Nostalgic Lands of Nevermore


Music from a Speeding Train by Harriet Murav

Stanford University Press. • 2012

Jews and Ukrainians in Russia’s Literary Borderlands by Amelia M. Glaser

Northwestern University Press • 2011


The booming scholarly literature on East European Jewry is a 21st century phenomenon. Featuring highlights such as Yuri Slezkine’s Jewish Century (2004) and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (2010), this literature still bears a Columbian flavour of the discovery of a new, previously unknown land. Worldwide, myriad descendants of East European Jews are teaching, writing, and studying in the best institutes of higher learning. With the typical itinerary of a Ukrainian shoemaker who raised a Columbia University professor, and whose children, in turn, are freelancing in the new media, one can understand the interest of the public in the once-remote generation of immigrants.

For a historian, the current resurgence of East European memory in the Euro-American public sphere is a very recent and fascinating phenomenon. One generation passes their memories to another, suppressing or distorting them in the transmission process. There are some regularities in these long- term historical processes; the generation that underwent the traumas of partial extermination and emigration was loath to pass its stories to their prosperous but insecure sons and daughters. In contrast, the third generation— more secure though less prosperous at the moment—re-discovers the amazing and largely lost world of their grandparents. They can fly back to this place but they cannot find it. Because of the Russian revolution, the Nazi Holocaust, and the Soviet collapse, the East European world has become even more unlike the romantic dream of their grandparents’ shtetl than places like Berkeley or Cambridge. Ironic films such as Everything is Illuminated (2005) by Liv Schrieber, and bitter books such as Erased (2007) by Omar Bartov or Ghosts of Home (2010) by Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer, document these travels, fictional or otherwise, to the nostalgic lands of nevermore.

Jews took part on both sides of the fight: utopians who believed that people would do better without money and exchange, and practitioners who traded for their own benefit but sometimes theorised about the improvement of humanity.

In a recent book that departs from the increasingly common atmosphere of East European tragedy, Amelia M. Glaser argues that before the double genocide (Soviet and Nazi) on these lands, there was an institution that integrated Jews and gentiles in a relatively peaceful and productive manner. This institution was the good old fair. Throughout the 19th century, when Jews lived together with the Slavs under the discriminative regime of the Russian Imperial Pale, they were divided by faith but connected by trade. Crossing Eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea, the vast and suffering land of the Pale with its educational segregation, subsistence-level economy, and aborted development, featured one cosmopolitan institution: the market. Together with Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, Moldovans, Armenians, Greeks, and others, Jews created small but booming common markets, which enabled them to survive on their adopted motherland and moreover, to pay fees to the local landowners and taxes to the Empire. Ever since Jesus took a whip and drove the moneychangers from the Temple, trade and faith have existed in conflict with one another, and never more intensely as in the Imperial Pale of Jewish settlement. Jews took part on both sides of the fight: utopians who believed that people would do better without money and exchange, and practitioners who traded for their own benefit but sometimes theorised about the improvement of humanity.

Glaser shows that the leading literatures of the Pale—Yiddish, Russian, and Ukrainian —fully reflected this situation. They shared a fascination with the fair as a dynamic and picturesque manifestation of people’s lives. But they also connected the market exchanges with evil and black magic, most memorably depicted by Gogol in his Terrible Vengeance (1832). With its ambivalent intensity, the shtetl fair formed the backdrop for local literatures also acting as an engine that could push the stalling story into action, a similar dual role to that of the estate in English Romanticism. Though fairs spoke in many tongues, the imperial language was Russian, and some of the most illuminating narratives happen to be written in Russian, though not necessarily by Russians. From the Ukrainian Gogol to the Jewish Babel, Russian stories about the Pale render both an excitement about the booming energy of the fair and a confusion about its means and purposes. They betray a deep mistrust of wealth and the market’s ways of generating wealth— a mistrust that would end in the socialist revolution and all that followed. As the Yiddish poet Peretz Markish wrote in 1917 (I quote from Glaser’s translation):

What are you selling? Corpses? Rags? Or already long-dead dads?

