If you’re unfamiliar with the Yiddish writer Der Nister — a pseudonym of Pinhas Kahanovitch (1884-1950) — you’re both a) not alone and b) no less likely to enjoy an intimate knowledge of the Ukrainian market town of Berdichev. Masked as “N.” in Der Nister’s remarkable saga The Family Mashber, Berdichev was not only the imagined locale for this sprawling achievement in fiction but also a very real and vibrant place (it was the birth city of Conrad and home of Sholom Alechim, and even the site of Balzac?s wedding nuptials). Der Nister, who perished in the anti-Yiddish Soviet purges of the late 1940s, fashioned a sui generis novel in his story of this city, replete with peddlers, holy men, moneylenders, gangsters, brothel keepers, and fallen aristocrats. The Mashbers of the title — Moishe, the respectable bourgeois businessman who falls from grace; Luzi, an otherworldly itinerant who sets the events in train that will destroy Moishe; and Alter, the idiot brother whose moments of clarity take on Delphic significance — are at once tangibly real in the novel and beacons of symbolic import. But the most memorable figure in The Family Mashber isn’t a Mashber at all but the drunken nogoodnik Sruli Gol, a mysterious antihero who all but floats along the novel?s surface. It would be wrong to call this novel either social realism or magic realism. It wouldn’t be incorrect, though, to rank it among the most marvelous literary rediscoveries of the past decade. In his preface, Der Nister wrote that he had written the novel “to give young people a sense of the great distance that separates our reality from that earlier one.” Let us be thankful that he did so.
About the Writer
Eric Banks is the former editor of Bookforum. He has contributed to The New York Times, Slate, The Guardian, and the Financial Times and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle board of directors.