Joseph Sherman


In Yiddish literature, among the richest beneficiaries of the European tradition was the work of Dovid Bergelson (1884-1952). Bergelson started writing very young, first in Hebrew and then in Russian, but soon abandoned these early efforts in favour of Yiddish. By his own account in a memoir published in 1934[1] after much of his finest work had been in print for more than twenty years, Bergelson initially found this transition difficult. His predecessors offered him little in either theme or style. He found both language and subject matter poverty and shtetl corruption in the writings of Mendele Moykher-Sforim (S.Y. Abramovitsh, 1835-1917) alien, and although drawn to the more modern themes of Y.-L. Perets (1852-1915), he considered Peretss Polish-Yiddish dialect a linguistic dead-end. Though he admired the narrative skill and cosmopolitan outlook of Sholem Ash [E. Asch] (1880-1957), he rejected Ashs idealization of the shtetl together with his raw prose. While he encountered a language familiar to him in the work of Sholem-Aleykhem (S.Y. Rabinovitsh, 1859-1916), also a native of the Ukraine where Bergelson was born, he considered what he called Sholem-Aleykhems volubility useless for his own purposes. To articulate his perspective on the pre-revolutionary world of Russian Jewry, Bergelson was obliged to create his own language and style. Chief among his influences in this shaping process was Chekhov (1860-1904).

At the turn of the nineteenth century, those pretensions, vulgarities and blinkered view of life that Chekhov examined so probingly found their correspondence in the upwardly mobile Russian Jews among whom Bergelson had grown up. Chekhovs style, moreover, offered Bergelson elements of an allusive, ironic narrative mode perfectly suited to depicting a crumbling social order. From Chekhovs example, Bergelson learned not to rely on plot, but to build from pattern through calculated repetition of individual words and sentences and through formalised descriptions of people, places and objects. Often Chekhovs opening paragraph establishes both tone and theme through the precise presentation of revealing details. Here is the opening of his story The Order of St Anne (literally, Anne on the Neck, 1895):

No food was served after the wedding, not even light refreshments. Bride and groom just drank their glass of champagne, changed and drove to the station. There was no gay wedding breakfast, no party, no band, and no dancing they were going to stay at a monastery instead, a hundred and fifty miles away.

A good idea, too, many people thought. Modeste Alekseyevitch was pretty high up in the service now and not as young as all that either, so a hearty wedding reception might well have seemed not quite the thing or so people said. Who feels like music, anyway, when a civil servant of fifty-two marries a girl barely turned eighteen? Besides, being a man of principle, Modeste Alekseyevitch was said to have arranged this monastery trip on purpose, to let his bride know that even as a married man he still put religion and morality first.[2]

The fact that no food was served ironically suggests the grooms meanness and hints at his concupiscence: he offers nothing to his guests because, sharpening his appetite for the wedding night, he will not eat himself. The marriage just solemnised is manifestly a misalliance, while a honeymoon spent for the sake of false propriety in a monastery forebodes unavoidable marital disaster.

Exactly the same technique of imparting significant details through a formalised style patterned on repetition and rhythm distinguishes the opening of Bergelsons novella Opgang (Descent) (1920):

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[ale zenen avekgegangen aroyf barg mit der bokhersher levaye, shpet nokh a halbn tog hot men mekaver geven meylekhn oyfn kleyn-shtetldikn rakitner bes-oylem.

un in shtot, vos ligt, vi a nest, oysgebet tsvishn grine baarbete berg, iz demolt akegn a por sho geven azoy shtil, glaykh in ir iz mer keyner nisht geblibn.

a poshete goyishe fur iz demolt ongelofn barg-arop mit tseyogte ferd un hot aylndik durkhgeshvindlt tsvishn di tsvey shures topoln, vos in onheyb berizhinetser veg; ire reder hobn geshvind geyogt iber der hiltsener greblie, vos in eyn ek shtot, un zeyer treysldike klaperay hot opgehilkht biz der hiltsener greblie, vos in tsveytn ek.

dort, in ot dem tsveytn niderikn ek, hot a vaserl shtil gemurmlt arum a shteyn; a goye hot gevashn gret, an eplyboym iz geshtanen un geblit, un gornisht keynem hot nisht geart, vos der himl iz tsu shvues tsu gantse teg farvolknt. ]

[Late in the afternoon, Meylekh was buried in the small-town cemetery of Rakitne.

Everyone accompanied the young mans funeral up the hill, and for the space of a few hours the town, nestled between tilled green mountains, was as quiet as though no one lived there any longer.

Then a common peasant wagon drawn by galloping horses rushed downhill, flashing its way swiftly between the two rows of poplars where the road leading off to Berizhinets began; its wheels sped rapidly over the wooden dike at one end of the town, and their churning clatter reverberated against the wooden dike at the other.

In the low-lying corner at that end, a rivulet murmured around a stone, a peasant woman washed laundry, an apple tree rose and bloomed, and nothing more no one cared that with the festival of Shvues approaching, the skies had been overcast for days on end.[3]]

Who was the deceased? How did he die? A search for these answers propels the novellas plot, but they are not important in themselves. Deliberate interruption of information about the funeral with languorous descriptions of commonplace activities renders life and death equally inconsequential. A woman goes on washing laundry, impervious to a hired wagon rushing past; for her, this day is indistinguishable from all other days. Yet the narrative eye that notices both the woman and the wagon focuses attention more intensely on the singular by contrast with observations about the general. The stream may flow on as generations of laundresses come and go, but for one individual and one set of mourners this day is notably different. One moment in this ceaseless flow of time is suddenly invested with particularity through the pointed narrational contrast.

The same expository principle informs the opening paragraph of Chekhovs story Three Years (1895):

It was dark, but lights had already come on in some houses, and at the end of the street a pale moon was rising behind the barracks. Seated on a bench by a gate, Laptsev waited for vespers to end at St Peter and St Pauls. He calculated that Julia Belavin would come past on her way back from church, that he would speak to her and perhaps spend the evening with her.

He had sat for an hour and a half, visualizing his Moscow flat, his Moscow friends, his valet Peter, his desk. He gazed in bewilderment at the dark, unmoving trees, astonished that he was no longer living in his Sokolniki villa but in a provincial town, in a house past which a large herd of cattle was driven every morning and evening, raising terrible clouds of dust while the herdsman blew his horn. He remembered the long Moscow discussions in which he had so recently taken part, about life without love being possible, about passionate love being a psychosis, and finally about how theres no such thing as love but only sexual attraction that sort of thing. Recalling it now, he sadly reflected that if anyone now asked him what love was he would be at a loss for an answer.[4]

The conventionally romantic picture of a lover pining on a bench near a church in the moonlight is ironically undercut by a provincial vision of a blundering herd of cattle that exposes as empty the intellectualisations of bored Moscow highbrows, and demonstrates the speed with which feelings can alter rapidly in a short space of time, which is the theme of the whole story.

