This book is going to represent a drastic shift from the types of books I normally review.
I figured it would be a good idea to celebrate the Christmas season with a classic of Jewish literature. Sholem Aleichem, “the Jewish Mark Twain”**, is notable as one of the first Jewish authors to write primarily in Yiddish rather than Hebrew. He’s notable outside of Yiddish circles for writing the stories that formed the basis for Fiddler on the roof.
Like Mark Twain, Aleichem’s writing is characterized by combining humor with social criticism. Aleichem’s works, while facially comedic, are almost tragic in their depiciction of the lives and struggles of Eastern European Jews. Also like Mark Twain, his work is deeply rooted in the author’s cultural context to the point where a reader lacking that cultural context is likely going to miss out on most of what is going on.
*The author’s sobriquet is now generally romanized “Sholem” instead of “Sholom”, but most editions of this book that I’ve seen use the older “Sholom” spelling.
**Perhaps apocryphally, upon hearing this Mark Twain is said to have countered that he was the “American Sholem Aleichem”
Told in the epistolary format, The adventures of Menahem-Mendl follows the titular “hero’s” attempts to make a fortune through a series of ill-advised business schemes. His letters to his wife (who remains in their tiny hometown while Menahem-Mendl travels through the major cities of Russia) are alternated with her caustic, frustrated replies.
So how is it?
This is one of those books that I didn’t personally enjoy but recommend nonetheless. I’ll start with the barriers I experienced to enjoying it before moving on to why I still recommend it.
The translation I read (and let’s face it, it’s an obscure book and there aren’t many recent English translations out there) wasn’t particularly good. The whole thing had that awkward, stilted quality that seems endemic to mid-20th century translations. (Remember that translation of Also sprach Zarathustra that attempted to sound like the King James Bible?)
I’m also not a huge fan of the epistolary format – it’s one of the reasons I still haven’t managed to finish Dracula. I understand the appeal, but I find it a barrier to really immersing myself in a book.
I lack the cultural context for most of the jokes – not being an Eastern European Jew living in a shtetl, or having any family members (that I know of) who are, I just don’t “get” the vast majority of the humor. It was really disappointing. There’s still enough that crosses cultural boundaries, but it feels a little bit like the time I tried to read I am a cat* in high school, before I had the requisite cultural knowledge to understand the satire. I am a cat crosses cultural boundaries better than The adventures of Menahem-Mendl does, as middle-class pretentiousness is practically universal. The adventures of Menahem-Mendl feels like an extended in-joke, where you might pick up on parts of it, or understand why it was funny, without being “in” on the joke, but it will never be as funny or entertaining to you as it is to somebody who was “there”.
On to the good. The adventures of Sholom Aleichem is a kind of Jewish Candide. The protagonist remains more-or-less optimistic in the face of repeated failure. The story tends towards the absurdly comic, but the tragic aspects are totally believable. Aleichem’s work is less outlandish than Voltaire’s, but the surface similarities remain. Aleichem manages to convey the quiet desperation of Jews under the Czars while maintaining a light-hearted tone.
The more I read, the more I started to “get” the humor. Menahem-Mendl’s increasingly shrill wife was somewhat grating, but like Walter Peck in Ghostbusters, her attitude is completely justified. That her letters are primarily berating her husband for his poor business sense and are filled with colorful threats but are also always signed with a loving send-off was one of the recurring jokes that I did enjoy.
Menahem-Mendl alternates between shlemiel and shlimazel in his various schemes, and the various roles he plays helps to prevent the book from falling too much into the formula of “get-rich-quick-scheme – wife is skeptical – scheme fails – wife complains”.
*I am a cat is difficult to fully appreciate in translation anyways because even the title is joke that is incredibly difficult to translate (although it’s fairly easy to explain). It’s a little bit like how the English translation of Ooku tried to capture the linguistic things that were going on in the original Japanese by rendering them in faux-Elizabethan English.
It’s an interesting read and one I do recommend, if only as a way of broadening one’s literary horizons. The only time I really recommend it is when people are looking for “literary fiction” by authors outside their normal comfort zones. It works relatively well as a recommendation, but faced some resistence from Anti-Semitic patrons.
For cross-recommendations, I’m just going to throw out a list of relatively similar works from different cultural contexts. I will say that I enjoyed all of these more than The adventures of Menahem-Mendl, but I acknowledge that it’s probably because I have a better cultural context for them rather than a failure on Aleichem’s part.
I Am a Cat / Soseki Natsume – This is a book characterized by complex wordplay in the original Japanese. This translation does its best to reproduce that but it still ends up being awkward at times
So that’s it for 2014. Going to take a one-post hiatus. Posts will resume January 1st.