A Farloyrene mamelooshn (a lost mother tongue).
Not that I read Kundera's novel Immortality, which apparently contains those two sentences. I don't read novels though I persist in writing them. They bore me. I much prefer reading scandalous biographies that betray the hand that fed them. Now that's exciting--Kitty Kelley on Sinatra or on Mrs. Reagan. No novelist could possibly approach Ms. Kelley in freshness of invention, in creativity, and in that malevolent tone so prized by crusading novelists who, more often than not, lapse into bathetic sentimentality instead.
Then where did I read Kundera's observation, so pregnant with the kind of implications and meaning that critics love so much? In a critical review, no less. That sort of stuff I read regularly in order to keep abreast of the competition. I scour the literary pages of newspapers and magazines in the fervent hope of finding a small masterpiece wherein my competitor is skewered through his navel down to his crotch. It doesn't always happen, alas. In this instance, Kundera escaped unscathed; nay, worse yet. His public relations person would find in this miserable review more than one passage of obsequious praise to excise and to drop into the bloated ads for the book that would undoubtedly appear in the Sunday literary supplements.
I won't enslave myself to his quote. I'll paraphrase Kundera and make his words my own. Each individual event in life seems to have no meaning. The job of the artist is to tie two or more disparate and inconsequential events together and make them inseparable and meaningful and so a story. The artist is not God the creator, God forbid, but he continues God's work. The Holy-OneBlessed-Be-He was capable of creating a world ex_nihilo, out of gurnisht--out of nothing, that is. The artist is a poor chap and needs a tiny incident on which to hang another and another and thereby make his connection and his creation. He or she can't do it out of nothing, despite the fabled hubris of so many artists. Hence my first episode of unbridled contempt and envy, of hate and of love.
Episode one: I hated Gutterman more than I hated Kundera, even more than the narrator of Poe's "Cask of Amontillado" hated the man he was about to bury alive. Kundera, after all, is not my friend. He's merely a famous author whom I know solely from his books, more accurately from his reviewers, sycophants all of them. But Gutterman is my bosom pal and a competitor and therefore a very hatable person.
I met Gutterman at a public meeting of the American Friends of the Hebrew University. One fine June day, the American Friends had arranged a buffet dinner and a lecture on Jewish marriage-art throughout the centuries by an art-history professor from the University. It was all very haymish--homey, that is--and saccharine, to tell the truth. All the guests and all the makhers--the big shots, that is--seemed to know each other, except for this burly fellow who stood in a corner gobbling up giant pieces of blackened salmon as if the rest of the school would never swim upstream again. I had paid a hefty fee to attend the dinner and lecture, but this chap, I later found out, got in on a house ticket. And still he ate like a horse; no sense of propriety or bashfulness at all on the part of this moocher.
But what really brought him to my attention was a climactic moment during the question period after the lecture. The poor Israeli professor had managed to show us a series of color-slides of beautifully dressed Yemenite brides and also of gaudily adorned Ketubot--handwritten marriage contracts, that is--with a running commentary in English on his part that barely triumphed over his difficulties with the language. The fellow seemed exhausted, and his plight engaged all our sympathies.
Then up rises our burly zoylel v' soyvenik--glutton as per the Hebrew Bible with a Yiddish twist at the end, that is--and launches a rant that took us all by surprise. "How come so many medieval marriage contracts with pictures of humans on it, so many editions of the holy Song of Songs about the love of the Almighty for Israel with God Himself depicted alongside as a person? Did these old Jewish communities refuse to obey the second commandment against graven images or did you and your doctoral students concoct spurious documents shelo hoyu v 'lo nivri'u--that never were and never were created, that is--to delude us at this treyfe soiree--unkosher, that is?"
I do not recall the hapless professor's tepid response, but that was my initial sighting of the miserable Gutterman, the demon of many appetites and the destroyer of many more men and women. We became fast friends.
Episode two: Gutterman appears on page one of The Times Sunday Book Review in the days before The Times began putting silly pictures on the front page, not as a reviewer himself, but as a reviewed. Imagine, the front page wholly devoted to a 600-page novel by Gutterman written in Yiddish and translated into English by himself, no less, when I hadn't even known that he was a writer, let alone a famous writer worthy of a front-page review. And what was the book about? Yemenite brides and medieval scribes who not only wrote Torah scrolls but also marriage contracts and unknown artists who wove the bridal cloth and others who decorated the ketubot and other works with masterful drawings of the deepest symbolism. The leech! Every word he had heard that evening was merely grist for his mill. Not that I read the book. Who can read 600 pages these days? A 2,000-word short story is the maximum for me. But what I tell you about his book is the God's-honest truth because I read all the reviews.
Episode three: I called him up and congratulated him on the book. I got his number from a secretary at American Friends whom I was going out with at that time.
"Where did you get my number?" he growled over the phone. I told him. Then he exploded. "So you're the sonofabitch who stole Goldele from me!" he yelled. It took me some time to realize that he was talking about the secretary at American Friends. I always called her Gilda, but apparently her Yiddish name was Golde, or a diminutive thereof.
"Stole her from you?" I yelled back. "I don't even know who the hell you are!"
"You know enough to call me up on the phone and kiss my tukhes so that maybe I can get you in good with my publisher."
