Oct 31, 2021
Childe Harold of Dysna by Moyshe Kulbak, translated by Robert Adler Peckerar (Cincinnati, Ohio: Naydus Press, 2020). Introduction by Boris Dralyuk and Illustrations by Beynish.
In 1986, I read Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate in one fell swoop on a bus ride from Palo Alto to Sacramento. The novel in verse, an adaptation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, captures the foibles and aspirations of a certain generation of young people in the California Bay Area. Here was the young hero, nearly “brained” by a frisbee in Golden Gate Park, there he sat in the Menlo Park Printer’s Ink bookstore (long gone now), “the enchanted bookstore, vast, rectangular,/ Flourescent-lit, with Bach piped through.” Seth’s utterly charming work is a little sad, a little funny, and it gave its contemporary readers a quiet jolt of rueful self-recognition. Reading Robert Adler Peckerar’s wonderful translation of Moyshe Kulbak’s Childe Harold of Dysna similarly charms, delights, and brings a gentle sorrow. I am certain that Kulbak’s contemporaries recognized some version of their own lives in the novel’s verses, and now the English-language audience can participate vicariously in that experience.
Kulbak was born in Smorhon in 1896, and published his first Yiddish work in 1916. While living in Minsk and Vilnius he published poetry in major Yiddish publications in Eastern Europe and the US. His epic Raysn was published in 1922, and his narrative poem Vilne in 1926; and his reputation today is based on these works. In 1933, he wrote Disner Tshayld-Harold. Kulbak’s short story “Munye der foyglhendler” and his novel about Jews adjusting to Soviet life, Zelmenyaner, have both been translated into English. Peckerar’s translation of Disner Tshayld-Harold is a new, and welcome, addition to the list.
Kulbak’s novel in verse is a loose adaptation of Lord Byron’s early 19th century about a disillusioned, melancholy young hero, sated with the pleasures of his dissolute life, who seeks solace by journeying through Europe, contemplating formerly great civilizations that had fallen, their lands taken over by seemingly less civilized others. The hero finds in nature what he cannot attain in society, declaring that he loves “not Man the less, but Nature more” and that he can in communion with nature “mingle with the Universe.” Byron’s work was vastly influential, and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin refers to it explicitly. Peckerar’s translation of Kulbak’s adaptation of Byron thus restores to English literature something that it had borrowed from it. The goal of any literary translation is to create a literary work in the target language, and in this respect, Peckerar has succeeded admirably. We can think of Childe Harold of Dysna as English-language Byronic fan fiction.
Of course, Kulbak, unlike Byron, wrote about a Jewish intellectual from Belarus who tries to survive in interwar Berlin. In this respect, Kulbak’s Childe Harold has more in common with the hapless writer Max Wentsl, the protagonist of David Bergelson’s “One night less,” to give one example, than he does Byron’s nineteenth century British aristocrat. Berlin was a city of temporary exile for many Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian authors, and Kulbak’s novel in verse should be considered together with other interwar world-weary literary work set in Berlin and elsewhere. This broader context includes, for example, Hebrew narrative poems by Uri Tsvi Greenberg and Yakov Shteinberg, both of which draw on the famous Romanisches Café, where German, Yiddish, and Hebrew writers gathered, and in addition, Ilya Erenburg’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and His Disciples,Viktor Shklovsky’s ZOO, Leyb Kvitko’s Riogrander fel, Fischel Shneersohn’s Grenadir-shtrase, and Moyshe Leyb Halperin’s Der gasnpoyker, set in New York. The Berlin interlude in the lives and work of multiple Yiddish, Russian, and Hebrew writers was a period of excitement, hope, literary productivity, and new encounters, as well as one of hunger, poverty, and growing foreboding.
