Ryan Madej - Rife with vice and a pervading sense of loss, the decaying urban landscape of Midtown serves as an extension of the nature of self. The Threshold and the Key is a literary exorcism that combines the esoteric with reflections on the work of major writers like Nabokov, Burroughs, and Vila-Matas

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Ryan Madej, The Threshold and the Key, Voidfront Press, 2019.

Rife with vice and a pervading sense of loss, the decaying urban landscape of Midtown serves as an extension of the nature of self. The Threshold and the Key is a literary exorcism that combines the esoteric with reflections on the work of major writers like Nabokov, Burroughs, and Vila-Matas. It is a chronicle of one man's search for meaning through "The Threshold, the Key, the Library, the Flesh, the Smoke, and the Unknown."

Ryan Madej, The Marianas Trench

Language of the Birds
Jorge Luis Borges, the Maker
Night Index
Night Index part 2

The Freezing Point

Ryan Madej reads an excerpt from The Marianas Trench
An interview with Ryan Madej

Ryan Madej is a writer from Edmonton, Canada who is interested in experimental literature and multimedia exploration, as well as other art forms such as collage and photography. The title of Ryan's first novel is The Marianas Trench.


Luis Martín­ Santos - 'The bravura and lyricism of the prose, the casual deftness of the symbols, and most of all the brilliant concluding monologue leave no doubt that the author was not content with a realistic novel

Luis Martín-Santos, Time of Silence, Trans. by George Lee­son,
Columbia University Press, 1989. [1962.]

An enveloping haze of dedicated rationalism fails to save a young scientist from the less lofty, but much more real, ways of the world. Don Pedro, not yet a doctor and far from a man, dreams of finding a cure for cancer in his tumorous mice imported from Illinois. The madrileno world has other dreams: his shantytown assistant concentrates on possible profits in the illicit mice trade, his lower-class landlady prepares a match with her granddaughter, and his intellectual friend Matias dreams of very little, but his presence completes the socio-economic roster. The incongruity of the different social strata forms the novel's superstructure, preparing Pedro's downfall in a collusion of circumstance and his own weakness. In his scientific fervor he performs an illegal abortion in shantytown, which--in a somewhat breathless, chain reaction--kills the girl whose would-be lover then murders Pedro's fiancee. He loses his job and with it every shred of social and professional respectability. If this rather familiar plot succeeds in being tragic, then the tragedy lies in Pedro's thinking too much, a flaw that carries over into the heavy intellectualism of the writing. The narrational leaps from boarding house to shanty to intellectual cafÉ do not quite succeed in keeping Pedro's rational voice from labored intrusion when it ought to be silent. Madrid speaks, however, in its most ambitious and ambivalent tongue, imparting a degree of power to the novel. More interesting than arresting, it is at least a welcome break in the silence of translations from contemporary Spain. - Kirkus Reviews

A PEDANT who beheld Solon weeping for the death of a son said to him, 'Why do you weep thus, if weeping avails nothing? And the sage answered him. Precisely for that reason—because it does not avail.“
The quotation is from Miguel de Unamuno's “Tragic Sense of Life,” and if, as Unamuno goes on to say, whole peoples may possess this sense, the Spanish are certainly among them. One should say, still among them—since Unamuno argues that the basis of this tragic sense of life is a radical opposition between knowing and living, and that opposition may in the course of time be resolved at the expense of one or the other. Luis Martin‐Santos's “Time of Silence” is one of the most recent evidences that the Spanish still possess the tragic sense. (The fact that the novel was published in Spain only after much cutting is evidence that their censors have neither common nor esthetic sense.)
Pedro, the hero, is a young doctor doing cancer research in Madrid. When the last of his cancerous mice, imported from Illinois, dies, he visits a shanty slum on the outskirts of Madrid—where, he is told, mice stolen from the laboratory after failing to thrive there, have been coaxed into multiplying between the breasts of their keeper's young daughters. Thus begins a story—told at great speed mainly and through Pedro—that involves the young doctor in an illegal abortion, flight from the police, arrest, dismissal of charges followed by dis‐ missal from the Institute and the murder of his fiancé. Despite the rapidity of the action, the author sketches in certain segments of contemporary Madrid in memorable detail: A shabby‐genteel boarding house; a slum on the outskirts of the city; a dilettantish cocktail party; a student's Saturday night spree, ending in a brothel.
Yet the bravura and lyricism of the prose (for which translator George Leeson is also to be thanked), the casual deftness of the symbols and most of all the brilliant concluding monologue leave no doubt that the author was not content with a realistic novel. It seems clear that Pedro (who has no last name that I can find in the text) is Spain itself, or the virility of Spain. He is “the lost man, the man whom they prevented from doing what he was called to do.” He recalls that the Turks used to castrate their slaves on the beaches of Anatolia and that sailors in passing ships, many miles away, could hear the cries of pain and of lamentation at the loss of virility. He, however, lives in the time of silence when it is comfortable and peaceful to be a eunuch, and most of all a spiritual eunuch, one who merely lives.
THE existence of this book, and its quality, belie its title, for Martin‐Santos spoke out. Solon's reply to the pedant has a double relevance here. Not only could the Pedro of the book cry out because it did not avail; but those of us who read this novel may do the same. Luis Martin‐Santos was killed in a car accident last January at the age of 39. A surgeon and a psychiatrist, he had also published essays on Dilthey and Jaspers. This is his first and last novel; the ironic appropriateness of the title—it is the same in the Spanish—needs no emphasis. - www.nytimes.com/1964/11/29/archives/man-lost-in-madrid-time-of-silence-by-luis-martinsantos-translated.html

I just happened upon this book in a charity shop in the first week of July, so I bought it and read it for Spanish Literature Month. I thought I might vaguely have heard of it before somewhere.
Despite the occasional savage review, I do usually start books optimistically; – and normally this continues for a few pages at least, before the poverty of thought and style start to bore me. Perhaps because I’ve struggled with so many books recently (including other ones for SLM) and really can only any longer find myself persevering with works of the very highest standard, I began Time of Silence with a fair degree of disinclination and prejudice; and nothing in the first part dissuaded me from this. Something about experiments on mice and cancer; scientific jargon; short sentences – little to impress.
At some point though, which in retrospect I imagined was much further on, at the point when our hero Pedro and his assistant Amador descend into the shantytown in the Madrid suburbs, but which may in truth have been much earlier, my mind changed and I began to think that this novel, written by a man unknown in the country (at least, he has no English Wikipedia page) was the best novel I’d read this year (which isn’t saying too much, since I haven’t read too much) and moreover one of the better ones of the last century.
Perhaps it was sentences like this description of Madrid on p.11:
The city is so stunted, so lacking in historical substance, treated in such an offhand way by arbitrary rulers, capriciously built in a desert, inhabited by so few families rooted in its past, far from the sea or any river, ostentatious in the display of its shabby poverty, favored by a splendid sky which almost makes one forget its defects, ingenuously self-satisfied like a fifteen–year-old girl, created merely for the prestige of a dynasty, … bereft of authentic nobility … incapable of speaking its own language with the correct intonation … having no authentic Jewry … rich in dull theologians and poor in splendid mystics … [and so on for a page or two]
From then on, I found the writing marvellous, and it began to fulfil for me the one value of any worth in literature: that is, every time I remembered it, I wanted to pick it up again and continue reading. Martín-Santos certainly has a way of approaching narrative I find at almost every moment pleasing, though I’d have to pay a good deal more attention to being a critic than a reader to decide precisely what this is.
Since this meant to be a learned review, however, aspiring to claim more than just “it was great”, let me make a few easy comparisons: I thought at first it was like Joyce’s Ulysses, it had shifting view-points and stream-of-consciousness bits and seemed to be taking course over a single day and there was a nighttown scene where our hero visited a brothel; but then I began to think it was a bit more like Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, for it was more wide-ranging than Joyce, there were intimations of a plot developing, people were involved in sin, satire abounded and the sentences wandered where they liked; but then I settled on it being more like Bely’s Petersberg, because there were many capricious changes of style, and a sort of thriller plot was developing. Yes, it is like all these things; and it also reminded me of Juan Goytisolo too, those rants of his against Spain and the Spanish, though here it is more controlled, more considered and intelligible.
Read it then, if you can find a copy.
(This was Martín-Santos’ only novel. He was soon after killed in a car-crash.) - obooki.wordpress.com/2016/07/26/time-of-silence-by-luis-martin-santos/

