May 25, 2016
The Art of the Novella challenge 44: Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance
by Jonathan Gibbs
Title: Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance
Author: Sholem Aleichem
First published: 1888
Page count: 195
First line: Stempenyu was the nickname he inherited from his father.
What makes this a specifically Jewish romance? I come from the kind of default British-goyish (male) readership that, when asked to name a Jewish writer, is more likely to come out with Saul Bellow or Philip Roth than, say, Bruno Schulz. By the same token, writers such as Stefan Zweig and Franz Kafka would seem to have been fully assimilated to a European literary tradition without recourse to their Jewishness. Their Jewishness is not a major part of their literary identity. (Stupid though that is, that’s the way my mind works, I think.)
There’s something recognisably Jewish about Sholem Aleichem’s treatment of his narrative and characters in this novella, but it’s not something I would associate with any of those writers. I thought there might be something shared with Schulz, but picking up The Street of Crocodiles, after a long time, I’m not sure there is. This authorial treatment, of character particularly, I’ll try to get closer to in a moment, but the writers it brings to mind, from my personal readership, are Adam Thirlwell and Jonathan Safran Foer (Jewish), Milan Kundera (not) and, now I think about it, Muriel Spark (thereby hangs a tale).
What is it that Aleichem does? He dangles his characters like puppets, arranges their limbs and postures like dolls, teases and cossets them; at times he claims not to know their thoughts (“Who can tell what her real feelings were?”), at other times he clearly does. As a narrator he is at once omniscient and irresponsible, forgetful even, always ready to aphorise from their actions, almost as if those actions are not of his design. It all comes down to the fertile and cataclysmic interplay of irony and free will (“No more joyousness! No more play! No more ease! Farewell youth, farewell!”), of what we are put on earth to do… and how this links to the Jewish identity and religion is something I’m only vaguely and confusedly aware of.
But it’s something I recognise from Thirlwell, who has the same bemused, ironical attitude to his characters; sometimes toying with them, sometimes holding them at arm’s length and regarding them with confusion. I had supposed Thirlwell was getting it from Kundera, but clearly he was getting it from here. as well. Spark is an interesting comparison — she was defensive about her Jewish ancestry, and perhaps that comes out in her attitude to characterisation. Like these other writers she toys with her characters, regards them from on high, but she is also less involved with them; it’s as if she’s abrogated some part of her authorial responsibility.
Stempenyu is a klezmer fiddler in a shtetl in what we can take to be the then-Russian, now-Ukrainian countryside around Kiev, where Aleichem lived until the pogroms forced him to emigrate to New York in 1905. Stempenyu is a great musician, as Aleichem takes pains to point out — or no, actually, no pains are taken whatsoever… Aleichem is as natural a writer as Stempenyu is a musician:
Oh, what a man Stempenyu was! His talent was without beginning and without end. He would snatch up the fiddle, and drawing the bow across it in the most careless fashion, he would succeed in making it speak at once. It needed but a single movement of his elbow, and the little fiddle was speaking to us all. And, how it spoke! In the most unmistakable accents! Really, with words that we all understood, in the plainest fashion, as if it had a tongue, and as if it were real living, human being! It would moan, and wail, and weep over its sad fortune, as if it were a Jew. And, its cry was shrill and heartrending. It was as if every note found its way upwards from out of the deepest depths of the soul.
This is a book with a lot of exclamation marks.
Stempenyu’s music is a great community resource (look at that ‘us’), but unfortunately he is also a great lady’s man, falling in love with a new “maiden” in every town and village he and his small orchestra travel to, largely to play at weddings, just as they, the maidens, fall in love with him, through his music. The romance comes from him falling particularly hard for a young, unhappily married woman, Rochalle, and the intrigue of the story comes from the question of whether she will follow her heart and give in to the seduction of his music, and personality (he talks almost as well as he plays).
(Did I mention that Stempenyu, too, is married? If I forget, it is because he too forgets. You’d forget too if you were married to Freidel, a vicious and smallminded woman who clearly doesn’t deserve this mercurial man — this “handsome scamp” — in her life.)
The book is a great read, and a great novella, in that it clearly has its links to the grand tradition of the folk tale and compendium tale. Stempenyu is at once a classic trickster, recognisable across cultures, and firmly rooted in his community, his country, his people. He does the job of all literature: linking the reader at once to where they belong, and to the world at large.
It’s great while it’s building up Stempenyu and Rochalle’s romance, but I’m afraid it ends a disappointment — the reason being that what stops the would-be lovers’ consummating their mutual fascination (passion is, perhaps, too strong a word) is not Stempenyu being outwitted, as befits a trickster, but Rochalle having an attack of the moralities. Thus the book becomes a moral tale for young women, rather than for rakish men — in which case, why name it for him, why make him the hero?