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David Bergelson: From Modernism to Socialist Realism.

David Bergelson: From Modernism to Socialist Realism. Ed. by JOSEPH SHERMAN and GENNADY ESTRAIKH. (Studies in Yiddish, 6) London: Legenda. 2007. xiv+ 363 PP. 48 [pound sterling]. ISBN 978-1-905981-12-0.

Once more the Legenda imprint brings us an exemplary collection of essays on Yiddish literature, this time edited by Joseph Sherman and Gennady Estraikh, both of whom have edited volumes in this series in the past. This symposium is based on, but not limited to, the proceedings of the sixth Mendel Friedman conference, which took place at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies in August 2005. The topic on this occasion was the genius and tragedy of David Berglson (1884-1952), who was surely among the finest of Yiddish prose writers. The central dilemma concerning his literary career is the need to explain why so talented and sensitive a writer of innovative, impressionist prose fiction should have chosen to throw in his lot with the Soviet cultural commissars. This was an error of judgement which was eventually to cost him his life on 12 August 195 2 (his sixty-eighth birthday), when on Stalin's orders, together with almost the entire elite of Soviet Yiddish culture, he was murdered in the cellars of the Lubyanka, only months before the tyrant's own demise.

The key papers in this collection are those by Sherman, who provides the detailed biography without which no attempt to understand this perplexing figure can make sense; by the author's son, Lev Bergelson, who fills out the picture with his invaluable recollections of his father; by Sasha Senderovich, who directs the reader's attention to the sense of isolation and despair that Berglson experienced, severed from his natural readership during his exile in Berlin; by Ellen Kellman, who probes the crucial lack of understanding that existed between Berglson and Ab Kahan, editor of Forverts; and by Estraikh, who provides further details of Berglson's ambivalent position with regard to the United States.

Gradually a picture emerges of a man who yearned for admiration and longed to feel needed. Having fled instability in Ukraine to the safety of Weimar Berlin, he courted Ab Kahan and hoped that he might achieve financial security for himself and his family by being taken on the payroll of Kahan's immensely successful New York daily paper. Kellman provides what is possibly the key to an understanding of the dynamics of this tragedy. Kahan was on record as regarding Berglson's Nokh alemen (1913) as the most important of all Yiddish novels. Had Kahan then afforded Berglson more recognition and financial security, and had Berglson not been so lonely and impecunious in his Berlin exile and consequently so vulnerable to Kahan's cool ambivalence, he might have been less susceptible to the allurements of Moscow. Had Berglson, in his desperation to be appreciated somewhere, not inserted so much didactic propaganda into his stories, Kahan might have been more inclined to offer him the status at Forverts which he so much craved. But even when Kahan did finally agree to put Berglson on a monthly retainer, he nevertheless kept Berglson's manuscripts lying unpublished on his desk for weeks on end. This was too much for Berglson. In 1926 his patience snapped and he switched his allegiance to the Communist daily, the Morgn frayhayt, while expressing his mortification in his 'Dray tsentren' essay, in which he dismissed the validity of Jewish culture in New York and Warsaw and professed his faith in the new Soviet state and its ideology that would permit him, as he hoped, to be an active participant in literary life. His friend Shmuel Niger reacted to 'Dray tsentern' in a pained open letter addressed to Berglson, which appeared in Der tog, asking how so discerning a writer could demean himself with such simplistic adulation of the Soviet Union.

No doubt Berglson's frustration had much to do with his isolated situation in Berlin. In an elegant essay Sasha Senderovich shows how Berglson's famous story 'Tsvishn emigrantn' (1923) should be read in conjunction with 'Dray tsentern', and offers an exegesis in terms of Viktor Shklovskii's formalist analytical concepts in order to elucidate how the alienation experienced by Berglson in Berlin is reflected in encapsulated narratives. All this was exacerbated by the fact that the Morgn-frayhayt turned out to pay no better than Forverts, as emerges from Estraikh's careful examination of Berglson's feelings about America. When Berglson reiterated his misgivings about the West on a trip to W2rsaw in 1930, Nakhmen Mayzl expressed his disappointment with his friend's blindness, presciently warning that the Soviet literary experiment might yet end badly.

