History into Literature
A Crown of Feathers.
by Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 342 pp. $8.95.
A Shtetl and other Yiddish Novellas.
Edited, with Introductions and Notes, by Ruth R. Wisse.
Behrman House. 364 pp. $12.50.
In the mind of the English-speaking reader, Isaac Bashevis Singer stands almost alone, the single representative of Yiddish writing; as a result of this uniqueness he has both benefited and suffered from the peculiarly awed and mystified response that might well be accorded a literary Martian. Although he has lived in this country since 1935, and many of the stories in his latest collection, A Crown of Feathers, take place in the U.S., it would be a genuine mistake either to compare him with American Jewish writers or to try to place him, however marginally, within their tradition. Reading the stories in this book that deal with familiar places in New York City, you think: he writes like a foreigner—and of course, he is one. It is not a mistake, though, nor does it in any way diminish the extraordinary range and vitality of his work, to connect him with that tradition to which he clearly belongs—Yiddish literature, or more accurately, Jewish writers writing in Yiddish. That this distinction, seemingly an academic one, is rarely raised as an issue, offers an important clue toward understanding the problem faced by Yiddish writers and, to some degree, their audience; that it has been raised at all is to the credit of Ruth R. Wisse, in her new book, A Shtetl and Other Yiddish Novellas. Mrs. Wisse, the author of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, a critical study of modern Jewish fiction, has in the present volume anthologized five previously untranslated Yiddish novellas. She has also provided the reader with a thorough, thoughtful historical and critical overview in her introduction and notes.
The primary problem of Yiddish literature has generally been considered to be its inaccessibility: that is, so much of it has gone untranslated and hence unread. Although this is presently true—with Singer the notable exception—there was a time, Mrs. Wisse points out, that time in which the novellas in her anthology were written, just before World War I, when Yiddish was the language of large numbers of people, the language of “more Jews than had ever spoken a single Jewish language at any one time.” It would seem, then, that Yiddish would have been the natural choice for any Jewish writer, offering as much possibility for expression and literary achievement as his talents would allow—as natural a choice, for example, as writing in Italian would be for an Italian writer. Of course, this was not ever so, partly because, as the early Zionists said, the Jews were a people with a history but no geography, but more significantly, because those writers who chose to write in Yiddish felt imbued with a special mission to their people, an extra-literary obligation the nature of which varied according to the writer and to the particular time in which he lived. Essentially they perceived their task to be an educational one: to awaken, to enlighten, to sweep away the self-imposed darkness of backwater shtetl life. Many Yiddish writers who began their careers in fury, writing harsh satires and undisguised harangues, ended as displaced, heartbroken romantics, even sentimentalists, not because of the mellowing toll of old age, but because that world which they, in love-hate, had excoriated and tried to shake up had been shaken into dissolution before their eyes—by economic crises, by pogroms, by emigration.
The Yiddish writer's real subject has always been the struggles of the individual and of the community to come to terms with modern life. At first, these writers saw modernism itself as a solution, indeed an imperative. “Tzebrech die Keytn!”—Break the Chains!, the Bundists sang; only much later were the conflicts and losses such chain-breaking entailed called into question. In almost all of the novellas anthologized by Mrs. Wisse, the sense of constriction, of the bleakness of lives, is so intense and overwhelming that it is hard for characters to break out sufficiently to be differentiated. This does not make for vibrant, sturdy imaginative literature, and only insofar as these novellas succeed in transcending some of their authors' aims do they succeed as works of fiction. In I. M. Weissenberg's A Shtetl, what emerges as most memorable are the unusual, keenly lyrical descriptions of rural life, the countryside, weather, and nature; yet this novella is the most determinedly, even brutally, socialist “consciousness-raising” in the anthology. The characters exist as class or caste representatives and the ensuing conflict—inevitably—is class conflict. In Mendele Mocher Sforim's Of Bygone Days, an elegiac memoir written at the end of his career, the characters represent specific shtetl types and exist in order to present an exhaustive, definitive picture of the shtetl as it had once been and already no longer was. This is an atypical work for Mendele because of its descriptive softness, but in narrative style, pacing, and content it is in keeping with his belief that literature must instruct and explain.
