Monday, July 27, 2009

Got any stories for me? - Yes, I have - I. L. Peretz and "Stories"

This week, God willing, I wrap up the Yiddish project. More on that later. Now I want to look at a great writer I somehow never wrote about, I. L. Peretz,* an exact contemporary of Sholem Aleichem's. His foil, in a way. Save that for later as well, please.

One lesson I have learned: Yiddish fiction is unusually concerned with story-telling. Yiddish writers did not need postmodernism to learn about meta-fiction. Self-reference is embedded in the culture. In modern Yiddish literature, two traditions come together: oral culture and the folktale, and the written, learned culture of the Torah and the Talmud, of commentary on commentary. Actually, these traditions joined in early 19th century Hasidic literature as well, and probably many times before that.

So the result is Sholem Aleichem's masterful monologues, and Mendele Mocher Sforim's narrative frames, S. Anski's use of folklore, and the two modes of I. L. Peretz's short stories, one the neo-Hasidic fable or parable (tomorrow for those) and the other more Chekhovian, stories about educated, secularized Jews like himself.

A superb one is actually called "Stories" (1903). A young writer, struggling, not quite literally starving, has fallen in love with a Polish girl who wants the stories he tells, symbolic folk tales with princesses and heroes. The stories become the writer's weapon, or perhaps offering, in a frustrated sexual struggle with the girl.

"She opens the door, and asks from the doorway, 'Got any stories for me?'

'Yes, I have.'

If he hasn't, she turns back. She doesn't like him, she says. In fact she's frightened of Jews. But she loves his stories."

We follow the writer around the city as he tries to come up with a new story for the girl. He discovers that it is Passover. Although a non-believer, his story, his imagination, is invaded by Passover stories, some about his own family, some horrible ones about blood libel ("Not for me," he thinks after a grisly one, "that needs a stronger pen than mine.")

Perhaps it is useful to know that holiday stories for newspapers, particularly Passover stories, were important sources of income for Yiddish writers. So the Peretz story is at once a parody of the modern Passover story, and a brilliant example of it.

"Stories" is about the different types of stories in our lives, and their different kinds of power. I think it's really an all-time great short story. I read it in The I. L. Peretz Reader, ed. Ruth Wisse, tr. (this story) by Maurice Samuel.

* Actually, he made a brief appearance with a brief tale during Golem Week.

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