Dec 18, 2019
“I stand barren for myself, for my people, and for the world...”
Is there a more extraordinary and self-lacerating letter in all of Yiddish literature than this airmail from its most beloved poet to its most celebrated novelist?
By 1950, Manger had spent almost a decade in the UK. Marooned in the most depressing exile period of his life, supported financially and emotionally by his partner, the London bookseller Margaret Waterhouse, he looks ahead to his fiftieth birthday, and stares into the abyss. His ostensible reason for writing is to invite Asch to his celebration. But what sort of simkhe is this? “Masquerade… tomfoolery” and “a Foxtrot between New York and London, or maybe New York and Jerusalem.” In other words, a world in flux, a perfect reflection of the postwar Yiddish literary landscape — intangible, rootless, shifting, uncertain.
Manger’s kheshbn — his self-accounting of his fifty years — is merciless. What tangible accomplishments can the “parasite” poet boast? Nothing so solid as a butcher’s shop, a church, or a brothel. Only his Yiddish poems — antique “hieroglypths” (sic) written “in that accursed language.”
There are flashes of humor — the references to prostitutes and the brothel are surely a nod to Asch’s hit play God of Vengeance. There is flattery in Manger’s repeated use of “My Dear Master” to address the older writer. There is an implicit rebuke in the reference to Asch’s offer to edit a book of Manger’s poems (an offer which, even if once made, was surely as soon forgotten). Most poignantly, perhaps, there are hints of a commonality, of a mutual predicament.
For all the gulf in their material circumstances (Asch at this point was comfortably ensconced in his waterfront villa in Florida), the two writers shared a keen sense of displacement. Asch would soon quit the US for London, just as Manger would soon head in the opposite direction, for Canada and the US. Both would move on from those temporary landing places to Israel. Both were in mourning for the lost world of prewar Yiddish letters (the Yiddish Writers’ Club in 1930s Warsaw was a familiar stamping ground for them both) and for close relatives murdered during the war.
I rediscovered this letter recently as I looked through the archive of Asch materials I inherited from my grandmother, Asch’s daughter. Asch kept it carefully, along with a small visiting card from Manger’s years in London.
Did he ever reply to Manger? I don’t know, just as I don’t know why Manger wrote to a fellow Yiddish writer in English. I wonder if Asch felt it needed a reply. After all, what is Manger’s letter in essence? A cri de coeur, a lament, an existential shriek, as well as a fascinating, unsettling insight into his wayward, tormented genius.