Apr 29, 2020
Hersh Dovid Nomberg, Warsaw Stories, translated by Daniel Kennedy (White Goat Press, 2019), 174pp, $14.95
Zalman Shneour, A Death: Notes of a Suicide, translated by Daniel Kennedy (Wakefield Press, 2019), 176pp, $15.95
Reading the duet of Yiddish works recently translated by Daniel Kennedy — Hersh Dovid Nomberg’s Warsaw Stories (White Goat Press) and Zalman Shneour’s A Death: Notes of a Suicide (Wakefield Press) — was nearly unbearable for me. At the time, I was in a period of professional transition, living in a city far from home (wherever that is), wondering what I was doing there, and plagued by doubts I could not silence. Encountering first Nomberg’s and then Shneour’s characters — epitomes of the talush, the displaced, alienated, emasculated intellectual who has attained a certain modern urban “freedom” at the expense of belonging, connection, meaning, and ultimately sanity — while in such a mindframe was like looking in a funhouse mirror. I was seasick. I was in danger of falling in — or perhaps I already had, and couldn’t find the handholds to climb back out.
In one sense, it was the wrong moment for me to be reading these books. Distance was impossible; overidentification was inevitable. In another sense, though, it was exactly the right time. My defenses were down; I couldn’t hide behind the century of intervening history, or the material and social privilege that renders my own diluted experience of talush-hood a hundredth of a shadow of Nomberg’s or Shneour’s. From that vulnerable perspective, I was primed to appreciate the element within these books that can rightfully be labeled “classic”: their ability to reach across time and space to name an eternal — and unromantic — facet of human experience.
Nomberg in particular is a master depictor of gratuitous madness. He effortlessly balances the perspective of the character who has talked himself into a corner with the perspective of the reader, who perceives, on the one hand, the looming reality of that self-designed dead end, and on the other, the utter senselessness of voluntary suffering. I talked to Kennedy about the collection of stories, and he summed up their general roadmap, hilariously but not inaccurately, as: “A young man runs away from a yeshiva to the big city, leaving a wife and children behind in a shtetl somewhere. He’s been teaching Hebrew to make ends meet, and now he’s wandering the streets / lying in bed / staring out the window in a vague fugue.” I would add that most of the stories also incorporate a poignant moment when the main character briefly manages to consider another human being’s perspective, opening the doorway to connection. Ultimately, however, they inevitably fail to grasp the offered hand, instead choosing to withdraw from the relational game — whether through suicide, by breaking up with a romantic partner, or by walking away from a crucial conversation that the other party wasn’t necessarily ready to give up on.
It is hard (although not so hard considering the neglected state of Yiddish literature) to believe that Nomberg’s story “Fliglman,” the Yiddish classic of the talush genre and the first story in the present collection, has never previously appeared in English translation. However, the stories that made the biggest impression on me this time around were the pair involving a main character named Bender: “The Game of Love” and “Letters” (the latter of which can be accessed online, in an earlier version, on the Yiddish Book Center website). In each of the stories, Bender is so paralyzed by his own ideas about romantic love that the flesh-and-blood existence of his supposed beloved pales into unreality. Any sort of decisive action, not to mention interaction, becomes impossible thanks to the combination of impatient desire and crippling self-doubt that governs him. In a move characteristic of most of Nomberg’s (anti-)heroes, Bender hovers on the verge of mailing a letter to his beloved (or, more accurately, two contradictory versions of a letter, unable as he is to commit to one single approach), but ultimately “held himself back […], let go of the post box flap, tore the letters to shreds, and let the wind blow the pieces in every direction. ‘I don’t need it. I don’t need anything. I don’t need anybody,’ he mumbled to himself. […T]he whole ten years of his wandering […] all seemed like one long chain of pondering and philosophizing and lamenting, like something unnatural that aroused only disgust and scorn” (125).
The talush is usually a masculine archetype: after all, how many young women in the late 1800s and early 1900s had the leisure to pursue the wholehearted life of the mind, living with strangers in boarding houses and wandering deserted city streets at all hours? However, the matter of gender is hardly straightforward here. In fact, one of Nomberg’s tlushim is female: Felye Faynshteyn, the main character in “Don’t Say a Word!”, the collection’s final story. Certainly, Felye lives with her sister and doesn’t indulge in late-night urban wanderings; however, many other elements of her personality are talush-esque through and through, in particular her chosen isolation and her adoption of a self- and world-condemning outlook that ultimately proves fatal: “[T]he more she told, the more insignificant it all seemed. […] ‘If it is your fate to suffer […], do not share your pain with anyone. Keep it safe in your own heart, so that it remains hidden and holy. […] Whatever you do, don’t say a word!’” (145-146).
