Authors: David Bergelson
The End of Everything
Yale University Press
New Haven and London
Shortly before world war and revolution swept away the established European sociopolitical order, the year 1913 brought to public attention a number of significant works of twentieth-century art. No sooner had the Armory Show, which exposed American viewers for the first time to Impressionist, Cubist, and Fauve painting, distressed New York conservatives in February, than
The Rite of Spring
, a modernist ballet composed by Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) and staged by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, caused a riot at its premiere in Paris in May. During the rest of the year, many lovers of literature were shocked by the appearance of the first, heavily censored version of D. H. Lawrence’s semiautobiographical novel
Sons and Lovers
, were perplexed by Franz Kafka’s short story “Das Urteil” (The Judgment), and—among those who read Yiddish—were either infuriated or enraptured by the appearance of
The End of Everything
), David Bergelson’s first novel, completed after two years of intense work.
Those familiar with Bergelson’s earlier stories had now to accustom themselves to—or reject—a more extensive deployment of a style that set out to be consciously literary. They were obliged to confront writing that moved as far away as possible from the oral tradition that characterized the immensely popular work of Sholem Aleichem, and immerse themselves in prose that was less concerned with action than with mood, that had little use for conventionally conceived plot, that slowed down events to focus on the interior life of characters yet refused to offer any conclusions about them. In all these respects, Bergelson’s work reflected the instability that accompanied radical sociocultural change from an old world that was dying to a new world that had not yet fully come into being.
Born in 1884 in Okhrimovo (Sarny) near Uman in the tsarist province of Kiev, Bergelson was the youngest of nine children born to wealthy and pious parents, and he received a private education that combined traditional Jewish learning with secular subjects. His father, Rafail, died when he was only nine, and his mother, Dreyze, an avid reader with a marked gift for storytelling, died five years later. At the age of fourteen, therefore, the orphaned Bergelson went to live with an older married brother in Kiev, the costs of his board and lodging being deducted from his share of the family inheritance. Although he was intellectually and artistically gifted—he became an accomplished violinist and reciter—his unsystematic education handicapped his attempts to acquire higher qualifications. An external student at the university in Kiev in 1901, and again in 1907–1908 when he audited classes at the dental school, he failed all his examinations and gave up formal study without earning a diploma.
Bergelson started writing very young, first in Hebrew and then in Russian, but soon returned to Yiddish. By his own admission, in a memoir published in 1934, he had difficulty in finding a Yiddish diction suited to his artistic aims. Although he was a younger contemporary of Mendele Moykher Sforim (1836–1917), Sholem Aleichem (1859–1916), and Yitskhok-Leybush Peretz (1852–1915), the pioneers of modern Yiddish literature, Bergelson was determined to produce fiction fundamentally different from theirs in both conception and execution. He found Mendele’s style alien, and considered Peretz’s Polish dialect a dead end. Only in the writing of Sholem Aleichem, also a native of the Ukraine, did he find a Yiddish familiar to him, but Sholem Aleichem’s “volubility” was, he recorded, useless for his own artistic goals. To convey his vision of the fading world of Russian Jewry, Bergelson was obliged to create his own language and style.
That the literary innovations he introduced were initially unwelcome to all but the most sophisticated of his readers is proved by the difficulty he experienced in getting his earliest work published. His stories were regularly returned by editors who refused to take risks, so by the age of twenty Bergelson had already written some of his best work without having seen any of it in print. By 1907 he had completed Arum vokzal (At the Depot), the novella that established his literary reputation, but it was published—in Warsaw in 1909—only after he had personally defrayed half the printing costs, the other half being subsidized by a group of friends led by the writer and critic Nakhmen Mayzel (1887–1966).
The work received enthusiastic reviews from highbrow critics, and a year later Mayzel, encouraged by its success, brought out two more of Bergelson’s short stories, “Der toyber” (The Deaf Man) and “Tsvey vegn” (Two Roads),
in the first volume of a literary miscellany entitled
Der yidisher almanakh
The Yiddish Miscellany
From 1905 until the outbreak of World War I, Warsaw and Vilna led the field of Yiddish publishing throughout Eastern Europe, each capital catering to a different reading public: Warsaw fed the popular taste, whereas Vilna appealed to the intelligentsia. From 1910, the chief patron of Yiddish belles lettres in Vilna was Boris Kletskin (1875–1937), a wealthy Bundist who joined publishing forces with Mayzel. In 1913, Kletskin’s visionary entrepreneurship finally brought out and called to public attention
The End of Everything
, the novel through which Bergelson hoped to bring Yiddish literature into the mainstream of European letters. As much as this novel mirrored contemporary international literary trends, it also marked a sweeping departure from the conventions hitherto established for modern Yiddish prose fiction, and thus spoke to its author’s extensive literary ambitions.
