Thursday, March 26, 2009

A botched transition to Sholem Aleichem's Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl

I spent some time with a bit of Mark Twain yesterday. Sholem Aleichem is sometimes called the Jewish Mark Twain. Cuz they're both funny.

Now see, this transition has moved me from a book about scientists to Mark Twain to Sholem Aleichem. For a transition to be good, though, it should go somewhere or have meaning, unlike this one. A little writing tip for you. Free of charge.

I want to say something about The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl (1892-1901, more or less), a book that, it turns out, has what we call "relevance". Menakhem-Mendl wants to strike it rich, and will try anything legal. His wife Sheyne-Sheyndl just wants him to come home. She's right, of course. Along the way, over six separate stories and a mere one hundred pages, Menakhem-Mendl tries his hand at trading in English pounds, railroad stocks, sugar, timber, oil wells, real estate, and probably more; he also takes a shot at matchmaking, selling insurance, and journalism. I'm not sure that a writer today would have such a different list of schemes - replace the railroads with tech stocks, and put the matchmaking business online.

Here's how the third story starts. Actually, it's how all of the stories start, almost exactly:

"To my wise, esteemed, & virtuous wife, Sheyne-Sheyndl, may you have a long life!

Firstly, rest assured that I am, praise God, in the best of health. God grant that we hear from each other only good and pleasing news, amen.

Secondly, I'm through with investing. You can have it! It's no occupation for a Jew. It's made me old and gray before my time. I could write a book on all I've been through. Yehupetz is in ruins. The market has gone bust. There isn't a ray of hope. The carnage, I'm sorry to say, is worse than it was in Odessa. Everyone is in the soup. Everyone is bankrupt, and so am I. Filing for bankruptcy is the latest fashion."

Menakhem-Mendl is back on his feet, though. Now he's a commodities trader:

"A more painless way to make a kopeck has yet to be devised. Just yesterday I earned 50 rubles - so help the two of us if I know what it was for. I also sold 300 tons of sugar as easily as smoking a cigar. That is, the sugar wasn't mine, but I got into the act, which was good for 50 more."

This story is my favorite, the funniest. The gag is that Menakhem-Mendl actually changes professions with every new letter home:

"Second, you're absolutely right. The sugar business is not for me... I now have, with God's help, a more suitable line of work. In a word, I'm in finance...

Secondly, finance is strictly for beggars... In short, I've sent finance to the devil and now am in real estate...

Secondly, Yehupetz real estate is for the birds. I'm now in country property."

"Always a Loser," the last chapter is titled, and how else could the stories work? Menakhem-Mendl is not greedy, really, although he is utterly selfish. He's restless and vain, and wants to be a player, a big man, more than a rich man, much more. That's why he always finds himself on the wrong side of the bubble, and why he never stops trying one thing or another. He's a great character, even if he has about a third of the depth of Tevye the Dairyman.

I have neglected the other character in the book's title. Sheyne-Sheyndl deserves her own post. Now there's a character.

The zippy translation is Hillel Halkin's, in the New Yiddish Library edition.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like another one I must read. As you said relates to today very well.