Miriam Udel’s Never Better! The Modern Jewish Picaresque

Matthew Johnson

Miri­am Udel, Nev­er Bet­ter! The Mod­ern Jew­ish Picaresque (Ann Arbor: Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan Press, 2016), 266 pages, $22.95 (paper).

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Miriam Udel’s Never Better! The Modern Jewish Picaresque (University of Michigan Press, 2016) is a welcome contribution to Yiddish Studies and comparative Jewish literature, but it should also be of interest to scholars of modernism and genre theory more generally. The book’s primary sources are an expansive set of novels published between the 1870s and 1990s in Yiddish, German, Russian, English, and Hebrew—a variegated grouping read through the lens of the picaresque. Originating in sixteenth century Spanish literature, the genre of the picaresque is defined by its episodic narrative structure and typically adventurous protagonist—the pícaro (sometimes translated as “rogue”). These generic terms are adopted and modified by Udel, who names the polit (פליט)—the escapee, refugee, or survivor—as the pícaro’s “Jewish cousin—several times (and places) removed.” 1 1 Miriam Udel, Never Better! The Modern Jewish Picaresque (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016), xiv. Subsequent references will be provided in parenthesis in the body of the text.

In the course of her study, Udel identifies and investigates the particular subset of “the modernist Jewish picaresque,” including Sholem Rabinovitsh’s Motl peysi dem khazns (Motl the Cantor’s Son), Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy, Ilya Ehrenburg’s Burnaya zhizn Lazika Roitshvanetsa (The Stormy Life of Laz Roitshvants), and Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, among other titles (13). The book is divided into three parts organized around various iterations of the polit, here understood as “the quintessential protagonist of Jewish modernity” (3-4). Also an heir to S.Y. Abramovitsh’s intrepid, mad, and marginal Benjamin, the polit is variously characterized by his mobility, playfulness, solitude, and neoteny (or arrested development), and he often narrates his own tale(s).

In Part One, “The Polit on the Move,” Udel unfolds a comparative reading of Sholem Rabinovitsh (Sholem Aleichem) and Isaac Bashevis Singer, both of whom “wrote against the grain of the reflexive progressivism that animated most Yiddish literature” (68). Structurally, their serial and episodic narratives—formal markers of the picaresque—constitute alternative temporalities that radically undermine any stable sense of progression or maturation, aspects of “a broader picaresque sensibility” marked by contingency, peripeteia, nonlinearity, and anti-sentimentalism (xv). 2 2 Furthermore, Udel draws on M.M. Bakhtin’s idea of the chronotope (the intersection of time and space). She writes, “In Bakhtin’s account of the development of fiction, genres were defined by the plotting of time and space in relation to each other and to event (FTC 250). Rather than a strictly neutral container for prosaic content, each genre expresses an implicit world view” (8).
Throughout, Udel is less concerned with the picaresque as a strictly demarcated genre, than with its capacity to disclose broader trends in modern Jewish literature and thought. As an analytic category, the picaresque enables her to “forge an understanding of how Yiddish letters entered and inhabited the twentieth century. We gain a conceptual map for the movement from a literary model of development, improvement, striving, and repair—that is to say, of becoming—to one simply, or not so simply, being” (xiv). In Udel’s view, the picaresque emerges as the “most coherent generic critique of the nineteenth century,” that is, as a self-consciously modernist critique of the progress-oriented, integrative Bildungsroman and the attendant ideological trapping of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment (xiv). The title of the book—Never Better!—points to the “double-edged ethos” of this critique: “the comic buoyancy (here we go again!) coexisting with the tragic inability to, as the Soviet Yiddish scholar Max Erik put it, “show a way out or even to imagine one” (75). Over and against the Bildungsroman, the modernist Jewish picaresque is at once ludic and despairing—a novel of being, albeit on the margins.

Udel’s reading of Rabinovitsh and Bashevis undergirds the major revisionary claims of her study. Through her recognition of the “shift in dominant sensibilities or modalities from the aims of Bildung (if not the form of it) to the picaresque,” Udel provides a new account of Yiddish modernism (17). Dan Miron previously recognized the anti-maskilic sensibilities of Rabinovitsh and Bashevis. Building on his pathbreaking work, Udel draws attention to a much larger corpus of texts. She writes, “Rather than treating Bashevis as a special case (partially anticipated by Sholem Aleichem), I argue that an axial line runs from Sholem Aleichem, through a particular terrain of twentieth century Yiddish fiction, to Bashevis and beyond. […] In the twentieth century, Yiddish literature must reckon with the failure of humanism and its schemes for human perfectibility” (102-103). Throughout her study, Udel elucidates the various iterations of this reckoning.

