14 May 09 | Chad W. Post

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.


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
The Cold Song
The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann
Reviewed by David Richardson

Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .

Read More >

This Life
This Life by Karel Schoeman
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .

Read More >

A Dilemma
A Dilemma by Joris-Karl Hyusmans
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .

Read More >

Walker on Water
Walker on Water by Kristiina Ehin
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .

Read More >

The Nightwatches of Bonaventura
The Nightwatches of Bonaventura by Bonaventura
Reviewed by J. T. Mahany

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. . .

Read More >

Pavane for a Dead Princess
Pavane for a Dead Princess by Park Min-Gyu
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

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. . .

Read More >

Tram 83
Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Reviewed by Caitlin Thomas

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. . .

Read More >

Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic by Octave Mirbeau
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

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. . .

Read More >

Sphinx
Sphinx by Anne Garréta
Reviewed by Monica Carter

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. . .

Read More >

Morse, My Deaf Friend
Morse, My Deaf Friend by Miloš Djurdjević
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

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. . .

Read More >