Mar 12, 2018
This reading guide is the fourth in a series designed to make our translations accessible for use by educators in a variety of settings. This guide accompanies Evigingo by Leyzer Volf, translated by Jordan Finkin.
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Vilna, now Vilnius, Lithuania, was one of the cultural capitals of modern Yiddish civilization. With a Jewish population of more than 50,000 before the Second World War, the community exerted significant demographic and cultural gravity. Given formative events such as the establishment of the Jewish Workers’ Bund in 1897 and the Yiddish Scientific Institute in 1925 in the city, Vilna was a central stage for Jewish political and intellectual activity. The city housed several prominent Yiddish and Hebrew presses such as Romm and Kletskin, networks of important schools, public libraries with fine collections, an active press with outlets from daily papers to highbrow literary journals like the Literarishe Monatshriftn, as well as institutions devoted to art, music, sport, and so on. It is no surprise, then, that many significant poets called Vilna home.
During the interwar period, Vilna witnessed remarkable artistic expression in Yiddish. Prominent among the community’s achievements were the collective activities of the writers and artists loosely affiliated under the name Yung Vilne (Young Vilna). Yiddish modernism, and indeed a significant portion of European modernism, in this period were characterized by somewhat fluid associations with groups, often short-lived schools or “movements,” or self-defined ideological “isms.” These groups typically published a journal, often with a programmatic manifesto outlining their artistic or ideological goals. Prominent examples include Khalyastre (Warsaw), Yung Yidish (Łódź), Inzikh (New York), and the Kiev Grupe (Kiev), to name a few. Influenced by these avant-garde groups and trends, Yung Vilne focused less on the ideological dimensions than on the creation of opportunities for expression and experimentation free of constraint, while championing Yiddish life and culture in Vilna.
While informal gatherings of writers and artists associated with what would come to be known as Yung Vilne had existed for some time, it was not until the October 11, 1929 issue of the Yiddish newspaper Vilner Tog appeared with the headline “The March of Yung Vilne into Yiddish Literature” that the group crystallized. Over the ten years of its existence, many artists would be associated with the group. Some of its notable adherents included writers like Abraham Sutzkever, Leyzer Volf, Chaim Grade, and Shmerke Kaczerginski, and painters such as Rokhl Sutzkever and Bentsie Mikhtom. They published widely in various Yiddish journals and papers, and produced their own (Yung-Vilne, three issues, 1934-36). Buoyed by the support of local cultural figures and institutions, the group enjoyed solid popularity in Vilna and beyond, a source of local pride.
One of Yung Vilne’s most original poets, and one of those most closely identified with the group, was Leyzer Volf (né Mekler, 1910-1943). Volf was a flamboyant and prolific poet, known for his energetic performances, parodies, comic spoofs, and especially for the satyric edge which, according to one of his friends, was his forte. 1 1 Eliyahu Shulman [Elias Schulman], Yung Vilne, 1929-1939 (New York: Farlag Getseltn, 1946), 42. Indeed, it may well have been key to the role Volf played in maintaining Yung Vilne’s importance in Yiddish literary history. In the words of Justin Cammy,
[…] although fellow Yung Vilne poet Elkhonen Vogler at the very same moment  was producing highly sophisticated verse about his native Lithuanian landscape under the influence of European symbolism, Vogler’s experimental nature poems could never appeal to a mass audience in the same way. Wolf’s earthy images seemed a more familiar, accessible part of the tradition of Yiddish satire and folk language, even when they were startlingly new. It proved to be his whimsical lyrics, grotesque parodies, and trenchant political criticism that first drew and sustained public interest in the work of the group, and created anticipation every time Yung Vilne announce it was to stage a local reading. 2 2 Justin Cammy, “Tsevorfene bleter: The Emergence of Yung Vilne” Polin 14 (2001): 170–191, 180-181.
