Thursday, January 8, 2009

But I'm getting off the point - Mendele Mocher Sforim's "The Little Man"

Despite working on this week's lists, I did not really plan to immediately start reading Yiddish authors. But the lists sharpened my appetite, so I went right to the beginning, to Mendele Mocher Sforim's "The Little Man", a short story published in 1864 in the Yiddish supplement to a Hebrew newspaper. Before this story, there was no such thing as modern Yiddish literature; after, there was.

I don't think anyone would know that just by reading the story. I mean, it's pretty good. Mendele the Book Peddler tells us a little about himself, and then tells us how he was present at the reading of a strange will. The will is part autobiography, part confession, of an unpleasant rich man who raised himself from poverty.

It's a bit like the 16th century Spanish picaresque, Lazarillo de Tormes. The narrator of the will tells how he moved from one terrible job to another, each worse than the last. But where Lazarillo de Tormes has no real ending - Lazarillo presumably just moves on to another bad job - the dead man figured out the path to riches. He learned to become a "little man", a hypocrite and a flatterer. In the will, he confesses his sins and leaves most of his money to charity, so everything is all right, yes?

So there are some of good satirical touches like that. But the humor of the story mostly comes from the way it is told. Mendele's refrain is "But I'm getting off the point." He's always on the verge of a serious digression, but always pulls himself back. And he lards the story with dubious Jewish wisdom:

"It's true that the rabbi is a fine and honest man - I should only have his good name - although still, in this world, one has to deceive people. Even the angels had to follow the way of the world and put one over on Abraham, when the Torah says that they ate, although they only pretended to eat. But that's really not at all what I'm driving at."

It's this sort of voice that Sholem Aleichem is going to perfect, twenty years or so later.

"The Little Man" stands in the company of Richardson's Pamela, which launched the epistolary novel craze in the 18th century, and Scott's Waverley, which caused an avalanche of historical novels. Neither of those books are the best of their genre, or even of their authors. But they did something unusual. Mendele Mocher Sforim did not just create, or popularize, a new genre, though. He created a new literature. It's a creative act that is hard for me to comprehend, really, and the story itself, good as it is, does not help much.

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