The End of Everything
By David Bergelson,
Translated by Joseph Sherman
Yale, 312 pages
David Bergelson was a writer whose life was more dramatic, and fate more emblematic, than those of the characters who populate his most notable novel, The End of Everything. In his meticulous introduction to Yale University Press’s handsome edition, the novel’s trans- lator, the late Joseph Sherman, turns the dry, and wry, facts of Bergelson’s biography into the outline of a novel more tragic than the one Sherman wishes us to believe is a significant work of 20th-century literature.
The fate of Rubashov, the central character in Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel Darkness at Noon, prefigures that of Bergelson, who was executed, by order of the Soviet politburo, in 1952. Rubashov is never declared to be a Jew, although his name implies it, nor is he awriter, but his long interrogation forces him to realize, as would prove to be the case with Bergelson, that he is doomed by the logic of the monstrous ideology he had volunteered to serve. Like Saturn, the Communist revolution had a habit of eating its own children, with Jews a specialty.
Bergelson was born in Kiev in 1884, the youngest of the nine children of wealthy, pious parents, both of whom died by the time he was 14. An accomplished amateur violinist, he failed in his efforts to enter university, even as a dental student. Like Mirel Hurvits, his heroine in The End of Everything, Bergelson combined intimations of high destiny with lack of focus. Both have an appetite for something beyond the shtetl world, in which even the “enlightened” young were liable to be clamped, but neither shows any definite sense of what that something should be. Mirel reminds me of the chimpanzee who, so Vladimir Nabokov once said, was taught to draw by his keeper: its first picture was of the bars of his cage.
Since Mirel is no heiress, her beauty is less an attribute than a commodity for which, out of sullen loyalty to her financially beleaguered father, she must get the best price. Her early infatuation with Nosn Heler, a penniless student, is a symptom of the passions she dares not live. She resigns herself to marriage with Shmulik Zaydenovski, who is said to be handsome but whom she finds repulsive. Her frigid response to his desire is the only private pleasure available to her; she is scarcely there even when anyone is having sex with her. If you have no hope, she seems to think, at least you cannot be disappointed. She lives in negative space: even her dreams are curdled. The repetitious days drag on and yet life itself seems to hurtle past her. In all her enclosed society, there is not a single joke, not one outburst of spontaneous joy. To borrow a phrase of Joseph Epstein’s, Mirel’s is the portrait of a lady in the middle of her tether.
Unfortunately for the reader, even what does happen—her engagements, her lovers, her abortion—lacks dramatic zest or constructive consequence. Passivity deprives her anguish of our sympathy: she is a pain. Her habit of breaking engagements, of unmanning men, gives her the lineaments of a Scarlett O’Hara of the steppes, but without a fiddle-dee-dee.
The End of Everything was published in 1913. Sherman finds significance in the appearance in the same year of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and the riotous Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. It was, Sherman writes, a “sweeping departure from the conventions for modern Yiddish literature.” Its most evident quality, in its English version, is alienation. Sherman considers the “crowning achievement” of The End of Everything to be the “indirect narrative technique which consciously separates speaker from speech.. . .The reader is made to pass, without being fully aware of the transition, from seemingly objective vision to the subjective vision of the protagonist without any kind of mediation.” Here is a typical instance:
Great longing could be heard in the voice of this Jew who’d come down in the world, and he spoke of these two newly arrived polytechnic students with as much tenderness as though both were nothing less than bridegrooms for his pampered daughter who was now in her third year of study in Paris. When he’d finally grown bored with standing here and had wandered away to impart the same information to someone else, Mirel stood near the house for a long time, thinking about herself and about the days that were slipping by:
—Her life dragged by in such a banal fashion. . .it would be banal right up until this midwinter festive season and it would go on and on beingbanal.
Far, far away, a mere speck on the horizon, an image of the unknown village with its sugar refinery rose in her mind’s eye, and her yearning heart was drawn in powerless silence to those two young, fresh-faced polytechnic students. . .and the thought occurred:
—Before this Gentile festival, they’d finished some task in the big city. . .and returning there, they’d prepare themselves to start another.
—And she, Mirel, what had she accomplished up until this midwinter festive season?
This passage illustrates both the ambitious reach of Bergelson’s narrative and its enervating quality. The effect of internalizing speech, and of giving even the houses a voice, is to render the landscape more articulate than its inhabitants. The passivity of the Jews, their acceptance of superstitious rites, their subservience to an antique calendar, pales their personalities. Bergelson parades a copious company of dramatis personae, but they seem never to make any sparky contact or practical progress. Despite Sherman’s claims, Mirel has none of the heat of Anna Karenina, still less the articulate defiance of Ibsen’s rebellious women or the implicit irony of Chekhov’s.
Sherman suggests that Mirel is a Yiddish version of Emma Bovary, but by doing so, he draws attention to Flaubert’s trenchancy as against Bergelson’s diffuseness. Emma is an adulteress primed by trashy romanticism; Mirel is scarcely more than a petulant narcissist. Flaubert began with the objective of derision but his novel grew to the point where he could say, “Emma Bovary, that’s me!” In melodramatizing Emma’s fugue, Flaubert was embodying his own frustrations. The author of Madame Bovary expressed his loathing of the bourgeois (including the one inside himself) with unmitigated precision. Emma’s suicide stands in part for Flaubert’s rejection of compromise. His book was a dose of arsenic for the bourgeoisie. Bergelson is too squeamish to be polemical, too resigned to be poisonous. If he pities his Jews, he can neither love them nor leave them. Like Mirel, he tries to pull away, but he and she are stuck to the same flypaper.
After writing The End of Everything, Bergelson himself became a lifelong victim of circumstances and, as Marxists would say, of his own contradictions. He emigrated to Berlin in the 1920s, then traveled to America and found it an immoral country of “selfish opportunism.” And so, in 1934, he delivered himself to the Soviet Union and to the literary dictates of “socialist realism.” He was richly rewarded for a while, but the Yiddish culture with which he chose to identify was doomed. During World War II, Bergelson served on Stalin’s Joint Anti-Fascist Committee, liaising with British and American sympathizers, and received a state medal for “Valiant Labor.” But after it, when his fellow committeemen accumulated details of the Shoah, they fell foul of Stalin’s insistence that all Soviet citizens had sufferedequally.
The Kremlin’s last pro-Jewish act was to endorse the partition of Palestine in November 1947. In early 1948, Stalin determined to eradicate Yiddish culture in the USSR under the rubric of “chauvinistic-Jewish deviation.” What had been heroic during the war became treasonous after it. Along with 12 other defendants, Bergelson was accused of Zionism (which he never endorsed) and of spying for America by favoring a Jewish homeland in the Crimea. He spent three years in prison and was then sentenced to death after the usual riggedtrial. Like Rubashov, he served to the very end the regime that betrayed him, when he confessed to his judges that he was “headed towards attaining the level of a real Soviet man, but did not quite reach it, and of that I am guilty.” Poor man.