- Author as Character in the Works of Sholom Aleichem
In Author as Character Victoria Aarons is as concerned with a close reading of Sholom Aleichem's fiction as she is with the theory of literature and the essence of modern Jewish fiction. Early on she draws heavily on Wayne Booth and The Rhetoric of Fiction: "Booth was primarily concerned with examining the complex relationships that are possible between authors, narrators and audiences." Aarons applies Booth's concerns as she studies Sholom Aleichem.
Previous critics of this Yiddish writer, she claims, have devoted themselves to biographical and historical treatments. With only a few exceptions, they have not examined Sholom Aleichem's narrative techniques, which she considers crucial to an understanding of the author's evolving point of view.
To this end she compartmentalizes Sholom Aleichem's fiction. First there are his early "monologues." In this phase the stories consist of "a series of firstperson narratives delivered by ordinary shtetl Jews who relate their troubles and complaints—their life stories, in general—to either Sholom Aleichem as fictional addressee or to another internal listener." These monologues, says Aarons, reveal Sholom Aleichem's "stance," how he regards the world of the shtetl Jew, which he himself has been a part of and which he knew so well. The world depicted here is characterized by the author's "sensitive depiction" of the people and their community, often rendered ironically.
The next phase examined involves The Adventures of Menakhem-Mendel, a series of letters between Menakhem-Mendel and his wife, Sheyne Sheyndl. The latter remains in the shtetl while her husband makes his way in the larger world outside and often relates his comic, bittersweet experiences to her in his long letters. These stories, Aarons says, are often similar to those written earlier as monologues, but there are major differences. Moreover, she sees a progression in Sholom Aleichem's point of view as he immerses himself in these epistolary stories. In the series of letters, she maintains, the reader is brought closer to the protagonist. MenakhemMendel characterizes the Jew no longer in the shted but rather in a larger world, and thus the letters reveal a running commentary about life in the shtetl contrasted with the "outside." In this context Aarons draws upon Rum Wisse and Irving Howe, who echo her notion that Sholom Aleichem is a comic writer but one who reveals "menacing and grotesque" qualities in his fictional worlds.
Phase three for Aarons is Kasrilevke, the fictionalized shtetl for so many of Sholom Aleichem's best stories. In these stories she sees a strong "singular authorial voice." Here is depicted a later shtetl that is changing, that must cope with the values seeping in from outside. And at this time, Aarons believes, Sholom Aleichem [End Page 634] was unable to maintain proper aesthetic distance because he became personally involved with a hopeless and despairing situation in the changing shtetl. The author cannot distance himself from his work here, and the result is "satiric, didactic and denunciatory."
Finally, Aarons examines the "railway stories." Here she uses "Station Baranovich" as a pardigm for a series of stories using the train as frame. In these stories, she demonstrates, Sholom Aleichem reaches his most complex stance in that he now focuses on issues larger than the shtetl Jew, who had dominated his earlier work. Here the author "addresses the human condition at large." Moreover, in this last phase, she claims, he is a "forerunner of modern fiction."
Even more than his famous contemporaries Mendel Mocher Seforim and 1. L. Peretz, Sholom Aleichem has received much critical and scholarly attention. Ruth Wisse, Irving Howe, Dan Miro, Maurice Samuel, and others have explained Sholom Aleichem's fiction in their attempts to unearth his genius. More recently the appearance of this Yiddish author's autobiography, From the Fair, brilliantly translated by Curt Leviant, reveals a great deal about Sholom Aleichem's writing methods. Now Victoria Aarons has added another significant chapter to the studies of the Yiddish Mark Twain.