Wednesday, May 30, 2018

David Bergelson's Judgement

David Bergelson's Yiddish novel, Judgment, reminds me of Platonov's beautiful but profoundly sad book, Soul.  Bergelson resembles Plotonov in his capacity for deploying metaphors and similes to make everyday life feel exceedingly unfamiliar and strange.  Like Platonov, Bergelson's prose is powerfully original, and derives much of its poignancy from its systematic conflation of the animate and inanimate worlds.  In Soul, Platonov describes the emotional condition of his protagonist by projecting that protagonist's desperate loneliness and existential isolation onto the animals he encounters in his travels.  For Platonov, every camel, vulture, or dog, is actively reflecting the ongoing tragedy of earthly existence. Here, for example, is a description of homes in a local Jewish village:  "The houses were buried deep in the snow.  Like wrestlers in the ring too exhausted to throw their opponents, they remained hunched over in their corners."  For Bergelson, every cloud, gust of wind, forest, or home is alive with a kind of ominous and willful intensity. Thus, abandoned buildings "peer" out of dark corners, storms are "measured and coldblooded," and the moon has the "face of a cadaver." Bergelson's depicts the physical world as dark, threatening, and unsafe, but also curiously magical and furiously alive.  Probably the greatest similarity between Bergelson and Platonov is that they each somehow manage to demonstrate that the world can be both sad beyond recoking and simultaneously beautiful.  Take, for example, Bergelson's bleak depiction of characters who are both tragic and magnificently unique.  One character was "gypsy dark with gold hoops in her ears, with a pair of eyes that always looked exhausted, worn out from her own beauty."  Another character was a "deaf-mute" but still had enough vitality to "flood the whole world with pancakes" if he wasn't told to stop cooking. 

If Bergelson's novel resembles the mood and style of Platonov's Judgment, its plot or subject matter more closely resembles Babel's Red Cavalry short stories. For both books deal with the chaotic period immediately following the Revolution.  While Babel's Red Cavalry follows the Bolsheviks' ultimately unsuccessful campaign against non-communist Poland, Bergelson's novel depicts a border region in which the communists are still working to more fully exert their influence. In Bergelson's world, revolutionaries are still rounding up enemies, patrolling the border areas, and suppressing Social Revolutionary plots. A doctor waits to see if the revolution will be overturned.  As Bergelson writes, "Every time he put a piece of gauze in a patient's mouth, he would run to the window to check whether the current regime had been abolished."

 Bergelson's view of the Revolution is complex and multifaceted. To be sure, the revolution is violent.  In the new revolutionary climate, you could grab and whip you "just the same as if you'd done nothing."  It was best "not to get in the revolution's way."  And many were "given the authority from the revolution to reduce everyone standing here to ashes..."  The revolution is also a monumental force of change, capable of rupturing both time and space.  In terms of time, the revolution has created a clear divide between past and present.  New types of people had emerged in its wake.  "In the past men like Filopov didn't exist," writes Bergelson. The world had been overturned by revolution.  As the narrator laments, "People just didn't know how to live in times like these." Bergelson's characters agree with the narrator.  One says that "if you knew somebody yesterday, that doesn't mean you know who he is today," and another exclaims that "life got rerouted onto a strange and crooked path."   In terms of space, the revolution was someone akin to Tarkovsky's alien zones in the film Roadside Picnic.  Where the revolution existed, life operated according to one set of almost physical laws;  where the revolution did not exist, life operated in entirely different ways.  As one characters declares, a "journey of a mere four or five hours gets you to a place where the revolution is over" and this meant that one could encounter a "different kind of snow, whiter and freer..."  Just across Russia's border there was a "city at the seashore" where "music will be playing--just music, without speeches."  The revolution's defenders agreed with this sentiment and saw the revolution as a sack.  "We keep on patching it up, but you here at the border are like mice, nibling away."  The fear was that the revolutionary zone would spill into the non-revolutionary zone, or vice versa.  "You are eating out a hole at the edge of the sack and everything's going to spill out," declared the local communist boss. 



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