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The Yiddish Art of Suicide

Image Source: Cover of A Death: Notes of a Suicide

If today’s Incels had a sense of humor and a real flair for decadence like Zalman Schneour, they might be able to tell us something about how paranoia can dance. But contemporary Underground Man rarely goes out; content in his chat rooms, squinty-eyed, immobile and listless. The solitary’s terror now consists of a mania for being safe.

So feel a little nostalgia when reading Zalman Schneour’s 1905 novel A Death, (Mavet), translated from the Yiddish with great feeling by Daniel Kennedy. For obvious reasons (called pogroms), Modernist Yiddish literature seems a natural home for the Raskolnikov or overburdened clerk type, rigged up in an overcoat with faded kabbala signs, traipsing from yeshiva to garret: a wanderer and misfit if there ever was. Plus, Freud was in the air and so was the Blood-Libel. But there were still years to go until the gunshot in Sarajevo.

Written in Vilna and first serialized in the periodical Ha-Zeman (where Schneour also worked), this early century piss-off manual was actually written in one of the happiest periods in the author’s life. Maybe he felt bad that he was feeling too good about himself. Schneour’s antihero Shlomye is a Litvak nihilist, a neurasthenic pest gone nearly mad due to the phantasms of his murky family history. His milieu is metallic poetry and sub-Schopenhauer, dished out to a failed love, Henia (he loses her purely to up his weltshmerz), and one Mirkin, an exhausted schoolmate, the main targets of his relentless hamletmashin. But Shlomye’s true love is a jealous little idol with a sight and a trigger.

Its smooth barrel is both a phallic extension and a telescope he uses to spy on his own impending death. He can never please the poor product, even when he finally uses it. A ballot for the Angel of Death – truly democratic, for it kills equally ‘large people, clever people, jolly people and stupid people’ yet also dumb, innocent, ‘a little bastard’ waiting for a human finger, the pistol glistens on his pillow and even has the chutzpah to remind him of his father. Gun as family, girlfriend, confessor, wallpaper and sock. But unlike Michael Redgrave’s horrible dummy in the film Dead of Night, the revolver remains mute and Shlomye’s attempts to make its steel bones speak don’t even get as far as giving it a name. Yet it rules the days, spinning the chambers in a cyclic belly and repeating while it counts down. The book is divided by the Jewish calendar, roughly spanning autumn (the ends of the months Elel to Tishre), our protagonist’s final days, appointed in concert with his gun.

Most of this (in)action is high morbid wit and Kennedy’s miraculous English allows as much Yiddish laughter as our too-Latinized tongue can probably bear. It is all very subtle despite the histrionics, with an hauntingly comic despair. The madly-compounded Yiddish art of allusion and onomatopoeia starts where German stops, the poetic power of a creole which turns a pun via root, rhythm, and allusion to physical form. For example, everyone knows what kvetching is without ever having to be told. It has a German root, but the Yiddish twist makes it universally tossed out of the mouth (or vomited, in its purse-lipped verb: kvetchn, קוועטשן). It makes an easy noun or gerund. In American Yiddish, it scratches and irritates more than it projects. I do not know if this word appears in A Death, but Shlomye is a hell of a kvetch.

The grotesque is ultimately a humorous business. I think that the so-called Anti-Natalists of today are not able to bear the chaos of it; loss of control from laughter is more frightening than deformed shadows. Ironically, our dreary seldom kill themselves, which shows a tinsel fascination for just hanging around also common to politicians. The real kick of A Death is to make you wonder how serious Schneour really is about void and darkness, about an essential drive toward never being born. For some, the book might come off as evidence from a reactionary such as Max Nordau or a tractate apology by an anarchist like Necheyev. It is really early Gonzo journalism for alienated killjoys, with a genuine sense of clogged air in chilly rooms, gnat-like people swatting around Shklow or Odessa in the long Eastern fin de siècle[1]. In 1909 Warsaw, it was an immediate hit.

Zalman Schneour himself led a nomadic life: Vilna, Geneva, Berlin, Paris, New York (where he died in 1959), and finally Tel Aviv, where he is buried. He wrote much in both Yiddish and Hebrew: realist novels, dirty songs, and reportage (several of his books are available in English). A rambling multi-lingual Belarusian who was just the kind of ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ mistrusted by nationalists and fanatics, he also attended the Sorbonne and was even nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. His son was a biochemist and his daughter a Spanish dancer, which makes a very fine dialectic. I hope that this translation will help bring out not only other elusive Schneours, but also other great works from a crackling period in Yiddish literature.

The end of A Death is very beautiful. Steeped in the Chabadi mysticism of his family (his name goes back to the sect’s founder, Shneur Zalman of Liadi), Schneour both reforms the broken vessels of a negative creation and affirms a universal humanism. Shlomye is finally fused to all life at the moment of his death in a caterwauling of stars, flights of cities and faces, the joyous repetition of a great Nietzschean yea-saying, graspable only as the bullet roars through his brain – or in an unmeasurable moment after it (these last few pages are also a fine example of nascent Soviet-style montage). The calendar of the chapters ceases when a single time drowns in totalized time, caught between the earth and one who leaves it. The nameless gun is an accidental.

Earlier, Shlomye had wandered through a quarantine much like Svidrigailov’s hallucinatory pre-suicide ramble in Crime & Punishment: a foggy, indistinct zone that superficially resembles an old East European city, or rather an impressionist painting of one. After memory, comes homelessness. This state precedes human recognition, when the spirit of God moved over the sea of potential souls, remembering His loneliness and (blasphemously) dependant on His creation in order to shatter the perfection of the Uncreated and Undivided. So the life of a screw-up like Shlomye also pours into the mirrored sea, is reflected in the formations of incommunicable final images. The brain still projects imagery after the rest of the body has shut down; the raising of the body and the walls of heaven really take place on earth. At least that is what the scientists say, yet this seems more fabulous than any superstition.

It is also said that the sense of time is the first thing to go when one dies. Thus, the problem of a phenomenology of time is finally solved – the last and only truly personal riddle – after height and depth have ceased to become a worry. Without sentimentality, the sense of oneself and the sense of a future fail as the cells that they are. Searching for blood, these poor nuclei fan out in clockwork desperation. Memories and language vanish next, until all that remains is a core – a great silent center, silent to itself, without movement and without repose, falling yet not falling; shattering silently, onward without speed or sloth to a nothingness it can neither apprehend nor misunderstand.

A sack of guts waiting to be joined to the stars, staining the Throne? Bernie Goetz has not recorded any comparable revelation. Safety first, even when you take it off.

Notes.

1) A Death would’ve made a great audiobook read by the late Theodore Bikel, who had the right gravitas for throaty humor with a cantor’s beat.

 

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Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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