Page 136 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 41

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JEW ISH BOOK ANNUAL
s truc tu re o f the shtetl, his condemnation o f its exploiters and
appreciation o f its “progressive” forces, is embodied in the con­
stantly sharpen ing vision o f the protagonist o f the novel, the child
Penek. Perceptions and judgem en ts about the social struc tu re
and social injustices o f the provincial Jewish society are presen ted
here th rough the consciousness o f the child protagonist, as an
integral part o f the process o f his education as a fu tu re Marxist
and writer; thus Bergelson uses the defamiliarizing viewpoint o f
childhood innocence to justify his social and political insights as
n a tu ra l outcomes o f a supposedly objective view o f the circum ­
stances.
In
Penek,
Bergelson attacks not only the accepted set o f myths
and images about provincial Jewish life in the nine teen th century.
He also explodes the conventions o f two types o f novels which
may be viewed as prototypes o f
Penek.
First, the autobiographical
novel as
Kunstlerroman,
or story o f the growth o f the artist, had
been attempted by a num ber o f previous Yiddish writers. In
particular, the n ineteenth-century masters Abramovitsh and
Sholem Aleykhem both undertook (and never finished) artistic
autobiographies toward the end o f the ir lives. Abramovitsh’s
Shloyme Reb Khayims
(Shloyme the son o f Reb Khayim, begun
1899) is a look back, with nostalgia as well as loving atten tion to
e thnograph ic detail, on what was, by the first decades o f the twen­
tieth century, a bygone era. In
Funem yarid
(Back from the fair,
begun 1913) Sholem Aleykhem commences the fictionalized
story o f his life with a series o f shtetl vignettes tha t are o f the tone
and effect o f his well-known comic works. As the novel
progresses, and the protagonist leaves childhood and the shtetl,
the tone changes to the sentimental one tha t typifies the au tho r ’s
noncomic novels. What characterizes both these novels, in con­
trast
WixhPenek,
is the ir idyllic conception o f childhood and o f tra ­
ditional Jewish life. In Bergelson’s novel, both the protagonist
and his milieu are, from the beginning, constantly in flux and in
conflict; personal as well as social harmony is not a given, bu t
something tha t must be achieved th rough a process o f education,
understand ing and app rop ria te action.
SOCIAL COMMENTARY
T h e second type o f novel tha t may be seen as a prototype o f
Penek
is the B ildungsroman o f social criticism, a favorite o f