David Bergelson's Strange New World: Untimeliness and Futurity by Harriet Murav
A few Fourth of Julys ago in San Diego, a computer malfunction set off all the fireworks at once. A large fraction of the city was gathered on the beach. First there was cautious applause, then, slowly, the realization that something had gone amiss—that there would be no show, or rather, that the show had happened too fast, with no delay whatsoever between fireworks. Delay, after all, is the stuff of time. As Henri Bergson suggested, everything happening at once would mark the end of time (Murav 181). Time, and the gaps in time, is at the core of Bergson's near-namesake, the Yiddish novelist David Bergelson's, writing. It is also the central focus of Harriet Murav's most recent book, David Bergelson's Strange New World: Untimeliness and Futurity, which offers a welcome contribution to modernism studies.
Murav's book follows Bergelson's work from his first fiction to his execution in the Lubyanka prison on the August 12, 1952, "Night of the Murdered Poets." The book is not only a definitive contribution to Bergelson scholarship—it brings Bergelson into a conversation about time and memory that includes Henri Bergson, Marcel Proust, as well as Giorgio Agamben, Pierre Nora, and the Russian philosopher Lev Shestov. As Galin Tihanov has conjectured, the origins of modern literary theory can be traced to the Russian formalists, who "were the first to see literature as an autonomous domain for theoretical investigation" (62). Like his fellow writer and theorist Viktor Shklovsky, who also came of age with the Russian Revolution, Bergelson was concerned with making perception laborious. Although he lived the last two decades of his life in the Soviet Union, Bergelson belongs simultaneously to multiple worlds, multiple places, and he viewed his revolutionary moment as one that included not only Russia, but all of Europe and beyond. Born in Okhrymovo, a shtetl south of Kyiv, Bergelson helped found the avant-garde Yiddish Kiev-group of writers. He moved to Berlin, where he lived until 1933, and considered a move to the United States. Never a member of the Communist Party, Bergelson wrote publicly of the relative merits of the Soviet Union: his 1926 essay, "Three Centers," favorably compares Moscow to Berlin and New York. In 1933 he returned permanently to the Soviet Union, where he publicly wrote to bolster the Soviet leader, and privately wrote of his interest in the Jewish people, and even in the nascent state of Israel. [End Page 1098]
At the modernist moment, and particularly the Russian revolutionary moment, time was "out of joint." It was a moment, as Walter Benjamin put it, "shot through with splinters of Messianic Time." As a result, time itself, as epitomized by the pause or rupture, becomes more important than any concrete event. Of all the great writers of the Russian Revolution, there is arguably none who exemplifies this more than Bergelson, the most widely read Yiddish fiction writer of his day. Bergelson, like most of the Soviet Yiddish modernists, is woefully underexplored in English-language scholarship, yet his fiction—which he wrote in pre-Revolutionary Ukraine, interwar Berlin, and finally the Soviet Union—helps to distill a core obsession of his generation: how to make sense of seconds, minutes, and years in a period of transformation. Murav has taken a great step in rectifying this, traversing the writer's life and work to reveal Bergelson's conception of time in a period when time was moving either too quickly or too slowly. Bergelson's characters are keenly aware of their own belatedness, or, alternately, experience a clarifying or brutal delay in time—between sentencing and execution, between suicidal plan and action, between the engagement and the end of the engagement. "Salvation," Murav observes of Bergelson's early fiction, which tended to focus on the marginal space of the shtetl, "is always deferred" (34).
Bergelson's delayed characters might be seen as a reaction to his era. As Svetlana Boym has written, "After the October revolution, Soviet leaders performed one invisible nationalization—the nationalization of time" (59). Bergelson, moreover, in his peripatetic career, emerges as a case study in the shifting landscape of modernism across Europe. There is, moreover, a seeming paradox in the notion of reading the experience of modernism through Yiddish literature. Murav acknowledges that "the very mention of [Yiddish] evokes an old world, 'the old country,' and 'tradition'" (6). And yet, with her delightful deep dive into Bergelson's oeuvre, Murav has brought an important Yiddish novelist into a discussion of modernity. After all, the rupture between revolutionary time and the ancient tradition of marking Jewish time, in both a linear and a cyclical sense, can be seen as paradigmatic of a crisis of modernity. Revolutionary time collides with religious time for Bergelson's characters. Murav observes, "In the typical plot of a Bergelson narrative, everything significant has already happened in the past" (189). Bergelson's first major success, The End of Everything (Nokh Alemen, 1913), has been called the first Yiddish novel. The heroine, Mirl Hurvitz, who has broken her engagement to a wealthy man, believes she has arrived too late for her own life. The landscape is penetrated by anxious belatedness. In one passage, which Murav cites, "the surrounding houses with their alien appearance awakened a very particular kind of disquiet, the mournful Friday evening disquiet of a Jew who'd been delayed in returning home in time to welcome the Sabbath, who in the sanctified twilight was still lugging himself and his wagon through the deep mud on the country roads" (Murav 66–67). The Sabbath, it can be presumed, has long lost its meaning with most of Bergelson's modernizing characters. And yet its existence continues to set the tone and [End Page 1099] clock, even if that meaning is generally ignored. "Everything in the novel," writes Murav, "suggests the aftermath of some unknown and overwhelming loss" (60). Characters long for the Sabbath, for festivities, for a "holiday spirit" (yomtevdikayt), while lacking any investment in religion or its strictures.
