Wednesday, April 29, 2009

That's the story of the doctor's violin - the indirect art of David Bergelson

Some David Bergelson stories:

"Remnants": An ugly woman is finally married, to a self-conscious weirdo who won't talk to her. One day, she makes him a stewed pumpkin, which, it turns out, is his favorite dish. "A delicious dish, a wonderful pumpkin," he says. Then he dies.

"A Deaf Man": A deaf man is injured in a mill accident. Something terrible also happens to his daughter. He tries to avenge her, and fails.

"The Hole Through Which Life Slips": A writer's wife leaves him, and he gets writer's block, or vice versa. The Bolsheviks take Kiev. The writer either concludes, or doubts, that his life was wasted.

Bergelson works in small touches. I've seen critics call him "impressionistic," which can mean anything, but I think I know what is meant here. Bergelson does not try to fill in the whole picture. He'll give us an outline and a detail or two, enough to recognize what we're seeing. Sometimes, perhaps, not enough. So there are always ambiguities.

The novella Departing (1920) is, at 130 pages, the longest piece of Bergelson's that I've read. It's a good place to see how he works. A young man in a small town, a pharmacist, has died, possibly a suicide. His friend comes to town to settle his estate. Bergelson wafts from one character to another, all involved in some way with the dead man.

Bergelson takes his time revealing which characters are central and which are peripheral. He introduces new characters just when I thought the cast was complete. He gives two women similar names (Channeke Loyber amd Chava Poyzner). The point of view darts around, from one person's thoughts to another, then back to an outside observer. As a result, we visit a lot of people and see a lot of the town. Departing sometimes reminded me a bit of Delta Wedding, or To the Lighthouse. It can be a little confusing. I read slowly, and occasionally backtracked. Modernism!

Here's an example of the drifting point of view, where a doctor and student are discussing politics:

"Doctor Grabay is happy to be drinking lemonade in the shade near Azriel Poyzner's department store and is in no hurry to leave. [A bit about his sick daughter, who plays with his old violin] When he first came to Rakitne he used to play long passages from Mendelssohn's violin concerto so beautifully that passersby would stand under the window to listen. They said that it sounded professional. Now all that is left on the violin is a single limp string that hardly makes a sound when it is plucked. That's the story of the doctor's violin.

Anshl Zudik feels uncomfortable with the doctor's arm around his shoulder and smiles awkwardly. What a quiet worm, he thinks - this courteous doctor who's always talking about charitable foundations is really only interested in making money. They say that he has thirty thousand stacked away in a bank in another town." (Ch. XIV)

These two would be surprised to know what the other is thinking; we get to eavesdrop. They are both minor characters - this is how Bergelson fills out the world of his story.

I read the Golda Werman translation of Departing in The Stories of David Bergelson (1996, Syracuse University Press), but it has also been published on its own, but titled Descent. It's easily worth reading, and, in David Bergelson terms, not even particularly bleak.


  1. I love indirect speech in prose - the author is allowed that much more control over the shaping his characters, the world of his story. BUT, it can also be taxing to read if the pov is unrestricted - or if the narrator is inconsistent.

    Though the fun part is chasing the story and the author's process... I like To The Lighthouse, but I will *most likely* never read it cover to cover again.

    Austen mastered free indirect speech and made it accessible, which is why she's Austen and we all love her.

    I honestly hadn't heard of Bergelson before this post, but he sounds interesting!

  2. I had not heard of Bergelson until about a month ago. You know, I should say something about that.