If you’ve never heard of the great novelist Dovid Bergelson, that means Stalin won.
On Aug. 12, 1952, Dovid Bergelson, a top contender for the title of Greatest Yiddish Novelist Who Ever Lived, was executed by a Soviet firing squad—and he wasn’t a dissident. In fact, he was a loyal enough Communist that he published a famous essay in 1927 titled “Three Centers,” about which of the three centers of Yiddish culture—New York, Warsaw, and Moscow—offered the best future for Yiddish writers. Bergelson’s unequivocal answer was Moscow, and he wasn’t yet wrong. At that time, Stalin’s effort to brainwash ethnic minorities involved the Soviet government financing Yiddish-language schools, newspapers, theaters and publishers, to the extent that there were even Yiddish literary critics who were salaried by the Soviet government. During World War II, Stalin used these loyal Jews to his advantage by creating a “Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee,” a group of Jewish celebrities, including Bergelson, tasked with drumming up money and support from American Jews for the Soviet war effort. After the war, Stalin announced that the committee he himself had created was actually (wait for it) part of a vast Zionist conspiracy. Bergelson and his co-defendants endured three years of torture in prison before pleading guilty to the crime of “nationalism” (read: Judaism). He was executed along with a dozen other Jewish luminaries, in an event later memorialized by Yiddish readers as the “Night of the Murdered Poets.” Of course, being executed by Stalin was the Soviet literary equivalent of winning a Pulitzer Prize. Bergelson was that good.
Bergelson’s works were celebrated for being very “European” rather than “Jewish,” comparable with Chekhov rather than Sholem Aleichem. His greatest masterpiece, the 1913 novel Nokh Alemen—available in English as The End of Everything, in a brilliant translation by the late Joseph Sherman—is unique in highbrow Yiddish fiction for being about a woman who has an abortion. But since Bergelson’s murder has cast him into the netherworld of Jewish martyrology, is it even possible to read this novel simply as “literature,” as he surely desired? The strange answer is: not anymore, and maybe it never was.
The End of Everything has been described as a feminist work, and in its bare outline, it is. Mirel Hurvits is a beautiful and intelligent young woman with a problem: She is bored out of her mind by life in her genteel shtetl. This makes her sound like the heroine of every Disney movie of the past 30 years. But Mirel doesn’t simply “want much more than this provincial life.” Her problem is deeper: She doesn’t want anything at all. The book opens with her breaking off her 4-year-long engagement to a pleasant and wealthy young man, because “she continued to believe that her future life ought to be entirely different.” Her decision wreaks financial havoc on her father, who is simultaneously going bankrupt and dying of cancer—not that Mirel cares. She’s too busy moping with various boyfriends, all while pondering “the slow, painful demise of her vapid, commonplace, self-absorbed life.” Mirel’s only comfort comes from a friend the book calls “the midwife Shatz,” a 27-year-old unmarried bohemian who lives on the shtetl’s outskirts and hosts a kind of literary salon. Even that comfort vanishes when Mirel capitulates to her bankrupt dying father and agrees to marry a rich boy in the city—but she puts into the prenuptial agreement that she reserves the right not to have sex with him. She spends the second half of the novel in a depressive stupor at her in-laws’, interrupted by a few listless sexual affairs, and sleeps with her husband only out of indifference. When Mirel becomes pregnant, she immediately knows she can’t become a mother, and has an abortion with no regret. After her father’s death she leaves her husband and returns to the shtetl, where her reputation has turned her into something between a cautionary tale and a joke. After one last romantic disappointment with a Hebrew poet named Hertz who previously dumped the midwife Shatz, Mirel hops a train for the border and disappears.
The novel has been called the “Yiddish Madame Bovary,” and the comparison captures not only its heroine’s dissatisfactions but also Bergelson’s mastery of narrative indirection, where you never quite know whether a character has said something aloud or merely thought it, or whether a thought belongs to a character or the narrator. But that comparison belittles Bergelson’s originality by suggesting that a woman’s desires and small-town tedium are also Bergelson’s main subjects. Ostensibly they are, but the stakes are a lot higher when one is depicting a Russian shtetl in 1913, after decades of failed promises of Jewish emancipation and brutal anti-Semitic attacks, than they ever were for depicting small-town France. Suffice it to say that no one felt the need to execute Flaubert.
Early in the novel, Bergelson hides a key that ultimately unlocks the difference between his work and that of “European” writers, and which connects this End of Everything directly to his own horrific end. The Hebrew poet Hertz, Mirel’s final boyfriend, is just one more pompous loser leading her on, no different than the various Rodolphes in Madame Bovary—except that he contributes to the novel a small story that could never have been written by Flaubert. In Hertz’s story, written in the style of a Talmudic parable, a wanderer arrives at a “dead city,” where all the doors of the houses are open. Inside each one, he finds hardened corpses, each clutching stones tightly in their fists. (Apparently this is no Masada of mass suicide, but a comically-failed attempt at communal self-defense.) In one house the wanderer finds a single living woman, who dies immediately after informing him that, “You came so late, we waited for you for so long, and now everyone is dead.” After her death, the wanderer sits at the city gates and decides he will remain there forever as a guardian of the dead city—an image reminiscent of Jewish legends about the Messiah sitting unrecognized and binding his wounds at the city gates. But as the wanderer himself puts it, “When I look at myself and the power and might that sleep within me, I no longer even sigh, but simply think: I am a guardian of a dead city.”
For all of Bergelson’s heralded internationalism, this is not a story that would be much appreciated by readers of Flaubert. Yet without it the entire novel is meaningless. The End of Everything is not about the end of Mirel’s pregnancy, but the end of Eastern European Jewish life—and that fact places The End of Everything on the near end of a several-thousand-years-long chain of dead cities that precede it. All of the community’s motivations in the novel appear to Mirel, and perhaps to the reader, to be tedious conventions of bourgeois life. But those conventions—the imperative of marriage and child rearing, for instance, or the emphasis on money as a means of risk avoidance, or the traditional pieties maintained even by nonbelievers—are, in the context of Jewish culture, not merely examples of bourgeois pettiness that any individual might do without. Instead they are the cornerstones of a vast national project of preservation in exile, the work of thousands of years of guardianship at the gates of the dead city. Bergelson, otherwise a master of subtlety, doesn’t hesitate to hit us over the head with this. The book ends with Mirel weeping in the night with no one to comfort her, deliberately recalling biblical accounts of Jerusalem’s destruction (“How the city sits … like a widow!”; or “[The dead matriarch] Rachel weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted …”). Mirel goes into exile the day after Tisha B’Av, the summer fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple. The novel’s most powerful literary predecessor isn’t Madame Bovary. It’s Lamentations. Which means that, horrifically, The End of Everything and the end of Bergelson are not so different after all.
In the transcript of Bergelson’s absurd trial, the court’s presiding officer asks Bergelson to begin his self-condemnation with a brief autobiography. Here is what the universalist European writer, heir to Chekhov and Flaubert, testified in court:
There is a day that falls in August when the Temple of Solomon was burned. On this day all Jews fast for twenty-four hours, even the children. They go to the cemetery for an entire day and pray there ‘together with the dead.’ I was so immersed in that atmosphere of that temple being burned—people talked about it a great deal in the community—that when I was six or seven years old it seemed to me that I could smell the fumes and the fire. I tell you this to indicate the extent to which this nationalism was engraved in my mind.
This testimony, provoked by torture, is not Bergelson’s greatest work of fiction. But it does express his greatest work’s greatest truth: The End of Everything is a universal masterpiece now read only by those who have arrived too late, those few readers willing to serve as guardians of a lost city.