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 …