Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The less violent Lamed Shapiro - And now let me think.

A couple of examples of Lamed Shapiro's mostly unhappy world that aren't so directly about violence. Indirectly, yes.

In "Before the Storm" (1906), the narrator hires a boat to row him across a river harbor. We read about the sky, the ships, the boat owner and his son. The owner asks the narrator a surprising question, about his belief in immortality, which is an opening for his own story, about his oldest son. He did everything he could for his son, educated him, and the result was that the boy became a revolutionary. Here's there last meeting; the father has just rowed his son across the same river:

"'I no longer knew what I was saying. The tears poured out of me. He only smiled at my words and embraced me in such a way that, honestly, I felt as if he were the father and I the son... Then he kissed his brother and left.'

The old man suddenly fell silent. After while he said, 'Two months later I got his things and a letter from a little town in Lithuania. The letter said that my son was dead.'"

So the story is about the father's endless love for his son, and his complete failure to understand him. But then the narrator disembarks, just as the son did, but "just in time," since "the far-off, angry sounds of a storm were heard." Is the narrator, about whom we know nothing, moving toward the same fate as the son?

The long "Eating Days" (1926-7) works entirely differently. The narrator is a student at a down-on-its-luck yeshiva, a teenager worn to a frazzle by his sexual desires and, maybe the same thing, a new sense of the wonders of life. He's restless and intense, he feels everything to much.

This narrator uses metaphorical language far more than either of the narrators in "Before the Storm": shop owners look out of their shops "like mice out of their holes," and another has "small round hen's eyes" that never shut, like a corpse. A strudel "crackled softly and faintly, as though someone were breaking matchsticks." The voices in the winter market "rang in the ears, like the roar of water in one's head after a dive in the river."

The student's restlessness finally drives him out of school, out of the town, in pursuit of a woman, possibly, or simply of more life. I love the ending ("hosts" refers to the families who fed the yeshiva students on a rotating basis):

"The sun was behind us and the clear dark shadow of the pier played on the water. Further on, the water was as yellow as oil, and over the entire length of the river the fat, thick waters, like huge and endless hosts, stretched on and on, from one end of the world to another.

And now let me think."


  1. Thanks for the mention of Shapiro. He is someone I wanted to read after Babel. Now I know I need to be prepared, at least for some of the storiess.

  2. I think Shapiro would be a great fit with Babel.

  3. I just read his "New Yorkish", completely non violent story related Lamec's New York experience. we see the narrator, a stranger in a strange land" wander the streets if NYC. He tries to give ethnic classification to each of the customers in a diner where he eats. His encounter with the waitress is really a wonderful account of misunderstanding and loneliness.

  4. I do not believe the older collection I read had any New York stories at all. Not that my memory should be taken too seriously. Another interesting side of Shapiro.

    So many of the Yiddish writers of that (approximate) generation have at least some connection to New York City. Sholem Aleichem is buried there,