- Imagining Lives: Autobiographical Fiction of Yiddish Writers
The beloved Yiddish prose writer Sholem Rabinovich (better known by his literary persona, Sholem Aleichem) begins his autobiographical novel, From the Fair (Viking, 1985), with the following series of analogies:
Everyone wants to compare a man's life to something. For example, a carpenter once said, "Man is like a carpenter. A carpenter lives and lives until he dies—and so does man." A shoemaker once opined that a man's life is like a pair of boots. Once the soles wear away—you can kiss them goodbye. And it's quite natural for a coachman to compare man's life to—forgive the comparison—a horse.(3)
The impulse to describe a life through a combination of autobiographical familiarity and fictional estrangement is the subject of Jan Schwarz's recent [End Page 502] study, Imagining Lives: Autobiographical Fiction of Yiddish Writers. In five chapters, Schwarz examines the fine line separating creative fiction and life writing in works by Sholem Rabinovich (Sholem Aleichem), Itzhok Leybush Peretz, Sholem Yankev Abramovich (Mendele Moykher Sforim), Yankev Glatshteyn, Chaim Grade, Jonah Rosenfeld, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Schwarz considers the landscape of Yiddish prose in Eastern Europe and the United States, spanning from the latter half of the nineteenth century through the post-Holocaust period. What emerges is a fascinating hybrid genre, something between a valiant search for autobiographical truth in the tradition of Rousseau, and the use of autobiographical incidents to reenter the world of fiction.
"Scholars of Yiddish literature," writes Schwarz, "are faced with the extra task of recreating a cultural landscape that no longer exists as part of a continuous, living literary tradition" (5–6). In response to this dilemma, Schwarz dares himself to "pull off the iconic veneer." While he may or may not succeed in fully dismantling the icons, he eloquently examines the literary devices shrouding Yiddish autobiography. In the process, he locates a perplexing enigma in Yiddish literature: the writers themselves are elusive, their lives as much a construction as the landscapes they describe. Not unlike Dan Miron's seminal work of literary analysis, A Traveler Disguised, Schwarz's study positions Yiddish fiction within the context of history, constantly calling the reader's attention to the gap between the writer's persona and his life.
Schwarz's ambitious project tackles the genre of lebnsbashraybung (the writing of a life) by conducting a formal analysis of fiction writers' autobiographies. In his introduction, he postulates that, "As a rule, the Yiddish autobiographer builds on his previous novelistic creations in fashioning the story of his life" (10). Schwarz illustrates this phenomenon by examining the most aesthetically distinguished Yiddish autobiographies throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Schwarz looks to French literary critic Philippe Lejeune as an authority in the study of autobiography. In his Le pacte autobiographique (Seuil, 1975) Lejeune outlines a pragmatic approach to life writing which assumes a certain philosophical and psychological pursuit of autobiographical truth—if one that is centered on a particularly Christian version of the confessional narrative.
It is, however, Schwarz's interest in important works of Jewish literature, and not his discussion of canonical examples from the Christian literary tradition such as Dante and Rousseau, that lends the most compelling cases of intertextuality to his discussion. He does an excellent job of painting a picture of the literary conversations that took place throughout the Modern period. Sholem Aleichem, for example, borrowed the title of his autobiography, [End Page 503] Funem Yarid [From the Fair] directly from an autobiographical sketch written by a fellow Yiddish writer, Linetski, in 1909 (51). Yankev Glatshteyn, a leading member of the poetic Introspectivist movement in the United States, while influenced by Polish, Russian, and English literature, engages directly with I. L. Peretz (123). Such examples of Yiddish literary relationships help scholars of Yiddish to understand better the evolution of the language and its literary genres.
What sets this study apart from more biographical works on Yiddish fiction writers is that Schwarz is concerned...