Friday, May 1, 2009

They hate scholars, ridicule of scholars would give them pleasure, it was sure to be a success - the tragic dream-world of Der Nister

A month or two ago, I had not heard of David Bergelson. No, I had, because I had read about him as a victim of Stalin's final attempt to destroy Soviet Yiddish culture. But as a writer, his name meant nothing to me.

It was while reading around in Joachim Neugroschel's anthology of Yiddish fiction, No Star Too Beautiful that Bergelson's stories caught my attention - Bergelson stood out. So I started looking around, and one book followed another. He wasn't the only one, although most of the writers I liked best were predictable - I. B. Singer and so on.

A writer who I don't exactly like but who definitely stood out - who is in his own category - is Der Nister, The Hidden One. The Neugroschel book includes the story "Beheaded" (1920), which I will try to summarize:

Adam taps his head. It opens, and his Comedian emerges. Another Comedian comes along, with Adam's double. Adam drives them all away - he has to wait for the Master. The Master arrives, and leads Adam and his disciples to the giant ladder with rungs made of heads and skulls. Everyone has his head chopped off, so it can be added to the ladder. The headless Master then tells the story of the living bridge, which served faithfully but succumbed to despair in its old age. An angel came to the bridge, and told it the story of the Universal Bridge, and how it was tempted by Satan, and how later bridges suffer for the weakness of the Universal Bridge. The End.

I don't have the story handy, and have probably made some mistakes. It's hard to remember how it goes, because it makes no sense. I mean, it's completely crazy. It's not an allegory, with an X=Y correspondence, but rather an attempt to create a new and original symbolic structure. Der Nister's visions have links to the Kabbalah and Hasidic mysticism, but they're not derivative. What, then, is a reader supposed to do with something so strange and private?

I've read only one other story by Der Nister, "Under a Fence: A Revue" (1929), from the Ashes Out of Hope collection. It's one of the saddest things I've ever read, Der Nister's farewell to his art. Like David Bergelson, Der Nister willingly returned to the Soviet Union to be a writer, to serve the state. That he thought his esoteric work would be welcome seems so naïve, but this was just before Socialist Realism became doctrine.

In "Under a Fence" - well, I won't try to summarize it, quite. There is a scholar who is in love with a circus rider. In a dream-like sequence, the "dustman" appears to the scholar, and drags him and his straw-daughter around town and to the circus, where the scholar becomes a performer himself, staging mock trials of his pupils and former teacher:

"'And,' the dustman said, 'the clowns would have plenty of opportunity for humor and ridicule. The theme was current, and the people would love it. They hate scholars, ridicule of scholars would give them pleasure, it was sure to be a success.'"

In the end, though, the scholar himself is on trial, and the dream-world is replaced by the real-world, I guess, the scholar broken, his life emptied of meaning.

This was published in a Soviet Yiddish periodical! The amazing thing is that Der Nister survived until 1950 (he died in a prison hospital). Der Nister apparently abandoned his symbolist work after this story, and turned to approved forms of realism. I've read good things about his later novel, The Family Mashber, which does not sound especially realistic. Maybe he pulled one over on the Soviets. Or maybe he really did work his way to a new artistic voice.

I'm not going to pursue the issue, though, not now. I have read all but two of the Yiddish books that I had originally planned to read way back in January, yet somehow my list of interesting Yiddish books is just as long as ever. So I have to start drawing some lines, retreating back to the 19th century a bit. So this may be it for Der Nister, and who else - the Singers, I. I. Trunk, Itzik Manger, and many others. If anyone wants to do a Yiddish Modernism project, I beg you, let me know. I'm avidly interested, even if, as with Der Nister, I barely understand it.

No comments:

Post a Comment