If, before the revolution and world wars, Bergelson was already thinking about delay and missed encounters, his "poetics of the aftermath" would evolve to encompass the physical losses of the two world wars. Life, in Bergelson's novels, is often experienced as the break between offenses. The novel Descent (Opgang, 1920), takes place in a shtetl in the aftermath of the suicide of a beloved young pharmacist, Melech. Melech's suicide is protracted—he dies over the course of a week, with small, measured doses of poison. This slowness of death does the impossible: it extends what is usually a single moment to a period of time when the other characters can mourn him before he is gone. In "Birth" ("Geburt," 1928), Dr. Moti Shteynberg, whose family has been killed in a pogrom, briefly causes a woman to reconsider her planned suicide by demonstrating an act of kindness, only to insult her a moment later. Shteynberg "caused the woman pain because he made her hesitate—at least for a few minutes, before he restored her belief that there was nothing to believe in" (Murav 200). Delay is productive for Bergelson: it makes space for the new, for creativity. But, as in "Birth," hesitation also defers the end, whether in the form of redemption or catastrophe. Agamben, writing about the Christian belief in a second coming, views delay and deferment as integral to messianic time, part of "an expression of the divine plan of salvation" (110). Bergelson's constant delays of the inevitable can similarly be likened to the delay of the messiah.
Dwelling on the individual casualties of war slows down the narrative of progress so important to the Marxist-Leninist focus on the future. In his World War Two fiction, as Murav highlights, Bergelson presents characters whose bodies have been ravaged by their violent epoch. Bergelson's attention to the pain of war differentiates him from those contemporaries who contributed to a heroic war narrative. "Even though Bergelson praises Stalin and the Soviet Army . . . [he] does not create images of soldier superheroes, glorify violence, or gloss over suffering in order to arrive more quickly at the next phase of the bright future" (Murav 277). By the post-war period, even the "world of people bustling about and negotiating their relation to the past and future is gone" (278). The author, and his characters, had nothing left but to imagine a new kind of world, with a new kind of time.
The story of Bergelson's life and death is as poignant in its delays and deferrals as the stories he tells, and Murav weaves this story into her study of Bergelson's art. Bergelson was sentenced to death in connection to his involvement with the Jewish antifascist committee, which was labelled a Jewish nationalist group. Although the charges of treason were invented, Murav observes that Bergelson was, in fact, deeply committed to the survival of Jewish culture, carefully drawing this conclusion with the help of newly found evidence. For example, Murav is the first to discuss a document from Bergelson's arrest file [End Page 1100] where he expresses "gratitude to the Jewish people of the Soviet Government for having been the first to recognize Israel" (298). In her conclusion, Murav notes that Bergelson's death, following a lengthy imprisonment and secret trial, echoed the postponement that had so concerned him in his writing: "Delay and postponement, the defining characteristics of Bergelson's fiction, found their way into Bergelson's real-life tragedy" (309). Murav's study of Bergelson, by concentrating on the writer's approach to time—Jewish and non-Jewish, revolutionary and pre-revolutionary—joins a collection of important reappraisals of modernism, including Tsitsi Jaji's Africa in Stereo (2014), Michael Davidson's Invalid Modernism (2019), and Leonard Diepeveen's Modernist Fraud (2019), that help to explain the global phenomenon of modernism in light of the experiences of marginalized figures.
In her 1917 story "The Mark on the Wall," Virginia Woolf meditates upon a delay between the narrator's recognition of a mark, "black upon the white wall, about six or seven inches above the mantelpiece" (3) and her recognition of what it is. The mark delays a childish reverie caused by the fire, and causes another stream of thoughts, which comes to an abrupt halt when another character enters and ends the mystery: "Curse this war; God damn this war! . . . All the same, I don't see why we should have a snail on our wall" (10). Woolf's moment outside of time, in the midst of war, inspires reflection, memory, and meditation on the nature of reality. Bergelson's work does something similar, but for Yiddish readers whose entire way of life and belief system were ending.
Reflection—including painful reflection—exists in the spaces in between, in the delay between sentencing and execution, in the pause between fireworks, in the space between observation and recognition. Harriet Murav, with her careful study of Bergelson's work, introduces the English-language reader to a writer whose work marked (painfully, brutally) the continuation of the world.