A grandson of Spaniards who hailed from somewhere between Colmenar de Oreja and Villamanrique del Tajo and for that reasons spoke glowingly of the land they left behind, the master had pictured Madrid otherwise. To him, raised amidst the opulence of Mexican silver and red lava stone, the city appeared drab, gloomy, and mean. Except for the main square, all was narrow, dirty and squalid when one considered how broad and richly ornamented the streets at home were, with their tiled façades, balconies aloft on the wings of cherubs between cornucopias pouring forth fruits carved out of stone, and signboards the very models of fine painting whose lettering entwined with vine leaves and ivy proclaimed the attractions of jewelry shops. The inns here were poor, with a smell of rancid oil that seeped into the rooms, and it was impossible in many of those hostelries to sleep as one would like because of the din set up by street players—bawling the verses of loas or bellowing at Roman emperors, changing from togas fashioned of bed sheets and curtains to costumes of buffoons and Basques—whose entremeses had musical accompaniments which, although enormously entertaining to the young black for their novelty, quit irritated the master because they were so out of tune. As for the cuisine, the less said the better. The sight of the meatballs they were served and the monotonous hakes called up remembrance in the Mexican of the subtlety of red snapper and the pomp of turkey swathed in dark-hued sauces rich with the aroma of chocolate and the fires of a thousand spices; the quotidian cabbage, insipid beans, chick-peas, and broccoli moved the black to sing the praises of the full-throated, tender avocado, of malanga tubers which, sprinkled with vinegar, parsley, and garlic, appeared on the tables of his country in the company of crabs, the tawny meat of whose claws was more substantial than the beefsteaks of this land. - Nathan Friedman

Jurgis Kunčinas - This remarkable love story, told by an unnamed narrator and at times in the shape of a bat, takes us through a world that was closed to the West, and furthermore, into a part of it we would have been unlikely to know even in our own society: the world of drunks, vagabonds, drifters, the mentally ill.

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Jurgis Kunčinas, Tūla, Trans. by Elizabeth Novickas, Pica Pica Press, 2016.

The unnamed narrator of Jurgis Kuncinas's Tula is our tour guide through the infamous poverty-stricken bohemian quarter of Vilnius known as Uzupis (literally, "beyond the river"), living his life on the fringes of society, including his journeys through various institutions for alcohol treatment. On the way we meet a number of curious inhabitants of this unique district, everyone from a chemistry professor with an exhibitionist problem to the descendant of a 15th-century Lithuanian hetman obsessively carving wooden masks all night long. It's a place where you're likely to encounter people walking both sides of the moral line, where one is just as likely to run into great kindness as unfeeling evil, and where the complex history and mix of cultures that make up the city of Vilnius constantly intrude into the present. But at the very heart of the narrative is the narrator's tragic love for the equally misfit Tula, a love the narrator carries with him, both figuratively and literally, throughout his chaotic existence. The action, which sometimes takes the form of the narrator's fantastic visions of visiting his love in the guise of a bat, includes a hitchhiking trip through Ukraine and Crimea, and takes place over a number of years spanning a good part of the late Soviet era.
Considered a modern-day classic of Lithuanian literature, Tūla won the Lithuanian Writers' Union award for the best book of 1993 and is now in its third edition in Lithuania. It has previously been translated into Russian, Swedish, and Polish.

The main actor and narrator is a discarded, washed-out man, a hopeless alcoholic and a tattered student. He's not the first in the literature of the world, and one aspect of his particularly brings Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov to mind-namely, that like that other searcher, he is a human-metaphor, depicting a human as a loving creature in the tragical existential-crisis world it falls to him to live in. This hero and his loved one, Tūla, not only live in that world, but personalize it, turning, through the human metaphor, into its direct children ... the entire book, all of the events, the hero's wanderings, separations, and short encounters with Tūla, is really only the boundless hunger of the soul, transformed by an agony of longing into things, birds, beasts, blossoms, and a vision of the loved one. - Rimvydas Silbajoris

You may have heard of Užupis, that run-down artists’ pocket of Vilnius, Lithuania, cut off from the Old Town by a bend in the Vilnelė (Vilnia), a pleasant little river if ever there was one and not too deep to wade across, as happens several times in Jurgis Kunčinas’s novel Tūla. You may have read about the Republic of Užupis, declared in 1997, in a travel magazine, or on the internet; the Wikipedia article gives a nice summary of the wackiness. At that time, capitalism, seeing the potential in its location, was gaining a foothold, and whoever could grabbed a bit of real estate, cheap. The handwriting was on the wall, but the residents revolted, and to this day fight encroachments as best they can. When you visit it now, it’s a charming place, a mix of lovingly restored buildings and the remains of old wrecks (though fewer and fewer of those). And no McDonald’s.
Adrift in Uzupis 02Užupis courtyard, unrestored, in 2000.
Photograph by the author.
Earlier, though, in Soviet times, it was a considerably rougher place. It is this version of Užupis that figures in Tūla. Or at least, Kunčinas’s fiction of a place called Užupis. It’s not particularly pretty, and at times can feel quite threatening, although there is a love story, a beautiful one, at the very heart of it. It could also quite accurately be classified as a bohemian novel, albeit of a bohemian life in Lithuania at a time when Lithuania was completely subsumed under the Soviet yoke. It’s not just that there are Party slogans and Russian phrases everywhere; it’s also things like the blue milítsiya jeeps the unnamed narrator finds so terrifying. That word milítsiya, incidentally, has no English equivalent; it’s neither police, who are subservient to a local civilian administration, nor what we think of as militia, which is a volunteer defense force. Military police would perhaps be closest, but what country uses military police to keep order among its citizens?
Adrift in Uzupis 03A building used as an artists’s canvas. Photograph by the authorLike every place anyone has lived, the narrator finds himself simultaneously attracted and repelled by it. It is the site of both suffering and of happiness; the place where he spends the memorable week with his lover Tūla and years wandering the streets (or working perforce at a conveyor belt). Although the novel’s time frame is the declining years of the Soviet empire, the still-older history of the city intrudes everywhere, from an electric transformer left over from the days of Pilsudski’s rule to the remains of Sigismund Augustus’s water pipes. It’s a graceful interweaving of the many presences still wandering Užupis’s streets amidst a doomed love affair, alcohol (lots of alcohol), and poverty.
Between the narrator’s fanciful flights in the shape of a bat and his unforgettable lovemaking in a field of burdock, Tūla did its part, too, to create the legend of Užupis. The three mottos declared by the Republic of Užupis, “Don’t Fight,” “Don’t Win,” and “Don’t Surrender,” could very well be the mottos of this novel. The narrator, despite being besieged from every direction, continues to reject the “normal” life:
The vagabonds and brodyagi shake my hand, rock me by the shoulder, crush my bones, thrust tattooed fists under my nose, and others—their relatives and the blue coats—chase me out of the stairways. They threaten to call whom and where needed, promise to stuff me into a windowless cell, but I’m still alive, I’m walking with Tūla and I spit at your furnished apartments with a bidet and life-sized stuffed animals! From the highest roof in Vilnius!
Adrift in Uzupis 04The door handle of St. Anne’s Church in Vilnius. Photograph by the author.Appalled as the reader may be at the conditions the narrator lives under or his forced incarcerations for alcoholism, and as dismayed as she might be sometimes at the narrator himself, she still finds herself drawn into this bleak little world, with cats jumping in the windows and crazy landladies using the kitchen sink for a toilet. Chatty, digressive, lyrical at times, this book offers a companion whose moral failings are offset as much by his openness and self-effacement as by his irony and erudition. When the reader finds herself being judgmental, the narrator reminds her of what his Uncle Hans used to say: “We’re just feeble creatures, there’s no need to be ashamed of our weakness, physiology, or the flaws we’ve inherited from unknown ancestors!” It is in the narrator’s own willingness to forgive himself those weaknesses that the reader, too, finds her own weaknesses forgivable. - Elizabeth Novickas

MY sensitive nostrils, overstrained by the city, quiver, but I no longer have any spare exits, I have no spare feelings, no spare parts in my imperfect little bat body; perhaps that’s why my love is so short—so intoxicating and so simple—a love that can neither lose anything any more, nor overcome anything; so that’s why I watch over you, together with the lilacs, on the ceiling above your shallow cot: I see you, in your dreary sleep, throw your arm aside, uncover the trembling expanse of the heart, and then, then, entirely unexpectedly, a bluish cluster of lilac with two green leaves falls on your chest. I wave my little leathery wings, and now the lilac falls like rain—in clusters, tufts, twigs: violet, greenish, hardened into clots of blossoms; soft lilacs, you know, the kind that bloom and wilt in the overgrown garden plots outside the city where farmsteads used to stand, next to the woods, on foundations that have already crumbled.
     The lilacs fall, spinning around in the cold air, spreading blossoms over your hair, falling into your unwept tears, sticking to your barely open mouth, winding in strands around your slender neck, darkening on your belly, falling over your bed, the floor, the boxes with dusty albums and memories, descending into the pitcher with water left for the night, while other clusters, bouquets, blooms, failing to find a place to settle, spin a bit longer, and then disintegrate into tiny stars, so much like the fantastic creatures in the depths of the sea. And I dive into the darkness and crash painfully into the window—that would never happen to a real bat! I smile and curl my lip, while black blood oozes from the tiny mouse snout. No one sees where it drips... And where is that? The black blood drips on your bed, unwillingly soaks through the fabric, and now it’s dripping onto the black clinker tiles under your eternal cot, Tūla, Tūla...
     Lying on my back on the grayish window sill, I see that the cloud lying on Békés Hill suddenly stirs and descends, whistling, at an impossible speed, straight at the house with an apse on the bank of the Vilnelė, straight at us, at you, Tūla, at me...