For all his melancholy, Chekhovs fiction often illustrates his conviction that no choice in life is positively final and no situation absolutely fixed.[5] Bergelsons view, as will be seen, is considerably less positive, yet both employ strikingly similar strategies to frame their respective conceptions. The details that pattern their narratives individualise a given moment yet set it within the purview of the general. What Bergelson did with the funeral in Descent can be found in Chekhovs A Lady with a Dog (1899), in which a commonplace event is invested with significance simultaneously particular and universal. Gurov, a bored lecher, has come to Yalta with the specific intention of making a new sexual conquest; his victim, Anna Sergeyevna, is a newly-married ingénue. The scene appears to be the stock construct of farce. But contrary to convention, each falls in love, for the first time. The commonplace is lifted into the rare in an early narrative interpolation that reads Gurovs awakening love sub specie aeternitatis:

They sat on a bench near the church at Oreanda, gazing silently down at the sea. Yalta was barely visible through the dawn mist, white clouds hung motionless on the mountain peaks. Not a leaf stirred on the trees, cicadas chirped. Borne up from below, the seas monotonous, muffled boom spoke of peace, of the everlasting sleep awaiting us. Before Yalta or Oreanda yet existed that surf had been thundering down there, it was roaring away now, and it will continue its dull booming with the same unconcern when we are no more.[6]

This passage may be too overtly moralising, but the point is developed more subtly through the rest of the story through a patterned counterpoint of trite situation against true emotion.

In related fashion, Bergelsons evocation of the bleak landscape lying between one Jewish shtetl and another in the tsarist Pale of Settlement makes a seamless correspondence between the physical and the spiritual desolation, both individual and collective, of Jews lost in perpetual Diaspora:

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[un der skvirer veg, vos shlenglt zikh aroys in dorem-zayt fun der hipsher bargiker shtot groys-seternits iz shoyn lang shmol un farvaksn. eynzam un gefaln shnaydt er iber der bans freylekhe relsnshnurn un tsit zikh dortn a vayle tsvishn di dray brukirte traktn, vos tsetrogn in ale zaytn der shtots freylekhn gemurml. farshmokht, vi a yoyred, vos geyt tsu-fus, lozt er zikh fun dortn arop in pustn tol, vu an alte tsigl-fabrik, a khurve, iz fun ale zaytn arumgeringlt mit alerley beyner fun gepeygerte un dershosene hint. un nokh dem bagleytn im shoyn durkhoys di glaykhe felder fun step, breyte tsugetriknte felder, vos shpreytn in der vayt zeyere groylekh-grine farbn un zenen tomid greyt tsu shvern:

bay ot dem eyntsikn boym, vos shteyt dortn in horizont ongeboygn iber a brunem, faran shtilkeyt oyf der velt.

di ershte draysik verst fort op yankev-nosn oyf ot dem veg mit a groys-seternitser balegole un kumt on keyn kozlove, in ot dem kleynem umetik farvorfenem shtetele, vos shteyt shoyn azoy yorn-lang mit di pleytses tsum untergegrobenem leymike barg un vart nokh alts oyf shabes-makhn, oyf montik-yerid, un oyf a psure, az meshiekh kumt.]

[The road to Skvir, winding south from the hilly, prosperous town of Great Setternitz, turns quickly ill-kept and overgrown. Dreary, dilapidated, it crosses the railway tracks, then winds for a while among the three cobbled streets that carry the cheerful bustle of the town away in all directions, after which it descends, like an impoverished man, into the valley past the ruins of a brick factory huddled amid heaps of bones of such dogs as have been shot there or that simply came to die. Later, the road is joined on both sides by the endless sameness of fields the broad, grey-green, dry fields of the steppe expanding outward, perpetually ready to swear that if perfect silence was to be found in the world it would be near that solitary tree bending over a well at the horizons edge.

A wagon driver from Great Setternitz took Jacob Nathan the first thirty versts along this road until they came to Kozlov, that dismal, God-forsaken town that stood with its back forever turned to the mined clay pits on the mountain behind it; forever waiting for the Sabbath, or a Monday fair, or the coming of the Messiah.[7]]

The bleak image of the bones of dead dogs implicitly calls to mind the bones of dead Jews lost in the same wilderness; all are equally locked in an unbroken silence, waiting hopelessly for some kind of life.

Movement in Bergelson, as so often in Chekhov, is a series of repeating patterns that change marginally to accommodate a variety of fully-formed characters through a few incisive details. Here, for instance, is the way Chekhov briskly introduces the dying sister Ninas despicable husband in Three Years (1895):

[] Seventeen years earlier, aged twenty-two, [Nina] had met her present husband Panaurov member of a landowning family at a Khimki villa. She had fallen in love and married him against her fathers wish, in secret. Panaurov, a handsome and rather insolent person, a lighter of cigarettes from the icon lamp, a great whistler, had impressed her father as an utter nobody.[8]

These two particulars, that he disrespectfully lights his cigarettes from the flames of icon lamps and is given to whistling, establish Panaurov as frivolous, selfish and irresponsible, so that his chronic infidelity comes as no surprise. Similarly, a few particulars deliver up Bergelsons rounded sketch of a town mischief-maker:

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[ester fikh iz biz shpet in ovent farzesn bay khanke lyuber in der heym. arayngekumen oyf a rege, oyf iberredn mikoyekh servetn un tishtekher, vos khanke hot tsu gebn oyfn ovent in talmud-toyre, un farzesn zikh mit glaykhgiltikeyt tsu heym, tsu shlof, tsu eygene fonfevdik dinem kolkhl. ir oyszen iz geven a troymerish langvayliks, a halb-oyfgeregts, halb-drimlendiks. ir eyntsike vayser ontsug, vos mit di lange shlekht gepreste proshves, hot oysgezen faryoysemt, vi zi, di fraye tsuhererin ester fikh aleyn. zi hot shoyn nisht gehat keynem do in shtot, akhuts an eltern bruder, a holtshendler. ire foter un muter zenen shoyn lang geshtorbn, un keyner hot nisht gevust, tsi mit ir shvegerin lebt zi beSholem, tsi neyn. ]

[Esther Fikh stayed on at Hanke Lyubers home until late at night. Having popped in for a moment to discuss the napkins and tablecloths that Hanke was to provide for the Talmud Torah gala, she persisted in sitting on and on, indifferent to home, to sleep, to her own reedy, nasal voice. Her air was one of wool-gathering boredom, half animated and half lethargic. Her one and only white suit with its long, badly pressed insets looked as forlorn as the unregistered student Esther Fikh herself. Nowadays she had no one here in town except an older brother, a wood dealer. Her father and mother were long dead, and no one knew whether she lived at peace with her sister-in-law or not.[9]]

A lonely and impoverished spinster, ineptly sewing her own clothes, prattles inconsiderately on to avoid facing loneliness, gossiping to retain flagging attention. Though Panaurov and Esther Fikh are equally minor characters, operating on the margins of the respective narratives in which they appear, they are strikingly foregrounded when their individual idiosyncrasies are needed to contribute to the wider thematic pattern.