Shneour’s novella A Death: Notes of a Suicide (first published in 1909, soon after Nomberg’s stories, which came out between 1901 and 1907) is in many ways an expansion of the same motif. Here again we find a downward spiral of the spirit that, while certainly exacerbated by external hardships, is ultimately self-perpetuating, resistant to all of the survival instinct’s efforts to reassert itself. I found the beginning of the novella particularly compelling. The first pages present a shocking, honest reckoning with the main character’s specific and brutal self-injurious fantasies: “I often find detailed descriptions [in the newspapers] of people who have done themselves harm. I lap those stories up […] with a secret thirst […]. Each of those morbid cases […] fuels my fantasy for a long time” (6). Soon after, Shneour acutely depicts the despair of a sickly, precocious, neglected child who is still young enough to believe in a future that could include love, yet already takes pleasure in perverse activities such as being left “safe and undisturbed” to “think my gloomy thoughts” (17) and fantasizing about the decomposition of his stepmother’s corpse after her future death. While the latter half of the novella is vivid in its depiction of self-destructive trains of thought and behavior, it is less immediate than the more visual description of Shloymke’s childhood that precedes it.
The two translations read fluently in a contemporary register, and demonstrate a solid grasp of the original text and its cultural and literary context (a virtue that is, unfortunately, not always a given when it comes to Yiddish translation). The endnotes (in the case of Warsaw Stories) and the introductions and glossaries (in both books) serve as helpful aids to the English reader’s understanding. That said, the back matter would have been more useful if it were mentioned in the introductions (I discovered it fairly late in both cases) and if the Nomberg endnotes had included page numbers (I read them all at once after reading the stories, and sometimes had trouble finding the bits of text to which they referred). I especially appreciated that the endnotes drew my attention to aspects of the text that I hadn’t noticed while reading, such as the fact that a large percentage of Nomberg’s main characters have names beginning with the consonant fey (151).
One thing I missed in both books was a translator’s note, even a brief one, offering some insight into Kennedy’s discovery and selection of the texts and his approach to their particular linguistic challenges. I wanted an explanation, for example, of his fateful decision to translate the title of Shneour’s novella as A Death: Notes of a Suicide, omitting the final “and Madman” in the Yiddish title (A toyt: Shriftn fun a zelbstmerder a tiref). The “Acknowledgments” section in each book offers a glimpse into the projects’ histories, but only a glimpse. A brief note on the pronunciation of YIVO transliteration might also have come in handy. My biggest regret about the critical apparatus in both books is the lack of clear bibliographic information about where to find the Yiddish originals: Kennedy provides the copyright dates of the various editions of A Death, but no location or publishing house information — and he also neglects to mention which edition served as the basis for the present translation. Similarly, he does not provide any bibliographic information about the source texts of the Nomberg stories other than the year in which each story was published. (However, it’s worth noting that Kennedy compiled the Yiddish originals into a PDF that is available for download on the Yiddish Book Center website, as one of the resources provided in connection with the selection of the volume for the Book Center’s 2019 Great Jewish Book Club.)
One of my favorite linguistic moments in Warsaw Stories is the following entertaining formulation designed to communicate the difficulty that Khayim-Borekh, the Polish Jewish hero of the story “Neighbors,” has in seeing his roommate as anything other than a type, even at the juncture at which he begins to feel compassion for him: “In that moment, Khayem-Borekh […] consider[ed] the plight of the Litvak, […] poor Mrs. Litvak and the little Litvaklings who found themselves in some lost corner of Lithuania, and he felt great pity for them” (87). (I talked to Kennedy about this excerpt and he told me that “Litvaklings” — litvaklekh in the Yiddish original — originated with Jordan Finkin, Kennedy’s khevruse in the Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellowship that served as a framework for the completion of a large portion of the project.) Both of the books exhibit many felicitous word choices, such as “fug” for “pare” (A Death, 46) and “lucre” for a particularly significant use of “gelt” (Warsaw Stories, 62). Kennedy achieves a natural flow in English by adroitly selecting idiomatic approximations of Yiddish locutions, e.g., “he did not go in for” for “er hot nit gehaltn fun,” “my worldly possessions” for “alts vos ikh hob,” and “that’s how it should be” for “azoy iz gut” (A Death, 18, 50, 55).