I was astounded. How did he know that I too was a writer? Not much of a writer since I hadn't published anything worth reviewing even on the last pages of The Times where they donate a tiny paragraph to a shlemazldik book--a book written by a writer without any luck, that is.
"Let's settle this like men," he said to me over the phone. "I'll meet you for dinner at six tonight at the Sabra Restaurant on West 72nd. It's a date."
He hadn't even waited for my approval, but I showed up anyway. All the well-known Yiddish writers--all four of them--congregated in that place for afternoon tea without milk but with sugar and lemon. I had never dared to go there on my own, so this was my chance. Gutterman didn't even let me look around. He got right to the point.
"In the old days, I would have challenged you to a duel. But no, I'm not a shmuk like Pushkin--an idiot, that is, though the word comes from the Yiddish-German for 'jewel" and with a coarser meaning too that I can't mention here--who got himself killed in a duel over a woman. I expect to give the world the fruit of my genius for a long time to come, up till 120 years, not less. Do you love this woman with the red hair whose name means 'golden?'"
"None of your business," I said. I was exceedingly brave even though he was a foot taller than I and eighty pounds heavier.
"None of my business? So that's what you think? That girl was promised to me by her father who made an irrevocable deal with my father two weeks after she was born. A deal is a deal, a neder is a neder--a vow is a vow, that is--you miserable bandit, you paskudnyak--that is, I don't really know what that word means or if it's old Yiddish or a later Polish borrowing or Ukrainian, but it's nasty, you loi-yitslukh--that is, referring to my lack of success as a writer and who-knows-what-else, lowest of low blows, to say the least. The power of invective was his, indubitably Shakespearean.
"C'mon, now," I said weakly. "This is America in the 20th century. Who promises children in marriage the day they're born? This isn't the old shtetl anymore."
"Her father promised, vowed, that's who! And on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. Where do you think I was born, in Dobromil south of Lemberg maybe?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "What do I know? You have an accent, so I thought perhaps Bialystok. I never heard of you anyway before this book, so I never read your biography."
"You never heard of me, you illiterate mamzer--bastard, that is? I speak with an accent? A cholerye zol is trefn--May the cholera overtake it, that is!
I thought he would kill me.
"Duels are out too," I hastened to say. "No duels in the 20th century. You can only sue in court for damages, but no fighting."
And that was my first big mistake.
Episode four: He sued me in court, not for alienation of a woman's affection, nor for insulting his faux-American accent. He found a short short story of mine that a nondescript literary magazine in Idaho had published for which I received two complimentary copies of the magazine in full payment. He claimed that I had plagiarized a story of his that had appeared in Yiddish in the old daily Forverts newspaper--the Forward, that is--long before it became a weekly in Yiddish, also in English and Russian. I couldn't believe it. I admit I once used to read that old rag--that was when I was still a socialist--but I never saw Gutterman's name in it. So how could it be?
Episode five: I won the case in court. I showed the judge a story in the Talmud written two thousand years ago and therefore in the public domain that was just like Gutterman's story and I'm afraid just like mine. So we both stole from the same respectable source, the source of all Jewish learning. The judge threw the case out of court, dankn Got--thank God, that is.
Episode six: Golde calls me up and says she's going back to Gutterman now. Back to Gutterman! Why? Because he got a front-page review in The Times? Because I had bested him and humiliated him in court? A nekhtiger tug! Forget it; even if the angel Gavriel tells you tonight what that means you won't figure it out, and you definitely won't guess what Golde's real reason was for leaving me for him, no less.
Gutterman told her in secret that he had really copied his old story from mine! Apparently, he reads everything, even a literary journal from Idaho with a circulation of maximum 200, mostly family. And when he saw my story, he recognized a kindred soul, a lover of the old country, an adorer of Yiddish, a scholar of Hebrew texts, a potential competitor for the mantle of Isaac Bashevis Singer, zikhroyne livrukhe--his memory for a blessing, that is. And Gutterman was jealous. So he stole my story. Not only that, but he knew who I was and where I was all the time.
So why did Golde go back to him? My second big mistake is that I asked. I couldn't believe what I heard. Not only was the great writer jealous of my unknown little work, but he was also jealous of my success with Golde--so much so that he even made up the story about the two fathers promising each other, binding Gutterman to Golde forever. It was all a damn lie, and he actually confessed all this to her.
So how could she resist such a show of love? She went back to Gutterman for what she called true love. But me? I? She claimed that I was married to Yiddish because earlier I had made fun of Gutterman's translating his own novel into English even before he could publish it in Yiddish. I had shown more love, she cried, far etlekhe verter in a farloyrene mamelooshw--for a few words in a lost mother tongue, that is--than I had for her.
It was a land mine, a bombshell! It was Kundera's final episode that exploded and proved fateful to me. No, I don't really hate Gutterman. I hate Kundera. In this world, there is hate and there is hate, just as there is love and there is love.
LEO HABER is editor of Midstream. His first novel, The Red Heifer, was published in hardcover in 2001 by Syracuse University Press to critical acclaim and went into a second printing. It was reissued in 2005 in paperback. His next work of fiction, Jewish Tales of Love and Loss, a novella and fifteen stories, is now seeking publication. The above story appeared in Red Rock Review in a shorter version with a different title and was subsequently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. It is also in the book-length collection noted immediately above, as yet unpublished.