To work under an influence is not the same as being a clone, least of all for an original writer. Bergelson develops modes of narration and characterisation wholly independent of Chekhovs practice. For example, while Chekhov often uses the unmediated third-person voice to tell readers directly about a character, Bergelson allows his personages to reveal themselves through speech and action in a mode akin to Flauberts style indirect libre in which what is said by and about an individual character become indistinguishable. Moreover, Bergelsons frequent deployment of the passive voice a stylistic feature essential to his purpose clouds the possibility of ascribing judgements exclusively to the character from whom they ostensibly emanate. The flattening-out that results from the narratives refusal to concentrate on the inner lives of any one character thus produces a progressively complex range of new possibilities. Consistent use of the passive voice calculatingly dissolves accuracy and definition, supplanting it with passivity and imprecision. Syntax is placed at the service of psychology to create situations in which no one takes responsibility because no one is capable of acting. All are passive, from the narrative voice that speaks, to the persons spoken of. This fusion of unknown narrator with unknowable character creates a sense of confinement which all struggle to escape.

One short story, typical of Bergelsons stylistic and thematic concerns, but with clear structural affinities with Chekhovs practice, is the near-vignette Yordim (The Déclassé), a product of Bergelsons early period first published in book form in 1929.[10] It opens as follows:

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[az tsivyen, der klenerer un beyzerer fun di tsvey farzesene shvester fuzis, est zikh ayn dos alte opgekumene lebn, hert zi oyf tsu esn, tsu trinkn un tsu vashn dos ponem. etlekhe teg keseyder dreyt zi zikh arum in untershtn kleydl mit a vlutshkn shalkhl oyfn tseshoybertn kop, un roymt in ale khadorim un iberhoypt in der groyser puster zal, visht shmaydik dem shtoyb fun di vent, funem balkn, un fun yedn fargeltn blat, vos oyf di alte hoykhe fikusn,[11] zi otemt derbay shver durkh der noz, enfert nisht oyf keynems verter un vert shtark in kas, alemay mruft zi in estsimer arayn esn. (Y125) ]

[Whenever Tsivye, the younger and more embittered of the two spinster Fuzis sisters, was eaten up with resentment at their unchanging, impoverished life, she left off eating, drinking and washing her face. For several consecutive days she would wander about in her petticoat with a knitted woollen scarf on her dishevelled head, cleaning all the rooms and the great, empty salon in particular, briskly wiping the dust from the walls, the ceiling, and from every yellowing leaf on the towering old rubber plant, breathing heavily though her nose as she did so, never responding to anything said to her, and falling into a rage because she was called to eat in the dining room.]

Dead-end existence is here thrown into stark relief. Tsivyes obsessive cleaning of empty rooms is a displacement of repressed sexuality, further indicated by hysterical reactions like heavy breathing and uncontrollable weeping, and reinforced by the deliberate play on the word esn, to eat. Tsivyes emotional breaking-point is identified with the idiom [zi] est zikh ayn, [she] is eaten up, a figure made literal when, among her reactions, hert zi oyf tsu esn, she left off eating, and flies into a rage when mruft zi arayn in estsimer esn, she was called to eat in the dining room. The act of eating becomes a key image informing the whole, extending to the preparation of food which they take on their elated trip to the railway station and refuse to touch on their disappointed way back. These sisters are consumed, not consumers. By playing off idiom against event, Bergelson masters language to create an ironic style devastatingly grounded in the manipulation of banalities.

The fabric of the old Fuzis house physically bodies forth the familys material and emotional dilapidation:


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[trefn treft zikh es merstnteyls nokh shvues, tsu tamez tsu, ven in altn opgekumenem hoyz heybn on banays a kon tsu shvitsn di grobe gemoyerte vent, vos shteyen an arshin in der erd. zeyere tsigl lozn aroys flekn fun oybn oyfn vaysn kalkh un farshpreytn arum zikh a fardumpenem geroykh, a zislekhn un broyzendikn, vi der reyekh fun der zudiker gralnie in velkher zey zenen amol ayngemoyert geven. in ale tsimern iz demolt fun baytog shtil un kil.] (Y 126)

[For the most part, all this generally occurred after the festival of Shvues, around June or July, when inside the mouldering old house the thick brick walls, set three feet into the ground, once again began sweating. From above, their bricks exuded flecks on the whitewash, exhaling around themselves a musty vapour, sweetish and fermenting, like the odour of the seething distillery of whose walls they were once part. Throughout the day, at such times, all the rooms were chill and silent.]

Bergelsons linguistic patterning endows inanimate objects with human qualities: sweating bricks exude despair with the sour stench of liquor, formerly the source of the familys wealth, but now an inescapable reminder of the impoverished present.

The fathers blindness is the physical correlative of his material pauperisation. Dragging out an impotent life on a sofa, he keeps on blinking eyes vos bashteyen fun gorer vayslekher, which consist entirely of cornea, and thus seem never to have been functional. He maintains a fleeting contact with the outside world through the irregular visits of the bookbinder Yekusiel, an uncommunicative visitor who creeps in and out more like a spy than a companion. To him old Fuzis tediously recalls a past affluence for which his deceased wife, with her rich relatives, was evidently largely responsible (Y127, 129). While dutifulness restrains his daughters from open disrespect towards him, nor an oyszen iz bay zey aza, glaykh zey trakhtn: mishteyns gezogt faran vemen tsu entfern? the expression on their faces suggested that they were thinking, Alas the day, poor us is there anyone worth answering? (Y129). As he rehearses the building advice he longs to give his former partners grandson, disembodied voices from the town float out through the narrative, expressing derision: vos-zhe den? shmuest men, kalman fuzis eyn mol in zayn lebn hot er geboyt?,

-- Whatever next? people remarked. -- Kalmen Fuzis the builder Has anyone ever counted how many buildings he put up in his life? (Y132). The seemingly stray phrase shmuest men, it is said, representing unknown voices from the community, makes clear that the privation of the Fuzis family is observed and perhaps enjoyed. We are never told who these observers are; instead, the narrative voice, its perspective rendered unreliable by repeated use of the passive voice, merges with other unidentified voices in a refrain of uncertainty about everything except present misery.

Nevertheless hidden psychological depths are suggested in the details foregrounded. Yekusiels visits, for instance, seem malicious, because whenever he drifts noiselessly into old Fuziss room, kukt er fun vaytns oyfn altn fuzisn, kukt mit klugitshke oygn, un a shmeykhl shvebt im unter di opgeshoyrene vontses oyf di nakete lipn, his shrewd eyes glance from a distance at old Fuzis, and a smile flits across his clean-shaven upper lip (Y127). Gloatingly confirming that the good old days are nekhtike teg, dead and gone (Y127, 135), he responds to the old mans demand for news with a passive-aggressive double entendre:

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[ vos zol zikh hern? shrayt er tsum blindn fuzisn, siz shlekht, reb kalmen! biter in aza langn zumer-tog tsu zayn a kaptsn.

un der alter farlirt mit a mol dem honer; er veyst nisht, vemen meynt yekusiel, zikh tsu im, dem altn opgekumenem fuzisn. (Y 127)]

[What news can there be? he yells at the blind Fuzis. Its bad, Reb Kalman! On such a long summers day its bitter to be a pauper.

