The Family Mashber
There are points on the earth, some of them disconcertingly close, that seem forever blank. We cannot imagine that life goes on there in the ordinary way; we cannot imagine good weather there or any of the settled existence in time that belongs to London or Paris or even to newer places like Boston or Sydney. This is partly a matter of ignorance—who would have guessed that there is a city in the Ukraine, called Berdichev, that even in 1865 had two hundred thousand inhabitants? It is also a matter of chauvinism: a view of the world that attributes all mainstream events to Western Europe and its satellites and sees life elsewhere as so denuded of history that it seems entirely dark; until, that is, in the case of eastern Poland, Belorussia, the Ukraine, it is illuminated by events of such horror (I am thinking of the sweep through those areas by the SS in 1941) that we tell ourselves, yes, these things do happen, but only in dim out-of-the-way places we know nothing of. The events then seem appropriate to the darkness of a place we have never thought of as real.
One of the achievements of The Family Mashber, a book that comes to us out of the blue—written in the late Thirties and only now translated from Yiddish—is that it makes this part of the world, and all its rich, exotic life, the center of things, the norm. So much so that when, in the midst of it all, a Palm Sunday frond appears, or Aristotle is mentioned, we are genuinely startled; a chink has been opened into a strange and incomprehensible world—the familiar classical, Christian, postenlightenment one from which most of us have come. Which is to say that, like all great fictions, Der Nister’s vast two-volume account of the city of N. (Berdichev) in the 1870s seizes the imagination, commands interest (even in subjects we know nothing about), imposes belief, and creates in the reading a life so deeply rooted in experience, in our sense of the way the world feels and moves, that it becomes immediately our own.
Der Nister (a pen name that in Yiddish means “The Hidden One”) has been fortunate in his translator, but also in the moment Leonard Wolf has chosen to reveal him to us. A decade ago he might have presented an insoluble difficulty, but we have easier views now of what we might mean by “realism.” The way to that has been prepared by Marquez and other South American writers and in English by Salman Rushdie, and we will do better to welcome The Family Mashber as a work of magic realism than to evoke (pace Wolf) The Brothers Karamazov or Buddenbrooks. We might be warned against such a reading by the style of the narration itself.
The plot of the novel, all that part of it that has to do with realistic events, can be dealt with quickly. The main line of it follows the fall from prosperity of the moneylender Moshe Mashber, which comes partly from his involvement with a group of Polish nobles who have got into trouble with the authorities, and cannot pay their debts, partly because the district is having a bad year, but mostly through the machinations of his fellow moneylenders in the community. His fall is paralleled by the move of his brother Luzi from leader of the persecuted Bratslav sect of Hasidim to a life as pilgrim wanderer, and by the withdrawal of another, younger brother, Alter, a retarded idiotsaint, into isolation.
The difficulties of Moshe and his brothers serve as plot, just enough to keep us reading but more than enough to involve a large number of subsidiary characters: Reb Dudi, the representative of an ossified Jewish orthodoxy that finds itself dependent, in the end, on violence; Schmulikl Fist and Yone the tavern keeper, two very different kinds of thug; beggars like Ten Groschen Pushke; usurers like the Kitten; ruthless merchants like the effete Yakov-Yossi; scholars and freethinkers like Mikhl Bukyer (one of the most attractive figures in the book) and Yossele Plague the enlightenment man; Polish nobles of a grotesque decadence and silliness; Perele the bawd and baby killer; and several wives and mothers of heroic fortitude of whom the most memorable are Esther-Rokhl, Malke-Rive, and the Mashber’s maid Gnessye. But the development of the plot is negligible. Everything of real significance here happens either too deep inside the characters to be touched by it or outside the plot altogether, and the center of the book is not one of the major characters but a marginal one, Sruli Gol, who works both with the plot and against it. He is the agent of another force than the one that is on the move in the social world. Everything that is most original, and most disruptive of received values in The Family Mashber, is in Sruli Gol. If we are to discover what the book is finally about, we can do it only through him. He is a marvelous creation.
Sruli is the least pious character in a book where everyone, even the thugs, is pious, to a point where piety itself seems suspect. He is clown, drunk, sinner, and blasphemer; a parasite at rich men’s tables but also their scourge; a protector of the poor, the weak, the insulted and injured; a guide to the erring. And he intervenes at crucial points in almost everyone’s life. He has an odd facility (emphasized in the text each time as a prepared joke) for appearing on the threshold the moment anything new is about to occur. As a marginal figure the threshold is his proper place. He is a natural crosser of boundaries, as much at home with Yossele Plague, the secularist, and Schmulikl Fist, whom he has the knack of putting immediately to sleep, as with the saintly Luzi. He even crosses the line into the Christian world, and not only when in his youth he becomes a waiter in poor taverns. At the Prechistaya Fair (in honor of the Virgin’s birthday) he stops to hear the bandura players sing an old song of Cossack prisoners among the Turks:
There, in the midst of the racket of the town and the fair, in the tumult of buying and selling, and the shouting of thieves, a small island of people has been formed around the musicians, an island of people who have taken time to feel compassion for ancient captivities—national or individual….
