“I remember Isaac Rosenfeld, the most winning of all American Jewish writers, once explaining to me with comic solemnity that Chekhov had really written in Yiddish but Constance Garnett, trying to render him respectable, had falsified the record. Anyone with half an ear, said Rosenfeld, could catch the tunes of Yiddish sadness, absurdity, and humanism in Chekhov’s prose – and for a happy moment it almost seemed true.”
I read this passage for the first time in Irving Howe’s Selected Writings 1950-1990 and laughed out loud. It’s from “Strangers,” an uncharacteristically autobiographical essay first published in The Yale Review in 1977, not long after Howe’s World of Our Fathers had become an unexpected bestseller. D.G. Myers tells me Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing by Steven J. Zipperstein will be published in March. Rosenfeld was a wonderful writer, best known for his 1946 novel Passage from Home. He died in 1956 at age 38, seemingly loved by everyone who knew him. One hopes Zipperstein’s book sparks a revival of interest in Rosenfeld’s work. His boyhood friend Saul Bellow writes:
“He swayed his friends with an unknown power. We called it ‘charm,’ ‘wisdom,’ ‘genius.’ In the end, with a variety of intonations, we could find nothing to call it but ‘Isaac.’… He enlarged his power to love. Many loved him. He was an extraordinary and significant man.”
It’s Howe’s anecdote that interests me here, “the tunes of Yiddish sadness, absurdity, and humanism” in Chekhov’s stories. I’m not a Yiddish speaker and I read Chekhov only in translation, but I’ve often heard those tunes, at least as I’ve come to recognize them through the sound system of Jewish American writing. I’ve never heard them in Turgenev, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. I hear them in “Difficult People” (1886), which might almost have been written by Bernard Malamud. Pyotr is a student who has just argued with his father about money for clothing and books, and who goes for an aimless walk on the steppe:
“…at once he caught himself in that smile, which was so out of keeping with his gloomy mood. Where did it come from if his whole heart was full of vexation and misery? And he thought nature itself had given man this capacity for lying, that even in difficult moments of spiritual strain he might be able to hide the secrets of his nest as the fox and wild duck do. Every family has its joys and its horrors, but however great they may be, it’s hard for an outsider’s eyes to see them; they are a secret.”
“Difficult People,” in fact, was translated into Yiddish in 1903, with Chekhov’s permission and at the request of Solomon Rabinovich, better known as Sholom Aleichem. The story is told in Letters of Anton Chekhov (1973), translated by Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky. Here’s the footnote by Karlinksy that sets it up:
“The great Yiddish storyteller wrote to Chekhov asking him to contribute a story to a collection he was editing and which was to be published in Warsaw for the benefit of the victims of the recent atrocious pogrom in Kishinyov. Since Chekhov was not able to supply a new story, Sholom Aleichem selected his earlier piece, `Difficult People,’ which was translated into Yiddish and included in the collection.”
And here is Chekhov’s letter in response, dated June 19, 1903:
“Dear Solomon Naumovich,
“I’m writing nothing or very little these days, so I can make you only a conditional promise: I’ll be glad to write the story if my illness doesn’t prevent it, As for stories of mine that have already been published, they are entirely at your disposal, and I will be nothing if not deeply gratified to see them translated into Yiddish and printed in a miscellany for the benefit of the Jewish victims in Kishinyov.
“With my sincere respect and devotion,
In a second footnote, Karlinsky reports:
“On August 6, 1903, Chekhov wrote to Sholom Aleichem again, offering to help place a Russian translation of one of Sholom Aleichem’s stories in any journal of his choice.”
Chekhov died less than a year later, on July 15, 1904.