Christians in this fantasy novel aren’t mean enough to the Jews. He’s unhappy with the degree to which some families from either group are willing to co-exist in a friendly manner. He states incorrectly** that Novik’s fantasy Jews don’t speak Yiddish. “Novik has stocked her book not with anything resembling historical Jews and Christians but with 21st-century secular liberals who have no commitment to group identity in the first place. … none of Novik’s main characters, Jew or Christian, express any attachment to peoplehood, religion, or nation.”

Weingrad’s take on the book is exactly like complaining that since Tolkien’s hobbits are a fantasy version of Victorian Englishmen, The Lord of the Rings is crap because it doesn’t deal with the downsides of colonialism. Spinning Silver does refer repeatedly in passing to pogroms, but Weingrad apparently can’t enjoy (grimly) his Jewish historical fantasy unless it focuses on anti-Semitism in dirty detail, plus some faeries, demons and spells.

But then I’m a 21st-century secular liberal who has little commitment to group identity. I sincerely believe that the world needs a lot less less attachment to peoplehood, religion and nation. I should probably have googled “progressive jewish news novik spinning”. And I recommend the book.

* There’s tobacco, so after 1492, and Lithuania is still independent, so before 1570. But even impoverished peasants drink tea, which wasn’t available to the imperial Russian court until 1638.

** Chapter 18. Wanda, a poor Christian teen who probably speaks fantasy Polish: “I thought at first they were just talking so fast that I couldn’t understand, but then I realized they were saying words that I didn’t understand at all, mixed up with words that I did know.” And in chapter 21, “… I did not care anymore that I did not understand what they were saying.”

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

6 thoughts on “Nationalist Complains About Novik”

  1. I suspect there are some Jews who define themselves in relation to anti-semitism, rather than to the religious state of being “Jewish .” There are plenty of real-world Jews, Christians, etc who get along perfectly well, so why not in a fantasy novel?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Weingrad’s take on the book is exactly like complaining that since Tolkien’s hobbits are a fantasy version of Victorian Englishmen, The Lord of the Rings is crap because it doesn’t deal with the downsides of colonialism.”

    I could never get into Tolkein. Fantasy is just not my bag. (I have read much science fiction though—a different animal.) I did once have a girlfriend one of whose brothers was named Gandalf and had a long white beard. (I don’t think that he was named for the character: the girlfriend was older than I, her brother even older, and thus born at a time when TLOTR was probably not even translated into German, much less known to their parents—they could read English, but back then the book wasn’t that popular; I don’t think that it took off until the 1960s. Gandalf is an old German name, and my then girlfriend also has an old German name, so nothing unusual. Whether he cultivated the beard decades later in reference to the character, I don’t know, but he seems like the type of bloke who would always wear a long beard.)

    Anyway, the Shire is not just idealized England, but an idealized version of pre-colonial merry old England. If I recall correctly, Isaac Asimov pointed out that Tolkien didn’t want any references to colonialism, probably in order to emphasize a timeless feeling. For example, neither maize nor tomatoes nor potatoes are mentioned. (The Hobbit mentions tobacco a handful of times, but in TLOTR there is just fireweed. Again, IIRC.)

    Asimov also pointed out that World War II was between The Hobbit and TLOTR, and that the Ring represents technology.


  3. Yeah, if I wanted to pontificate to people on rules to live by, one fairly high on the list would be not to feel commitments to group identities, any of them, no matter what they are. Be vigilant about it, because humans seem to be hard wired to do it. Identify people and issues on their individual merits, always.

    I was enchanted by the Hobbit as a child, and LOTR was a logical and appropriate extension as I grew older and read it as a teen. I don’t hold with all of these revisionist analyses and critiques; it’s a story. Tolkien was a devout Catholic – so what? He was allegedly trying to create an ancient mythology for the English – so what? It stands on its own merits as a story. Over-analysis really puts me off, especially when it is badly thought through, ill informed, or both. The Ring represents technology? Do me a favour – what tosh.

    In that vein, I need to point out an error – potatoes certainly are mentioned in LOTR, by Samwise Gamgee, who calls them ‘taters’. Gollum aka Sméagol responds with “Taters? What’s taters?” so Sam gives him an explanation that he is referring to ‘po-tay-toes’ and the ways in which they can be cooked. If Asimov said they are not mentioned, he was talking out of his arse.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. While I’m niggling, tobacco wasn’t called fireweed in LOTR, it was called pipe-weed. This is clearly a reference to tobacco, not marijuana as a lot of people seem to want to believe. Tolkien uses the word “tobacco” in the narrative voice in LOTR and names the tobacco plant genus Nicotiana in the Prologue section “Concerning Pipe-weed.” He couldn’t spell it out much more clearly than that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gandalf means “wand-elf”, which Tolkien regarded as an appropriate name for a wizard with a staff. The whole Tolkien mythology was intended to give the English a “history” similar to the Norse sagas, Celtic legends etc, although the restrictions of copyright make it pretty hard for other authors to reinterpret or add to his tales. As a part of his “history”, colonisation is mentioned, when the Men of the West extend their mainland influence by conquering other peoples instead of just educating them.
      I read LOTR first, and was amazed at the “rightness” of the story – it seemed almost like something I had always known. The Hobbit was also a very enjoyable story, and I’ve read most of JRRT’s other tales since then.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: