Friday, April 07, 2017

`It Is the Truth'

“There were many books in the library and quite a few of them were good ones. They had all of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and other Russian classics, and a few volumes of criticism. There were also translations from German and French. That winter I read, and became immersed in, all of Tolstoy, including his philosophical works.”

Joseph Rolnick (1879-1955) was nineteen when he patronized the library in Mir, Belarus, after his return from living in Warsaw. He describes the experience in With Rake in Hand: Memoirs of a Yiddish Poet (trans. Gerald Marcus, Syracuse University Press, 2016). Rolnick went on to become a prominent member of Di Yunge, The Young Ones, a group of Yiddish poets formed in New York City in 1907. Books changed his life:

“Weekday nights during the winter, around eleven or twelve o’clock, when everyone in the house was already asleep, I took the little table, moved it to the warm oven, put a lamp on it, and sat over a book. I sat and read until three or four in the morning. Then I put the table back in its place, put out the lamp, lay down in bed, and slept until ten or eleven.”
I first read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the eighth grade, beginning with an abridged version of War and Peace in paperback, and I remember sitting in the school office waiting to meet with a guidance counselor, while reading Crime and Punishment. It was the scene in which Raskolnikov dreams of a drunken peasant and his friends beating a horse to death. Soon I was reading the most Russian of American novels, The Fixer (1966) by Bernard Malamud. Yakov Bok is imprisoned for the blood-libel murder of a Christian boy. The setting is Tsarist Russia in the early twentieth century. In prison, Bok is given strips of newspaper for wiping and is not permitted to read them, but does so surreptitiously. Malamud writes:

“During the endless empty days, to forget his misery a little, the fixer tried to remember things he had read. He remembered incidents from Spinoza’s life: how the Jews had cursed him in the synagogue; how an assassin had tried to kill him in the street, for his ideas; how he lived and died in his tiny room, studying, writing, grinding lenses for a living until his lungs had turned to glass.”

When asked if he reads The Ethics because the philosopher was a Jew, Bok answers:

“No, your honor. I didn't know who or what he was when I first came across the book -- they don’t exactly love him in the synagogue, if you've read the story of his life. I found it in a junkyard in a nearby town, paid a kopek, and left cursing myself for wasting money hard to come by. Later I read through a few pages and kept on going as though there were a whirlwind at my back. As I say, I didn't understand every word but when you're dealing with such ideas you feel as though you were taking a witch's ride. After that I wasn’t the same man. That's in a manner of speaking, of course, because I’ve changed little since my youth.”

No book has ever moved me as forcefully as The Fixer. More than half a century ago it confirmed my interest in Jewish life and literature, and my desire to write. For years I tried fiction, until I woke up and got serious. Rolnick tells us what his immersion in Tolstoy did to him: “That winter I lived so much in the books I was reading that I began to write philosophical thoughts and aphorisms in Russian and even wanted to create my own system of world order.”

I first encountered Rolnick in 1969 when for Christmas I asked for a copy of A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry, edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg. It included five poems by Rolnick, translated by Lucy Dawidowicz and Florence Victor, and by Harvey Shapiro. Dawidowicz went on to write The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945 (1975) and other books. All of this reminds me of a scene in Malamud’s greatest novel, The Assistant (1957). Helen Bober visits her neighborhood branch library in Brooklyn. There she meets Frank Alpine, the drifter who works as an assistant in her father’s failing grocery:

“He asked her what she was reading.

“`The Idiot. Do you know it?’

“`No. What’s it about?’”

“It’s a novel.’

“`I’d rather read the truth.’

“`It is the truth.’”

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