Thursday, July 30, 2009

In Praise of Sholem Aleichem

“We have no desire to make extravagant claims: Yiddish literature can boast no Shakespeares, no Dantes, no Tolstois.” That's from the introduction to The Treasury of Yiddish Stories (1954), edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, p. 2.

Last year, Harold Bloom echoed this fifty year-old judgment: "There is no Proust or Kafka in this panoply; that is an impossible standard to apply." Actually, there is a Kafka, the same one who wrote about the bug and so on - the fact that he wrote in German, not Yiddish, is just a detail. But that's not my point.

These eminences are right. I know what they mean. Still, Yiddish literature does have Sholem Aleichem, who turns out to be a much bigger figure than I had guessed. His stories contain so much variety of character, so much Jewish life. They range across classes and occupation and education, and across Europe, from Kiev and Odessa to London and even New York City.

Sholem Aleichem's greatest achievement can be found in his monologues and his related first person narrations that imitate speech. In his more conventional novels and other stories, there is a distinct Sholem Aleichem voice, clever, jokey. In the monologues, though, there's a cacophony. Occasionally, when a story turned a new corner or I met a new character, I would compare Sholem Aleichem to Charles Dickens, and then draw back. No, no, Sholem Aleichem's world is not that big. Except in the monologues - there he's the equal of anyone.

I've read five Sholem Aleichem books that I can recommend very highly. The sad-sap schemer and his put-upon wife of The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl; the cheerful nine year-old, Motl, the Cantor's Son; the commercial travelers, third class of The Railroad Stories; the little bit of everything in the collection of monologues Nineteen to the Dozen. That's four.

And then there's Tevye the Dairyman. I'm now convinced that this book, this character, really is a world-class creation. No, not King Lear or Don Quixote, fine, but something much more complex than The Fiddler on the Roof would suggest. I hate to throw around words like proto-existentialist, since I don't know what I'm talking about, but that's the idea. The stories are much more than funny tales of a traditional father's conflicts with his modern daughters (though his warmth and intelligence are certainly appealing). We only hear Tevye's voice, his jokes and endless quotations and family troubles, but somehow that's enough to depict his endless struggle to understand himself, his place in the world, and his ongoing argument with his God.

A day or two ago I called I. L. Peretz the foil of Sholem Aleichem. Peretz was small and deep, Sholem Aleichem big and shallow. More or less. Tevye's an exception.

These five short books fill maybe 900 pages, less. I've read a couple of Sholem Aleichem's novels as well. They have problems, structural mostly. It's not a good thing that The Nightingale (1889) doesn't really take off until the last quarter or so, in a long section about a young woman's wedding and its consequences, although that last part is pretty great. Wandering Stars (1909) is a sprawling, overstuffed mess, but the sprawl and stuffing are themselves quite enjoyable. I plan to read more of his novels, but I'm not expecting to find another Tevye.

Anyway, if I were to recommend a single Yiddish author, among the batch I have read, it would be Sholem Aleichem; Tevye the Dairyman would be the single book. Number two would be Peretz and The I. L. Peretz Reader. Number three - oh, there's too much.

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