JACOB GLATSTEIN’S PROPHECY
Jewish Review of Books, Summer 2011
It isn’t every day that one has the opportunity to read a literary masterpiece. But a literary masterpiece that doubles as a work of prophecy? Such books have been rare since the death of Isaiah--which is why this new English edition of The Glatstein Chronicles deserves not only praise but its own cantillation. Largely set in a Jewish sanatorium-resort in 1934 Poland, The Glatstein Chronicles is easy to label as a Jewish Magic Mountain. But Thomas Mann’s novel about the decline of European civilization as dramatized at a sanatorium-resort was published in 1925, after the ravages of World War I made his characters’ prewar lives poetically moot. The Glatstein Chronicles might have been that book, had it been written in 1946. Instead, this devastating kaleidoscopic vision of doom for Jewish Europe first appeared in print in . . . 1934. Jacob Glatstein was no mere poet, but a Yiddish prophet. And now American Jews can rediscover what prophecy really means.
Like most prophets, Glatstein at first resisted the call. Born in Lublin in 1896, he escaped Poland’s painfully circumscribed opportunities by convincing his parents to send him to America at age 17--where his one American uncle couldn’t even leave his sweatshop job to meet him at the dock. Bright enough (and fluent enough in English) to enroll in New York University Law School, and also bright enough to voluntarily drop out, Glatstein at 24 made a conscious decision to live his literary life in Yiddish. His early poetry is phenomenal, world-class modernist verse that catapulted Yiddish into the worlds of Eliot and Joyce and beyond. Almost untranslatable because of his punning and layering of nearly every word (in Yiddish, Hebrew, English, and Polish) and his clever references to both Yiddish highbrow and children’s culture (all, by 2011, requiring extensive footnotes), Glatstein’s first three published books of poetry are works of genius by a writer stretching his wings in a Jewish world that felt too small for his talents.
But in time Glatstein saw that these brilliant tours de force could be no more than brilliant, and the growing crisis in Europe made him see the pitiful aspect of writing Yiddish verse modeled on the language games of Anglo-American poets. Like claiming today that his novel is a “Jewish Magic Mountain,” this kind of work suggests that Jewish literature is a pale imitation of “world literature,” rather than the generator of world literature’s most fundamental themes. Without anti-Semitism, this assumption would be merely pathetic. But when one considers the active degrading of Jewish culture within the most lauded realms of Western civilization, the idea that Jewish literature ought to mirror its non-Jewish counterpart becomes worse than base. After violent pogroms in Poland in 1938, Glatstein in New York wrote his most famous poem, “Good Night, World,” which bids a sarcastic farewell to the supposed glories of Western civilization, insisting to the non-Jewish world that “Not you, but I slam the gate,” as the poet rejects Western culture for a stunted Judaism that at least opposes the wider world’s moral hypocrisy:
Good night, world. I’ll give you a parting gift
Of all my liberators.
Take your Jesusmarxes, choke on their courage.
Croak on a drop of our baptized blood…
From Wagner’s idol-music to wordless melody, to humming.
I kiss you, cankered Jewish life.
It weeps in me, the joy of coming home.
In The Glatstein Chronicles, the poet literally comes home. Composed as two novellas here combined in one English volume, The Glatstein Chronicles is a work in the great 200-year-old tradition of Jewish autobiographical novels--including masterpieces ranging from S.Y. Agnon’s A Guest for the Night (also about a Jewish man visiting his hometown in 1930s Poland) to Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March. But it surpasses even those, because its majesty derives from the author’s reimagining of the Hebrew Bible’s recurrent motifs of personal and national betrayal--and from his astonishing power of genuine prophecy. Of the dozens of thematically interlocked layers that this book offers its readers, many of which have been richly mined by scholars, it is its prophecy that resonates loudest of all in 2011. Reading this work today, one cannot help continuously flipping back to editor Ruth R. Wisse’s insightful introduction to check the book’s publication history, incredulous. The second novella first appeared in 1940, though it was likely composed long before that. The first was already serialized in 1934.