Volf was born to a working-class family in Vilna. Sickly, shy, and nervous as a child, one can read in his pen name an invocation of the pluck and boldness he did not naturally possess. However, his confidence grew both physically and artistically as he got more involved in the various youth groups in Vilna. Volf began publishing his work in 1926 and soon became a fixture of Yung Vilne’s activities. His famous early-career attempt to break a poetry-writing record yielded a thousand poems in a single month and announced to the Yiddish literary world the arrival of a brash and nimble lyricist. When he died in 1943, starving and sick in Uzbekistan after having fled the Nazis for the Soviet Union some three years earlier, he left behind one of the most energetic, if enigmatic, bodies of poetry in Yiddish literature.
Evigingo was Volf’s first published book. It appeared under the imprint “Gerangl” (which means “struggle”), though this was a cover for self-publication. (The publisher’s address is given as the apartment of “L. Mekler.”) Written between November 2 and 4, 1934—echoing the furious pace of Volf’s thousand-poem spree of 1930—the book came out in 1936. Economic and social conditions in Vilna steadily deteriorated in the 1930s, increasing the scarcity of resources as well as the cost of such a self-publishing enterprise. The project was clearly no mean feat, and must have been rather important to Volf.
There are many different ways of tackling a text such as Evigingo, though there are very few texts like Evigingo. In the following discussion I will highlight certain aspects of structure and theme, and propose some questions along the way that may facilitate classroom discussion of this poem, but these are by no means restrictive rubrics. Given the protean and, frankly, quirky nature of the poem, many of these questions will be conjectural. But it is often in thinking and talking through conjectural problems that the hidden depths of a poem can best be explored.
- Discussion Question: Given Volf’s popularity and the support he enjoyed from the literary gatekeepers, why might he have either chosen to, or had to, self-publish the work?
The first thing one notices about this slender, sixteen-page book is the fact that it is written in the Roman alphabet, not the Hebrew characters in which nearly all Yiddish literature was printed. Indeed, for the Romanization that Volf devised he provides a key to pronunciation for Yiddish readers, giving the Roman equivalents for nine Hebrew characters.
- Discussion Question: What could have been the reason or reasons for deciding to print the poem in the Roman alphabet? Yiddish readers would have known the Hebrew orthography, and those who could only read Latin characters would not likely have known Yiddish.
Moving to the text itself, the most salient aspect is not only the meter of the poem, but the rigor with which Volf adheres to it. The poem’s use of trochaic tetrameter ( / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ ), is unusual for English. However, its literary pedigree lends it a particular resonance. The two clear literary antecedents hovering over Volf’s text are Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, and the Finnish national epic Kalevala, both of which employ this meter, and both of which were internationally famous in the early decades of the twentieth century, with translations into many languages, including Yiddish.
- Literary Comparison Activity: Ask your students to draw comparisons between Evigingo, Longfellow’s Hiawatha, and the Finnish epic poetry collection the Kalevala.
In general it would be useful for students to read Longfellow’s poem in its entirety. However, for the moment it might be worth asking students to skim Hiawatha in preparation for working through Evigingo. Take its opening lines, for example:
Should you ask me, whence these stories?
Whence these legends and traditions,
With the odors of the forest,
With the few and damp of meadows,
With the curling smoke of wigwams,
With the rushing of great rivers,
With their frequent repetitions,
And their wild reverberations,
As the thunder in the mountains?
Have students consider what the meter and its very regular rhythm might be meant to achieve. Does it lend itself to narrative? Or is it distracting? What might the rhetorical goals of such a metrical strategy be?
Students may also wish to read excerpts from the Kalevala, a collection of epic folk poetry of Finland, first published in 1835, which inspired Longfellow in writing Hiawatha. In its collected, published form the Kalevala did much in its mythological and epic outlook to begin to crystallize a Finnish national identity. Indeed, late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century interest in the work was often kindled by national movements. Ask your students to consider the similarities and differences between these three texts and how the Kalevala and Hiawatha inform Evigingo.