And the old man is suddenly discomposed; he does not know to whom Yekusiel is referring: to himself, or to him, old, impoverished Fuzis. ]

As so often in Chekhov, every tedious moment is stretched to breaking point during Bergelsons long hot summer days. Emotions are extravagantly overwrought but ruthlessly checked. Hence when brother and sister-in-law send for Tsivye on the unspoken understanding that they have played matchmaker for her (Y128-9), hysterical exhilaration becomes the obverse of paralysing depression. Tsivyes sister sees her off mit a farborgenem kine-veytik, velkher vet keyn mol nisht oysgezogt vern (Y130), with the pain of a repressed envy that will never be uttered, a bottled-up resentment paralleled by Tsivyes unspoken anguish when, alone and unsuccessful, she returns four weeks later mit a shtiln nay tsugekumenem yiesh in hartsn un mit a gvaldik kopveytik (Y130), with a silent, newly arrived despair in her heart and a massive pain in her head. Clearly psychosomatic, this pain cannot be relieved even after thirty-six hours of sleep: az zi shteyt oyf, zhumet ir nokh alts in di oyern, un bay yedn skrip fun der tir, vayst zikh ir oys, as sshpiln klezmer, oder sfayft der tsug, when she rises, there is still buzzing in her ears and every creak of the door sounds to her as if musicians are playing or the train is whistling (Y131). Fantasy musicians and a ghost train emerging from commonplace domesticity are all that remain of an extinguished hope, the finality of which is bleakly noted by the impersonal narrative voice: itst vet shoyn in shtub, dakht zikh, mer gornisht nisht forkumen, now, it seems, nothing more will ever happen in this house.

When the brothers telegram arrives asking his family to meet his holiday train on the station platform as it passes through, wishful thinking invests a patronising demand with life-changing significance:

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[ a yontevdiker liarem viklt zikh arum mentshns layber. es dakht zikh: in der letster faryieshter rege iz di shtub oyfgerikht gevorn plutsem, umgerikht un oyf eybik, oyf eybik. tsi hot nisht shmuels depesh a shaykhes tsu zayn briv, in velkhn er hot onheyb zumer geshribn, az tsivye zol kumen? tsi firt er itst nisht mit zikh di yeshue aher in shtub? mistome fort er nisht aleyn (Y132) ]

[the household is enfolded in festive commotion. At the very last despairing moment, it would seem, the house has been suddenly restored, unexpectedly and for ever and ever. Surely Shmuels telegram had some connection with his letter, in which, at the beginning of summer, he had sent for Tsivye? Surely he was bringing salvation to the house here? He was probably not travelling alone ]

The established trope equating sexual hunger with eating makes its patterned reappearance as the sisters fall to baking, washing and ironing, curling their hair and even singing (Y132-3), all surrogate activities for a Jewish brides traditional wedding preparations in the mikve, ritual bath, prior to the badekns, ritual veiling, and for the marriage feast itself to, a sublimated version of which, after a sleepless night, they all set out in a hired carriage.

Their chimerical redeemer is an assimilated, upwardly mobile Jewish bourgeois:

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[ geven a mol a khsidisher yungerman, shmuel [] geforn nokh der khasene mitn shver keyn oysland tsum rebn. un itst, zogt men, trogt er leykene hentshkes un git di hant di pritses mit velkhe er handlt. (Y129)]


[As a young man, Shmuel was once a pious Hasid [] immediately after his wedding, he and his father-in-law travelled abroad to visit the Rebbe. And now, they say, he wears kid gloves and shakes hands with the wives of the landowners with whom he does business.]

The ironic subtlety of Bergelsons art is perfectly illustrated by the introduction of these gloves. Although shaking hands with Gentile ladies appears to transgress Hasidic practice, which forbids men from even glancing at women, Jewish law permits a man to shake a womans hand if he uses some kind of covering a handkerchief or a glove to prevent fleshly contact. On one level, therefore, the satire is directed at the way Hasidim on the make compromise with the secular world of business. But beyond this, Western norms of good manners require a man to draw off his gloves when shaking hands; that Shmuel does not identifies him as a partially assimilated, condescending arriviste.

The train in which he arrives is a plats-kartndiker, a drotik kreftiker un a shneler, an express train with reserved seats only, powered by electricity and very fast,[12] hurried even more rapidly along by an overbearing official. The supposedly life-changing meeting, on a crowded provincial railway platform, is reduced to comic anticlimax:

- , . , , . --, , . , . -- , . . , , ? ? . , , . (Y134)


[in vagon-fentster shteyt a yunger brustiker yid mit a hipsher shvartser bord un a bisl eyzesdike, vi mit lak glantsndike oygn. dos iz shmuel, der raykher, gliklekher zun shmuel. er shtrekt oys arop di sholem-aleykhem-hant, un der alter shteyt lebn fentster a fartsiterter, a dershrokn fartreyslter. er pintlt shtark mit di blind vayslekher un zukht ot di hant mit ale zayne tsen tsiterike finger, un di meydlekh heybn im unter di elnboygns un helfn im zi gefinen. ot hot er zi sof-kol-sof gepakt, di hant. er nishtert arum ir mit ale tsen tsiterike finger un tapt zi geshvint arum un pruvt zi oys.

siz shmuels hant, fregt er, a? shmuels hant?

nor der eyzesdik oysgeputster ober hot zikh shoyn dershlogn dem dritn klung un der tsug hot shoyn gerirt. dem altns finger tapn nokh a vayle in der luft mit aza gefil, glaykh zey barirn nokh alts dem glatn samet fun a nayer zamshener hentshke, un lozn zikh pamelekh arop. (Y134) ]

[In the carriage window stood a broad-chested young man with a great black beard and almost artificially lustrous, somewhat arrogant eyes. This was Shmuel, the rich, fortunate son Shmuel. From above he stretched out his hand in greeting, and the old man stood anxiously next to the window, quivering with apprehension. He rapidly blinked his unseeing corneas and tremulously sought the outstretched hand with all ten of his trembling fingers, and his girls raised his arms by the elbows and helped him to find it. Eventually he touched it, that outstretched hand. Gropingly, he fondled it with all ten of his trembling fingers, stroking it rapidly all the way round, and squeezing it to make sure it was real.

This is Shmuels hand, eh? he queried Shmuels hand?