Jurgis Kunčinas (1947-2002) was a prolific writer and translator whose work includes poetry, novels, essays, short stories, and children's books. His works have also been translated into German, Latvian, and Estonian and are particularly popular in Russia; a number of his works have been translated and there is even a fan site (in Russian), kuncinas.com.


Ctrlcreep - Angels, androids, AI, gods. From sexbots to suicide booths, we thread a path through wonder: coral super-computers, drones, galaxies as libraries and spines. The cosmos vibrates with beauty and horror, and there is so much to explore

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Ctrlcreep, Fragment, Independently Published, 2019.
neotene (@ctrlcreep) · Twitter

Everything you need to know about the universe. The collected short stories and selected microfiction of the elusive CTRLCREEP, a being of unknown origin and mysterious intent. Will you brave the paradox and madness contained herein for a chance to glimpse the incomprehensible poetry of the stars? Purchase these writings, and learn what it is to be lost anew in a fractal world of worlds! Angels, androids, AI, gods. From sexbots to suicide booths, we thread a path through wonder: coral super-computers, drones, galaxies as libraries and spines. The cosmos vibrates with beauty and horror, and there is so much to explore. Over 40 stories. An almanac for alternate realities.

I have a ritual of reading Ctrlcreep's fragments everyday on his Twitter. They provide me a glimpse to the future, to mystical scenarios populated by magical cybercreatures. Every one of his sentences is carefully crafted and perfected. As a result, his microfiction and short stories have "no-fat", every word is necessary and meaningful, there is no extra repetition or words that don't add to the plot or the "form" of the text.
I just finished Fragnemt and I'm already eager to read anything else Ctrlcreep puts out, I bet even his grocery list is beautifully writen. -       

Paul Kerschen - What if John Keats had not died in Rome at twenty-five, just as he was coming to realize his gifts? In this audaciously imagined alternate life story, the young poet is pulled back from the brink of death only to find his troubles far from over

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Paul Kerschen, The Warm South: A novel, Roundabout Press, 2019.
read it at Google Books

The daringly imagined, masterfully realized story of poet John Keats's second life abroad.
What if Keats had not died in Rome at only twenty-five, just as he was coming to realize his poetic gifts? In this audacious alternate telling, the young poet is pulled back from the brink of death only to find his troubles far from over. He is short on money, far from home, his literary reputation anything but assured—but his life and imagination have been spared, and a new country awaits.
In an Italy at uneasy peace, full of foreign armies and spies, Keats is drawn into Percy and Mary Shelley's expatriate circle, resumes his old profession of surgery and falls in with student revolutionaries who are plotting a more radical cure for their nation. His fiancée in London expects his return, and everyone is expecting his next poem, but he has not returned from his deathbed quite the same person—or poet—that he was.
Written with deep knowledge, compassion and brio, Paul Kerschen's debut novel is a spellbinding historical yarn and a heady engagement with the literature of the past, a thing of beauty in itself and a meditation on the writer's duty in troubled times.

“An ambitious, thrilling work of the imagination… The Warm South is so much: a love story, a historical thriller, a great literary what-if, and a profound meditation on the act of creation itself.” - DANIEL MASON

“A lyrical and profound exploration of mortality, second chances, art, and ambition. Kerschen writes an alternate history for the beloved poet Keats, allowing him to rise from an early deathbed and experience the gory operating theaters of Pisa, the decadence of Italian Carnival, and a seductive and sometimes dangerous entanglement with Mary and Percy Shelley. Written with elegance and heart, The Warm South pulses with life. - FRANCES DE PONTES PEEBLES

“Paul Kerschen’s miraculous first novel grants the poet John Keats an extended life in Italy as the surgeon he trained to be, and as the husband and father he never became. Superbly imagined, impeccably written, uncanny in its intimacy with Keats’s mind and feelings, this book also conjures the Italy in which Keats lived and died—and here lives on. Kerschen brings this mate- rial astonishingly alive and close. This is the best novel I’ve read all year.” - CARTER SCHOLZ

“The Warm South offers an alternate biography, a second chance—a daring and deeply imagined portrait of genius made more human, more accessible, and more moving and vital than any history or scholarship can allow.” - VU TRAN

“A bold strike. Kerschen applies SF’s classic ‘what if’ to literature itself. And like stern Mary Shelley’s monster, the dead poet stirs, and rises, and walks. But the path between the old world and his new friends is steep… Come.” - TERRY BISSON

The Warm South begins where a dozen biographies end and a hundred poems linger, in 1821 at the Roman deathbed of twenty-five-year-old John Keats, the definitive dead poet, an orphaned unrecognized genius cruelly cut down through no fault of his own. The fellow who said, “Beauty is truth; truth beauty.”
Not a promising subject for fiction, then, outside of dewy-eyed bio-pics and other vehicles in need of a tragic young death. Whereas by page four of The Warm South, we find a “John Keats” whose fatal tuberculosis is in complete remission, miraculously so far we’re concerned, but well within the bizarre range of prognoses imagined by his doctor. 
To that extent, Paul Kerschen has written an alternate history. Thereafter, however, he adheres to the regulations of well-researched historical fiction, and history rewards his attention. Fellow tragic Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and novelist Mary Shelley conveniently resided in Italy at that time, and had already invited Keats to visit them. The Shelleys’ physician in Pisa, and their closest Italian friend, Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri, was a free-thinker who, like Keats, had studied medicine in London. Tragic Romantic rock star Lord Byron and Greek revolutionary leader Alexandros Mavrokordatos were on the scene as well. A novelist could hardly request a more fully stocked scene.
History is less kind to the novelist’s characters.  If nothing else, death is a reliable solver of problems; resurrection restores them with interest. Then as now the first gift received by the convalescent will likely be an unpayable medical bill:
“Forgive me, Joe,” he said. “It is the melancholy. It came first of my illnesses, and it will be the last to take leave.”
“So says Doctor Clark. The nervous fibers.”
“I do not speak of fibers,” said Keats. “It is the trouble I have put you to. I’ve so depended on you, and on everyone, I don’t know how I am to make good.”
“It is nothing,” said Severn.
“I shall settle my debts to the penny.”
He had said it to give confidence. But Severn turned aside with a twist to his mouth, and Keats realized he was embarrassed to have such a promise made him by a sickly man in a nightshirt, sitting up in the cot that ought to have been his deathbed. 
Elevated diction aside, Kerschen’s prose-about-poets is appropriately mellifluous, alert, and hungry throughout, even if lengthy effusions in re Tuscan landscapes are lacking—and again appropriately, since Keats, despite his nominal tributes to “A Nightingale” and “Autumn,” remained to the last a city boy fed by human company and bookish culture.
Which returns us to the matter of diction. To a contemporary American ear, raised on our impoverished grammar, multitudinous contractions, and liberal strewing of obscenities, the dialogue of educated Georgian English characters sounds painstakingly cautious, as if the speakers were picking their way towards the nearest exit across a room of unpredictably hostile or clingy vipers. And that is, more or less, how this generation of English poets dealt with the impossibly conflicting demands of maturity.
As of 1821, on retreat from the most scandalous divorce of his era, Byron had blossomed into a bloated bullying prototype of Christopher Hitchens. After the deaths of three children, Mary Shelley radiated unrelenting anger and depression; her husband sought shelter in a series of absurdly idealized infatuations. Lacking Shelley’s and Byron’s upper-class assurance or income, Keats spent the entirety of his documented life thrashing between warm declarations of affection and distrustful retreats into solitude. All three men followed the same basic strategy: desperate escapes from unbearable claustrophobia into freshly problematic circumstances, carrying a heavier load of unmet obligations each time.
Kerschen’s revived Keats maintains his accustomed erratic path: deserting his Roman support group, dropping his correspondence with English lover and friends, recoiling from literature to medicine.... After an attempt to untangle the Shelley ménage ends in ambiguous signals from both spouses—
His golden lashes blinked. He tilted his head, furrowed his brow in strange inquiry and, moving very close, pressed his lips lightly and chastely against Keats’s closed mouth. For a heartbeat he hung silent, as if waiting on a question, then spun about and went at a soft tread up the steps.
—Keats characteristically reflects:
All that had happened at the Shelleys’ was a dream of warning. He dare not take a wife.
And then elopes with the sixteen-year-old daughter of his benefactor.
The Italian characters, naturally, feel more at home than the English, albeit not a home they can claim as their own. Occupied by Austrian soldiers, Tuscany, like the rest of post-Napoleonic Europe, is controlled by regressive regimes dedicated to furthering the gulf between rich and poor, prone to treat science as conspiratorial sedition, and happy to meet dissent with imprisonment, exile, or execution.
Such dark times demand political action alongside all maturity’s other impossibly conflicting demands; indeed, it’s difficult to conceive any action which is not political in some sense. The Italians protest, take up arms, are jailed, are shot. Byron and Shelley write regicidal satires and dream of resurgent liberating armies. Keats’s attempts at activism are more obscure, if just as ultimately ineffective: self-sacrifice (and teenage-bride-sacrifice) at a one-man Doctors Without Borders outpost in malarial marshland, followed by the production of a poetic tragedy on “The Death of Danton,” which triggers a riot without even benefit of a summons to liberty.
A girl’s thighs are thy guillotine. The mount
Of Venus shall be thy Tarpeian rock.
At Carnival, Percy Bysshe Shelley and the young Pisan patriots masquerade as carbonari; Keats dresses as Mary Shelley:
Keats turned, legs moving free in the skirts, and pressed himself to the wall. Giuditta considered him. “I would do more, with more time,” she said. “Your hair should be dressed. And I would powder you here.” She waved where his breastbone came up pale and knobbed from the bustline, like something that had grown on a tree. Then she looked up and laughed.
“Now don’t look sad!” she said. “You’re a fine girl.”
“Ciabatte!” called someone. A pair of ribboned shoes was passed over the curtain and Keats held his foot out; but they were minuscule, made for a child, and Giuditta put them aside.
“You’ll do well enough in your stockings,” she said. “Are you ready?”
On Keats’s marriage, a bit more than halfway through the book, our gaze is averted. The narrative torch passes, to Chorus of Peasants, to outsiders like the Wodehousian Joe Severn and Keats’s unknowingly discarded English rose, Fanny Brawne, who sustains the antic humor which Keats has stifled beneath the burden of Universal Justice. The troupe assembles; the missing are called in; the range of possibility widens and occasionally lightens, even while braided catastrophes (a ruined dinner, an awful party, to prison, to death-by-water) pop like well-ordered fireworks: these might be the precipitants of a Big Heist, or an operatic finale, or the resolution of a Lubitsch sex farce. 
And as implicitly promised we are in the end rewarded. Truth and beauty, obligation and independence, drop into conjunction for a day, or a few hours. Long enough to remember at least.
Is our reward deserved? In such dark times—the early nineteenth century; the early twenty-first—can such trivial pleasures even be justified?
Certainly not, but The Warm South graciously reminded me that rewards, just as surely as punishments, may be both undeserved and undeniable. - Ray Davis