Like any translator, Kennedy slips occasionally. While I can imagine that some critics might find the tone of the translations to be too contemporary, I surprised myself by enjoying it on the whole. That said, sometimes the present era creeps in a little too aggressively, as when “shlekhte gedanken” or “shlekhte makhshoves” (lit., bad thoughts) becomes the overly self-help-esque “negative thoughts” in Kennedy’s translation (Warsaw Stories, 110; A Death, 42). A Death also contains another, more extreme example of resorting to a too-contemporary register (128): “shtendik iz dos zat un shtendik frest dos” (lit., “that one is always full and always gobbling”) is finagled into “a compulsive eater”!
One minor yet chronic problem that plagues both volumes can be characterized as a result of both insufficient “domestication” of the text and inadequate editorial oversight: namely, inconsistency in verbal tense in English. Yiddish narrative prose slips back and forth freely between present and past tenses without disturbing the reader; however, English prose is significantly less flexible, and an oscillating tense tends to read like a series of editorial errors (e.g., in A Death, “A gray smoke poured out from a far-off factory chimney […], making it impossible to tell where the smoke ends and the clouds begin. And once again I shuddered […]” (107)).
* * *
At multiple points in A Death, Shloymke admits to the impression that the world is an artificial place that has been constructed specifically to serve as a stage for his own dance of futility:
When I was a boy […], a terrible suspicion surfaced in my heart: I began to suspect that everyone I saw around me in my daily life, including my father, my stepmother, my uncle and aunt, my friends from kheyder and the teacher himself — I began to suspect that none of them were real people. No. Not people as they pretended to be, but demons; a host of wicked demons who’d disguised themselves as people. While I alone was the only real person in the world. (67-68)
This and other similar passages led me irresistibly to recollections of the 1998 Peter Weir film The Truman Show. Indeed, A Death is a kind of inversion of The Truman Show (or, more properly, The Truman Show is an inversion of Shneour’s novella): Truman desires the messiness of the reality outside the television studio and the “authentic” happy ending that, by implication, will open up to him as a reward for risking real-life tragedy and heartbreak. In Truman’s case, the world around him truly has been created for his “benefit,” thereby keeping him from attaining his desire. In contrast, Shloymke, who only fantasizes that the world around him has been created as a “stage” — not for his benefit, but for his torture — has no wish, and perhaps no ability, to grapple honestly with the mess of human relationships. Therefore, he cannot hope for a happy ending other than the perverse one that he can create for himself by forcing the narrative of his life and death into a singularity of self-annihilating “purity.”
While the comparison with The Truman Show may seem spurious, it is one way to broach the question of what hope these two works of prewar Yiddish literature have of fitting into the world of contemporary English letters, with its overwhelmingly different narrative demands and conventions (even beyond the extremes of Hollywood). One answer, I think, other than the fleeting identification with the characters on the part of a few self-styled Fliglmen like myself, is that despite our vast temporal and spatial distance from Nomberg’s and Shneour’s world, the central issue at the heart of both books is more current today than ever before: the mechanisms by which ascetic, self-destructive narratives of victimhood can quickly spiral out of control within individual and communal echo chambers. This occurs especially in the absence of restraining and stabilizing influences, particularly social structures built of nuanced, intimate, long-term connections that can repeatedly and sustainably pull overthinkers back from the ledge. Whether in the form of “Pro-Ana” chat rooms, political Reddit threads, or our friends’ Facebook timelines, I think this is a phenomenon that we can all recognize as a product of our times just as much as it was of pre-world-war Eastern Europe (and, ironically, of the very same modern intellectual culture to which these two authors contributed their creative efforts). As such, Daniel Kennedy hereby offers two books to the English-reading realm that, in addition to their literary merit and their value as classics of Yiddish literature, can prove compelling to contemporary readers looking for literary representations of the unfolding trainwreck that is our media-crazed, erev-apocalyptic generation.
*Daniel Kennedy is In geveb’s Translations Editor