David Bergelson's At the Depot is a very different sort of story. Though Bergelson also sets out to be programmatically “ideological,” his work does not suffer from it. Bergelson's intensely personal vision makes him appear to have more in common with Chekhov than with other Yiddish writers. A terrible melancholy yearning hangs over the story, the place (a stagnant provincial railroad depot), and the characters. Money-making and capitalistic greed are the evils, but even those who partake of them to apparent undeserving good fortune are no less victims of the frustration, lethargy, and thwarted undefinable desires that haunt all of Bergelson's world. His story “In a Backwoods Town” in the classic anthology, A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, expresses a similar vision perhaps even more acutely, suggesting that Bergelson's was a rare, strong talent; what he might have been capable of had he not later turned to the production of “acceptable” Soviet literature—and been liquidated by Stalin—can only be conjectured at.
S. Ansky, best known for his play The Dybbuk, is here represented by the novella Behind a Mask. It directly confronts the clash between the young men of the Haskalah and their benighted, intolerant elders, but Ansky does not make a simplistic division between good guys and bad guys. He sees the tragedies and ambiguities on both sides; there are no winners. Stylistically this is an odd, imbalanced work; it takes too long to get moving, and, especially in the beginning, it too has problems with character differentiation. Still, its depressing oddness is part of its strength and its frightening, unexpected conclusion lends a weird, angry, and passionate quality to the whole work.
David Opatashu's Romance of a Horse Thief is in subject matter and style reminiscent of part of Isaac Babel. In some ways, it is the most attractive story in this anthology. The prose is strong, spirited, and lively like the characters, and though this novella succeeds in pointing out the corrosive power of class inequality as it existed in the shtetl and the limitations and hardships of shtetl life in general, it does not suffer from a sense of constriction and it is never boring. It is, however, open to the same charge that can be made against this particular strain in Babel's work: that he succeeds in making Jewish characters appealing by portraying the ones whose lives are most “un-Jewish”—atypical, exotic Jews, Jews of the underworld.
Jews as figures of exotica bring us back to Isaac Bashevis Singer, or rather to the way in which his work is most commonly read and often most highly regarded. His Jewish underworld is not the subculture of thieves, but the underworld of ghosts and demons, and those readers and critics who may find real-life, familiar flesh-and-blood East European Jews embarrassing, distasteful, or parochially devoid of imaginative possibility can feel the same relieving, therapeutic enthusiasm in mystical, esoteric Jewish ghosts as they can in tough macho Jewish gangsters.
Singer's work has never given any reason to suggest that he himself is uncomfortable with or embarrassed by Jewish smells or Jewish appearances: in fact, the extraordinary variety of precisely and vibrantly described Jewish physical types remains, in his work, more haunting and powerful than those ghosts he sometimes seems rather summarily to summon. Even more than other Yiddish writers before him, Singer has had to grapple with the problems of traditional Jewish values as they come into conflict with the modern world, and his creation of, his seeming dependence on, an underworld of demons, a belief rooted in the terror-ridden superstitions of East European Jewish life (described in Mendele's Of Bygone Days), appear to be more an expression of this dilemma than a resolution of it. When it works—when it serves an organic function in the story, in the creation and expression of the characters' lives—it works brilliantly. Notable examples are the novella Satan in Goray, the short story “A Black Wedding” in the collection The Spinoza of Market Street, and “A Crown of Feathers,” the title story in this latest collection. But as Singer tells us in the Author's Note to this collection, describing the people he is writing about: “They lived in the midst of almost all the social movements of our time. Their illusions were the illusions of mankind.” He is at his best, then, in those of his works, primarily his novels, where the characters and ideas that whirled around them are explored and developed. Those books are stunning, brilliant creations, and with them in mind, no claims made for him are too large. In this collection of twenty-four stories, “A Crown of Feathers,” “The Magazine,” and “On the Wagon” seem the most successful; almost all the others, though they have elements of vitality, interest, and appeal, somehow have the quality of drop-cookies—a flick off the spoon and they're gone.
In thinking about the novellas in Ruth Wisse's anthology and Singer's work as a whole, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that the real, perhaps subterranean protagonist in all Yiddish literature is Jewish history itself. If history for James Joyce was the nightmare from which he could not escape, Jewish history can too often seem like a horror movie—but in this one it makes no difference where you come in.