The novel’s putative story is that of an unnamed narrator whose biography matches Glatstein’s exactly (the Yiddish titles included the narrator’s name, “Yash,” a diminutive for Jacob), and who after 20 years in America is called back to Poland to attend his mother’s death. The book’s first half, “Homeward Bound” (in Yiddish, Ven Yash is geforn, “When Yash Set Out”), follows the narrator’s Atlantic crossing and his journey through Europe, focusing on his encounters with the cosmopolitan Jews and non-Jews whom he meets on the way. Its second half, “Homecoming at Twilight” (in Yiddish, Ven Yash iz gekumen, “When Yash Arrived”), takes place at a Jewish sanatorium-resort in southern Poland where the narrator stays after his mother’s death--and where his fellow residents from all walks of Polish Jewish life share their stories and ultimately die. We never meet the narrator’s dying mother, who was supposedly the purpose of his journey; nor does he even mention her, except in a few flashbacks to his childhood and negotiations over her burial, which are written to resemble the biblical Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah. Instead, we are left with the impression that the dying mother to whom he has come to bid farewell is Jewish Poland itself. And this is where the book crosses the line from travelogue to prophecy.
The narrator’s prophetic visions begin on the Atlantic crossing. During the voyage, word arrives of the “Night of Long Knives,” Hitler’s first violent purge of his Nazi rivals. Seeking others who share his panic, the narrator tests out the news on his fellow passengers--and finds that the ship is divided, as Europe soon would be, between Jews and non-Jews:
"I realized that to the Gentiles, Hitler meant something altogether different than he did to me. My non-Jewish fellow passengers . . . regarded Hitler as merely Germany’s dictator. To me, to 600,000 German Jews, and indeed to all the 17 million Jews worldwide, Hitler was the embodiment of the dreaded historical hatemonger, latest in a long line of persecutors that stretched from Haman . . . wielding a bloody pen that was writing a dreadful new chapter of Jewish history."
These discussions remain theoretical until the ship docks in Europe--and the narrator must travel to Poland through Germany, via trains packed with Hitler youth.
In Poland, it becomes clear that anti-Semitic fury has already begun to take its toll on Jewish youth. Young people train for professions that will not admit them, and then fall back on flimsy businesses that barely survive ongoing boycotts, causing “love to die among them” as even romance falls prey to the practicalities of their artificially-induced poverty. They endure this poverty on a knife’s edge. At first, the narrator’s intimations of mortality are subtle or atmospheric, taking the form of dreams involving “a vague fear of impending destruction,” or an observation that “It was the end of August, and these men were probably the first to become aware, in the midst of summer pleasures, that winter was on the way.”
But as he meets more and more desperate Jews who try to stuff his suitcases with messages begging for help from their American relatives, the narrator’s intimations of doom give way to a stunning clarity. On nearly every page of this magnificent novel, one finds astonishing remarks like these from Polish Jews in 1934:
“The fact is that a real war is being waged against us, a war of attrition. . . . There’s no escaping it: all the countries have imposed a siege. . . . Believe me, the Poles are much cleverer than Hitler. They don’t rant and rave, they just pass over our bodies with a steamroller and drive us right into the ground. . . . Formerly you could escape by emigrating. Today our people are staring death in the eyes.”
Nor is this intended to be figurative, as conversations like the following make abundantly clear:
“It started with Pharaoh who bathed in the blood of Jewish children. Why, oh why, why do we deserve this, Mr. Steinman? What do they have against us, Mr. Steinman?”
“Ah, you’re raising fundamental questions,” Steinman said. He had become grave. “You want to go to the root of things. Well, I’ll tell you: they want to destroy us, nothing less. Yes, to destroy us. For instance, take me--I am a patriotic Pole. And yet they’d destroy me too. They want to exterminate us, purely and simply. Yes, exterminate us.”
The “Haman” dimension of current events is hauntingly evoked near the book’s conclusion, when the narrator visits Kazimierz. A picturesque resort beloved by artists, Kazimierz is a town with a Jewish-Polish myth attached to it. Its ruined castle was once occupied by King Casimir the Great, a real 14th-century Polish monarch who, according to legend, had a Jewish lover named Esther who lived in the castle as his queen. The story was imagined variously in Polish and Yiddish sources as abduction or seduction, but among Polish Jews it usually evoked a sense of Polish-Jewish interdependency and belonging, echoing the biblical Book of Esther with its irresistible Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish king--with the queen placed in the palace for the Jews’ eventual rescue.
The narrator goes to Kazimierz almost by accident, when a driver appears at the hotel with the mistaken information that he has planned a day trip there. Another guest, in love with the town, decides to go and invites the narrator along, explaining: “You see, it’s fate. A man has to visit Kazimierz sooner or later, so what difference does it make when you go?” With its echo of the appointment in Samarra, “visiting Kazimierz” becomes a metaphor for the destiny of Polish Jews: everyone believes in this myth of Gentile-Jewish romance at some point, just as the poet Glatstein once did, until the myth is revealed to be a picturesque ruin--or worse.