In The Warm South, novelist Paul Kerschen performs a resurrection. The body is that of John Keats, dead at age twenty-five of tuberculosis. Dying in 1821, Keats had written his greatest poetry in the concentrated three-year period immediately preceding. He died on a medically-prescribed trip to Rome with his friend, painter Joseph Severn, leaving behind an outstanding invitation to visit Pisa from Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley and an outstanding engagement to his London fiancée, Fanny Brawne.
The Warm South restores Keats from his deadly illness and threads his loose ends into a narrative around all of Keats’s selves: the writer, the aesthete, the friend, the lover, and the surgeon. Keats returns to the medical work that he had abandoned. He grows close with the Shelleys and clashes with Lord Byron. He gets involved, tentatively, in the tumultuous politics of 1820s Italy. He agonizes over his tortuous engagement. And he does write again, though what he writes is one of the great surprises of the novel.
The Warm South may seem an unfashionable book in that it does not proclaim its immediate political or sociological relevance. Yet Europe’s political tumult in the 1820s, in Kerschen’s portrayal, comes to resemble our own, with an old elite increasingly dislodged but no clear progressive force ascendant. And Keats, a dislocated (in several ways) soul who possessed the same “negative capability” which he ascribed to Shakespeare, stands partly withdrawn from the events around him, struggling to find a place in which he and his work can contribute. Keats’s answer to that problem in The Warm South is circuitous, pained, and not without strife, but ultimately affirmative.
I spoke to Paul Kerschen regarding the inspiration for his novel and how he shaped the resurrected Keats. 
David Auerbach: You clearly took joy in writing your version of Keats. Is The Warm South fan fiction of a sort?
Paul Kerschen: No doubt! There must also be a touch of Frankenstein in my resurrecting him for my own purposes. I gained and lost a great deal over the course of writing, but whatever the endpoint, it did at least start from a felt intimacy with Keats’s own words, and perhaps in that respect it isn’t too much worse a distortion than other kinds of reading. 
Why Keats?
For me at least, Keats is one of those writers where the felt affinity is so personal and idiosyncratic that you're always surprised to find it so broadly shared. His poetry is almost wholly guileless, and that lack of guile makes him very vulnerable—he’s always risking failure of the most open and embarrassing kind. We have the odes, of course, and the other perfect short pieces that show up in anthologies, but next to those are so many failed experiments and false starts—in part because of his early death, but also because his gifts were often in a different key from the themes he tried to take up. In that sense he’s the total opposite of a poet like Yeats, where the technical and rhetorical command is so broad and complete that however you respond to him personally, you never question why he’s in the canon.
I first thought of attempting a novel about Keats a long time ago, on my first reading of “Hyperion.” That poem is one of his astonishing failures; if he’d somehow managed to complete it, we’d think of it as a worthy footnote to Milton, but his temperament was fatal to the project in a much more interesting way. It’s staged as an allegorical revolution, like Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, in which a new order is supposed to overthrow the old tyrants, but Keats never gets to the actual point of conflict because he’s too caught up in the suffering of the fallen Titans. Their pains are superhuman, described as lavishly as his other poems describe sensory pleasure, and are obviously informed by his knowledge of medical science. I’d never read anything like it. It’s easy to point out where the poem is derivative of Paradise Lost, but that hushed communion with suffering is a quality all its own, and it completely enraptured me, all the more because it was tied to failure. It seemed so modern; in my private mental library it might sit next to Kafka, another fragmentary writer whose presence in the canon can still surprise when it so often seems he’s speaking to you alone. Before I knew anything else about my own book, I knew I wanted to follow that thread. 
For readers with only casual familiarity with Keats and the Romantic era, what is important to know about them in grappling with your novel?
I hope that a casual familiarity will get them pretty far! At any rate, I didn’t want specialized knowledge to be an admissions requirement, and one of the pleasant challenges of writing historical fiction is to have the book disclose its own world without its intermediary stance becoming too obvious. Of course there are some things the book isn’t allowed to telegraph, most obviously its own counterfactuality; it might head off some confusion to be clear that it picks up in February 1821, at the point where, according to the biographies and Wikipedia, Keats has expired. Likewise worth a note might be the politics of the time, which seemed very much as desperate as our own. Napoleon’s defeat had installed reactionary absolute monarchies across the continent, with an Austrian police state to back them up, and in Britain the same conservative ministers who had overseen George III’s dotage were now confronting nationwide protests from a working class displaced by industrialization and suffering postwar famine, culminating in the infamous armed massacre at Peterloo. The later part of the century would bring about Italian unification and the British reform bills, but in 1821, the path seemed long indeed. 
How did you conceive of Keats’s (rather eventful) further adventures?
To start with, I had biography to hang my hat on. Shelley really had hoped for Keats to join him in Pisa, and Keats really had exhausted his own and his friends’ money in getting to Italy and had nothing to draw on in the event of a recovery. When I thought of him abroad, I thought of his letters from an 1818 walking tour of Scotland and Ireland. These show him to be an eager and curious traveler, always alive to the people around him; even a rather awful description from the Irish countryside of “a squalid old woman squat like an ape half starved” concludes with the thought, “What a thing would be the history of her life and sensations.” That passage may not be the most enlightened, but there’s still a curiosity there, in which he seems to go beyond his time. When you read period travelogues from the Mediterranean, the British are always admiring the picturesque past and repelled by the inhabitants at present. A traveler like Byron might get caught up in the romance of a popular revolt, but generally the Italian population is seen as the degraded remnant of a once-great race. I hoped that Keats might see more and do more, that he might enter the life of Italy as others wouldn’t—and of course, without money at his disposal, the plot could more easily compel him to do so.
The other presiding puzzle to work out was Keats’s relationship with Fanny Brawne. This is the most agonizingly incomplete part of the present-day legend of Keats; his literary achievement is secure for us, but the thwarted love story is pure tragedy. The pull of having Keats immediately return to England and marry Fanny had to be resisted, since that would make for a very short book. As a counterweight I use Keats’s own ambivalence about women and marriage, which shows up in so many of his letters (including the passage you quote below) and threads the fear of constraint through every profession of desire. This fear shows the most glaring gap in his otherwise broad sympathies; I do think it was a quality of youth that he might have outgrown with a more settled position in life, and the novel does its best to test that hypothesis. To that end, there needed to be several prominent women in the book, with well-defined stories of their own. There’s Mary Shelley, as you bring up below, but also a purely fictional adolescent Italian girl, and later in the book, Fanny Brawne herself takes on a more active role. I’m not sure the book’s structure allows it to pass the Bechdel test even so, but it was intended to be in that spirit. - David Auerbach
Image result for Paul Kerschen, The Drowned Library,

Paul Kerschen, The Drowned Library, Foxhead Books, 2011.
excerpt (issuu) Romulus. Tlaloc. Xronos.