But the arrogant, smartly uniformed stationmaster had already clanged the bell for the third time and the train had started to move. For a while longer the old mans fingers continued to fumble feelingly in the air as though they were still stroking the smooth velvet of a new chamois glove, and only then were they slowly lowered. ]

Enacted here is a cruel parody of the Bibles account of the blind Isaac tricked into bestowing on his younger son Jacob the blessing reserved for his elder son Esau (Genesis 27:1-24). The well-married, financially successful son is the converse of the father who also married up, but lost the money. Now the upwardly mobile son, whose eyzesdike, arrogant, eyes link his claims to social power to those of the eyzesdik, arrogant, stationmaster, wants little to do with the losers he has left behind, but keeps up appearances by supporting them from afar. In extending his hand to his father, custom and respect require that he should remove his gloves; by extending a gloved hand instead, he implicitly dismisses his father as his inferior and so inverts the Jacob/ Esau paradigm by placing the father in the role of Esau who has lost his birthright to the younger, more cunning Jacob.

Presenting this scene exclusively from the fathers perspective is the narratives thematic masterstroke. The old man stands helplessly near the train window a fartsiterter, a dershrokn fartreyslter, anxious, quivering with apprehension, because he understands fully the dependent position to which he has been reduced. The continued use of the passive voice endows his fingers with a seemingly independent existence as they pretend to touch the sons gloves instead of fumbling in empty air, but this only exposes the true weight of his blindness: because the old man has nothing, he is nothing; like his daughters, he is acted upon by others, not an agent in his own right. In a few moments, no trace of the train and its passengers remains; like the last scraps of their hope, er iz farshvundn dortn ergets vayt, vayt inem ekstn shpeltl funem shpet-zumerdikn horizont, it had vanished somewhere far, far away into the furthest crevice of the late-summer horizon (Y134).

The finality of these events in the wider, public world, in which the trains disappearance is made coterminous with the rapid end of summer, has its correspondence in the smaller, private world through the unaccountable loss of a full bundle of biscuits, which emblematically challenges the deluded basis of the whole inflated expedition: nor nokh vos hot men zey, eygntlekh, aher gefirt, ot di tsuker-lekekhlekh?, but for what reason, actually, had they brought them here, these sugar-cookies? (Y134). This repeated trope of eating as consummation is obliquely invoked for the last, most absolute time in the return journey, which is as silent as the outward trip was garrulous. The tired horses, barely able to drag their slow way uphill, are the contrary of the powerful electric train that has rushed so decisively through the small-town station. The faint sound of the bridle-bells, juxtaposed against the locomotives piercing whistle, is maddeningly magnified in Tsivyes mind as the raw reminder of hope abandoned. The engine hurtles towards a new world, while the hired carriage, deprived of motive power, drags its way back to the deadly old life. Like the indifferent son in one of its compartments, the speeding train, amoral but active, is the antithesis of the rule-bound, stagnant world it leaves behind, pointed in the narratives evocation of the setting sun. It seems immobilised in a perpetual twilight: dortn dakht zikh as zi vet zikh keyn mol nisht zetsn, ot di zun, zi vet azoy blaybn hengn, vi a mol in di tsaytn fun altn givon, it seemed as though this sun would never set, that it would remain hanging like that as once before, in the old days of Gibeon (Y135). The biblical reference (Joshua 10:12) invokes the old tradition only to underscore its obsolescence: the life to which the family returns is as dead as the shtetl culture that engendered it; vital power lies beyond its understanding, and forever out of its reach.

The contrast between old and new worlds, as much in Bergelson as in Chekhov, is given concrete expression through the divergent symbols of old house and new station, der vokzal, the supreme nineteenth-century Russian image of transformation. When Bergelson made Mirl Hurvits, the chief character of his great novel Nokh alemen (When All is Said and Done, 1913), board a train to embark on a new life after she has abandoned her husband and undergone an abortion, he gave an alternative answer to a womans independent existence outside an unhappy marriage from that given by Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, in which Anna ends her life with a self-punishing suicide under the wheels of a train. Powerfully committed to the topos of the railroad as change with all its attendant but necessary conflict, Bergelson uses it here to make the Fuzis familys return from the station into a cortège to the cemetery that is their house, a collapsed world emblematised by a dead mother, a blind father, an estranged son, and dowerless daughters.

By returning the narrative to its beginning, its last paragraph confirms its fatalistic vision: itst vet shoyn gevis keyn shum nayes in altn opgekumenem hoys mer nisht forkumen (Y135), now for certain nothing new would ever again happen in the old, dilapidated house. The last words that float out to us are those of blind old Fuzis in repetitively self-flagellating conversation with Yekusiel:

-- , ? ?

- , .

-- , , ? , .

-- , .


-- geven a mol yorn, yekusiel?

-- geven, reb kalmen.

-- un avek, yekusiel, a? avek, vi a shotn.

-- nekhtike teg, reb kalmen. (Y135)


-- There were good times once, Yekusiel?

-- There were.

-- And gone, Yekusiel, eh?

-- Dead and gone, Reb Kalmen.


Yekusiels answers, however, are not verbal equivalents of Chekhovs breaking string[13] sensitively suggesting the loss of something precious. Rather they are the utterances of malice, unambiguously emphasising the irrecoverable past by contrast with the wretched present.

This bleakness of vision puts the greatest distance between Bergelson and Chekhov. Chekhovs optimism tends to value emotional resilience. Thus, despite the seeming hopelessness of their situation at the end of his story A Lady with a Dog, there is fortitude in the way Anna and Gurov face what is to come:

Anna and he loved each other very, very dearly, like man and wife or bosom friends. They felt themselves predestined for each other. That he should have a wife and she a husband it seemed to make no sense. They were like two migratory birds, a male and a female, caught and put in separate cages. They had forgiven each other the shameful episodes of their past, they forgave each other for the present too, and they felt that their love had transformed them both. []

Soon, it seemed, the solution would be found and a wonderful new life would begin. But both could see that they still had a long, long way to travel and that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning.[14]

Bergelson, however, denies even this tentative margin of hope. He sees every shtetl future in blighted through the endemic passivity of individuals incapable of constructive action. Even after the Revolution, which Bergelson ardently welcomed, and to which he publicly dedicated his talent, his vision of life, and the prose style he had crafted to express it, remained essentially unchanged, despite ideological pressure exerted on him by Party apparatchiki.[15]

In Kiev in 1924 Bergelson published one of his first openly engagé stories, entitled Hershl Toker.[16] This tale pleased none of his critics. Those in the West dismissed the volume as crude propaganda, while Moyshe Litvakov, a leading figure in the Yevsektsia, the Jewish section of the Communist Party, denounced its lack of ideological correctness. Bergelson, he railed, had infused the eyes of its eponymous Communist hero with eternal sadness, in Litvakovs view a reprehensible bourgeois trait in the highest degree unfitting for a hero of the Revolution, whose eyes should, on the contrary, be aglow with courage, boldness, joie de vivre. Bergelsons pessimism, however, allied to Chekhovs influence, made this kind of depiction inevitable.

