Nov 07, 2017
David Bergelson. Judgment: A Novel. Translated from the Yiddish by Harriet Murav and Sasha Senderovich. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2017. xxxvii + 222 pages, $18.95
Before I read Mides-hadin (1926-29) in Harriet Murav and Sasha Senderovich’s vivid, energetic English translation—which they have titled, firmly and justly, Judgment—my sense of David Bergelson’s (1884-1952) revolutionary prose was sketchy at best. Indeed, it was informed primarily by two sketches that I included in my anthology 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016). Bergelson’s “Scenes from the Revolution” (April-May 1917) are, like all the pieces in the anthology, more or less immediate responses to the cataclysm of that year. As I write in my brief introduction to these “Scenes,” Bergelson “reacted to the news [of revolution] with a mix of shock, euphoria and trepidation—for even the joyous round dance of freedom may have something nefarious at its ‘bellybutton’” (112). Michael Casper’s equally vivid and energetic translation of the second sketch, from which I drew the image of the “bellybutton,” is worth quoting:
Children dance in the streets. In fresh, white clothes, with flowers in flowing blond hair, they dance in a circle, holding one another fast. But a short, blubbery little man, red and sweaty, slips into the middle of the circle. It dances on small, stubby feet in the middle—the Bellybutton—it smiles with its gaping animal snout, with the little torn flesh-wound circle of its muzzle and stretches out its hands to hug and kiss. (1917, 120-21)
In their far more substantial introduction to Judgment, which stands alone as an insightful essay on Bergelson’s artistic and political development, Murav and Senderovich attribute the novel’s “deliberately disorienting” style at least in part to the author’s encounter with German Expressionism in Berlin, where he had sought refuge from the turmoil of the Russian Civil War in 1921. Yet the “Scenes” suggest that Bergelson had struck upon his bold, expressionistic method earlier; it seems to have been an organic artistic response to the chaos he had witnessed in Ukraine in 1917-1920. As Murav and Senderovich write, quoting the narrator of Judgment, “the world created by the revolution is ‘strange [modne]’ […] and Bergelson makes strangeness itself part of the experience of reading his novel.”
A fine, understated example of this method—and of Bergelson’s flair for dark sayings—occurs at the start of chapter 18:
Migrating birds sank in the dawn’s fog—milky gray, the color of the sea. They blindly dove into the dirty dampness, their worried shrieks warning the others—birds warming their eggs in their nests—if you fly out even a short distance, you won’t find your way back. (153)
The translators shape a dense yet fluid pattern of sound that is as richly suggestive, as ominously disorienting as the sea-like, milky grey fog enveloping the border village of Belo-Kut (“white corner,” in Ukrainian), which lies “at the edge of the forest.” Everything is symbolically resonant, everything signals confusion and danger. This is a novel of borders—between Ukraine and Poland, the sacred and the secular, past and present—that shift beneath one’s feet: “if you fly out even a short distance, you won’t find your way back.”
Appropriately enough, Judgment—the first chapters of which were published in 1926, the year that Bergelson “switched his political stance toward a closer alliance with the new Soviet Union”—is itself a sort of border. Murav and Senderovich note that the novel has long been regarded as “demarcat[ing] the boundary between the ‘early’ Bergelson […] and the ‘later,’ Soviet Bergelson, an author of works of lesser literary merit and a writer in service to the political regime that ultimately destroyed him” (xix). But as the translators argue convincingly, and as their translation demonstrates irrefutably, Judgment is anything but a work of lesser literary merit. Nor is it a work of propaganda. Instead, like Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard, Bergelson’s novel is an idiosyncratic portrait of the revolution’s impact on multiethnic Ukraine, as well as a dramatization of one artist’s reckoning with the forces of history.
Most of the novel’s action takes place in the shtetl of Golikhovke, whose inhabitants, lacking any other means of survival, have resorted to the dangerous practice of smuggling goods—as well as people and plans for an anti-Bolshevik uprising—over the Polish border. The shtetl sits in a valley “an hour-long hard ride down” from Kamino-Balke (“stone ravine”), the monastery-turned-fortress of the Bolshevik secret police (Cheka). Kamino-Balke’s occupiers, led by the sickly but steely Comrade Filipov, have been empowered to deliver the judgment of the book’s title. The accused are Jews and gentiles, smugglers and Social Revolutionary plotters, the falsely pious and the brazenly amoral. Are they free of guilt? Hardly. But as Murav and Senderovich explain, “in the new world of Filipov’s Bolshevik justice there is no place for rakhamim, the compassion that softens the dictates of din” (xxvi). In a memorable passage, a number of prisoners resign themselves to this brand of merciless judgment:
A bunch of people, around fifteen—a mix of Jews and non-Jews—stumbled their way out of the gates. They were bent over, wrapped in tattered scarves and shawls, and from a distance looked like a funeral procession that had been thrown together. They turned quickly to the right, to the muddy road that went around Golikhovke. They went with the feeling that all this happened—a long, long time ago—they had once traveled like this, and moreover they had to, and nothing could prevent it: not the mud, the cold, northern wind, the big soft snowflakes falling on their bent shoulders, moistening their faces, their arms, and even their eyes—they went not because they had earned their destruction, for their bad deeds, but because this was their fate. (186-87)
It is hard not to project this attitude onto Bergelson himself, who returned to Soviet Russia in 1934 and was arrested in 1949, along with other members of the wartime Jewish Antifascist Committee, as a spy, traitor, and “bourgeois nationalist.” He was executed with twelve of the accused—including Dovid Hofshteyn (1889-1952), Leyb Kvitko (1890 or 1893-1952), Perets Markish (1895-1952), and Itsik Fefer (1900-52)—on August 12, 1952, the so-called “Night of the Murdered Poets.” It was his 68th birthday.
Late in the novel, Comrade Filipov explains the nature of his mission: “Each person that he had to deal with had his own rotten sense of justice […]. And there was the great rectitude of the revolution that trampled down and burned these petty, rotten pieces of justice in merciless fires” (184-85). Whatever our attitude toward “the great rectitude of the revolution,” we must thank Murav and Senderovich for saving Bergelson’s modernist portrait of revolutionary Judgment from the merciless fires of neglect.