Paul Kerschen's virtuosic debut dives into mythologies from around the world and brings back strange treasure. By turns lyrical, funny, enigmatic and harrowing, these nine stories leap with audacity and grace across styles and settings, from ancient Greece and Palestine to the border towns and office parks of today. A soldier returned from Iraq is haunted by the vision of a giant holding the world on his shoulders. A dying writer creates a secret dictionary and receives a divine visit. A migrant worker in the Southwest confronts the deadly emptiness of the desert. The labors of Hercules, the resurrection of Lazarus and the founding of Rome are given startling new tellings. THE DROWNED LIBRARY is in a class all its own, and introduces a remarkable new writer.

On November 1, a month before the announced release date, and because they were too excited to wait, Foxhead Books released The Drowned Library, Paul Kerschen’s (Ph.D. ’10) first collection of short stories. Even before reading it, I was already a big Paul Kerschen fan. I knew him as a Joyce scholar, a talented musician and composer, and as the person whom the English department frequently called upon to answer internet-related questions, since Paul is also a computer programmer extraordinaire. The Drowned Library only gave me more reasons to keep cheering.
For each of the stunning nine short stories, The Drowned Library thematizes a different mythological figure. Paul says he wrote The Drowned Library as “an alternative to the contemporary American style, which is so autobiographical, so concerned with expressing your own experience.” He wanted to take a page from early modern writerly practices, and use well-known stories as the occasion for experiments with form.
I had the distinct pleasure recently of talking with Paul about The Drowned Library, and about writing in general, which he calls, “the least oppressive labor I have ever performed.”
MH: What book made you want to be a literary scholar? Is it different from the book that made you want to be a writer?

PK: Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist made me want to be a writer, and being a literary scholar branched out from that. My senior year in high school we were given Portrait of the Artist. Everyone else hated Stephen. I didn’t discover you weren’t supposed to like him until later. There were levels of understanding I had to go through, but it was that particular book, and the pure linguistic inventiveness of it …
MH: In an interview with Foxhead Books, you mention that when you first began the project, you thought you were going to be writing parables. What attracted you to the parable?
PK: … The parable tends to be short. [MH chuckles] That was certainly an attraction: the compactness of it, [and] concision and compression as a virtue. I came to this project after writing a couple longer novel-length projects. I was thinking a lot about Kafka, and very, very short paragraphs that make up a short story, which state three things and imply about ninety depending on how you want to interpret it. I thought writing parables would be a useful kind of discipline to keep me from running off on too many conflicting avenues.
MH: In the same interview you say the book “ends up tracking the experimental process.” Which experiment most surprised you?
PK: I suppose they generally tended to surprise me more as you get into the book. The story “Tlaloc” … [which] starts out raising a sort of question about the protagonist, then turns into a nested story. [It] never comes around back to the beginning and just sort of stops and hangs. It ends up hanging in a way that fulfills a principle of composition.
The other one that kept surprising me was “Thoth.” It starts out with one particular conceit of very short paragraphs done as dictionary entries, [but it] needed some other element to bring the story to the close. By the end, the form itself had to change. That was certainly not something that I had planned from the start.
One thing about writing [is that] it’s like a performance, but it’s a performance for which you have infinite rehearsal time. For someone like me, I often feel awkward or inarticulate in spontaneous conversation. Being able to have the luxury of time to make sure I’m not screwing it up is sort of an attractive thing to me.
MH: In our conversation with distinguished alumn Jeff Berg (’69) he said his conception of creativity hasn’t changed much as Chairman and CEO of ICM from when he was an undergraduate at Cal. Has yours changed?
PK: For me it’s very much been a process of getting less and less naive over time. With Portrait you start thinking Stephen is who Stephen believes himself to be. I came to Berkeley having done an MFA at Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where there are certain sorts of questions about the underlying assumptions of literature and creativity that don’t get asked. It’s very different from a Ph. D. environment [where] it’s all “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Iowa wasn’t. The sort of romantic writerly myth is in vogue there: the idea that to be a writer you go out and you experience life, and you suffer and you work to the true expression of your self. All these ideas I now understand as Romanticism, as filtered through modernism, as filtered through a romantic myth of Hemingway.
Writing isn’t only the expression of self. It’s a dialectic between self and history, or between a literary past and the social world surrounding the writer.
So the short answer is that coming out of an MFA program, you tend you think of writing as the pure unmediated expression of self. I now understand it as a much more interesting process of work within preexisting structures of language and history in order to do something that’s the latest link in the chain. That’s one reason why turning back to myth is more interesting to me, as an alternative to the contemporary American style, which is so autobiographical, so concerned with expressing your own experience; I wanted to get away from that. These are very old stories and very often-told stories.
MH: Why did you fixate on these particular figures?
PK: These figures happened to best encapsulate things I had been thinking about. Thoth is obvious enough: a god of writing. [MH: “That was my favorite one!”] There’s an edition of Derrida’s On Grammatology that has Thoth on the cover. With him, I was thinking about the materiality of language, the nature of language. Of course what’s interesting about Thoth is that in the ancient Egyptian cycles, Thoth doesn’t go on quests, he doesn’t sit in judgments. He’s just there, a god of writing that’s just there. That he exists outside time was an interesting way to describe language, a medium that’s always already there and you can’t get behind it.
In “Tlaloc”, the figure itself doesn’t play into the story, but is useful as a picture of the environment of the desert, where it takes place. I grew up in Tucson, and … after I got my MFA, I tried to move back to the desert, but I loved the environment of the city and the politics that find expression there, so I ended up going to school in Berkeley. I knew I wanted to write something about [the desert], so there was the figure of the Aztec god.
The story called “Philomela” is almost a literal translation of Ovid. With that one, I was thinking a lot of Beckett or Gertrude Stein, who worked with very short sentences and tried to reduce language to some kind of simple objecthood. Especially Beckett, who is so distrustful of language, and wants to pin words down, seemed perfect for Philomela who loses the ability to speak. [In the story] you go from the linguistic or narrative human to non-linguistic realm of humans to a non-linguistic eternal nature where everyone becomes birds, to play with the boundaries of language, to get around language.
MH: In different ways, Atlas, Eleazar, Eurystheus, Ragnarok, Thoth take up the question, “what is work?” or “what is worthwhile” or what does work do?
PK: [In graduate school] I didn’t get as deep into Marx and that realm of thinking [as others did, but] it certainly had some influence on me, and as I moved way from my MFA idea of art as the act of a solitary artist to a more complex view of language and narrative as happening within social forces, the fact of work and the necessity of work, and people always having to work for goals that are the most immediate ones, to the extent that the stories describe some kind of social reality, there was no way around it.
With “Ragnarok”, I wrote that one during a summer job, in which I was working in an office working with personality conflicts, and [I had] to deal with [them] instead of staying home with my books, which is all I wanted to do…
For “Eurystheus”, it might be the point where Hercules has to go deal with horse shit. That task is put on him as a task of humility …. If you go out and slay monsters, it’s still a warrior thing …. Even in the sources, it’s clear that this is put on him as a kind of humiliation …. He finds a way to direct the river to clean out the stable and not have to go into it. With Eurystheus as the speaker in the story, it was interesting to be able to throw out the suggestion that Hercules missed the entire point of the task, that perhaps there is something morally questionable in lacking or not being able to humble yourself to this task …. It brings up the possibility of the dignity of work even if people aren’t often given the chance to experience it. It would be a false picture of creativity that it exists totally outside the economic sphere, or that it’s not a labor in and of itself. It is the least oppressive labor I have performed….
- berkeleyenglishblog.wordpress.com/2012/01/17/foxhead-books-releases-_the-drowned-library_/

  • 0.1. Notes From All Over.

