Thursday, February 12, 2009

Let's talk about something more cheerful - Tevye's novel of short stories

Tevye the Dairyman actually is a book of short stories that functions as a novel. A timetable of original publication dates will clear things up:

1894 "Tevye Strikes It Rich"
1899 "Tevye Blows a Small Fortune"
1899 "Today's Children"
1904 "Hodl"
1905 "Chava"
1907 "Shprintze"
1909 "Tevye Leaves for the Land of Israel"
1911 Tevye the Dairyman is published as a book
1914 "Lekh-Lekho"

I'm ignoring some revisions. The first two stories are just what their titles say; the rest are about Tevye and his daughters. One can see that it took Sholem Aleichem a few years to attach the "marry off his daughters" story to Tevye. Also, that Sholem Aleichem was not quite happy with the way he ended the story in 1909, so he gave Tevye one more story. Sholem Aleichem was right, the 1914 ending is better.

The stories take place in real time. Tevye mentions actual events - pogroms, plagues, emigration - and he ages, which reinforces the theme of the breakdown of the old order. But Tevye is always funny, and even cheerful. Tragicomic, I guess that's the word. Here's how "Hodl" ends:

"You know what, Pan Sholem Aleichem? Let's talk about something more cheerful. Have you heard any news of the cholera in Odessa?"

"Hodl" is absolutely amazing, one of the best short stories I have ever read. More on that tomorrow. I've come across readers, good readers, who complain about short stories, for reasons which mostly perplex me. One of the oddest complaints is that they want to spend more time with the characters, to get to know them better. I think there's a basic misunderstanding of the form here that could be cleared up with a little effort, but in any case, Tevye the Dairyman doesn't have that issue. You want more Tevye, you got it, at least until you get to the end, when, come to think if it, I still wanted more.


  1. Yeah, I am really puzzled by people who don't care for short stories. Of course, spending time with the characters is not really something that makes sense to me, but still. I see a short story (a good one, that is) as a tiny, extremely rich thing, like a small piece of very fine and bitter chocolate. You only want one bite.

    They are really my true love and I haven't been reading enough of them lately. I can tell because every time I do pick one up I swoon.

  2. swoons or not, some remain emboldened on principle and the development of character. So goes me and Graham Greene.

  3. It seems obvious enough that a short story is likely to be used for different purposes than a novel, and for that matter a 200 page novel may have a different purpose than a 1,000 pager. But some people resist the notion, and I can't figure out why.

    I also can't figure out why a person would want to disallow the presence of Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor or "The Passion in the Desert" in his reading.

    Graham Greene thought you shouldn't read short stories as a matter of principle? That seems so unlikely. It is likely, jon - almost certain! - that I misunderstand your point.

  4. So it goes with the time signature of my prior post, deep in my cups, I'm afraid.
    I obviously can't speak for Father Greene but i suspect a pecuniary element instrumental to nearly all of the brief(er) species, much like Scott Fitzgerald.

    Madame O'Connor penned Wise Blood and thus all will remain ripe in my charter. I can muster no such oppositions to Doctor Anton and stand corrected. I didn't intend such a forceful response and I do apologize.

  5. jon, you have reminded me of Dr. Johnson's maxim "No man but a blockhead writes, except for money." Which would seem to mean that I'm a blockhead.