Thursday, July 9, 2009

What's a writer after all? Anyone can be one - Sholem Aleichem's Railroad Stories

"My goodness, the things one sees traveling! It's a pity I'm not a writer. And yet come to think of it, what makes me say I'm not? What's a writer, after all? Anyone can be one, and especially in a hodgepodge like our Yiddish. What's the big fuss about? You pick up a pen and you write!"

That's the commercial traveler, third class, who narrates Sholem Aleichem's The Railroad Stories (1902-10, 1911). The traveler mostly just gives us other people's stories, in their own words, with a bit of framing. So most of The Railroad Stories are monologues, Sholem Aleichem's perfect form. Not everyone is a writer, but everyone traveling in a third class Ukrainian train car has a story to tell.

Some of the stories are jokes with punchlines, some are character sketches or social observations or commentary. "A Game of Sixty-Six" is a good con man story. A number are, almost inevitably, stories about story-telling. In "Baranovich Station," a passenger promises a great story. A village bands together to prevent a fellow-citizen's flogging. The story gets more and more complicated and compelling, but then the storyteller reaches his station and disembarks, before the end. "What end? It's barely begun. Let go of me!"

I don't want to say that every one of these stories is more consequential than those in Inside Kasrilevke, but the range of stories is important. There's more varied life here than in any other Sholem Aleichem book I've read. And the comedy is tinged with - sometimes about - some darker matter. Prostitution, suicide, pogroms, discrimination.

I'll pick out one or two of my favorites for tomorrow.

"Come to think of it again, though, writing is not for everyone. We should all stick to what we work at for a living, that's my opinion, because each of us has to make one. And if you don't work at anything, that's work too."


  1. I like the sound of this Aleichem's Railroad Stories. Of course everyone travelling in a Ukranian train car has a story (I picked up my computer and typed.)

  2. Yeah, I'll bet everyone on a third class Ukrainian train car today has a story, too.

  3. Adam Biro, "Two Jews on a Train" is in the same vein; cannot remember whether acknowledges SA or not:

    And another snippet:

  4. Buce, thanks for the link to the Biro book. Definitely relevant.

  5. Thank you for highlighting Sholem Aleichem's RAILROAD STORIES. D. G. Myers at A COMMONPLACE BLOG has linked your posting, which is how I discovered it. And, though I have already asked Professor Myers this same question (and await an answer), I would pose it to you also: Can you recommend a handful of book (fiction) in which Judaism is central to either the theme of the book or the author's cultural foundation upon which the book's style and tone are dependent. I ask this quesion as someone who is not Jewish, though I have some limited familiarity with the religion and the culture; moreover, I ask it as someone who is nominally Christian (but principally in the sense that I share much in common with the early years of Hazel Motes of Flannery O'Connor's WISE BLOOD). I am particularly interested in the ways in which faith and literature intersect, and Jewish literature is an overlooked part of my literary education.

  6. I'll limit myself to two books here.

    First, Sholem Aleichem, Tevye the Dairyman. This is one man's faith, and its tangles with his family and the world around him. The monologue form is central, as is Tevye's stream of religious quotations and jokes, part of his lifelong argument with God.

    Second, I. L. Peretz, The I. L. Peretz Reader, ed. Ruth Wisse. Stories, fables, and a memoir, by a man with an extremely complicated relationship with his religion and traditions. He's a modernizer, a rationalist, and perhaps not much of a believer, yet his distinctive form is the Hasidic fable.

    I'm going to write more about Peretz, soon.