  • 5/24/19

    Moyshe Kulbak - a classic of Yiddish literature, one of the great comic novels of the twentieth century. Four generations of a Jewish family are depicted in riveting and often uproarious detail as they face the profound changes brought on by the demands of the Soviet regime

    Image result for Moyshe Kulbak, The Zelmenyaners:
    Moyshe Kulbak, The Zelmenyaners: A Family Saga, Trans. by Hillel Halkin, The New Yiddish Library, 2013.

    read it at Google Books

    A “masterpiece” of a comic novel following four generations of a Jewish family in Minsk torn asunder by the new Soviet reality (Forward).

    This is the first complete English-language translation of a classic of Yiddish literature, one of the great comic novels of the twentieth century. The Zelmenyaners describes the travails of a Jewish family in Minsk that is torn asunder by the new Soviet reality. Four generations are depicted in riveting and often uproarious detail as they face the profound changes brought on by the demands of the Soviet regime and its collectivist, radical secularism. The resultant intergenerational showdowns—including disputes over the introduction of electricity, radio, or electric trolley—are rendered with humor, pathos, and a finely controlled satiric pen. Moyshe Kulbak, a contemporary of the Soviet Jewish writer Isaac Babel, picks up where Sholem Aleichem left off a generation before, exploring in this book the transformation of Jewish life.

    “A masterpiece…[Kulbak’s] characters are funny and pathetic, his prose delicate and inventive.”—Ezra Glinter, The Forward

    The Zelmenyaners is always more sweet than sour. Kulbak brings a poignancy to his observations of a family, and a place, for which he clearly feels much affection.”—The Jewish Book Council

    "The book is full of humour, and this well translated edition is carefully footnoted for the modern reader."—Ross Bradshaw

    Written (and serialized in the Minsk-based Yiddish monthly Shtern) between 1929 and 1935, Moyshe Kulbak’s The Zelmenyaners: A Family Saga, is the funniest Yiddish novel about Soviet central planning you'll read this year.
    As Sasha Senderovich writes in his excellent foreword to Hillel Halkin’s new translation, The Zelmenyaners was "conceived, published, and circulated in an era of unprecedented social transformation." Kulbak depicts that transformation through the conflicts which arise between the generations of the (extremely fertile) Zelmenyaner family, all of whom live together in a traditional style hoyf or courtyard.
    Even the hoyf isn’t immune from change. In a characteristically poetic move, Kulbak has the body of the hoyf grow (and age) just as the family does. For example, when Soviet electrification (and electric light) comes to the Zelmenyaner family, everyone is touched, none more so than the buildings of the hoyf, through which the power lines bring light, and a radio antenna atop the roof brings glimpses of a changing world.
    Though it’s definitely comic satire (and laugh out loud funny), the tone of The Zelmenyaners is always more sweet than sour. Kulbak brings a poignancy to his observations of a family, and a place, for which he clearly feels much affection. - Rokhl Kafrissen

    Near the end of “The Zelmenyaners,” a novel by Soviet Yiddish writer Moyshe Kulbak, one of the younger characters takes the stand to denounce her family. The proceedings are officially about her uncle Folye’s horsehide theft, but in reality the entire clan is on trial for its insular ways. “Their benightedness is so great that reality is transformed by them into a dream, while conversely, rumors and tall tales come to life in the yard as though they were real,” Tonke says in disgust. “If truth be told,” the narrator goes on, “there were workers who doubted whether, so near their factory, there could exist a yard whose residents lived as though in an enchanted castle.”
    “The Zelmenyaners,” now translated into English by Hillel Halkin, was itself a subversive work. Although the novel takes place in a specific historical and political context — Minsk, in the late 1920s and early ’30s — its experimental structure and gossamer prose give it an otherworldly aura, keeping with the Zelmenyaners’ self-mythologizing impulse. After being serialized in the Soviet Yiddish journal Shtern, “The Zelmenyaners” (or just “Zelmenyaner” in Yiddish) was published as a book in two volumes, the first in 1931 and the second in 1935. Two years later, Kulbak was arrested on charges of spying for Poland and was executed on October 29, 1937, at the age of 41.
    Like much Yiddish literature, “The Zelmenyaners” derives its humor and its pathos from characters’ hapless negotiation between old and new. (The translation flattens some of the comedy; though in other respects, Halkin succeeds at conveying Kulbak’s style and voice.) The older generation of Zelmenyaners watches in bewilderment as its children abandon religion and tradition, intermarry and espouse Communist doctrine. Parents and grandparents bicker over whether to call a baby Zalmen — after the Zelmenyaners’ patriarch, Reb Zelmele — or Marat, after French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. When Aunt Gita holds a Passover Seder, the rest of the yard isn’t sure what the strange ritual is. Later, Gita’s daughter Tonke holds a party at the very same table, complete with vodka and a whole roast suckling pig.
    Kulbak’s sense of humor contributed to the book’s political problems. His jabs at Bolsheviks were hardly kosher, and his mockery of their maladjusted parents was suspect, as well. Zelmenyaners may be ridiculous, critic Shmuel Niger argued in his 1958 study, “Yiddish Writers in Soviet Russia,” but they are also harmless, which was no way to portray the bloodthirsty forces of the artisanal lower-middle class. Worse, according to Soviet critics, in “The Zelmenyaners,” family bonds trump political consciousness. It isn’t class that matters most, but blood.
    Indeed, the power of family to be a self-enclosed, self-perpetuating unit emerges from Kulbak’s depiction of the Zelmenyaners as a tribe of their own, possessing unique physical and social traits. Zelmenyaners have dark complexions, low brows and fleshy noses, and are often compared to animals and other natural things. They are “solid as an oak tree,” “simple as a slice of bread” and “brainless as sheep.” They have a characteristic sound, like “a soft snuffle of content such as is heard only among horses munching oats in a stable,” and even their own smell: “a faint odor of musty hay, mixed with something else.” They are, in a sense, their own breed of people.
    Just as the Zelmenyaners seem to exist in their own anthropological category, Kulbak’s literary technique elevates their world into its own aesthetic realm. While living in Vilna and Berlin in the 1920s, he had written several expressionist prose works distinguished by their mystical flair. “The Messiah of the House of Ephraim,” from 1924, depicts a group of messianic peasants living in a fantastical rural landscape. In one scene, Benye the miller rides his cow to the edge of the world, where he confronts the demon, Samael. In Kulbak’s 1926 novella, “Monday,” the main character espouses a spiritual identification with beggars and a philosophy of absolute passivity, despite the outbreak of the Russian Revolution.
    While “The Zelmenyaners” marked a thematic departure from these books, taking domestic comedy as its tonic note, its methods were consistent with Kulbak’s earlier work. Unlike a traditional realist “Family Saga” (the subtitle of the current translation), “The Zelmenyaners” does not proceed in linear fashion. Instead, it is constructed from a patchwork of observations, descriptions and stories that create a more-or-less complete portrait. There are chapters that are one sentence long, and one that consists entirely of a telegram that reads, “The Bikhov Shoemakers Cooperative has fulfilled its first-quarter plan in its entirety.”
    Repetition and variation also feature prominently in the novel, giving it a fluid, surreal quality that is enhanced by Kulbak’s hallucinatory prose. When electricity is installed in the yard, cables lie on the ground “like strips of bandage,“ and the electric light shines in “the sickly gold window panes like a patient breathing through an oxygen mask.” The passage of seasons is a major atmospheric element, and Kulbak depicts beautifully the feeling of a hot summer day, a chilly spring morning or a winter night with frost “as green as old glass.” One of the most impressive displays of Kulbak’s fertile imagery is his virtuoso description of workers constructing the urban rail network in Minsk:
    The slanting sun glanced off the burnished mirrors of their strong backs. Two hundred tanned torsos, brown shoulders forming a dark mural, moved to the easy rhythm of the work. Their muscles rippled like living creatures in a wave that ran down the street as though in a strange brown sea.
    Here, workers’ bodies are compared to mirrors, a mural and a wave of living creatures, nearly in the same breath. Everything seems connected to everything else, forging the Zelmenyaners’ world into a single mystical whole.
    Like many Soviet Yiddishists, Kulbak made a conscious decision to live in the Soviet Union, and as a writer he benefited from state support, working in the Jewish section of the Belorussian Academy of Sciences. Like most of his peers, Kulbak also saw the Soviet Union turn on Yiddish culture, and he was among the first Yiddish writers to fall victim to Stalin’s paranoia and anti-Semitism.
    Yet, as Sasha Senderovich points out in his introduction to the current translation, “The Zelmenyaners” enjoyed a curious afterlife in the Soviet Union. Kulbak was posthumously rehabilitated in the 1950s, and the novel was republished in Russian translation in 1960, though by that time the political implications of the book had surely changed. Now, in English, they are hardly recognizable without the explanatory introduction and notes. Yet Kulbak’s work is a masterpiece for reasons that have little to do with its context. His characters are funny and pathetic, his prose delicate and inventive. His novel ushers the reader not into Soviet Belorussia, but into a world entirely its own. Like a Zelmenyaner itself, it turns reality into dream. - Ezra Glinter

