Page 137 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 41

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SLOTN ICK / BERGELSON AND TRAD IT ION
131
nine teenth-century Yiddish writers. Such novels as Y.Y.
Linetski’s
Dos poylishe yingl
(The Polish lad, 1867-69),
Abramovitsh’s
Dos kleyne mentshele
(The little man, 1864, 1879)
and
Dos vintshfingerl
(The wishing-ring, 1865, 1888) all use the
process o f the protagonist’s growth and education for a critical
assessment o f small-town Jewish life. But there is a major d iffe r­
ence between the attitude and suggested solutions o f these
writers, and those o f Bergelson. The maskilim held up the image
o f the shtetl as the symbol o f provincial Jewish ignorance and
superstition; they ridiculed what they considered to be the old-
fashioned, unen ligh tened and abho rren t ways o f the shtetl inhab­
itants. T he correct path, according to these writers, was tha t o f
education, modernization and Westernization through an adop ­
tion o f the manners, fashions and culture o f the “en ligh tened”
Western European Jews. Bergelson’s social criticism, on the o the r
hand , is along class lines: one segment o f society (the exploiters) is
responsible for oppressing the rest, and the solution will come,
not from any external forces, but from within, when the down­
trodd en classes will arise and demand the ir rights.
Penek,
more than any o f Bergelson’s previous novels, is a direct
challenge to cultural attitudes and literary conventions tha t came
before it. As an autobiographical novel, it sets out to delineate the
growth o f the artist, in the light o f the au tho r ’s literary maturity
and cu rren t ideological stance. By choosing as protagonist the
youngest son o f the wealthiest family in town, who is rejected by
his parents and eventually finds his way to acceptance into the
poor sector o f society and the ranks o f his proletariat peers, the
au tho r is not chronicling the events o f his own early life; he is
transform ing his past recollections th rough his present political
beliefs, and creating a fictional account o f the development o f a
child into an artist, an artist who is a produc t o f his environment
and, at the same time, possesses the vigor and clarity which will
eventually enable him to change that environment. In
Penek,
Bergelson attempts a synthesis o f literature and social analysis
that is, on the face o f it, reminiscent o f the earliest o f nineteenth-
century Yiddish fiction. As in his o the r novels, this appa ren t simi­
larity serves as the crux o f his radical challenge to literary and cul­
tural traditions.
A central trait o f Bergelson’s very m odern writing is its particu­
lar combination o f originality and relationship to tradition. With
varying degrees o f directness, according to the artistic demands