Hershl Toker is set in a Polish army barracks on the Soviet border in the aftermath of the disastrous war between the Soviet Union and Poland.[17] Ostensibly the story shows that those dedicated to world revolution in this case Hershl and his lover Jochebed admirably continue the struggle underground. However much this tale appears to function in the one-dimensional manner demanded by the Party line, it cannot escape the subtle ambiguity generated by Bergelsons style.

Physical descriptions of external weather conditions point the inner life of the personages who play out the action. The fetid stench of a typhus-infected barrack is metaphorically transferred to the polity of the world outside:

, ; , - , ; , , , , , (Y 545)

[ nor nokh dem hot zikh, az di ale reykhes filn zikh nisht nor fun dem barak aleyn; mit yodoform, mit degekhts un mit flektifus shmekt der tif-durkhgefoylter osyen, vos hot keyn sof nisht; mit zey shmekt der shtark nideriker, koytiker himl, vos zipt tog un nakht zayn flisikeyt, vi durkh a gedikhter zip, un oykh di khmarne teg shmekn azoy, di teg fun osyen toyzent nayn hundert eyn un tsvantsik. (Y 545)]

[Yet in time it seemed as if all this fetor did not emanate solely from the barrack; the unending, rankly decaying autumn reeked of iodoform, pitch and typhus as well; the same effluvia rose from the lowering, turbid sky that seemed day and night to seep its liquidity through an impermeable sieve, and the overcast days reeked in the same way, the days of autumn one thousand nine hundred and twenty-one.]

Ostensibly a metonymic critique of a decaying Polish government still in the grip of an aristocratic elite, the style evokes, with muted irony, an equally ailing vista across the border:

, , - , -, . , , , , , , , . (Y 546)


[in dorf, in eyner a khate, iz gezesn di grenets-makht un hot tog vi nakht gegosn arum zikh karbol, gegosn mit groys moyre ontsushtekn zikh mit der tifus-krenk, vos frest mentshn in barak. gegosn nokh mit greserer moyre tsutsulozn tsu zikh epes a farhoylene gefar fun kegniber der dreyster grenets, fun dort, fun vanen es filt zikh aher a shtendiker shtoltser shpot, nor az me kukt zikh ayn durkh binoklen, zet men gornisht, oyser nase shtrekes, un oyser dem, vos oykh dortn iz osyen oykh dort gist un gist der regn. (Y 546) ]

[In a hut in the village, the border command had taken up its station, day and night pouring carbolic acid around itself in great terror of being infected with the typhus that consumed people in the barrack, and in even greater terror of admitting into its presence some undefined danger from the other side of the prominent frontier, the place from which a constantly derisive contempt could be sensed over here, but when it was scrutinised through binoculars, nothing could be seen but bare wet expanses, and those apart, only the fact that over there too it was autumn there, too, the rain poured down incessantly.]

Party criticisms of the expression in the heros eyes would seem, ironically, to have had an effect more beneficial than harmful when Bergelsons changes are read attentively. Where those eyes originally reflected eybikn umet, eternal sadness, in the revised version, published in 1929, their new expression is rendered equivocal by quasi-choric recurrence. Confronting his young prisoner for the first time, the Polish officer sees raised towards him groyse, tunkl-groye oygn [...] mit nisht keyn higer fartrakhtkeyt (Y 551), great, dark-grey eyes [...] with a pensiveness sundered from the here and now []. These fartrakhter, abstracted, eyes are now full of vaytkeytn, distances, of fartrakhtkeyt, pensiveness, a mood repeatedly emphasised. Party-dictated revisions make this fartrakhtkeyt more evocative than the earlier umet, sadness: what, the reader asks, actually renders Hershl so abstracted? The ever-vigilant Party may have been satisfied that Toker is pondering the glorious future of international revolution he is helping to foster. Indeed, to encourage just such a reading, Bergelson makes the dying Hershl regret leaving behind di treyst fun khaveyrim, tseshotn iber di velt vi likhtlekh (Y 567), the comfort of comrades scattered like little lights all over the world. Nevertheless, the narrative eschews the blatant in favour of the equivocal.

Eyes and later candles become an increasingly significant thread in the tales descriptive pattern. Other eyes into which Toker often stares are those of the barrack orderly. This Russian boy has hele, vi naket-gegolte, hipshe oygn (Y 556), great ingenuous eyes, the glances of which are modne ernste, reyne (Y 557), strangely earnest and pure, expressing tsetrogene getrayshaft (Y 558), abstracted devotion to duty. In the degree to which his glance remains luminous and pure, so in the deepening gravity of his illness Hershls eyes grow fargosn, streaming, hitsik, feverish, and gliendik, burning (Y 561-62). On the most obvious level, this contrast can be read as highly tendentious: the bright eyes of the barrack attendant speak first to the pensiveness in Hershls eyes and last to their feverish dying, assuring the young Jew that, despite his death, the struggle will continue. But this reading is not necessarily the most convincing in the context of the tale as a whole. Beyond revolutionary fervour, the pensiveness in Tokers eyes and the ingenuousness in the eyes of the Russian boy may equally connote doubt, pain, fear and compassion, the profoundly human price exacted by this struggle.

Narrative deployment of candles, both metaphorical and actual, similarly discloses other interpretative possibilities as the figurative equation of revolutionaries with light-bringers is made literal. While his comrades may be scattered like little lights all over the world, Hershl is confined in a charnel-house where the range of lights narrows rapidly. As his fatal illness intensifies, Tokers ability to act independently is as curtailed as dem kleynem lomp, vos hengt arop oyf a dretl funem mitlstn balik (Y 561), the small lamp suspended on a short wire from the [ceilings] middlemost beam. His physical vulnerability, and hence his decreased usefulness, are manifest vi fun di blondzhendike vintike shirayim shoklt zikh der lomp un zayn fleml zetst zikh (Y 561), in the way the lamp wobbled, and its flame spurted in the stray superfluities of wind. And there is certainly not much positive propaganda reinforcement in the emblematic connotation of a dime scene in which farnakht [...] mit likht in di hent (Y 566), in the evening, holding candles, a Polish army doctor diagnoses the terminal illness of a fiery young revolutionary. The great light to be brought by the Revolution is, by stylistic implication, here diffracted from guttering candles into a prison crowded with the mortally ill.

Death pervades this story in intrusive ways, increasing the uncertainty of the message it is supposedly disseminating. The moment at which Hershl enters the infected barrack is presented in visually symbolic terms. Outside, a group of peasants is waiting to receive a relatives corpse:

, , , - . - . -, . , . .

[farvorfn iber di shtark geboygene kep, in a tunkeler, shlekht gefarbter trune, hot men endlekh fun der breyt geefnter barak-tir dem toytn kerper aroysgetrogn. der yunger-man iz pamelekh in der zelber breyt geefnter tir arayngetrotn. er iz geven hekher fun der kleyner barak-tir, er hot gemuzt a bisl onbeygn zayn kop.

in dorf hot der kloyster ongehoybn klingen mer zikher, vi oyf a gesheener farfalener zakh. di poyerim un poyertes hobn ale mit a mol zikh ongehoybn tseylemen. (Y 556)]

[Raised high above the deeply bowed heads, in a dark, badly painted coffin, the dead body was finally carried through the widely opened barrack door. Through the same widely opened doorway the young man slowly entered the barrack. He was taller than its low doorway, and was obliged to bend his head a little.

