I wanted to follow up my recent note about Stefan Zweig and The Post-Office Girl with a few words about Der Nister’s The Family Mashber, written around the same time as Zweig’s novel. Leonard Wolf’s wonderful translation from the original Yiddish came out some twenty years ago, but the NYRB Classics edition marks the first time this unclassifiable masterpiece—a message in a bottle from another world, or even, you might at times feel tempted to say, the otherworld—has appeared in paperback.
Der Nister and Stefan Zweig were contemporaries, but the two writers’ worlds were worlds apart, though both were to be destroyed. Der Nister, which means “the hidden one,” was the pen name of Pinhas Kahanovitch, who grew up in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev, a city of nearly half-a-million people, most of them Jews, that in the nineteenth century was famous both as a center of Russian finance and of Jewish mysticism. Kabbalistic fables were among the sources of Der Nister’s early short stories, which came out during the 1910s and ‘20s, and which bear a certain resemblance to the paintings of his good friend Marc Chagall. (You might also describe these stories as magical realist, and it is striking that quite a number of turn-of-century works of literature from regions that, like García Márquez’s Colombia, existed at a remove from the major centers of cultural and political power have a magical realist air: the piquant stew of the mythic and the erotic and the satirical that is Gyula Krúdy’s Sunflower, from 1918, comes to mind.) In any case, though some of the mysticism of Der Nister’s early work also makes its way into The Family Mashber, here it is worked like an iridescent thread into the fabric of a fully realistic novel, one in which the conflicting communities of nineteenth-century Berdichev—Polish nobles, Russian imperial officials, and above all the tightly knit, but also deeply divided, Jewish community, its businessmen, rabbis, unbelievers, timeservers, loansharks, hitmen, and holy fools—all come spectacularly alive.
But The Family Mashber is not just a brilliant depiction of a vanished world. It is a major modern novel, and what makes it so is the utterly original voice that Der Nister gives to its narrator. It is a voice out of the oral tradition, that of a storyteller, pulling his stories together (pulling them out of a hat), stepping back to see how they look, disclaiming knowledge of some details, picking up almost arbitrarily on others, a voice that is variously confiding, contradictory, cajoling, insinuating, prickly, probing, and hypnotic. Sometimes the voice seems medieval—which is to say almost naively digressive—sometimes as supremely self-conscious as that of the highest of high modernists. It becomes, in any case, a living presence on the pages of the book, a vagrant solitary voice, endlessly inquisitive, consistently skeptical of received wisdom, but at the same time a collective one in which the town’s many different voices are blended as in a chorus. (This equivocal voice is in a sense incarnated in one of the most remarkable figures in The Family Mashber, Sruli Gol, an outcast, beggar, and scamp who is secretly fantastically rich and manages somehow to be completely in the know about everything that is going on in the world of the novel.) In the end, the voice of Der Nister’s narrator is the voice of someone making it up as he goes along, while also, like Scheherezade, holding destruction at bay, a voice for which storytelling becomes a way of forever delaying an inevitable end.
The first volume of The Family Mashber was published in the Soviet Union in 1939, and volumes one and two, which tell the story of the downfall of the businessman Moshe Mashber, came out in Yiddish in the United States in 1948. After the Second World War, Der Nister was arrested by the Soviet secret police and sent to the Gulag, where he died. He is supposed to have completed the third volume of The Family Mashber before his arrest. Perhaps, like The Post-Office Girl, it will someday come to light.
Edwin Frank, Editor