Friday, June 11, 2021

I. J. Singer's bloodlands novel The Brothers Ashkenazi - the whole world was drenched in blood


I. J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi (1934-5 serialized in Yiddish, 1936 in English) is a big-sweep historical novel that begins with the takeoff of the weaving industry in Lodz and ends with the Russian Revolution and independence of Poland.  

Some features of the novel: textile factories, assimilating Hasidic Jews, possibly literature’s first depiction of a PowerPoint presentation (“Director Ashkenazi pointed to a chart which revealed that since his sinecure, the factory work force had grown from 3,000 to 8,000 men and women,” 301, tr. Joseph Singer).  One character spends his time “read[ing] Hasidic storybooks about squire who assumed the guise of werewolves in order to harm Jews and about the saints who used sacred blessings to frustrate these wizards and transform them into dogs and tomcats” (100).

But that stuff is not in this novel, which is also full of strikes, revolution, pogroms, and prison.  It is a real “bloodlands” novel, an account of the beginning of the 20th century Eastern European nightmare, especially in the second half, when “[t]he whole world was drenched in blood” (333).  And when the blood starts flowing, for any reason, the Jews suffer the worst.

The Brothers Ashkenazi is surprisingly Russian, not that it is much like any particular Russian novel.  Lodz is, at this time, ruled by Russia.  Revolutionaries get sent to Russian prisons, and German and Polish strikers are murdered by Cossacks.  A good chunk of the novel is set in Petersburg, in order to cover the Russian Revolution, with a few pages from the point of view of Lenin and another that of Czar Nicholas II:  

For a while he did nothing at all.  He followed his usual routine – played patience and dominoes, noted down the weather in his diary, and dined with his retinue.  When the telegrams grew too demanding, he behaved like any henpecked husband and took the advice of his wife, whom he considered his mental superior.  (339, Ch. 53)

A number of chapters essentially abandon the novel’s characters, replacing them with “the soldiers” and “ the rebels” and “the poor housewives.”  That’s pulled from the same chapter; when “the soldiers” refuse to fire on “the poor housewives,” that’s it for hapless Nicolas.  It’s the Russian Revolution in six pages.

It has been so long since I read James Michener that I fear I am wrong, but The Brothers Ashkenazi reminded me of Michener.  I don’t know who a contemporary equivalent might be.  I am expected to be similarly interested in the big history and the little, the true history and the fictional, which serves as something of an exemplar or vehicle, so what does it matter if the characters are one-dimensional and the writing full of clichés.

“Yes, true.  It’s all the Jews’ fault.  They started the was to make money….”

“They ought to be beaten.”

“We Ukrainians know how to handle Jews,” a lame soldier interposed.  “The rope is the only cure for a Jew.”

The others nodded in solemn agreement.

The wagon seemed to throb with blind hatred, ignorance, animal passions.  It choked Yakub like a poison gas, but it didn’t deter him from his mission.  The trains crawled along like a snail.  (394)

What I am trying to say is that this is not the kind of novel where I fuss too much over slow trains being like snails.

Now, that other simile.  I have wondered about this.  The Brothers Ashkenazi was a popular* novel in the United States, with a popular stage adaptation.  Readers of Singer’s novel were well prepared for what they would read in the newspaper over the next ten years.  There are numerous episodes which might lead the newspaper reader of 1940 or 1946 to think “Why, I read about exactly this, in that novel.”  A “poison gas” metaphor borrowed from a World War I battlefield turns into prophecy.  I think part of the power of the novel is that although in some sense a historical novel, it is about a history that is ongoing.

I would not mind reading a book or essay about how fiction had mentally prepared (well or badly) people for the events of World War II.

*  Rebecca Goldstein, introducing the 2010 edition of The Brothers Ashkenazi, writes that “published by Knopf in 1936, it went to the top of the New York Times best seller list, lingering there together with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind” (p. xi).  Adam Hirsch makes much of the connection: “In 1936, two novels dominated the New York Times bestseller list.”  Except it is not true; Singer’s novel was never, as far as I can find, on the best seller list at all, and certainly did not “top” or “dominate” it (number two behind Mitchell was George Santayana's The Last Puritan).  I do not entirely trust this strange old website with the best seller lists, and I certainly did not check every week.  Still: false.  Popular but not that popular.

7 comments:

  1. I keep meaning to read this.

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  2. Not exactly a subtle work of art. But well worth reading.

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  3. I've had the book for decades (the old Grosset's Universal Library edition, $2.95 in 1967) and not only have not read it but couldn't have told you what it was about -- I got it because it had a striking white-on-black cover and I was into Jewish literature of the late-19th-/early-20th-century period (I don't think many gentiles of my generation have read Israel Zangwill), but like so many of my random-impulse purchases, it's sat on my shelf for years glaring at me and daring me to give it a try. You've made it sound much more interesting than I suspected (apart from style, oh well). For the moment I've pulled it off the shelf and will let it glare at me from the stacks to the left of my desk. We'll see how it fares in the Darwinian struggle for my attention...

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  4. More best seller lists at this site
    https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~immer/booksmain
    but alas no Ashkenazi.

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  5. The Publishers' Weekly list is likely more accurate than the NYT, but they are consistent.

    The Russianness of Singer's novel is of great interest. The earlier Yoshe Kalb was not Russian at all. Brothers begins in a similar vein , a critique of Hasidic culture, but grows much larger.

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  6. I have started reading The Brothers Ashkenazi. So far I am enjoying it (and the historico-geographical research it involves me in).

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  7. That enjoyable research should continue for a while.

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