Friday, July 4, 2008

Isaacs of Poland and Odessa

To prepare for our journey from Warsaw to Odessa, Matt and I are scrambling to read about these very unfamiliar lands. My reading so far has reinforced a point I stumbled across some years back, when some essayist announced that if you want to know what a place was like in the past, read a novel from that time and place. History books won't capture the same sense of the place. Even though I'm a writer of historical narratives, I agree.

For Jewish Poland in the years before the Nazis came, Isaac Bashevis Singer (left) is a wonder. I feel a very slight connection to Singer, since my first literary agent also represented him and still represents his estate -- afer all, what separates Singer and me but the odd Nobel Prize for Literature (1978, if you're wondering)?

I just read one of his lesser-known novels, Shosha, about a writer in Poland between the world wars. Much of it may be autobiographical, as Singer was a young writer in Poland until 1935, when he came to the United States. It is a remarkable book about a young Jewish writer's drift and blundering in that impossible world, and helps to answer the frequent question in my mind about every Jew in Poland in 1935 who had 20 zlotys to rub together -- why didn't they leave? He depicts a world of richness and depth that, though plainly doomed, would be difficult to leave. And the writing! Even in translation (from Yiddish), how about these?

[Opening line of the book]: "I was brought up on three dead languages -- Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish (some consider the last not a language at all) -- and in a culture that developed in Babylon: the Talmud."

[As the crisis nears]: "[D]eath is too important to absorb all at once. Those who commit suicide want to escape death once and for all. But those who aren't such cowards learn to enjoy its taste."

[Epilog, in Israel]: "The newcomers are all out of their minds -- victims of Hitler, bundles of nerves. They always suspect they're being persecuted. First they cursed Hitler, now they curse Ben-Gurion. Their children or perhaps their grandchildren will be normal if the Almighty doesn't send a new catastrophe down upon us. What can you know of what we went through!"

We also were excited to find out about Isaac Babel, (right) an Odessa Jew and Communist revolutionary who wrote "Tales of Odessa." Here was a chance, we figured, to peer into that remarkable, polyglot culture before the Germans and Rumanians literally burned it up. Alas, the pickings were far more slim.

Babel's stories about the worldly Jewish gangsters of Odessa occasionally evoke a powerful scene or sketch a remarkable character, but I did not find they really were stories. There was little narrative or character development -- mostly just snapshots. Others of his stories may be more effective, but these were a disappointment.
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