    A carful of Soviet officials pulls into a large, rundown courtyard on the outskirts of Minsk. The officials, accompanied by a young woman whose family lives in the houses that form this heyf (courtyard), start tapping around the structures, examining. The young woman’s elderly aunts and uncles look at her, confused. “It looks like they’ll knock down the yard,” she matter-of-factly tells them. The family is understandably distraught at the news that their homes, where they have all grown up, will be demolished to make way for a new factory. The women grab brooms and start sweeping, as if cleaning up a bit will dissuade the officials from planning their demolition. One uncle becomes enraged, crying for his older brother and swearing to take the matter personally to Mikhail Kalinin. Mikhail Kalinin (1875–1946), a Bolshevik revolutionary and the nominal head of state in the Soviet Union between 1919 and 1946. His son attempts to put things in perspective: “Papa, calm down. Capitalism has been abolished” (222-23).
    The plot of Moyshe Kulbak’s sole novel, The Zelmenyaners, is in many ways encapsulated by the above scene. Four generations of a Jewish family known as the Zelmenyaners (after their patriarch, Reb Zelmele) have lived in this courtyard, the quintessential residential unit of so many Central European cities. The novel begins with a description of the courtyard, where most of the novel takes place:
    An ancient, two-story brick building with peeling plaster and two rows of low houses filled with little Zelmenyaners. Plus stables, attics, and cellars. It looks more like a narrow street. On summer days, Reb Zelmele is the first to appear at the crack of dawn in his long underwear. Sometimes he carries a brick or furiously shovels manure. (3)
    The satirical and episodic novel takes place—and was written—between 1929 and 1935, and it chronicles the ups and downs of this family as it faces the changing realities of Soviet life. The older generation, the aunts and uncles above, is often resistant to change, enacting small rebellions against things like electric light. But they also find themselves occasionally delighted by innovations: a tramline to the city center, for example, or their first trip to a movie. Some even find themselves coming around to industrialization. One uncle, a tailor, first rails against the horrors of constructing a jacket on an assembly line, but later finds himself appreciating the efficiency of the factory:
    Uncle Itshe took a deep breath, as if trying to collect his thoughts. “Ach, the things a poor tailor has lived to see! We live in times when the coats go around making themselves. It’s a whole new world…To think of the years I spent sitting at that old piece of junk, rattling away from morning till night…” (199)
    The younger generation is, for the most part, better suited to the changing world. One son is a Soviet police officer; a young woman has attended university and writes reports on economic development; another son returns from the far edges of Russia, tattooed and supporting a child that isn’t his own (and likely has a non-Jewish father); another daughter marries a Belorussian. Kulbak dubs the enthusiastic revolutionaries among this younger generation the shilyue, translated as whippersnaps:
    The (young) whippersnaps like to go around with peasant blouses and tousled hair. They like to carry revolvers in their back pockets. They like to stuff their mouths with bread and sausage and sit around the table poking fun. (80)
    The brilliance of Kulbak’s novel, however, is that it is not a simple or propagandistic satire of the older, counterrevolutionary, backwards Jews, corrected by their Bolshevik children. In fact, these children are the butt of Kulbak’s satire as often as their parents are. And much of the novel’s empathy is focused on what might be lost in this period of rapid change. The novel mourns old shadows dispelled by electricity at least as much as it celebrates an uncle’s late-in-life friendship with a non-Jewish potter he meets on a kolkhoz (collective farm):
    Uncle Yuda and the potter are like two radishes wintering under the snow. They’re frightfully fond of each other. Sometimes the potter visits Uncle Yuda. They sit in the henhouse, petting the hens. It’s a good way to relax. In general, Uncle Yuda is feeling chipper these days. He gives the potter a big smile when he comes to visit… . You can tell by his smile that Uncle Yuda is finally at peace. (115)
    The happiness this uncle finds at the kolkhoz might be the only happy ending in the novel; one old Jew is able to adapt enough to find his place in the new world, minding chickens on a collective farm. But not even this will prove to be a lasting peace. While reading The Zelmenyaners, one must marvel at the fine line between Kulbak’s love for Jewish folkways and his engagement in a revolutionary project, whose promises were already starting to break. Just two years after Kulbak finished the novel, he was murdered in Stalin’s first wave of purges of minority cultural figures.
    Moyshe Kulbak (1896–1937) is best known for his poetry, and it was poems like Shterndl (“Little Star”) and Di shtot (“The City”) that made him pop star famous in his day. For biographical information on Kulbak see Sasha Senderovich’s introduction to the translation as well as Peckerar and Rubinstein, “Moishe Kulbak,” in Writers in Yiddish, edited by Joseph Sherman, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 333 (Detroit: Gale, 2007). But considering the fame he once had, he is generally not remembered or read enough today, which makes this new translation of his only novel all the more exciting. Kulbak was born in Smorgon, today in Belarus, a city that was once well-known for a circus bear training academy (remembered in his poem Asore dibraye [“Ten Commandments”]). He lived in Smorgon and nearby Minsk until the string of chaos that was World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Civil War, and the Polish-Soviet War forced him away. (Minsk was on or near the front line of all of these conflicts.) During those years he taught in Kovno (Kaunas, Lithuania). In the early 1920s he moved to Berlin, where he spent a penniless few years learning at lectures, in museums, and especially in the cafes. He immortalized his time in Berlin in the mock epic poem, Dizner Tshayld Harold (Childe Harold of Disna), which satirizes the decadence of Berlin from Kulbak’s vantage point in the late 1920s. For a discussion and complete translation of Dizner Tshald Harold, see Peckerar The Allure of Germanness in Modern Ashkenazi Literature 1833-1933 (dissertation), University of California, Berkeley, 2009. When he could no longer stand his poverty, he moved to Wilno (Vilnius, Lithuania), where he became a popular teacher in the city’s esteemed Yiddish schools and his reputation as a poet truly took off. Yet despite steady work and popularity, in late 1928 Kulbak decided to return to Minsk, which by that time had become the capital of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. In Minsk he held various positions at the Institute of Belarusian Culture (which had a Yiddish department) and continued to write. The first chapters of The Zelmenyaners were published in December 1929 in the Minsk monthly Shtern (Star), barely a year after Kulbak’s return to the city.
    The new translation of The Zelmenyaners—the first complete translation of the novel into English—by Hillel Halkin and with a critical introduction and notes by Sasha Senderovich is both thoroughly enjoyable to read and invaluable on many levels. This translation is the first complete volume of Kulbak’s work to appear in English. His poetry, novellas, and plays, can be found only in anthologies or have yet to be translated. The novel offers a rare view of Jewish life in the early Soviet period in Belarus, a place that briefly offered exciting opportunities for Yiddish culture. On Soviet Minsk see Elissa Bemporad, Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013) and Barbara Epstein, The Minsk Ghetto 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008). Yiddish was an official language of the BSSR and people like Kulbak worked for a state-supported institute for the study of all aspects of Yiddish culture, paralleling and rivaling the work of YIVO across the border in independent Poland. The introduction by Senderovich frames the novel historically, culturally, and in the context of Kulbak’s career. Senderovich’s notes offer explanation of the intricacies of Soviet culture of the time, and illuminate the novel’s linguistic diversity (Soviet Yiddish acronyms, Belorussian folksongs, and the code-switching between Russian and heavily Hebraized Yiddish that members of the family strategically employ). For lovers of Kulbak’s poetry, the novel features many moments of his unique descriptions of nature, often poignantly contrasted with encroaching industrialization. The scene of a young couple in love (well, having an affair, at least), demonstrates the constant tension of Kulbak’s writing:
    He took her rowing on the Svisloch River. They ate pastries from a paper wrapper and floated with the current. Behind the Communard Factory, they kissed and promised to be true…The Svisloch breathed heavily with the rotted bodies of dead cats on its bottom. The rainbow-colored water had a thin crust. On the sandy hills on the far bank were cottages surrounded by gardens. Red poppies bloomed there. A train flew by on a bridge. Off to the left rose the high chimneys of the factory, belching spirals of black smoke. (226)
    The river cannot be separated from the factory, nor the poppy-covered hills from the train tracks, not even for the sake of a love scene. In fact these contrasts are at the heart of Kulbak’s satire. Every sentiment seems to include its opposite in this novel that has been criticized as both kowtowing to Soviet policy and as dangerously opposing it. Luckily for the reader of this translation, Halkin conveys much of the biting humor, as well as the moving poetry of Kulbak’s pen.
    In recent years, the world of Soviet Yiddish that was so long ignored by American academics and laypeople alike has been opening up, both through new scholarly work and translation. This translation joins scholarship by Harriet Murav, David Shneer, Anna Shternshis, Senderovich, Mikhail Krutikov, and Gennady Estraikh, among others. Collectively, these scholars are returning attention to accomplished and important writers like Peretz Markish, Dovid Bergelson, Izi Kharik, and Kulbak.7 7 See for example: Harriet Murav, Music from a Speeding Train: Jewish Literature in Post-Revolution Russia; David Shneer, Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture; Anna Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union 1923-1939; Sasha Senderovich, Seekers of Happiness: Mobility, Culture, and the Creation of the Soviet Jew, 1917-1939 (forthcoming); Mikhail Krutikov and Gennady Estraikh, A Captive of the Dawn: The Life and Work of Peretz Markish (1895-1952) and David Bergelson: From Modernism to Socialist Realism. Through this work, we can expand our understanding of the great blossoming of interwar Yiddish culture beyond what was happening in Warsaw and New York. Minsk and Moscow were the places where so many writers and cultural and political figures continued their work despite the growing restrictions and dangers of Stalinism. With the availability of The Zelmenyaners in English, we can only hope that interest in translations of Kulbak and his Soviet peers will increase, and that more of their work will become available soon.
    At the close of the novel, no intervention from Kalinin arrives to save the courtyard from being demolished. The family instead attempts to salvage everything it can from the rubble. In the mock-ethnographic tone that the novel often takes, we are given a list of what the yard, and by extension the family, are reduced to:
    This is what was salvaged at the last moment from Reb Zelmele’s demolished yard: Twelve copper pans, eight large copper pots, sixteen cast-iron pots, three copper jugs… . Uncle Folye ripped from a wall a porcelain electric fixture, and Aunt Gita, a mezuzah from a door. Perhaps, in the new apartments that awaited them, there would be a place for it. (266)
    In his introduction, Senderovich interprets these items, removed from their context and placed into a new transitory state, as “displaced markers of a family that is becoming both Soviet and Jewish… . the remnants of the Zelmenyaners’ courtyard await their reinterpretation and recontextualization in the family members’ new apartments, persisting beyond the old home’s physical disappearance but with their final meaning deferred.”
    We might also see these two items, the mezuzah and the electric fixture—electricity symbolizing Soviet innovation throughout the novel—as being changed by the comparison that is set up between the two. The electric fixture becomes a kind of symbol of a Soviet home, the way the mezuzah, lehavdl, symbolizes a Jewish home. It’s a juxtaposition the novel has made in other places. Early on in the novel, when electricity had just arrived in the yard, a comparison is made between the way the family strings up the new electric wiring, “as if they were building—pardon the comparison [lehavdl]—a holiday sukkah” (41). The novel comically points out the sacrilegious crossover as the Zelmenyaners’ Jewish traditions find ways to change and incorporate the new Soviet modernity. While the Zelmenyaners are certainly changed—sometimes with great difficulty and hardship—they also manage to inscribe their own meaning on the new world around them.
    The mezuzah and the electric fixture, highlighted in the final scene of the novel, parallel the contest that exists between traditional Jewish life and Soviet power throughout The Zelmenyaners. But here at the end the electric fixture is taken, lehavdl, in the same spirit as the mezuzah. We know there is room for electricity in the Zelmenyaners’ new apartments, but Aunt Gita hopes there will be room for what the mezuzah represents as well. The comparison suggests that there might even be room for breaking down the divisions between what had been seen as irreconcilable systems. Throughout the novel, the care and attention Kulbak takes in presenting both the idiosyncrasies of the Zelmenyaners and the innovations surrounding them might be read as expressing a hope that the newly created spaces of the Soviet Union will have room both for the transformative and liberatory power of revolution and for cultural heritage. The two need not be opposed. Unfortunately, Kulbak’s vision of a revolution with room for culture and history, critique and ambivalence, did not fit his time and place. The new translation of The Zelmenyaners offers an important opportunity to encounter the work Kulbak and other Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union did to offer critique and synthesis, and question the direction of their culture and society from within. - Madeleine Cohen

