Page 128 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 41

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SUSAN A. SLOTNICK
David Bergelson and the
Metamorphosis of Tradition
On the Centenary o f His Birth
F
rom
t h e
v ery
b e g in n in g
o f his career, the writing o f David
Bergelson (1884-1952) was hailed as innovative and original; at
the same time, his audience viewed him in the light o f the trad i­
tions o f Yiddish literature , and evaluated him, to some extent, as
an heir o f the “classical” writers o f the n ine teen th cen tu ry .1 This
initial reaction o f his audience points to a characteristic tension in
the writing o f this au thor: a balance between his tendency toward
individuality and his response to convention. An exam ination o f
the literary manifestation o f this tension leads to an und e rs tand ­
ing o f Bergelson’s work and its place in the rap id modernization
o f Yiddish literature in the twentieth century.
T h e confrontation between innovation and tradition perm e­
ates Bergelson’s work in several genres, bu t it is in his novels —
particularly in the first and fou rth — tha t it is most elaborately
illustrated. Each o f Bergelson’s four major novels constitutes an
innovation in his own artistic development, as well as an im po r­
tan t contribution to the a r t o f the novel in Yiddish. And each has a
particular, sometimes paradoxical, relationship to the traditions
o f tha t literature.
Th roughou t his career, and to the presen t day, Bergelson has
been recognized as one o f the most im po rtan t practitioners o f the
Yiddish novel. When he began writing, in the first decade o f the
1 Critics who were enthusiastic about this combination included A. Vayter,
“Dovid Bergelson’s
Arum vok za lD e r frayn t ,
July 19, 1909, p. 4; and Sh. Niger,
“A nayer,”
Der fraynt,
August 27, 1909, pp. 2-3. Negative evaluations were
given by “O,” review o f
Arum vokzal, Lebn un visnshaft
5 (September 1909), p.
140; and L. Kenig, “Dikhter, vos kenen nisht lakhn,”
Undzer hofnung
(1926),
reprinted in his
Shrayber un verk
(Vilna: Kletskin, 1929), pp. 172-85.
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