Mikhail Krutikov examines two Berglson texts in order to argue that Berglson had not merely pragmatic reasons for adhering to the Soviet cause, but also aesthetic motives. He usefully highlights Berglson's ironic use of Christian and Jewish religious imagery and other surviving literary skills, but it is not clear that the case is proven. It seems more likely that while he may have tried to smuggle his literary skills and inclinations past the censor and might have been unable totally to suppress his aesthetic urges, his political choices were almost entirely driven by practical considerations.

Looking at an earlier period in Berglson's work, Daniela Mantovan sensitively examines how Berglson in 1909-29 adopted modern European narrative techniques and a consciously introspective literary quality in order to create 'a wholly new style of Yiddish prose'. In particular she draws attention to Berglson's use of style indirect libre and other features of the modern European novel. However, she may overstate the novelty of Berglson's debt to velt-literatur. Earlier writers had also been beholden to European models. One need only think of Sholem-Aleykhem's reception of Gogol'. Of course, Flaubert's key role in the development of European narrative techniques is undisputed, but it is unnecessary to ascribe so much to his direct influence. By the time Berglson was writing, style indirect libre (or erlebte Rede) and even monologue interieur were becoming common both in the innovative Scandinavian literatures which were having a major impact on German literature at that time (witness Bjornstjerne Bjornson's Dertseylungen, translated into Yiddish in 1909) and in German fiction itself (for example, in Arthur Schnitzler's 'Leutnant Gustl' (1901)). This is a point on which Krutikov's hunch is sounder.

Further essays illuminate many aspects of Berglson's life and oeuvre. Kerstin Hoge considers how Berglson projected into the stories which he wrote ostensibly for children his own insecurities about Jewish identity in revolutionary times. Seth Wolitz carefully examines the complex genesis of Yoysef Shor (1922) and by meticulous exegesis demonstrates how Berglson marshals narrative techniques, tropes, and imagery to convey the social dynamics of a society in crisis, while Boris Kotlerman investigates the role of Birobidzhan in Berglson's decision-making process. An additional question that must be addressed in this context is whether, as many Western critics have suggested, Berglson, after a distinguished literary career before 'Dray tsentern' in 1926 and his actual move to the USSR. in 1933, became so enslaved by the baleful influence of Soviet literary cant that his career as a significant author came to a sudden halt. Interestingly, Harriet Murav, David Shneer, Jeffrey Veidlinger, and Sherman (in a second essay) are able convincingly to demonstrate that such a viewpoint constitutes a gross over-simplification and that Berglson, even in those works which apparently most conformed to the tenets of Socialist Realism, still found ways of subverting the genre and speaking 'allusively and dexterously, to particularistic Jewish concerns' (as Sherman puts it). Veidlinger even makes a persuasive case that Berglson's late play Prints ruveni (1946) represented a transparently coded palinode in which he courageously repudiated his former servitude.

The volume is complemented by an invaluable bibliography, admirably structured for maximum utility, compiled by Roberta Saltzman of the New York Public Library. This is by far the fullest Berglson bibliography to date, though still not quite as full as it could be, since curiously it omits even a few items mentioned by other contributors.

The general reader will be grateful that all Yiddish quotations are translated, though, somewhat anomalously, the contributors' own translations are invariably of higher quality than the often indifferent published translations which are cited from time to time. Two important essays by Berglson, including the crucial 'Dray tsentern', are most usefully translated into English especially for this volume. There is also an excellent index.

In a work of this complexity it will scarcely surprise the reader to note the occasional misprint and error or methodological inconsistency in transcription, but the fact remains that the essays in this volume collectively constitute a magisterial study of exceptional factual richness which will remain a major source-work on this topic for years to come.


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Author:Denman, Hugh
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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