Monday, August 29, 2011

Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance - Sholem Aleichem's first long novel

A couple of years ago, I read eight books by Sholem Aleichem, not including what the author calls “my first long novel,” Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance (1888, quote on p. xi), about a star fiddler and the women who fall for him.  The novel has its moments, but is, in general awkward and minor.  Some passages and characters prefigure the greater works to come.  Otherwise, I can recommend the novel only to readers particularly curious about the origins of the Yiddish novel or the development of the artistry of Sholem Aleichem.

A reader like me, for example.  I am glad I read the book, but I cringe a bit to think that it has been the introduction to this great author for so many good readers.  Bibliographing nicole assumes, or hopes, that “its style [is] characteristic,” and she is right, but also entirely wrong.  “Folksy, intrusive, exuberant” – all useful words for Sholem Aleichem’s third person novels.  The problem is that Sholem Aleichem’s greatest works are all in the first person, and are almost all representations of speech.  Sholem Aleichem is among history’s greatest monologists.  The third person novels are all weaker; of the three I have read, Stempenyu is easily the weakest.

I wrote a guide to Sholem Aleichem way back when.  The linked monologues of Tevye the Dairyman are my pick as Single Best Book, but the back-and-forth Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl or the extra-exuberant Motl, the Cantor's Son or the traveler’s motley of The Railroad Stories are of comparable quality, as is, I suspect, any random collection of Sholem Aleichem’s monologues.  Nineteen to the Dozen is an especially good recent example.

The curious thing about the novels that I have read is that they are all about performing artists, extraordinary ones:  an ecstatic fiddler in Stempenyu, a flawless cantor in The Nightingale (1889), an actor and a singer in Wandering Stars (1909).  The monologues that I have read have all been about ordinary folks.  Interesting, isn’t it, that when Sholem Aleichem wanted a “big” story, a story for a novel, he so often reached for performers, to characters who had a big cultural role.

Note that The Nightingale was published only a year after Stempenyu.  It rewrites much of the earlier novel, borrowing much of the story and language, particularly the ecstatic musical language (“divine voices,” “magical tones,” etc., all borrowed from the typical p. 23 of Stempenyu), and unfortunately borrows or fails to expunge some of the same structural problems.  The last quarter or so of The Nightingale, an extended wedding scene, turns into something much more powerful and original.

This is my little contribution to the massive Art of the Novella reading that has been occupying the attention of so many, so all page numbers are from the recent Melville House edition, which uses an old translation by Hannah Berman.  Well done, Nonsuch Frances, although I will admit that I had wondered, from the beginning, about the desire to rush through these books, even through Stempenyu, which is worth reading carefully if it is worth reading at all.


  1. It's about time I got back to some Yiddish books. In line with your recommendations of Aleichem's Tevye and I L Peretz' Best Of - which happen also to be the first two books in Schocken Books' Library of Yiddish Classics - I'm starting on the third, S Ansky's The Dybbuk and Other Writings (which fits in a bit with my theatre reading too).

    As I may have said before, I read Aleichem's Marienbad, which is a sort of cross between the monologue and the novel, being a cacophonous letter-based narrative. Not as good as Tevye, but still enjoyable.

  2. The S. Ansky book is a model anthology.

    Marienbad does sound pretty good. The most amazing thing about Stempenyu is that, thanks to the current peculiar combination of publisher and distributor and bookstore, I found and bought my copy in the Chicago O'Hare airport, just where a 1916 translation of an 1888 Yiddish novel is unlikely to be.