In the village the church bell started ringing with more assurance, as though at an event irreversibly predestined. All the peasant men and women at once began crossing themselves.]

This some obvious scene makes it clear that Hershl which he will not come out alive, but if Hershl is the Revolution embodied, as the story insists, this emblem is at least as much negatively as positively loaded. Is it the triumph of the Revolution, or its failure, that is a gesheener farfalener zakh, an event irreversibly predestined? If Bergelson consciously set out to convince faithful Communists that the Revolution would bring light and life to all humanity, his style regrettably gets in his way. An open-ended prose that, intentionally or not, expands the interpretative range of the narrative exposition, makes an ambivalent reading of this tale mandatory.

That deliberate vagueness, so strongly condemned by Party critics, which surrounds the psychological depiction of Hershl Toker actually renders him more intriguing. Superficially, he seems to be merely another idealistic Jewish revolutionary, fleeing the confines of the shtetl for fulfilling new freedom. On his deathbed, his life is made to pass before him in a series of brief vignettes designed to illuminate how far the ideals of the Revolution offered shtetl Jews a motive to work for a better future:

, , , , . ... ... ... -- ... (Y 563-64)


[ deriker glik, khaveyrim, vos kukt ikh, hershl toker, hob fligl. der ofitser mit di krume vontselekh er krikht oyf der erd ... er vet mikh nisht khapn ... er vet mikh nisht khapn ... kukt -- fligl ... (Y 563-64)]

[ Be happy, comrades, because look I, Hershl Toker, have wings. The officer with the crooked little moustache hes crawling on the ground ... He wont catch me ... he won't catch me ... look wings...]

Given the Partys doctrinaire insistence that the tainted past had to be destroyed, it is highly equivocal, though entirely typical, as will be seen, for Bergelson to allow Hershl, even in fevered imaginings, to long for the comfort of maternal and Jewish companionship back in a shtetl : im hobn fun mol tsu mol arumgeringelt ale mer un mer khaveyrim ale zaynen gelofn zikh zen mit im in zayn shtetl, bay zayn muter in shtub, vuhin er iz aropgeforn vi glat azoy, zikh zen mit zayn muter (Y 564), From time to time more and more comrades surrounded him all ran to visit him in his shtetl, in his mothers house to which hed travelled down seemingly without purpose, simply to visit his mother.

Although handled barely perceptibly, this tales love motif, like the barrack orderlys fidelity, gives a human face to the depersonalised abstraction called the Revolution, although Bergelsons obligation to make an affirmative political statement ensures that when Hershls lover Jochebed escapes, leaving him to die alone in the barracks, the narrative emphasis falls on the insistence that ot azoy darf men shtendik ton (Y 563), this is exactly what one should always do. The illicitly whispered message that the girl iz gut antlofn un iz gekumen besholem (Y 563), had truly escaped and had reached safety is met with the politically correct assurance, nishkoshe, khaveyrim veln bazorgn (Y 567), Its not important, comrades will attend to it. Characteristically for Bergelson, shared work in spreading the Revolution may lead a young couple to love, but it will be aborted, because all Bergelsons attempts to depict the post-Revolution world positively run aground on his abiding sense of personal displacement.

In this respect, Hershl Tokers unaccountably sad, and later pensive, eyes may be read as a metaphor for Bergelsons own confrontation with his future as a writer after the Revolution.

He honed his gifts to depict the entropy of the decaying shtetl, for the dissolution of which he might have longed intellectually, but he remained emotionally and spiritually incapable of abandoning it. He lacked the mental and physical energy to do more than passively support the ideals of the Revolution that swept it away, since he was fundamentally alienated from the most significant social upheaval in modern history. By 1920 Bergelson was desperate to discover how to function as an artist without giving an absolute ideological commitment to a social order he could never fully accept because it demanded the replacement of bourgeois individualism with the proletarian collective. Bergelsons conception of what it meant to be an artist, and his capacity to realise that conception, were undermined in direct proportion as the class he understood so intimately a class that also comprised his most admiring readership was declared redundant.

Through his early death, even before the failed first Revolution of 1905, Chekhov was spared the agonising choices demanded of Bergelson. Though Chekhov saw clearly the need for radical social change in Russia, from what is known of his political views it is unlikely that he could have accommodated either his life or his art to the despotism of the Bolshevik party. As early as 1889 he made this very clear in a letter to A.N. Pleshcheyev:

I am afraid of those who look for a tendency between the lines, and who are determined to regard me either as a liberal or as a conservative. I am not a liberal, not a conservative, not a believer in gradual progress, not a monk, not an indifferentist. I should like to be a free artist and nothing more [] I hate lying and violence in all their forms [] I regard trademarks and labels as a superstition. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom freedom from violence and lying, whatever forms they may take. This is the programme I would follow if I were a great artist.[18]

Bergelson, however, tried to come to an accommodation with the changed social order. In Kiev in 1919 he published, in a journal significantly entitled Eygns (Our Own), an essay entitled Dikhting un gezelshaftlekhkeyt (Poetry and Society) in which he defended the artists right to creative freedom. These views were harshly rejected by Party activists who uncompromisingly demanded that Yiddish writers play a full part in sovietizing the masses. Evidently uncertain of how far he could do this, Bergelson left the Soviet Union in 1922 to settle in Berlin, where he became one of that group contemptuously labelled fellow travellers. The title he gave the cultural journal he founded in Berlin in 1926 In shpan tried to balance mutually exclusive aspirations. On one hand it asserted that it was placing itself in shpan, in harness, to pull the wagon of the Revolution, but on the other hand it asked to be allowed to pull in its own way. By 1926 this balancing act was impossible: Litvakov and the Yevsektsia he headed were applying to Yiddish literature Lenins radical red-white binary opposition: either you are with us, or you are against us. In a condition of extremes, Bergelson was constrained to compromise himself. By now in his early forties, and with his artistic powers at their peak, Bergelson vitally needed to work in an environment that valued Yiddish. This he found neither in Poland, which he dismissed as religiously and politically backward, nor in the United States, whose capitalist excesses, predicated on a demand for acculturation, he detested. Rejected the nationalistic ideals of Zionism which he viewed backward and delusory, he could see a future for Yiddish only in the Soviet Union, where in return for pro-Bolshevik support, Yiddish educational and artistic endeavours were officially encouraged and generously subsidised. Bergelson was thus trapped in an ideological system that blocked his entire artistic way forward.

