Joseph Sherman, the Woolf Corob Fellow in Yiddish Studies at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford, and a world expert on the important Yiddish writer Dovid Bergelson, here kindly answers some of my questions.
Mark Thwaite: Dovid Bergelson is not a writer many readers will know. Can you tell us a little about him and how you came to know about his work and to study him?
Joseph Sherman: Bergelson is one of the finest prose stylists in Yiddish, and he was already a famous Yiddish writer before the Revolution of 1917. His earliest work was strongly influenced by the great Russian masters of mood and atmosphere like Turgenev and Chekhov. I much admired these Russian writers and I found Bergelson only a little later than I discovered them - some 30 years ago.
Born in 1884 into a moneyed and religiously observant family, Bergelson was orphaned young and was brought up for the most part by an older brother. He was ideologically a supporter of the Russian Revolution but after he was a witness to the fearful anti-Jewish pogroms that were committed by all sides during the Civil War between 1919 and 1921, he left to live in Weimar Berlin for ten years.
Bergelson was not alone in his belief that the Russian Revolution and the USSR would offer a new future for all people, and especially for Jews. He was one of millions of Jews, especially, who believed this. At the same time, in the early years after the Revolution, he was one of those whom convinced Bolsheviks called "fellow travellers", someone who believed in the ideal of the Revolution but who had definite reservations about particular aspects of the new Bolshevik regime as it was developing, especially after the Civil War of 1919-1921 when there were such fearful pogroms against the Jews of the Ukraine from all sides in the conflict.
Bergelson chose to live outside the Soviet Union, in Weimar Berlin, for more than ten years, between 1921 and 1932. He returned to the Soviet Union because, as far as he could see, that was the only country in the world that offered a future to Yiddish writers - in the USSR the state itself supported publishing houses, and theatres and schools and research institutions, all in Yiddish, which no other country in the world did or wanted to do. So he went back - and in Russia he was always a famous and respected writer - his books had been translated into Russian and were very much admired.
Bergelson's prose style, particularly in his earliest work, is very attractive and absorbing. It is a style he worked hard to craft, for the specific purpose of conveying the kind of indirect, allusive narrative he favoured, and it is rich in ambiguity, allusion and evocation of unspoken thoughts and moods. It is a very great challenge for a translator to attempt to render something of his highly modern and modernistic prose from Yiddish into English.
Much more interest is being paid to translations of Yiddish literature in general these days than was the case even 15 years ago, and Bergelson is one of the best Yiddish writers we have. So it is inevitable that Bergelson should be first on a wish list of The Best Yiddish Writers for Translation. But more than that, Bergelson's prose and subject matter strikes a particular chord, I think, with readers at the end of the 20th-beginning of the 21st century. There is at the moment perhaps the same sense of aimless drifting, of waiting for some major event in history or social life to happen to change things; a sense perhaps of the unknown just around the corner. There is perhaps today also a great deal more interest in other aspects of Jewish life in pre-Nazi Europe than the sentimental cliché of the old-fashioned shtetl. And Bergelson is a highly modern writer with a very modern viewpoint. After all, he writes about acculturated, rich bourgeois Jews, people who are educated in Russian schools, who prefer to speak Russian rather than Yiddish, and who are more and more neglectful of old Jewish traditions, who want to be active in the world of commerce and art and education. I think Bergelson's work speaks directly to kindred feelings in today's Jewish world as well.
I think that the fact that Bergelson's work is now being widely translated into English and is finding enthusiastic readers in English is long overdue. Bergelson deserves to be widely read and should take his rightful place among the really great writers of the 20th century. The tragedy of his murder - together with the murders of all the Yiddish writers and intellectuals that Stalin destroyed in his Jew-hating purges of the late 1940s - should make readers want to read what he and others wrote in their very best years, before they were forced to abide by a repressive and destructive doctrinaire Party Line.
MT: Is Bergelson a truly great writer, a great modernist, or just an interesting and forgettable figure in our literary history?
JS: I think Bergelson's pre-Revolution work is great writing - it is stylistically perfect - he worked immensely hard to craft a special style to say precisely what he wanted to say, and of course his subject matter in work he published up to and including 1924 -25 is uniformly interesting. At that period he was writing about the moneyed Jewish bourgeoisie, the kinds of people into whom he was born and among whom he grew up; he know them well and understood them perfectly and he wanted to write about their foibles and their inevitable decay and decline as a class.
After the Bolshevik Party started to define people in terms of their class - and to say that the bourgeoisie were "non-people" - it is well known that the Soviet state actively discriminated against people of middle-class backgrounds in terms of jobs and in all kinds of other ways - then of course it was no longer possible to write about these supposedly "destroyed" classes. And after 1929, when Stalin seized absolute power, it became mandatory to write only what the Party approved, which was that desperately sterile "socialist realist" stuff; pure propaganda and derivative, unoriginal boilerplate.
This kind of pressure did great damage to what Bergelson was able to do. But his earliest work is his best - he is one of the finest prose stylists, and unquestionably one of the leading modernists in Yiddish literature, and his best work can stand comparison with the nest in any literature of his period, and indeed of any time.
MT: What are Bergelson's best works?
JS: The following stories, which have all been translated into English: In A Backwoods Town; At the Depot; Joseph Shur; At Night; and Descent (a novella).
There are other works which have been translated into English - such as the new volume of Berlin stories, all of which deserve to be read.
MT: You must have been pleased that those Berlin Stories Shadows of Berlin were recently reissued. Do you see any other indications of a re-emergence of interest in his work?
JS: Yes, I'm delighted. I myself am currently working on a translation into English of Bergelson's masterpiece, his novel The End of Everything which appeared in an English translation some thirty years ago under the title When All Is Said and Done. This is a novel that can bear comparison with both Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in terms of both its theme - the desire of a woman to live free of the conventions of a restrictive society - and its structure, style and overall literary conception. It is unquestionably a masterpiece.
MT: What other Jewish and especially Yiddish writers would you say we should be reading? Who else have we forgotten about?
JS: I would say that obviously the choice here is limited for those who do not read Yiddish because they have to rely on what is made available in English translation. But some Yiddish writers whose works have been well translated and deserve to be better known are Israel Joshua Singer (the older brother of the Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer) and Moshe Kulbak, whose delightful satiric novella about the difficulties of adjusting to a new Soviet reality entitled Zelmenyaner (The Children of the Family Zelmen) is out in a an abridged translation, and is due to be newly published in full next year.
MT: You are the Woolf Corob Fellow in Yiddish Studies at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University. Tell us about your job Joseph.
JS: My work involves teaching Yiddish literature to undergraduate and graduate students at Oxford, and to doing research in my special fields of Yiddish literature which at the moment is Bergelson. I am also currently editing a Dictionary of Literary Biography of the 40 most significant Yiddish writers - the book is due out next year - and I am translating Bergelson's major novel, as I mentioned earlier.
MT: Thanks so much for your time Joseph.