    Moyshe Kulbak’s The Zelmenyaners is many things: a family saga; a sometimes-earnest, sometimes-ironic portrait of the formative years of the Soviet Union and the Soviet pioneers; and a chronicle of modernity’s uneven arrival in Eastern Europe. For the first time, tramlines, movie theaters, and heavy industry begin to appear in the lives of Kulbak’s Jews—but many customs and patterns of Jewish life also begin to disappear. Kulbak, known primarily as a poet, is a brilliant storyteller, and the book manages the delicate act of being both serious and funny. 
    There are many interesting guides to The Zelmenyaners, reviews of the novel, and supporting materials of all kinds around the web. The original Yiddish novel is available in two volumes on our website: volume 1; volume 2. (A complete list of Kulbak’s books is available here. ) The Yiddish original is also available as an audiobook from our Sami Rohr Library of Recorded Yiddish Books.
    In February 1975, an evening in honor of Moshe Kulbak was held at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal. The event, which was held in Yiddish and which you can listen to in our Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library, offers a comprehensive overview of Kulbak’s life and work.
    Today this sheet of paper is most interesting as ephemera. The most comprehensive English biography of Kulbak is his entry in the YIVO Encyclopedia. The Yiddish newspaper the Forverts (Forward) also made this short biographical video about Kulbak. The video is narrated by the former editor of the Forverts, Boris Sandler, in his beautiful Besserabian Yiddish. It features English subtitles:
    Moshe Kulbak
    A more intimate view of Kulbak appears in our Wexler Oral History Project. In this excerpt, the renowned scholar of Yiddish literature Benjamin Harshav describes what it was like to have Kulbak as a teacher:
    Moyshe Kulbak Taught at My School
    The entire interview with Harshav is a treasure, and a brilliant introduction to the city Kulbak is most associated with, Vilna.  
    Although not explicitly about Kulbak, this clip from the Wexler Oral History Project provides added context. Kulbak was killed during Stalin's "great purges." Here, Ina Lancman, the daughter of a Soviet Yiddish author, shares her family's experiences during the purge:
    Great Purges & Yiddish Writer Naftali Herts Kon's First Gulag Experience
    But to return to The Zelmenyaners, several thoughtful reviews appeared at the time of the book’s publication. In a short, perceptive review, Rokhl Kafrissen called the novel “the funniest Yiddish novel about Soviet central planning you'll read this year.” At In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies, Madeleine Cohen reflects on the novel’s stage: the hoyf, or courtyard, which served as the primary type of residence in Eastern and Central Europe for decades and which inspired much classic Yiddish fiction. 
    Also at In geveb, Sasha Senderovich (who edited the volume and wrote its introduction and notes) writes about the characters who make up the book’s central family, and the conversations between family members: “Instead of one Tevye confronting modernity during the waning years of Imperial Russia through encounters with his recalcitrant daughters, Kulbak creates four Tevye-like figures in the guise of the four ‘uncles’ in The Zelmenyaners.”
    The article is accompanied by a fantastic illustration of the family tree sketched by one of Senderovich’s students. 
    Finally, we invite readers to listen to a conversation about the book between Senderovich and Sebastian Schulman, then-manager of the Yiddish Book Center’s translation programs, on the Center's podcast, The Shmooze: 

    Here's a sampling of some thoughts about the book, from members taking part in the club's Facebook group.

    Sasha Senderovich: Critical Introduction to Moyshe Kulbak's "The Zelmenyaners: A Family Saga"

    Moyshe Kulbak (1896–1937) was a Yiddish poet, novelist, and dramatist. Born in Smorgon near Vilna, he received a traditional Jewish education. At the age of twenty-three, he published his first book of poems in Vilna, then settled in Berlin where he became familiar with contemporary currents in European literature, particularly Expressionism. In 1923, Kulbak returned to Vilna to become one of the most popular figures in Yiddish cultural life, appointed to, among other positions, the chairmanship of the newly founded Yiddish PEN Club. Despite his great popularity as a teacher, writer, and lecturer, in 1928, Kulbak moved to Soviet Minsk, lured by the presence of much of his family and by the state sponsorship of Yiddish culture. The Zelmenyaners was written and published in Minsk between 1929 and 1935, the heyday of short-lived cultural renaissance. Arrested in 1937 in the wave of Stalinist repression that hit the Minsk Yiddish writers and cultural activists with particular vehemence, and given a perfunctory show trial, Kulbak was shot on October 29 at the age of 41.

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