This is not a review, exactly, though it is certainly an endorsement. I’m not going to try and summarize the book (if you want, that, see Wikipedia or this review, which served as a second intro to the copy I read), mostly because that would take more time than I’m willing to commit to today (the weather’s real nice, I’m at work, I want to go ride my bike after work, etc.), but I do want to talk about the book a little bit, if only to peek someone else’s interest enough to read it, because lordy do I want to talk about this book.
It’s so bad that I was even googling scholarly articles about it. I haven’t done that since college.
Robert Lowell called Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier” the best French novel in the English language. So, similarly, might one call I.J. Singer’s “The Brothers Ashkenazi” the best Russian novel ever written in Yiddish.
(also, fucking paywalls…)
I found this sentiment to be very true, on a lot of levels. I mean, yes, the novel takes place in Europe (mostly Poland, a little bit of Russia), but it really felt like a European/Russian novel. I don’t know if I can accurately describe what that means, other than that it was long, dense, multi-layered, family-centric, political, social, and extremely good.
Because this is a “hot take,” I’m going to use bullet points, because frankly there’s so much to say about this book, I only finished it last night, and really should let it stew a while before even attempting an exposition (not that I’m necessarily going to do that, and if so, not necessarily here). So:
- So far as it relates to my “Jewish Book Project” (hereafter referred to as the JBP), it was interesting to read the “Jewish” threads of this (no pun intended – the book, in some sense, is about the textile industry in Lodz, Poland). A lot of it was the tension between the (old world?) Hasidism and the cosmopolitan reality of living in a city, of being involved with business, etc. Not that this cosmopolitanism is easy (one of the most memorable lines in the book is, “Don’t you know? It always ends with Jewish heads bleeding”). But setting that aside for a moment, the book illustrates a variety of ways of dealing with religion in this cosmopolitan/modern context – whether it’s a character rejecting everything modern, impoverishing his family to exclusively study Torah or another character completely rejecting everything Jewish, cutting his beard, eating pork, etc. But I’ll leave this topic for now.
- To briefly tackle the long and dense thing: it wasn’t long or dense in a bad way, but in the way that a 430-some-odd page novel is long, and dense in the way that you weren’t blasting through chapter after chapter; I found 2-3 per night to be ideal (which is perhaps why it took me so long to finish).
- Another super interesting thing about the book was its equivocation (in my reading) of Hassidic Messianism with what you might call ‘Marxist Messianism.’ One of the multitude of responses to the problem of faith and modernity was to replace the Jewish faith with the Marxist faith, replace the fervent study of Torah with the fervent study of Marx and “heretical books,” to swap the prayer house for the union hall. Of course, this isn’t any more a successful response than any of the others, but it still proved interesting, both in the context of the novel as well as an idea in itself.
- Speaking of, the book takes a pretty fucking bleak stance on the world and the people in it. Don’t have time to go into this here, but it’s a very (appropriately) pessimistic book, in almost every regard.
- Also, gender in this book is interesting, if only because the female characters are treated so shitty, and it’s (I suppose) endemic of the attitude towards women at that time in that place in that community. What I. J. Singer’s stance on all of it in fact is unclear (he can seem frustrating in his narration sometimes, if you’re not looking for the irony, becuase he states things as ‘matters of fact’ in the narrator’s voice, though the often horrible attitudes and points of views belong to the character he’s writing around), but the book would be interesting to read again watching more closely for gender stuff someday, especially because though none of the characters really “do well” in the end (success in the novel is ephemeral at best), it’s often the female characters that manage to succeed in the worst of times, or rather, they’re still the ones making sure people get fed (I’m thinking of Teyve’s wife in particular).
- FWIW, I don’t think this is a “perfect” novel by any stretch of the imagination. There are characters that appear, get some time (in the kind of way that you expect them to play a proper role in the narrative), then disappear, or come up only briefly to make a (in the case of one character, Felix) painfully didactic/obvious point. That said, I think it’s a very good novel, in the kind of way that a lot of Dostoevsky’s work isn’t “perfect” but still “very good.” Although one could perhaps want tighter plotting, the pacing of it all was brilliant, I thought. And if we were to be charitable, the messiness of the plot makes sense, in a “form following content” kind of way.
- So, one of the cool things (that I more or less alluded to before) about it being set during the late 19thc through the First World War, was that you get to see all of these huge social forces in conflict (i.e., it’s a very European novel). I feel like you lose a lot of that reading (especially contemporary) American fiction. Individuals may stand for this or that in some way, but throughout The Brothers Ashkenazi the characters felt significantly burdened by history and the social forces that they both embodied and represented. I think this is a part of the reason why it was so “dense,” and why I enjoyed it so much.
- To briefly address the book in the context of the history that followed: yes, it is always intense to read in light of the World War and atrocities that followed the period of the book and the period in which it was written (early 1930s). I knew things were shitty in Poland, but not how shitty, and so that’s a knowledge gap I’ve got to fill. Still, I really think the book stands up on its own, and so I would recommend against thinking of the book only in that context. But then, maybe you wouldn’t. You’re smarter than I give you credit for, and that’s on me.
I intend to read more criticism on this and think more about it. If you’re interested in reading some of that on here, let me know on le twitter. The point is that I really liked the book though. Like, a lot.
And you should read it, too.