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The Yiddish Question

Friday, January 15, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Visiting Scribe author Anthony Schneider shared how he managed to bypass the difficulties of beginning to write a novel. His novel Repercussions comes out January 31 from The Permanent Press.

You fall in love when you write a novel. One of the things I fell in love with in writing Repercussions was the Yiddish language. It’s so vivid, so full of metaphor and mischief. Yiddish words are often connected to the body or the animal world—interesting places for words to play. Yiddish epithets tend to be nasty, philosophical, metaphysical, or plain old funny, sometimes all at once. Compare “wet behind the ears” with “what does a pig know about noodles.” The Yiddish aphorism (“vos veis a khazer von lokshen”) covers idiocy as wall as infancy, but they’re in the same ballpark. Indeed, Yiddish sayings are often complex, and as a result there are many that don’t really have equivalents in other languages. “Abi gezunt dos leben ken men zikh ale mol nemen” means something like, “Stay healthy, because you can kill yourself later.” Nice shmice.

Henry, the protagonist of Repercussions, was born in Lithuania and moves with his parents at a young age, first to Liverpool and then to South Africa, arriving in 1936. His parents speak Yiddish, and the South African Jewish communities in which he finds himself have a lot of Yiddish speakers, almost all Eastern European immigrants. Henry’s mother speaks Yiddish at home, but his father chooses to speak English. Like my maternal grandfather, Henry’s father is a Yiddish denier, who refuses to speak his mother tongue. So the Yiddish in the book is not Henry’s mother tongue but words and phrases that resonate, some of which he remembers decades later, long after he has fled South Africa and moved to America.

Some Yiddish words and phrases that appear in the novel:

Shlemazel: an unlucky person.
Not to be confused with shlameil, which is a bungler. (It is said that "the shlemiel spills the soup on the shlemazel".)

Alevai:It should only happen!
As in, “When our daughter gets married, alevai, we can make a nice wedding.”

Geshvolen Swollen. Which may not be a bad thing, as in “geshvolen lips.”

Kishnev: A remote place (named for a remote city in Russia).
I was originally going to use a phrase I heard from my grandmother, “
alle shvartz yoren,” as in “all the dark years,” which is a lovely conflation of time and place. Einstein would have loved that saying, but I couldn’t find a reference, not even from the Google golem. Sidenote, there are a lot of Yiddish sayings about time and place. Here’s one of my favorites: “Farloreneh yoren iz erger vi farloreneh gelt.” Lost years are worse than lost dollars.

Fremder mensch: strange people, foreigners. (Henry describes his grandson’s girlfriend as a fremder mensch, because her parents were born in Vietnam.)

Wayse shtern: white stars. There’s a song about white stars, (“Unter Dayne Wayse Shtern” (“Under Your White Stars”), a beautiful and heartfelt song that came out of the Vilna ghetto. Henry would have heard it from survivors, and his uncle who was a partisan would have heard it in the ghetto. (Listen here.)

Language is where thoughts and feelings meet the world. Yiddish is a language that aims at expression over precision. Like the Expressionist painters and writers, the Yiddish language seeks to express the inner world of emotion rather than define external reality. Yiddish is also a language with a long history, the language of Eastern European Jews, linguistic testament to their suffering and travels and staying power, their wit and wisdom and sadness. It occurs to me now that Henry is a personification of the language. They’re both funny, irascible, wise and bawdy. Like the Yiddish language, Henry is often moved but never unrooted. If “language is the dress of thought,” as Samuel Johnson puts it, the Yiddish fabric is a rich and darkly comic dress that should not be forgotten in grandma’s attic.

Anthony Schneider has been published in McSweeney’s, Conjunctions, Mid-American Review, and Details. Born in South Africa and educated in the United States, he divides his time between London and New York.

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In the Beginning(s)

Monday, January 11, 2016 | Permalink

Anthony Schneider is the author of Repercussions, a novel about a grandfather whose South African past continues to affect his family in the generations to come. Anthony is blogging here all week as a Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople.

“Beginning a book is unpleasant,” Philip Roth observed.

Roth is a veteran writer who has written 27 novels, give or take. So for the first-, second- or third- time novelist, beginning a book is very unpleasant indeed, bordering on terrifying. You sit at your desk with an outline or a blank piece of paper, perhaps you’ve jotted some notes or written a few pages, but you have no idea how you’ll get from there to a finished manuscript weighing in at two or three hundred pages. Ask a dozen writers how their books began and you’ll likely get a dozen answers. That’s because beginnings are mysterious, and different writers have different processes.

My novel Repercussions started by accident. I was at the MacDowell Colony (thank you MacDowell) and gave myself writing exercises. One of my grandfathers had moved from Liverpool to South Africa, and I’d been thinking about his generation and his life and had brought along a book about Liverpool in the early twentieth century. I thought it might be liberating to write a day in the life— a character sketch, not a story (the word “novel” wasn’t even hovering in the air above my laptop back then). So I wrote about a boy in Liverpool. After twenty or so pages, I moved on.

A few months later I found myself writing about a grumpy grandfather in New York City, and at some stage it struck me that the two characters might be the same person. That was the first seed. As I wrote more, I had the sense that I already knew this character, that I wasn’t inventing him as much as uncovering him.

There was a second seed, which came much later, when I had written hundreds of pages (don’t worry, the finished book is a trim 227 pages). I asked myself what I was writing about, and it occurred to me that the book was about the conflict between humans and history. The forces of history are immensely powerful, too big for most people to understand, let alone control. At the same time, an individual’s actions, even when one is acting to make the world a better place, have ripples and repercussions that affect others, sometimes for many generations. The pages sort of opened up when I hit upon that idea, and I was able to mine a vein of the stories flooding in and begin threading them together into a single novel.

Novels teach us not only what happens but how it feels. Repercussions is very much an exploration of how it feels to be caught in the clash between your life and job and family—and history. It’s not a fair fight, precisely because history is a tsunami: big, complicated, powerful, and unpredictable, further complicated by the fact that history isn’t really observable while it’s going on. We spend our days thinking about tomorrow, our job, the holiday we’re planning, what to cook for dinner, our child’s homework. We can’t help being immersed in the quotidian even if we have our sights on the future. We’re not really aware how history ensues around us, and the vast majority of us certainly don’t know how we might affect it. That’s where I see the characters in my novel—inside history, whether near the eye of the storm or far from it, trying to change the world or to just get by. But history is happening, and the more powerful the currents of history the further the ripples will travel.

Postscript: I’m writing this from South Africa, where people don’t talk much about history, even recent history, and all too few are trying to change it. Perhaps a few novelists are writing about it. I hope so.

Anthony Schneider has been published in McSweeney’s, Conjunctions, Mid-American Review, and Details. Born in South Africa and educated in the United States, he divides his time between London and New York.