Yes. And the peasants in the crowd are amazed at this strange fellow, this curiously dressed Jew; where does he come from; why, like themselves, does he have tears in his eyes; why is he taking this tale of Christian suffering so much to heart, what is it that makes him give the bandura players such a large tip?
It is the insult to Sruli, a guest at his table, that creates the first rift in the Mashber family (a quarrel with Luzi) and reveals the slackening grip on family affairs that will lead to Moshe’s fall. Yet it is Sruli who later saves the family from ruin. He talks about this when he sits alone drinking and addresses a wine glass as if it were Moshe himself. “It may be…that I have been designated from on high to be your incarnate punishment,” Sruli says, “and that against my own will I am the whip wielded by your fate. And if that’s the case, I swear by this brandy, I think you’ve been whipped enough.” He is, one suspects, a subversive figure here; not just in himself but of the action as well, and most of all of that pious version of the world that Der Nister’s narrative is meant to challenge. “If you want to know why I did it,” Sruli goes on, speaking now of his attempts to save Moshe, “it’s all because I wanted to frustrate fate for once—to pluck the rod from the wielder’s hand—from fate’s. That’s something I have wanted to do ever since I came to the age of reason.” It is part of the joke in this great scene that the tavern keeper Yone, suspecting Sruli of plotting a financial coup, has set eavesdroppers on him. They can make nothing of this “confession to the second glass.” The reader too is left to puzzle out the odd relationship between Sruli as whip and that other Sruli who plucks the rod from the wielder’s hand.
However contradictory he may be, however unruly or blasphemous, Sruli is the one character in the book who seems to have the author’s clear approval. In one of his craziest moments he appears, in a burlesque of Hasidic practices, at the grave of a famous rabbi and enters into his own form of communion with it:
The sun’s heat beat down on his head. Sruli sat in a partly cooled space among tall grasses sharing his liquor with the rabbi whose name was inscribed on the headstone. A sip for him, a sip for the rabbi poured over the stone. Until finally the bottles were empty and his head—full. It felt heavy, things around him began to whirl: the cemetery, the gravestones. The tree above him seemed to rise up, roots and all; heaven and earth changed places; and everything he had seen that day at the fair—Layb the barber-surgeon and Menashe his apprentice, cutting into abscesses on the breasts or under the armpits of peasant women, the teeth extracted with pincers, veins opened or blood drawn by leeches, and what he had seen of the blind beggars, their eyelids open or closed; and what he had seen later in Malke-Rive’s home—the sick Zisye, with sunken and yellow cheeks of a man who was more than half dead, and who bore the sign of death on his forehead; all of that, and the liquor he had drunk or poured out on the ground, mingled in his head making the world turn. He felt a spasm of nausea. Leaning his head against the gravestone he rested there awhile, then the nausea overwhelmed him and he threw up, covering the headstone from top to bottom with his vomit.
That is one side of the man. The other occurs when Sruli, in the most solemn and elevated passage in the book, plays his flute at Luzi’s house:
Then Sruli played. And now he surpassed himself. His tone was so pure, the notes he struck so remarkable, that his hearers immediately forgot the poverty of their lives and who they were. Sruli seemed to have led them to a lofty palace, a spacious structure built on an appropriately elevated site amid splendid surroundings. A palace with a gate closed against intruders and against those who were unworthy to enter.
And it seemed that Sruli stood before that gate—Sruli and his listeners whom he had brought with him. And as he played he seemed to be persuading the gates to open for them because they were worthy of that honor.
“It is what they deserve,” his flute seemed to say. “Now, they are the poor and the disappointed. But who can say what tomorrow will bring or who will inherit the earth on the day after tomorrow?”
With that the gate opened. Sruli and those who were with him went in. At first those who followed him felt constrained and embarrassed, because they were not sure that they had been admitted because of their own merits. But Sruli walked before them, encouraging them with the sort of music one plays to welcome guests into a palace.
And then they entered halls that were richly decorated and where there were tables with beautiful place settings. And there were people sitting there, like those whom Sruli had just brought in. They, too, were poorly clad, they, too, were sorry-looking, but they were relaxed and happy and hospitably made place for the newcomers and encouraged them to feel at ease.
Then the owners of the palace came in. They were beautifully dressed and gave the impression that they had never before had anything to do with the sorts of people Sruli had brought there, and yet they were proud of their guests. They sat with them and shared food and drink with them. Later, when they had eaten and drunk, and the newcomers started to dance, the owners of the palace danced feverishly with them all until, for sheer joy, the palace roof began to rise and all who were there cried, “Let the world be free. Let all who will come share our celebration. Everyone, from the highest to the lowest, the wise as well as those who have but a penny’s worth of it. All. All. And not only people, but the creatures of the forest and the cattle in the fields are welcome too.”