With the revolution in Russia and the abolition of the Pale, East European Jews had three choices: to flee overseas to Palestine and North America, to flee by land to central Russia, or to stay at home. As Yuri Slezkine argued convincingly, those who moved from the Pale to Moscow or other Russian cities after 1917 were also emigrants: they had to adjust to an environment that was no less different from the shtetl than the Palestine desert or Brooklyn docks. In the New World, the free-trading spirit of the shtetl bloomed, shaping many recognisable features of global capitalism. In its native Eastern Europe, even the Holocaust and the Soviet terror did not manage to eliminate this restless spirit.

Also surveying a century of Jewish- Russian literature, Harriet Murav in her brilliant and subtly elegiac Music from a Speeding Train, has revised some accepted truths about prose and poetry written in two languages, Yiddish and Russian, and more generally, about the long twentieth century. Murav shows that Jewish authors in the Soviet Union were prominent, eloquent, and highly original; witnessing the same events—World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Civil War, World War II and the Holocaust— from the other side, they developed themes and metaphors that were both similar to and different from their Western counterparts. Caught at the centre of the century’s bloody violence, these authors mourned the Jewish victims of mass murders and the unique way of life that perished with these victims. These very different authors —famous and forgotten, Russian and Yiddish— gave timely and wise responses to the century’s events, depicting their horrors with unusually intense metaphors and allegories rooted in the Jewish experience— local, diasporic, and Biblical.

Neither of these books try to depict a unified corpus of images of the shtetl. Interestingly, both emphasise the contrasts of their narratives with Bakhtin’s construction of the carnival. However, the focus of Murav’s book could not be more different from Glaser’s. Instead of re-visiting fair trade, Murav’s readings reveal in the Jewish narratives a canon of the mutilated, mournful body. Focusing on deficiency rather than abundance, this canon employs the traditional symbolism of circumcision and covenant.

In the Soviet Union, according to Murav, Jews were not only victims of Nazi killings, but also soldiers in the Soviet army that finally defeated the Germans. Some of them were writers who wrote about the war from both Soviet and Jewish perspective with a muscular, vengeful attitude uncharacteristic of Western Jewry. In fact, Murav shows that the Soviet Jews, one of the immediate targets of the Nazi annihilation, wrote about the Holocaust unusually early, ahead of their Western peers. The Soviet Jewish position towards the Stalinist terror echoed closely the responses of German Jews to the Holocaust; both attempted to articulate the inexpressible and understand the incomprehensible.

Revivifying the multi-lingual ethos of the shtetl on the mass scale of Soviet propaganda, Jewish authors led the massive efforts of translating the world classics into Russian and some other languages of the Soviet Union. In her unusually critical take on this practice, Murav demonstrates the imperial roots of intercultural translation in the Soviet period. Giving subsistence to many poets and writers, these “ghostwriting” exercises also discovered(and sometimes invented) the folk storytellers in each of the fourteen Soviet republics, excepting Russia. As Murav shows, the institution of professional translators and commentators was responsible for the official canonisation of national stereotypes, and it is instructive to see the Jewish involvement in this task. Murav is openly ironic about this practice of the Soviet cultural apparatus, but her probing prompts us to consider the current practice of translation today in the global English-speaking world. Murav has written an unusually rich and engaging book, which will be essential reading for experts on twentieth century literatures —Jewish, Soviet, and European. Partially, its success is secured by the extraordinary quality of the forgotten texts that she presents to the reader in her lucid, though necessarily abridged, renderings. She finds Soviet culture elusive, like music from a speeding train. It is difficult to capture and savour because, Murav says, its actors and products were always too early or too late for their historical moment. But Murav’s rendering of this vanished melody is remarkably clear, as if the melody—if not the train—has finally reached its destination.

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