- Suggestion: There are a number of articles and essays that explore the various social, political, and national dimensions of these source works. Should students be interested in further exploring some of those in the Yiddish context, they might be pointed to: Alan Trachtenberg, Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans, 1880-1930 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004): Chapter 4 “Yiddish Hiawatha” (pp. 140-169); Simo Muir, “‘Oh Language of Exile – Woven of Sorrow and Mockery’: the Kalevala Centennial Jubilee as a Bone of Contention between Hebraists and Yiddishists” East European Jewish Affairs 39:3 (2009): 347-367.
The epic strains of both texts—the heroic mythology of the Kalevala and the heroic romanticism of Hiawatha—are inspiring. However, not only do tastes change, but loftiness often lends itself to satirical critique or caricature. Hiawatha, for example, became a staple of classroom instruction in America. The following anonymous burlesque shows how works like this open themselves to lampoon.
He killed the noble Mudjokivis.
Of the skin he made him mittens,
Made them with the fur side inside,
Made them with the skin side outside.
He, to get the warm side inside,
Put the inside skin side outside;
That’s why he put the fur side inside,
Why he put the skin side outside,
Why he turned them inside outside. 3 3 Anonymous, “The Modern Hiawatha” in: Bliss Carman, ed. The World’s Best Poetry. Vol. 9. (New York: The University Society, 1904), 414-415.
Texts like this would certainly have appealed to someone with Volf’s satirical bent. Indeed, while mock-epic versions of the classics of romanticism might not seem standard fare for the Yiddish poets of Vilna, one need only mention the famous Vilna poet Moyshe Kulbak’s remarkable satire of his sojourn in Berlin—Dizner Childe Harold (Childe Harold of Disna; 1933)—to see how such work was part of the larger poetic world.
Be that as it may, it is not unreasonable to think that Volf had access to at least one of these sources. There were certainly Yiddish translations in whole or in part. The Yiddish poet Yehoash’s well-regarded translation of Hiawatha appeared in 1910. And one section of the Kalevala was published in 1927 as part of the journal Grininke beymelekh, a very popular children’s magazine published in Vilna.
- Discussion Question: Ask students to brainstorm other mock epics that they have read (The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope, Hudibras by Samuel Butler, The Maid of Orleans by Voltaire, etc.), and then to define the term and list the characteristics of the genre. In what ways does Evigingo fit this model?
Structure and Theme
Briefly, Evigingo follows the protagonist Gutamingo as he sets out in search of the son he never had and whom he will never find. This absurdist venture is the impetus for what ought to be Gutamingo’s journey of discovery, and revealing the pessimistic nature of those discoveries is one of Volf’s primary goals. At the outset Volf creates a fanciful world and depicts Gutamingo in a state of nature, at one with the forest and its creatures, whose names are designed to produce a strange, exotic, or even primitive atmosphere.
As Gutamingo sets out, his physical journey in time and space is mapped onto an allegorical journey through history and progress. The question of this false equivalence between history and progress is the beating heart of Volf’s poem.
- Suggestion: Have students sketch out the stages of this development and what possible meaning or significance each one might have. What is Volf trying to get across through this movement?
Following the poem’s introduction, Gutamingo speaks in turn with the lion, the moon, and the cow, seeking news of Evigingo. Gutamingo has been told to look not for his son directly, but rather to seek the wise owl Onakumis. In this name we hear an echo of Longfellow’s mythic world: “By the shores of Gitsche Gumee, / By the shining Big-Sea-Water, / Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, / Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.” This point in the narrative is a useful place for students to compare Hiawatha with Evigingo. Longfellow’s poem offers a romantic tale of the noble natives, decent but destined ultimately to vanish, a common theme in nineteenth-century American literature. Volf’s poem similarly focuses on evanescence, in that Gutamingo—whose name echoes the noble savage archetype, gut meaning “good” or “kind”—never finds his heir, Evigingo. His search, however, brings him into contact with the modern world and its drive toward progress, which Volf reveals to be a fraud.