Kulbak’s stay in Berlin was a brief three years between 1920 and 1923, and although he wrote and published Disner Tshayld-Harold in Minsk, the traces of Weimar Berlin are unmistakable in the work. Kulbak’s hero, Shmulik Pipeman (Lyulkeman in the original Yiddish), leaves the former Russian Empire, bound for Berlin, with nothing but poems in his pocket. Bolsheviks must make revolutions, but Pipemen like him must study, and Europe is his chosen destination for this purpose. Having absorbed, like others of his generation, Peretz, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Kabbalah, he finds himself uncertain about what to do or think. In Berlin, he lives in cheap rooms near the zoo and washes dishes at a restaurant to make money (a job Kulbak also held), but his chief occupation is absorbing the city’s life and culture. Kulbak maps out the city’s terrain, demarcating its fashionable theaters, museums, parks, avenues, and watering holes—where the bourgeoisie go to feel the thrill of transgression. Kulbak’s literary map also indicates Berlin’s poverty-stricken neighborhoods, dives, work places (the AEG electrical plant), and Moabit prison.
In Berlin, Pipeman encounters the writing of the German philosopher Oswald Spengler and the poet Else Lasker-Schüler, the art of the surrealist Dada, “Negro jazz” in Berlin cafes; one of his friends is the Jewish sculptor Jussuf Abbo. At the end of the second chapter, overwhelmed by the panoply of everything he has heard, seen, and read, the young hero feels “like an air-balloon,/ Whose string is loosened and set free” (18). A young German woman falls in love with him, mistaking him for a Cossack. The mood turns darker in the second half of the mock epic. The hero’s moments of excitement and enthusiasm wane, replaced by anticipation of violence to come. In canto 28, a child appears: “a child—yet no child” (a kind, tsi nit keyn kind). The child is an apparition, as if drawn from an Expressionist painting of war by Otto Dix. It is similar to “melting matter” (epes fleysh tseflosn). Somewhere a bullet is being prepared for the spectral child. In working class neighborhoods such as Wedding, rage and revolution are brewing. The Childe Harold of Dysna becomes a socialist, and the glories of European civilization seem as hollow as the spectral child. Europe’s hour has past, and the concluding stanza of the poem sounds a Biblical note, mediated through Heine. Pipeman and his friends are “the last of wolves that bay in the ruins of the system” (mir—letste velf, vos voyen/in di khurves fun a system). Europe ultimately has nothing to give the hero.
The choice of this particular work as an object of translation, and this translation itself, show that Yiddish is not only a language of loss and lament, and it is not locked inside the world of shtetls, pogroms, and the Holocaust. Kulbak’s novel, in Peckerar’s translation, reminds us—and we do still need the reminder—that Yiddish was and is a cosmopolitan language that participated in world literature, its authors well aware and engaged with literature and politics across the globe. Kulbak, for example, juxtaposes the greatness of Goethe with Germany’s colonization of what was then called Togoland. The relation of Yiddish to world literature, a topic of interest in Yiddish literary criticism of the 1920s, has reemerged in our own day as an important new theme in Yiddish studies, and, one hopes, literary studies generally.
Furthermore, Peckerar’s translation preserves the lightness and humor of the original. The translator shows us that Yiddish is a language you can have fun with. The delight of reading Kulbak’s work in English translation is that Peckerar was able to preserve many of the original rhymes. The original uses multiple words in French, German, and other languages, in addition to proper names, and the translator took advantage of the opportunity to replicate Kulbak’s style. For example, in Canto 12, in both the original and the English translation, “Savigny-Platz” rhymes with “cats”; in Canto 17, “Préference” (the card game) rhymes with “par excellence”; in Canto 18, in both languages once again the proper name “Lasker-Schüler” rhymes with “chiller” (in English) and “kiler” in Yiddish. In these examples and elsewhere in the text, in both original and translation, the rhyme undercuts the high seriousness of the proper name.
The thoughtful introduction by Boris Dralyuk, Peckerar’s preface, and the illustrations by Beynish all enhance the translation. The general reader and the college student can pick up Childe Harold of Dysna and finish its sixty-two cantos in one fell swoop, experiencing along the way all the charms, delights, and regret that this brilliant translation provides.