Once in Kazimierz, the narrator climbs up to the ruined castle with his traveling companion, who caresses its stones and describes it as holy, suggesting the ruins of the ancient Temple:
For what has really gone on here in Kazimierz? I think I can help you to understand. The Jew had his own poor world, and the Gentile led his own separate life. We always walked as far as the city gates, beyond which death lies--a great cemetery full of ancestors. In other words, walk no farther than the gates and turn right back, for you can see only too clearly what lies in store. The grave. But the people created a legend in defiance of the limitations of this life.
This legend claims to be a Purim story, but in Glatstein’s prophetic vision, it is really a story about Tisha b’Av--and Jewish Poland is the latest holy temple on the verge of destruction. Returning from Kazimierz, the narrator considers this “dark omen.” Alluding to a Spanish novel about a wounded Casanova, he reflects: “All of us . . . would very soon arrive at winter with a hand shot off. That would be the hand which, I had vowed, I would let wither if I forgot you, and you, and everything that had ever imprinted itself on my eyes and mind.”
Reading The Glatstein Chronicles is itself an act of mourning, and the editor and translators must have endured this grief all the more acutely. The translation is rendered magnificently, and Wisse and the translators (Maier Deshell and the late Norbert Guterman) have taken great pains to produce the illusion that we are reading this masterpiece as the author wrote it. Terms that would have felt natural to 20th-century Yiddish speakers have been subtly explained within the text; more complex cultural references are explicated in unobtrusive endnotes.
But the reader familiar with the original cannot but mourn--not only for the doomed community captured within its pages, but also for the world of readers lost with it. The book offers its readers endless unspoken references to once-famous works of Yiddish literature, like I. L. Peretz’s “At Night in the Old Marketplace,” a surrealist play set among the living dead (at one point the novel is subsumed by a surrealist play), as well as brilliant portraits of real figures who once illuminated the Jewish world: the Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik, the German historian Heinrich Graetz, the Yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin, and even a sanatorium resident modeled on Peretz himself. One misses, painfully, the world that once existed where every reader of this novel would have known these references as household names.
Unfortunately, The Glatstein Chronicles is unlikely to find a wide audience among American readers, even American Jewish ones. Americans are taught to seek in literature the satisfaction of our own hunger for action and unambiguous resolutions--neither of which are on offer here. In a contemporary review of Glatstein’s book, Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose popularity came largely from fulfilling American literary expectations, complained that “Jules Verne would not have wasted ten lines on a journey so bereft of adventure or romance.” He was certainly right, but the observation does more harm to the critic than to the author. For the patient reader open to other possibilities, The Glatstein Chronicles does progress--in a symphonic rather than a linear fashion--toward important revelations. And time has only added new layers of power to its prose.
Now that the prophesied destruction has come to pass, the few moments where Glatstein’s prophecies fail him have an even more terrible poignancy. “It occurred to me,” Glatstein’s narrator muses as he arrives in Europe, “that in twenty-five years such travelers returning to pay respects to the graves of forefathers will have disappeared. . . . Should their children ever think of visiting Soviet Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Romania, they would go as one might visit Paris, Switzerland, or Italy. . . . There will be tourists, but no one going home to see a dying mother or father, or to mourn dead parents.”
In 1934, even the prophet Glatstein could not imagine that American Jews would someday go as tourists to Poland exclusively to mourn.
But Glatstein’s Poland is not only a place of mourning. It also has an eerie consoling power. In the sanatorium, where “you never know whether you’re talking to a mental case,” the narrator’s prescience is amplified by the haunting symbolism of the hotel guests. In one scene, the narrator comes across the hotel’s proprietor standing watch in the hallway at the witching hour:
“You aren’t asleep yet?” I stammered, vaguely frightened.
“I can’t sleep until my last guest has turned in,” he said. “I’m responsible for the lot of you, you know. That’s the kind of job it is.”
Reading these lines, one thinks of the translators of Yiddish in the 21st century--and of the editor Ruth R. Wisse, who has brought this and many other Yiddish masterpieces to new generations of readers and students. The second novella’s opening line, spoken by one of the central figures at the hotel, is “Even from the gutter will I sing praises to Thee, O Lord, even from the gutter.” Seventy years after Glatstein’s devastating prophecy came true, the consoling miracle is that these volumes still sing.
(Dara Horn is the award-winning author of three novels,
the most recent of which is All Other Nights [Norton].)