The darker side of the picaresque is explored in the greatest depth in Part Two, “The Polit as Demobilized Soldier,” which focuses on the interwar period as represented in texts by Israel Joshua Singer, Joseph Roth, and Israel Rabon. Furthermore, the differences between the Bildungsroman and the picaresque are most fully delineated here. A rare example of a modern Yiddish Bildungsroman, Singer’s Shtol un ayzn (Steel and Iron) is counterposed against Roth’s Hotel Savoy and Rabon’s Di gas (The Street), which “limn a modern shevirat kelim, or breaking of the vessels that contained nation, polity, culture, and language” (114). The demobilized Jewish soldiers of these picaresque works are “literal pleytim—remnants,” exhausted and adrift, and with access to neither Bildung nor Haskalah (114). While the major achievement of the book is its revisionary account of Jewish, and specifically Yiddish, literary history in terms of genre, Udel’s close readings of both canonical and lesser-known works are consistently compelling. In particular, her reading of Rabon’s Di gas is an original analysis of an important but understudied writer. Against Khone Shmeruk’s previously standard interpretation, which foregrounds the narrator’s alienation, Udel emphasizes the humane aspects of the episodic narration, or the book’s (and ultimately the genre’s) “forbearance against the forces of alienation” (133).

In Part Three, “The Polit as Soviet Citizen,” some of the differences between the classical pícaro and the polit are addressed. Looking now at Russian literature, Udel tracks the roguish and criminal elements in works by Ilya Ehrenburg and Isaac Babel, concomitantly highlighting their picaresque poetics defined by metonymy, heteroglossia, and partial (nontotalizing) narration. Focusing on Jewish literary responses to life in the Soviet Union, Udel describes the ways in which Ehrenburg and Babel adapt their storytelling to the chaos of their times by adopting and refurbishing the old genre of the picaresque—a kind of “cultural intervention that, in the words of high modernist Samuel Beckett, ‘admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else’” (xiv). In this section, Udel also gestures toward the afterlives of the modernist picaresque in contemporary, ‘postmodernist’ literature, including works by the Soviet-born Jewish émigrés Wladimir Kaminer and Vladimir Vertlib, both of whom write in German. In a similar vein, the epilogue tracks the genre’s particular American and Israeli trajectories through readings of Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March and David Grossman’s Yesh yeladim zigzag (The Zig Zag Kid). Somewhat cursory, these discussions nonetheless underscore the lasting and, until now, unrecognized influence of the modernist Jewish picaresque.

The last chapter of the book closes with an important, albeit somewhat implicit, acknowledgement of the limits of the type of genre criticism employed throughout. In the context of her reading of Babel’s Odessa Stories, Udel writes, “[…] it is natural to ask whether any of these stories give voice to a pícara. Female characters are focalized so tightly through the lenses of male perception that they don’t really become subjects unto themselves” (176). The polit is overwhelmingly male, and so are the authors who populate Udel’s study. In conversation with feminist and postcolonial theorists, Udel makes a convincing argument for the pertinence of genre criticism as another, not an exclusive, approach to Jewish literary history. The respectively postcolonial, feminist, and diasporic frames of such studies as Marc Caplan’s How Strange the Change: Language, Temporality, and Narrative Form in Peripheral Modernisms (Stanford University Press, 2011), Kathryn Hellerstein’s A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish, 1586-1987 (Stanford University Press, 2014), and Allison Schachter’s Diasporic Modernisms: Hebrew and Yiddish Literature in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 2012) have transformed Yiddish Studies in recent years. Through an engagement with various critical and theoretical lexicons, they have uncovered texts and comparative contexts that were overlooked or ignored in previous scholarship. Udel suggests the added lexicon of genre criticism, exemplifying its capacity to track significant and under-recognized shifts in Jewish literary and cultural complexes.

Furthermore, Udel’s approach underscores the relevance of Yiddish literature for an understanding of the broader currents in European (and international) modernism. Her delineation of a picaresque sensibility jibes, for example, with recent studies of Kafka’s “non-act,” of a kind of literature that charts alternatives to power and to the ideals of progress and improvement. 3 3 See Paul North, The Yield: Kafka’s Atheological Reformation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), xviii. And her identification of the picaresque as a specific generic critique of the Bildungsroman translates the spate of ideological critiques of Bildung into new terms that cut across various literatures. 4 4 Other scholars have recently written on the modernist appropriation of the picaresque. In particular, Bernhard F. Malkmus’ study of the German pícaro should be of interest to readers of Udel’s book. See Malkmus, The German Pícaro and Modernity: Between Underdog and Shape-Shifter (New York: Contiuum, 2011). By employing an analytic category (genre) not tied to any particular nation, language, or culture, Udel situates the particular case of Yiddish literature in a transnational and multilingual conversation—a conversation that bears on both the particular and the general (or generic). Never Better! thus proffers a way to read and think anew a literature that “overflows containers both national and chronological.” 5 5 See Wai Chee Dimock, “Genres as Fields of Knowledge,” PMLA 122.5 (2007): 1383. Similar to Udel, Dimock calls for a liquid conception of genre. She asks, “What would literary studies look like if it were organized by genres in this unfinished sense, with spillovers at front and center? What dividing lines could still be maintained? And what kinds of knowledge would be generated as a result, answering to what conception of the humanities?” (1378). Udel’s book instantiates a potential answer to these questions.

Johnson, Matthew. “Miriam Udel’s Never Better! The Modern Jewish Picaresque.” In geveb, October 2016:
Johnson, Matthew. “Miriam Udel’s Never Better! The Modern Jewish Picaresque.” In geveb (October 2016): Accessed Jun 12, 2024.


Matthew Johnson

Matthew Johnson is Associate Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Languages and Literature at Lund University.