FOR THE AMERICAN discoverer of Jewish artifact, Eastern Europe is an Atlantis, a continent under the waves of a catastrophe, from whose sunken shores there surfaces in English translation both unexpected treasure and knicknack: as the former we esteem Sholom Aleichem's novella, Marienbad, as the latter, alas, Elie Wiesel's Somewhere a Master.
Written in 1911, towards the end of the Yiddish writer's career, Marienbad presents us with an unexpected Sholom Aleichem, one in the tradition of the 18th-century epistolary style. The story of romantic entanglements between the vacationing bourgeois of Warsaw's Nalevki Street at the fashionable Bohemian resort town is more a novella of Jewish manners than of the Eastern European Yiddish soul. Narrated through letters, love notes, etc., it ends in a series of slapdash telegrams as the characters pursue one another between Berlin, Warsaw, Marienbad and Ostend. It is an old- fashioned chase from a vaudeville routine but with an amusing, unexpected drumroll as each envelope is torn open and the story takes another twist. The energy of the book is in the anecdotes of middle-aged woman- chasers, bored housewives hoping for fun, desperate parents trying to betroth their aging, single daughters. Beyond this joking, there is the dilemma of an older man, Solomon Kurlander, who has married a young wife, Beltzi, and is forced to suffer the pangs of jealousy as she goes off alone in the middle of his business season to take the cure at Marienbad.
It is Beltzi who is the only real character in the novella. Is she teasing her husband when she allows herself to fall into a hundred complications with other men? Or is she simply an ingenue, albeit a married one, who accepts favors from the opposite sex out of an engaging innocence of their motives? Solomon imagines himself at the beginning of the novella as superior in wiles to his wife and foolishly engages his best friend, Chaim, one of the chief skirt-chasers of Marienbad, taking the "cure" there for overweight (while leaving his wife at home), to spy on Beltzi. Since everybody from the Nalevki seems to be a brother or sister-in-law, cousin, or third cousin, all the gossip of Marienbad is reported back in letters to Warsaw, where an increasingly suspicious and apoplectic Solomon Kurlander begins to fabricate letters and send them into the hopper of charges and countercharges between spouses--to complicate the game.
As we watch marriages threatened and divorces begin, the seamy side of Warsaw-Jewish culture emerges, a world where religious Jews caught in loveless unions are willing to peddle their wives' honor for a few dollars, where outrage takes a back seat to business. By the end of the book, Beltzi, who seemed silly and flighty at the beginning, among this cast of nasty characters appears in a much more winning light, an affectionate and devoted wife. And so her husband Solomon's frenzied pangs of jealousy, his willingness, at last, to throw up the profits of a good business season and go off searching for his young bride on a knightly quest between Ostend and Marienbad, seem noble in the quaint humorous fashion that Sholom Aleichem, like Cervantes, will grant to a comic hero.
Marienbad is a very funny book. Sholom Aleichem is a marvelous card shark and can deal out a surprising hand, again and again, so that one threatens to topple from his chair with laughter. Yet the novella lacks the sadness of the Tevya tales, of the many stories in which the resonance of a suffering, dream life, the illusion of something beyond the struggles of everyday in the world of the poor, makes itself felt. In Marienbad we hear the laughter of Sholom Aleichem but we miss the mystery which lifts him into the realm of mythology.
Elie Wiesel's Somewhere a Master so puzzled me that I went back to read his earlier Souls on Fire, to which the book jacket claims the present volume is a "sequel." (However, four of Somewhere a Master's nine chapters were published, almost verbatim, as a separate volume, Four Hasidic Masters, some four years ago.) Unhappily I must report that this second collection is inferior to that first presentation in Souls on Fire of the lives and sayings of the Hasidic masters. Perhaps the problem is that having written once about this world, merely changing the cast of characters and introducing new rabbis and their courts does not jog Wiesel's narrative talents. Instead of his sure sense of timing, the careful cutting of history, anecdote and personal observation which gives the first book its fire, we have a dispersed voice, which occasionally hectors the Hasidic tales, reducing some to the level of elementary school moral lectures.
Somewhere a Master has its wonderful moments--my favorite is the reply of the sainted, humble Reb Itzikl to another Master. "The Kotzker asked him why he had hired a cynic as his private secretary. 'I'll tell you,' said Reb Itzikl. 'All private secretaries become cynical-- so why wait?' " Yet my impression is that this "sequel" was a hasty job. Elie Wiesel's remarks about the religious Jews who opposed Hasidism, the Mitnagdiim, are shallow clich,es. His denigration of the Gaon of Vilna, acknowledged by most modern scholars to be one of the unique figures in the evolution of modern Jewish thought, is ill-informed. (And at variance with his homage in the glossary--a note repeated verbatim from the glossary of Souls on Fire.) Again and again in Somewhere a Master one meets anecdotes from the earlier book. Having given a generalized but enthusiastic portrait of the major Hasidic figures in Souls on Fire, the far more difficult task of dealing with minor figures fell to the lot of this book. But since the less intriguing rebbes had already swum in and out of the ken of the greater, more than accretion of anecdote was called upon to give the sequel a guiding idea or organizing principle. Since Elie Wiesel seems to have no notion of recent scholarship about Estern Europe, its Hasidic courts, he has nothing new to report either.
The most interesting possibility of Somewhere a Master lurks in the book's failure. For even Wiesel admits that his enthusiasm for his heroes, the wonder-working, Zen-speaking rebbes, falls short at times. Many of them end their lives in despair, horror, delirium. One of the best of Wiesel's sketches concerns the grandson of the founder of Hasidism, the angry selfish master, Baruch of Medzibozh. For a moment it seems as if the author will subject the Hasidic experience to searching criteria but at the last he makes excuses; of a man who made no bones about accepting "bribes" in order to intercede with the Divinity, Wiesel says, "I find Rebbe Baruch beautiful." Anyone who has read Arthur Green's biography of Baruch's nephew, Nachman of Bratslav (Tormented Master) which does not slide away from Rebbe Baruch's nastiness, will find such rhetoric a bit moony.
But one need not refer to more thorough volumes. Wiesel's own book testifies against its heroes, making plain the egotism of men who dreamed themselves at the center of the Universe like the Seer of Lublin--who jumped from his roof, to provoke the Messiah--jarring the reader and forcing one to read between the lines of anecdotes. For a while Wiesel reads with us, but inevitably he breaks off to resume his job of assembling yet another popular volume on the saints of this mass movement.
Hasidism still agitates many Jews, educated and uneducated, today, to joy. Yet somewhere in the 19th century, it lost a revolutionary ,elan which it has yet to recover. One wants Wiesel to return to the far more difficult unsentimental task of umakes itsnderstanding what went awry with the charisma which awoke not only the poor, but the middle class, to the creation of a society of celebrants in which the boundary between future joy and present fears would be annulled. For perhaps, out of its sunken Pantheon, Hasidism will yet send a message to the Jews in their present dilemmas of reality and myth.