In the first issue of In shpan he published a revised artistic manifesto in an essay entitled Dray tsentern. Using the sloganeering language of Party propaganda, he attempted to explain why supporting the Soviet Union was the only option for writers committed to Yiddish literature:

Soviet Russia is the only country that [] creates new Jewish possibilities for the new Jewish artist [] The new Jewish life in Soviet Russia will liberate Yiddish literature from its inherited monochromatism. [] Socio-political relations in Soviet Russia, which have deprived the moneyed Jewish middle-class both of its self-satisfaction and of its belief in the material benefits to be derived from union with an alien culture [] have as a matter of course also liberated the local Yiddish litterateur from the influence of this class and from the one-sided obligation he bore in regard to it.[19]

It was one thing for Bergelson to preach, however, and quite another for him to practise this doctrine. After all, the moneyed Jewish middle class was the only one about which he could write with brilliant assuredness. According to their lights, Party ideologues were therefore right to criticise him for being a passéiste instead of a forward-looking new writer. Much as he might claim that Jewish litterateurs were now forever liberated, he himself was not among them. He was never able to embrace the Revolution as a true believer, and all his public rationalizations of Moscow-oriented literary dogmas simply highlighted his own equivocal position, most particularly after Hitlers rise to power in 1933 forced him to relocate to Moscow itself. Just as he had been unable to create any positive hero in his work before the Revolution, so he was incapable of creating one after it. All he could do was to create participants in the Revolution, like Hershl Toker, who went forward always looking back, whose enthusiasm for the future was often tempered with nostalgia for the past, whose utmost contribution to the cause of the new order was to die in its service. Descent, decline and dissolution are what he felt and depicted best. Shturemteg could not satisfy the Partys ideological criteria because in wholly representative Bergelson fashion, its chief characters, so far from overcoming insuperable obstacles, find themselves instead lost in marshes, stranded in forests, intercepted at border crossings, cut off in the countryside, and powerless to fire revolvers. For all his strained efforts to assert otherwise, definition and vibrancy were qualities neither of Bergelsons life nor of his fiction.

All the compromises he was obliged to make, though weakening his later work, could not wholly destroy it. His stylistic gifts ensured a place for his best work in the front rank of the Western literary canon, where he opened a textual richness in luminous prose which captures the essence of that small, decaying Jewish world he understood perfectly. The undemonstrative ironic tone, admirable in its reflective stillness, infused the crumbling Jewish world of Russia with the kind of loneliness and insight and compassion that brought him closest to the Chekhov he admired he admired so greatly.

[1] Bergelsons autobiographical note appears as Materialn tsu D. Bergelsons bio-bibliografye (in Yiddish), Visnshaft un revolutsye 1-2 (1934), pp.67-73.

[2] The Order of St Anne in Anton Chekhov, The Russian Master and Other Stories, translated by Ronald Hingley (Oxford University Press: Oxford Wold Classics, 1999), p.214.

[3] Dovid Bergelson, Opgang, edited by Joseph Sherman (New York: Modern Language Association, 1999), p.3; Dovid Bergelson, Descent, translated by Joseph Sherman (New York: Modern Language Association, 1999), p.3.

[4] Three Years in Anton Chekhov, The Princess and Other Stories, translated by Ronald Hingley (Oxford University Press: The Worlds Classics, 1990, 1999) p.78.

[5] Beverly Hahn, Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays (Cambridge University Press, 1979), p.200.

[6] A Lady with a Dog in Anton Chekhov, The Russian Master and Other Stories, p.12.

[7] Dovid Bergelson, Yoysef Shur in In a fargrebter shtot un andere dertseylungen, Geklibene verk Vol. 3 (Vilna: Kletskin, 1929), pp.65-66; Joseph Schur, translated by Leonard Wolf in Howe, I. and Greenberg, E. (eds.), Ashes Out of Hope: Fiction by Soviet Yiddish Writers (New York: Schocken Books, 1977), p.31.

[8] Three Years in Anton Chekhov, The Princess and Other Stories, p.81.

[9] Dovid Bergelson, Opgang (New York: Modern Language Association, 1999), pp.122-23; Dovid Bergelson, Descent, edited and translated by Joseph Sherman (New York: Modern Language Association,, 1999), p.126.

[10] Dovid Bergelson, Yordim, in Arum vokzal un andere dertseylungen, Vol. 1 of Geklibene verk (Vilna: Kletskin, 1929), pp. 125-35. All Yiddish quotations are taken from this edition, to which subsequent page numbers, after the letter Y in parentheses, refer; all translations into English are my own.

[11] The Yiddish word fikus is the plant genus ficus, here rendered as ficus elastica, commonly known as the rubber plant. In Soviet texts, particularly those of the 1920s, the presence of ficuses (and canaries) usually denoted the petty bourgeois nature of households and individuals. Proletarians did not keep such rubbish in their rooms. I am indebted to Dr Gennady Estraikh for this information.

[12] Bergelsons Yiddish phrase drotik kreftiker is a neologism for powered by electricity (lit. [electrical] wire-powerful); the phrase plats-kartndiker denotes that on this train there are assigned sleeping berths in the coach (plats-kartn), placing it between a so-called common coach, in which all places are unreserved, and a more comfortable wagon-lit with 2- or 4-berth-coupés, each with its own door. Plats-kart coaches have the same open-plan arrangement as common coaches, but the number of tickets cannot exceed the number of sleeping places.

[13] The famous sound on which the stage direction requires the curtain to fall at the end of The Cherry Orchard.

[14] A Lady with a Dog, in Anton Chekhov, The Russian Master and Other Stories, pp.20-21.

[15] I have dealt more fully with the pressures put on Bergelson by the Communist Party elsewhere: see Joseph Sherman, From Isolation to Entrapment: Bergelson and the Party Line, 1919-1927, Slavic Almanach 6;9 (2000), pp.195-222.

[16] The original version of this story, first published in a newspaper in 1924, was republished in a volume of Bergelsons new fiction under the general title Shturemteg (Days of Storm) in 1927. Its Party-approved revised version, omitted from Shturemteg, Vol. 9 of Bergelsons Geklibene verk (Vilna: Kletskin, 1930), only reappeared in one of the first Yiddish books to be published in the Soviet Union after Stalins death. See Hershl Toker, in Dovid Bergelson: Oysgeveylte verk (Moscow: Melukhe-farlag fun kinstlerisher literatur, 1961), pp.545-569. All references in Yiddish are to this text, cited with page references in parentheses after the letter Y; all translations into English are my own.

[17] The war was waged between April and September of 1920, while the peace was established by the Treaty of Riga, signed in March 1921. See Dimitri Volkogonov, Lenin (New York, 1994), p.388.

[18] Chekhov, letter to A.N. Pleshcheyev, Moscow, October 1889, in Louis S. Friedland (ed.), Letters on the Short Story, the Drama and Other Literary Topics by Anton Chekhov (London: Vision, 1965), p.63.

[19] Dovid Bergelson, Dray tsentern (kharakteristik), In shpan, April 1926 (1): 84-96. My translation.