Thursday, April 30, 2009

With great sadness, with longing - the Berlin stories of David Bergelson

The Shadows of Berlin: The Berlin Stories of Dovid Bergelson (2005) is an attractive little City Lights collection of eight stories. The indefatigable Joachim Neugroschel is the translator and anthologizer. It's a tiny book - 116 petite pages - and a fine collection of Bergelson, with a bit more variety of mood then some of the other sources of Bergelson stories.

"The Boarding House of the Three Sisters" is, for example, a wry comedy. Three young women run a Berlin boarding house. Two have husbands who are, um, elsewhere. All three are, frankly, hotties. Dang fool men pay excessive rent because, because, you know, what if -. One boarder even confides to another that it's all a trick, that the husbands are here in Berlin.

"By now it is late. The two boarders separate and go to bed very sadly, but with latent hopes that perhaps... yes... perhaps... perhaps they are wrong. The two men draw up their accounts of how much the boarding house can cost them so far, and both of them muse about who will do something either now or later on..."

Mostly, I criticize writers for vagueness, but here it is psychologically acute. Those poor fools.

"For 12,000 Bucks He Fasts Forty Days: Scenes of Berlin" is a response or recasting, or, really, a Judaizing, of Kafka's "The Hunger Artist" (1922). It's all in good humor, too, except for the part about the destruction of Europe. Weird thing, this is the second Yiddish relative of "The Hunger Artist" I've read recently. I'll save the other for tomorrow.

The catastrophe of World War I and the Russian Revolution is in the background of every story in the collection. That's why Bergelson's characters (and Bergelson) are in Berlin. They're mostly refugees. These stories are the Jewish cousins of Nabokov's Berlin stories, set amongst the exiled Russians, except that Bergelson is not such a happy fellow.

"Two Murderers," for example. One murderer is a landlady's dog, one is a Cossack leader. They have both done horrible things. At the end of the story, they reach an understanding:

"Now the two of them were alone in the kitchen - Zarembo and Tell. One sat on a chair at the table, the other lay on the small throw rug, resting his head on his extended front paws. There was silence all around them. Both of them were peering into each other's eyes with great sadness, with longing."

Maybe that doesn't seem like much on its own. Knowing what the murderers have done, though - it's chilling.

The longest, and perhaps best, story is "Among Refugees." A young man discovers that the Russian officer who killed his grandfather, and many others, is living in the same boarding house, across the hall from him. He appeals to other Berlin Jews to help him acquire a gun, so he can assassinate the officer. They refuse, but because they lack will, not out of principle. This is a common problem in Bergelson stories - even when people do the right thing, it's for the wrong reason. So this story goes in the "bleak" pile.

The Shadows of Berlin is, I think, the best place to get to know this difficult, rewarding writer.


  1. thank you for writing about David Bergelson. i'm going to pick up the city lights book.

  2. The City Lights book is very nice. I was going to say that I hope you enjoy it, but for some of those stories, "enjoy" does not seem quite right.