Dovid Bergelson

translated from the Yiddish by Joseph Sherman
The Modern Language Association of America 1999 [1920]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2015
Set in the Jewish community in the imaginary small town of Rakitne, somewhere in Western Russia just before the First World War, Bergelson's short novel Descent (Opgang, 1920) is a striking depiction of shtetl life.

Khaym-Moyshe returns to Rakitne after the suicide of his friend Meylekh, who once had bigger dreams but has been running a pharmacy. He stays with Yitskhok-Ber, forest manager for a nearby estate; the three of them had been "external students" together (unable to formally enrol at university because of quotas on Jewish students). As he attempts to understand what happened, in a not very directed fashion, he encounters three women who were important in Meylekh's life: the poor student Ethel Kadis, to whom he was engaged, the elegant Khave Poyzner, daughter of the town's richest shopkeeper, and the young Hanke Lyuber, daughter of the town's leading industrialist, bringing up her younger brother in her father's absence.

The other characters include the schoolteacher Preger, in love with Khave Poyzner, Zalker, the visiting agent for Singer sewing machines, and indeed almost all the educated members of the community. This is a secular world, where the signs of religion are still ever-present but only take centre stage for festivals and betrothals, but where social and economic and political constraints have curtailed the development of alternative frameworks for life.

We are denied any clear explanation as to why Meylekh died, or the resolution of a romantic fulfilment. How we are to supposed to judge the inhabitants of Rakitne remains as unclear as their evaluations of one another. The ubiquitous indirect speech makes it hard to tell narrator from character or speech from thought (Khaym-Moyshe regularly chats to the dead Meylekh). And the equally indirect observations, with repeated phrases suggestive of cliché or fatigue, give even superficially straightforward descriptions of the town and its inhabitants a shimmering uncertainty, as if to convey the haze of summer.

Bergelson describes a world he knows is about to be convulsed by the First World War and the Russian Revolution and Civil War, giving Descent an emotional perspective which still remains comprehensible after the passing of another century and the near complete destruction of that world in the Second World War.

June 2015

Related reviews:
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%T Descent
%A Bergelson, Dovid
%M Yiddish
%F Sherman, Joseph
%I The Modern Language Association of America
%D 1999 [1920]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780873527880
%P 240pp