Monday, July 6, 2009

The violent stories of Lamed Shapiro

Now here's a tricky writer to recommend. Lamed Shapiro wrote some of the most graphically violent stories I have ever encountered. A lot of terrible things happen in his stories, and he wants to make sure you see them, up close, in sufficient detail. Don't look away, he says, not yet.

The anti-Jewish violence of the Russian pogroms was his great subject. They seem to have left him a little cracked, even. Word War I was, as I found in S. Ansky's non-fictional The Destruction of Galicia, even worse. Shapiro wrote about the war's violence, too.

The Shapiro collection I read was an older one, The Jewish Government and Other Stories (1971), translated by Curt Leviant, who also translated several volumes of Sholem Aleichem stories. There's now a new collection from Yale University Press, The Cross and Other Jewish Stories (2007), which has a lot of overlap with Leviant. The title story, "The Cross" (1909) is easily Shapiro's most famous, a terrifying pogrom tale that asks, what limits are there on the evil a decent person can do, and answers, none.

Fortunately, for this reader's peace of mind, at least, not every story in this collection is a tale of horror and bloodshed. Some are more ordinary pictures of Jewish life in the Pale. Shapiro's world is never too happy, but it is, at times, at least normal. In "A Guest" (1904) for example, a woman's son, a young doctor, returns home to the village for the first time, and deeply hurts his mother by not having lunch with her. That's the story. Or how about "Smoke" (1916), the life story of a good-humored smoker, whose last words are a sort of secret message to his wife about their good life together.

But then there's "The Jewish Government" (1918), a forty page epic of wartime destruction and murder, and "White Challa" (1918), where we get the Russian soldier's point of view, which is just a nightmare, and "The Kiss" (1909), which I don't even want to describe. Don't trust that title. "Ironic" is not the right word for the title - "cruel mockery of all that's decent," maybe.

The violence infected my reading of the stories. The short "Tiger" (1904) is a ten pager about a boy and a dog. Two pages in, I thought, oh no, what horrible thing is going to happen to this dog. After five pages, I was relieved - with such a light tone, this can't possibly be one of the brutal stories. On page eight, though, here it comes, cover your eyes. But no, it could be a lot worse. What a relief to watch the dog run off, never to return. Obviously, if I had read this story first, my expectations would have been entirely different.

Shapiro's violence is perhaps no more graphic than that of his contemporary Isaac Babel - see Red Cavalry, for instance - although Babel's style is more distant, for example filtered through a journalist who witnesses terrible acts. Shapiro sometimes seems to be after something more direct, more visceral (at times, I'm afraid, literally). I've only read one Cormac McCarthy novel, the 1974 Child of God, which may be unrepresentative, but Shapiro's violence reminded me, again and again, of McCarthy. And the worlds of both writers are worlds with absent gods.

So, come to think of it, maybe I should recommend Lamed Shapiro to everyone, without reservation. Look how popular McCarthy is now. People love that stuff.

Tomorrow I'll try to look past the blood and write a little about the art of Lamed Shapiro. Because he was a real writer, cracked or not.


  1. I just read "The Cross", you are right it is a terrifying story. The account of attack on the Jews was such a scene of pure horror. I will be reading over the longer term more of his stories. I was given the Yale edition of his work. The introduction is really valuable.

  2. Absolutely ferocious, horrible stuff. As bleak a view of the world as I have encountered in literature.

    I never got to the Yale UP collection, although I meant to. I should correct that sometime.

  3. I read "The Kiss" yesterday. The violence is very vivid, the feelings of hatred so strong. The Yale edition has a few set in America stories and one on the boat trip to America that are very good.

  4. I just read his "White Challah", really an amazing story.