Tuesday, April 28, 2009

He would never again experience any joy in life - the not exactly cheery world of David Bergelson

When I was first compiling my list of the early, modern Yiddish writers, I missed at least one pretty big one, David (or Dovid) Bergelson. A lot of his best work is from the 1920s, so that's my excuse.

Bergelson was a little younger than the generation of Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz. I can't detect a drop of Sholem Aleichem in Bergelson, and only traces of Peretz. Bergelson was a real Modernist - his touchstones were Knut Hamsun and Anton Chekhov. He's sounds quite Russian to me. For example, from the 1913 story "In a Backwoods Town":

"She would read to Burman some new book, paper-bound and extremely boring. She read very badly, in a quavering voice, and kept thinking, even as she read in her bashful and dull way, that Burman had at one time been her tutor and might now marry her. Her voice quavered as he listened and corrected her mistakes; her voice quavered when Burman, letting his head drop on his chest, dozed off with a hazy awareness that the autumn which prevailed in his rabbinical soul was now coming into being out of doors, and that somewhere beyond the godforsaken little border town there must surely be great bustling cities where men were active and alive. But now it was all the same to him: he would never again experience any joy in life. He dozed on."

Burman is all of thirty years old, so that ending is hilarious. Note the little shift from the perspective of the fiancée to that of Rabbi Superfluous Man. "Never again experience any joy" - ha ha ha! We're right in the mainstream of Russian fiction here, right, going back from Chekhov to Turgenev to Pushkin and Lermontov.

Bergelson's world is, frankly, depressing. He's writing after the 1905 pogroms, and then after the World War I pogroms and the Russian Revolution, and his stories are often set against a background of atrocity. But I don't want to explain Bergelson this way. It's not his times, but his temperament, the way he sees things. A number of his characters are depressives. One seems to actually have some sort of seasonal affective disorder ("Impoverished," 1910?). The sort of reader bothered by this should stay far, far away. Bergelson is a real artist, though. His world is bleak, but complete, real.

Did I mention that Bergelson, in 1934, idealistically returned to the Soviet Union, where he wrote propaganda for eighteen years before being murdered by Stalin in 1952 for, in Golda Werman's words, "the crime of writing in Yiddish"?

Wow, that is depressing. More David Bergelson tomorrow, at least. I'll try to write about the artist, not the martyr.

The Bergelson bibliography is a little complicated. "In a Backwoods Town" can be found in the Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg Treasury of Yiddish Literature. These two editors put three more Bergelson stories in Ashes Out of Hope: Fiction by Soviet-Yiddish Writers. I've read two little collections as well: The Stories of David Bergelson, tr. Golda Werman (three stories) and The Shadows of Berlin, tr. Joachim Neugroschel (eight stories). So I've read fifteen David Bergelson stories, a couple of novella length. There's a little more in English, but not much - one novel (When All Is Said and Done) and one story ("At the Depot"), as far as I can tell.

I pinched the picture from a more formal review of a book about Bergelson at Three Percent.


  1. I'm drawn to depressives in life and literature.... David Bergelson is made more and more appealing with each of your posts on his work and life.

    BUT, what I came to say is that both you and D.G. Myers have such an affinity for Jewish and Yiddish literature - and are exposing your readers to authors they might have never otherwise read.

    Of my 30 or so blog posts, only one so far has concerned a Black author, less than half female authors... I didn't even notice it until recently, but am inspired to remedy the situation.

  2. Oh thanks. I don't think of it as an affinity. That cocakamamie story about reading Yiddish literature because I don't have a vacation planned was partly true. But I also wanted to corral some of my ignorance, and why hadn't I ever read Sholem Aleichem?

    If you want to write more about black authors, and female authors, I strongly recommend a trip to Senegal. Boy, did it get me reading. Which reminds me, I need to update the reading list.