Writer, researcher, translator, critic

The End of Everything


Dovid Bergelson, The End of Everything [Berlin; 1913]

This project of mine of reading all the acclaimed novels of the 1910s that I can get my hands on pays off with dividends here. Originally published in Yiddish in 1911, by a writer born in what is now the Ukraine and who would go on to fervently support the Soviet state, only to be murdered by Stalin's secret police in 1952, it's one of the greatest novels I've never seen included in the Western canon. Since its first translation into English is only eight years old, that's perhaps not a surprise; but it's surprising that it took that long.

The focal point of the novel, Mirel Hurvits, can be seen as one more sensitive, finely-grained portrayals by male European authors of unhappy women chafing at the restrictions of conventionality, in the line of Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Isabel Archer -- but Bergelson's central rhetorical strategies of silence, ambiguity, and polyphonic dialogue mean that although we follow her closely, we are more privy to what people say about her than to what she thinks or feels, both of which seem to be a mystery to her at various points as well. Which may be truer to life than most of the fiction of the period, and seems an obvious inheritance of the age of Freud.

If there's an artistic correlative to Bergelson's prose, it's Impressionism: nothing is clear or definitive, and the whole picture is only built up by accumulation of seemingly unrelated detail. As I began reading, I wasn't sure that the translation was properly communicating the meaning, but the longer I remained in the text the more deeply I admired the way the translation echoed itself (apparently following the original), and even maintains a subterraneanly Yiddish flavor without stooping toward the familiar broad caricature of immigrant English. Bergelson was of the generation of Yiddish writers who attempted -- successfully -- to make use of the language's full literary capabilities, far beyond the sentimental vernacular comedy of writers like Sholem Aleichem; the achievements of major twentieth-century Yiddish writers like Chava Rosenfarb, Der Nister, and the Singer family are more or less unimaginable without Bergelson.

I'm not remotely qualified to comment on the novel's expression or interrogation of Jewish identity and history, much less the complications of period and place; I can only be grateful for the extensive footnotes explaining Jewish rituals, Hasidic customs, and Imperial Russian laws as they impinge on the text. I'll be returning to this novel, and (not least since he had a forty-year career after it) I'll definitely be seeking out more of Bergelson's work.

November 9, 2017