All Bergelson’s work before World War I is dominated by the concerns common to European modernism: skepticism of all ideological systems, perplexity about the function of art, and a quest for individualistic new forms. His first novel was startling not only in subject matter but also in style, and its crowning achievement was—and remains—its indirect narrative technique, which consciously separates speaker from speech. Language is reduced to bare essentials, punctuated by silences that create a sense of alienation. The reader is made to pass, without being fully aware of the transition, from seemingly objective reality to the subjective vision of the protagonist without any kind of mediation. The society Bergelson knew best and on which his authorial gaze fastened at first was that of the Russified Jewish nouveaux riches, no longer exclusively Yiddish-speaking provincials but sophisticates able to move to and from great metropolises, attracted by growing industrialization and enlarged economic opportunities. From among the educated of such people Bergelson drew not only his subject matter but also his most fervent admirers. When war broke out in 1914, tsarist censorship was reintroduced, with particular ferocity in Kiev, where all Yiddish outlets were closed down in March–April 1915. The general tension that accompanied the deteriorating situation at the front erupted into the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, and sharpened Bergelson’s sense of futility, since the Bolshevik victory after October 1917 swept away the well-to-do Jewish shtetl bourgeoisie who formed both his subject matter and his chief readership. At a stroke, Bergelson had lost the subject matter he knew best, and his most avid readers.
The sense of fragmentation that Bergelson felt at the disappearance of the life he knew best was exacerbated by the medium in which he wrote. Yiddish was a language respected neither by the assimilated nor by the leaders of the Zionist movement. The former demanded linguistic acculturation to their countries of adoption; the latter insisted on the revival of Hebrew as a precondition for fulfilling Jewish national-political aspirations that Bergelson regarded as pipe dreams. In response to this social turmoil, many Jewish intellectuals, Bergelson among them, came to believe that the Yiddish language could be made the central component of a secular, modern culture. This conception, known as “Yiddishism,” perceived the Jewish people as a world nation whose essential distinguishing characteristic was its extraterritoriality. This emerging conception of modern Yiddish culture was given a chance to bloom after the Pale of Settlement had been abolished in February 1917 and a group of nationalists, declaring Ukraine independent, set up the moderate socialist Central
, which survived until April 1918.
In Odessa in 1917 Bergelson met and married Tsiporah (Tsipe) Kutzenogaya, a recent graduate of the Odessa high school for girls. A year later, on 8 August 1918, just as pogroms began raging across Ukraine, the Bergelsons’ only child, their son Lev, was born in Heisin, near Vinnitsa, a town on the Bug River that was Tsipe Bergelson’s birthplace, and Bergelson sought and found employment in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, where he and his family lived in 1919–1920. For Yiddish writers in the period, Kiev was a welcoming place despite the surrounding sociopolitical turmoil. The
gave emerging Yiddish culture its best chance by adopting a policy of national autonomy. All four of the competing Jewish political parties that functioned in Kiev after the Revolution joined forces to serve a pan-Yiddishist ideal and nominated representatives, Bergelson among them, to the central committee of the
(League of Culture), created in January 1918 as a suprapolitical Yiddishist body that sought to cover all areas of cultural activity in the former tsarist empire. Many who worked with the
shared little beyond being socialist, non-Zionist, and Yiddishist, but they cooperated with zeal in organizing a school system, a teachers’ training college, and two publishing houses, the
, which produced politically engagé journals like
(Dawn), both published during 1919, as well as the modernist miscellany
(Our Own, Kiev 1918, 1920). Bergelson’s story “In eynem a zumer” (During a Certain Summer) appeared in
, and he wrote a story for children, entitled “Mayse-bikhl” (Little Story Book), for the educational wing of the
The most substantial of the works Bergelson published at this time was his novella
), begun in his annus mirabilis of 1913 but abandoned at the beginning of the war. A variation on some of the themes of
The End of Everything
, but with a dead and failed revolutionary as its central character, this novella first appeared in the second issue of the journal
War and revolution demanded a wholly new intellectual and artistic synthesis from Bergelson if he was to develop as a writer, however. The world he had known had been swept away and he was now obliged to come to terms with what had replaced it.
Although all the writers associated with the
—who in time became known as the “Kiev Group”—were sympathetic to the aims of socialism, most were reluctant to subordinate their work to the dictates of the Bolshevik Party.
Instead they belonged to that cluster of intellectuals labeled “fellow-travelers,” supporters of the Revolution who were neither members of the party nor of proletarian origin but who hoped to enjoy the kind of literary freedom familiar in the West. Euphoria soon gave way to pessimism, however, as these young modernists confronted the realities of escalating political instability and the absence of discerning readers among the “masses” with whom the Revolution demanded they engage. The Civil War of 1919–1920, accompanied by brutal pogroms, dispelled many of their utopian illusions. By the beginning of 1921 the Red Army had decisively recaptured Kiev, and the Bolshevik government took over the
, severely curtailing its educational and cultural activities.