Returning to the plot structure, Gutamingo never does find the owl Onakumis, and his failure in the natural world leads him to seek in the realm of the divine at the palace of the goddess Atenade, and ultimately in the human world. He arrives in a bustling medieval city, complete with auto-da-fé, then travels to Germany where he meets the Panglossian Baron von Pan Pantofl (roughly, “Señor Slipper”), an intimate of Goethe and Napoleon. From Napoleonic Germany he heads to Soviet Russia, first visiting Lenin’s tomb before encountering Professor Mirograyev, the representative of Soviet science and technology.
- Discussion Question: What do each of these individual encounters tell us about the kind of history Volf is constructing? Insofar as we are getting Gutamingo’s point of view, these are the salient aspects of his experiences in the world. What is their significance when taken as a whole?
Evigingo is not a masterpiece. It has neither Miltonic nobility nor Byronic swagger. Yet its strangeness, charm, and humor make it unforgettable. The poem remains an overlooked tour de force in Yiddish poetry. In the literary-historical sphere, it both participates in and advances the tradition of invention not by innovation but by renovation. That is, instead of adding to Yiddish literature either by developing on internal models—as Abraham Sutzkever did with his poems modeled on Old Yiddish literature—or creating sui-generis works, Volf focuses his interest on external forms and patterns and on tinkering with them to infuse new life into Yiddish. His Hiawathan tour of modern history in snapshots works as effective satire because it uses conventions of a world-literary classic to skewer the pretentious notion of human progress.
To take another example from the canon, we see in Waiting for Godot two men awaiting a third who never comes. How much more absurdity there is, then, in actively seeking out a person who never existed. Volf offers this illogic as the key to why progress as a teleological concept is so empty. Gutamingo wants a son to care for him in his old age and to carry on for him once he’s gone. He sees how “earth, defiled, mourns while heaven / weeps through all the bombs and warships.” Can that be the inevitable world he wants for his son? And what of Mirograyev’s solution, to start from scratch from the very beginning, with the smallest granule of humanity? Can that be why Gutamingo left nature to begin with? Ultimately, however, reading Evigingo today gives us a lighthearted vocabulary to talk about what is as profound a truth today as it was in the 1930s: there is no “again” to making humanity great.
Note on the Translation
As I mentioned in the introduction to the text, since Volf wrote his book in three days, I set as my goal to translate it in the same amount of time. Generally that is not recommended for translators. However, it allows (I hope) an immediacy to the text, a way for a stream of language to flow naturally and unimpeded by overly clever solutions. By far the trickiest passage to translate was Mirograyev’s final speech, about the Smellmeallaroundum talcum. In addition to the age-old conflict in translation between sense and fidelity, there was the problem of metrical constraint. Up to that point it was remarkable how easily the translation flowed once I had internalized the rhythm. In this passage, however, no option seemed fully satisfactory, the final lines in particular:
erd un himl, World and welkin,
mejdl—jingl, Girl and gamin,
Using an upper-register literary word such as welkin (“sky”) alongside a relatively low and unusual word like gamin (“street urchin”) just for the sake of rhyme and meter is something of a no-no. There is some comfort, however, or perhaps license, in the inelegance of some of Volf’s own word choices. Nothing, though, to detract from his great achievement, or the great pleasure of translating it.
- Suggested Activity: Choose a passage from the poem and “translate” it into rhymed iambic pentameter couplets, the so-called “heroic couplets” used in English epic narrative verse. Recite the two aloud. How do the two “feel”? How does the form alter the sense or the apprehension of the text?
The most thoroughgoing survey in English for Yung Vilne and the social and literary context in which Evigingo was written is: Justin Cammy, “Tsevorfene bleter: The Emergence of Yung Vilne” Polin 14 (2001): 170–191.
Another essay focusing on the group’s political engagement is: Avraham Novershtern, “Yung Vilne: The Political Dimension of Literature” in: Yisrael Gutman, Ezra Mendelsohn, Jehuda Reinharz, and Chone Shmeruk, eds. The Jews of Poland between Two World Wars (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1989): 383-398.
If some students can read Yiddish, a useful memoir of the group is: Eliyahu Shulman [Elias Schulman], Yung Vilne, 1929-1939 (New York: Farlag Getseltn, 1946) (https://archive.org/details/nybc210319)