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Structured Reading: Old-school Jewish writers

I recently completed my latest Structured Reading exercise, this time with old-school Jewish writers. The three books - Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholom Aleichem's Selected Stories and Aharon Appelfeld's The Iron Tracks - were each very different, yet were somehow cohesive when read in succession.

Conversations is a series of discussions between Singer and editor/writer Richard Burgin, in which Singer expounds on his theories of literature, philosophy and humanity. Singer was certainly a traditionalist, revering Dostoevsky and Chekhov while having little interest in modernists like Beckett and Joyce, and values old-fashioned storytelling over what he saw as the style-over-substance emphasis of modern fiction. Though the discourse was often invigorating, I wish I had first read more of Singer's fiction (I've only read Gimpel the Fool) which would have helped me make more sense out of the book-specific discussions between Singer and Burgin. Maybe I'll re-read the book ten or twenty years from now after I've had a chance to read more Singer.

At one point in Conversations, Singer says:

"The Jews are waiting for another Sholom Aleichem and America is waiting for a new Mark Twain or for an American Gogol. But I don’t think the American people would appreciate a really humorous book about themselves. They would say it’s false, it’s not accurate, it’s contrived. This is also true about modern Jews. If they had a Sholom Aleichem today, they would call him a Jewish anti-Semite. They would complain that he makes us look silly and that he helps our enemies."

Over the course of reading Selected Stories, I came across several other references elsewhere to Aleichem being "the Yiddish Mark Twain." I think that description is accurate in that Aleichem depicted old-fashioned Jews, often humorously, in fable or tall-tale form, much like Twain did with Americans. But beyond that I don't think the Aleichem-Twain connection really fits - Twain was cranky, cynical, pessimistic and certainly no fan of the majority of the human race, while in these stories Aleichem comes across as much more warm, generous and loving even while he playfully skewers the absurdities of small-town Jewish life. Selected Stories is a wonderful collection which showcases the range of Aleichem’s talent - the humorous stories are joyful and entertaining even as they focus on the downtrodden of Jewish society, and when he turns more serious (especially in "Hodel" or "You Musn’t Weep – It’s Yom-Tev"), the results are emotionally powerful.

Aharon Appelfeld may be a more modern writer than either Singer or Aleichem (not to mention still being alive), but many of his themes in The Iron Tracks - Jewish identity, religious devotion, coping with the traumas of the past - wouldn’t be out of place with either of the older writers. The novel follows a mostly-unnamed narrator who travels by train during the 1980s through Austria, collecting Jewish religious relics (either discarded or completely devalued) which he sells to wealthy benefactors for eventual return to Israel. But as the story progresses he slowly reveals the real purpose of his travels - to track down a WWII work camp officer whom he blames for the murder of his parents. The overall tone of the novel is joyless and grim, as the narrator repeatedly connects and disconnects with old acquaintances at each station along the line, broods endlessly over memories of his tragic childhood, and faces his ultimate mission of revenge. Yet even that act of revenge brings him no emotional lift or redemption, and as his life goes on mostly as before he realizes that the atrocities of the past can never be corrected - just as the small-town Jewish culture can never be restored to Austria, which warrants the removal of the relics to Israel and the hope of a brighter future there. The Iron Tracks is a deeply contemplative and satisfying novel, and my first exposure to Appelfeld, a writer I’m sure I will be returning to.

December 19, 2011 in Books | Permalink