As pointed out at Moby Lives yesterday marked the 93rd year after the death of Sholem Aleichem. (No, I don’t think 93 has any real numerological significance, but anniversaries are a nice reason for writing about someone’s work/life. And this does happen to be the 150th year after Aleichem’s birth . . . )
Most well known for his Tevye stories, which served as the basis for the musical The Fiddler on the Roof, Aleichem was one of the great comic Jewish writers of modern times and led an interesting life (from Moby Lives):
Born Solomon Rabinowitz in 1859, the son of a merchant in the Ukrainian village of Pereyaslav, he wrote his first book at fourteen: a dictionary of Yiddish curses overheard at home. Despite jobs teaching Russian and writing for Hebrew newspapers, it was his writings in Yiddish—humorous stories about village life—that brought him fame. Using the Yiddish greeting (“Peace unto you”) as his pseudonym, he published 40 volumes of stories and plays, single-handedly creating a literature for what had been primarily a spoken language. Pogroms forced Aleichem to flee Russia in 1905, eventually landing him in New York City, his fame undiminished. When Aleichem was introduced to Mark Twain as “the Yiddish Mark Twain,” Twain interrupted to call himself the “American Sholom Aleichem.” Upon Aleichem’s death in 1916, 100,000 mourners flooded the streets of Manhattan for his funeral. His will, however, asked friends to remember him by an annual reading of one of his funny stories. “Let my name be recalled in laughter,” Aleichem wrote, “or not at all.”
Recently, Melville House reissued Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance, which was the first of Aleichem’s books to be translated into English, and supposedly it the story that inspired Fiddler on the Roof.
For those interested, Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor’s Son was recently reissued by Penguin Classics in a new translation by Aliza Shevrin.
And Viking also brought out the first complete translation (also by Aliza Shevrin) of Wandering Stars, a late novel of Aleichem’s about the world of Yiddish theater. Tony Kushner wrote an excellent foreword to this book that really makes me want to carve out the time to read it (or at least have someone review it in full for the site . . . if anyone’s interested, e-mail me at chad.post at rochester dot edu).
The reader of Wandering Stars can, if this is the kind of thing the reader likes to do, catalog its imperfections, of which there are enough to keep any literary scorekeeper busy and happy. Time lurches wildly in Aleichem’s novel, and the narrative along with it. The opinionated, distractible narrator, when he’s doing his job, rather than taking a rest while allowing letters written by the characters do the storytelling, seems less interested in his two protagonists than in the fantastical secondary cast that surrounds them. And who can blame him? The secondary characters are magnificent, men and women cooked up out of wit, terror, panic, hunger, chutzpah, pathos, and spleen (especially spleen), effortfully and arduously cooked — peeled, chopped, boiled, or fried — rather than dreamed up or imagined.
That this is a knotty, knobby, odd novel of fits and starts and sudden jolts is possibly due to its serialized newsprint origins and its lateness in Sholem Aleichem’s writing life; or possibly conventional wisdom and Reb Mendalle Mocher Sephorim are right about him, and Aleichem is found at his best in his short stories and occasional pieces. We might thus consign his novel to culture’s remainder table, unless we consider how appropriate its strangeness is to its subject. Though like many other, more perfect novels, Wandering Stars is about love, it’s about love between Jews who work in the theater. So it should be strange and imperfect. Theater is almost never perfect; its imperfections, its incompleteness and its tawdriness, are among the principal sources of its power. And do I need to tell you that life for Jews isn’t perfect? I don’t.
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .
Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when. . .
“Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy,” my friend the doctor said.
bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I. . .
What to make of Vano and Niko, the English translation of Erlom Akhvlediani’s work of the same name, as well as the two other short books that comprise a sort of trilogy? Quick searches will inform the curious reader that. . .