Bergelson depicts the lives of upwardly mobile, self-aware nouveaux riche Jews in the waning years of the Russian Empire. The central character, Mirel Hurvits, is an educated, beautiful woman who embodies the conflict between tradition and progress, aristocracy and enterprise. A forced marriage of convenience results in Mirel’s emotional disintegration and provokes a confrontation with the expectations of her pious family and with Jewish tradition. In a unique prose style of unsurpassable range and beauty, Bergelson reduces language to its bare essentials, punctuated by silences that heighten the sense of alienation in the story.
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About the Author
Joseph Sherman has been the Corob Fellow in Yiddish Studies at Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Oxford University. He is the author of The Jewish Pope: Myth, Diaspora and Yiddish Literature (Oxford, 2003) and translator of Isaac Singer’s Shadows on the Hudson (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1987).
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The End of Everything
By David Bergelson, Joseph Sherman
Yale University PressCopyright © 2009 the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature and the National Yiddish Book Center
All rights reserved.
Part 1 Velvl Burnes
For four long years the provincial, small-town engagement dragged on between them, and ended in the following way.
She, Reb Gedalye Hurvits's only child Mirele, eventually returned the betrothal contract and once more took to keeping company with the crippled student Lipkis.
The rejected fiancé's nouveau-riche father, enormously wealthy and genteelly taciturn, constantly paced about in his study with a cigarette between his lips, musing on his three great estates and wondering whether it was perhaps unbecoming for him to remember either the name of the man to whom he'd almost become related by marriage or the returned betrothal contract. Dark and tall, he was an unlearned individual who, having acquired a veneer of refinement, had, at the age of forty-eight, started regularly attending both afternoon and evening prayer services in the nearby study house.
And his mother, a squat, obese woman whose asthma obliged her to breathe hoarsely and with difficulty, like a force-fed goose, first became aware of the returned contract considerably later when, sunburned and disconsolate, she returned from abroad without having found any cure at all. Quietly and dolefully she cursed the former fiancée in virtually the same breath as that dismal Marienbad which had frittered away her strength and spirits to no effect. Repeatedly shaking and rubbing one of her rheumatic legs, she brooded silently:
—God knew whether she'd ever live to see her son's wedding.
One evening, when she was hosting out-of-town guests in her house, she caught sight of Mirele and the crippled student passing the open window nearby. No longer able to contain herself, she thrust her head outside, and shouted after Mirele at the top of her hoarse and breathless voice:
—He's a pauper already, that father of hers!—and that's the way he'll always be! So why's she still frisking about like a bitch in heat, that one?—Yes, her, that one right over there!
And he, the tall, handsome twenty-seven-year-old bachelor, could not endure it. Then and there he rebuked his mother:
—Hush! Hush! Just look at her.
By nature he was a patient and quiet young man, loved his nouveau-riche, genteelly reserved father, and wanted everything to be conducted as quietly and courteously in their own home as in the homes of the Gentile landowners with whom, through his father, he'd been involved in business dealings from the time he was sixteen years old. However, since he found it distasteful to remain in the shtetl and watch Mirele strolling about every evening with the crippled student, his father leased the Bitznev farm in the nearby village for him and he moved there, not too far away, settling into the whitewashed landowner's cottage, which shared the same courtyard as the house of the village priest.
Here in the quiet, deserted village the Gentiles called him Panicz, 'little master,' and doffed their caps to him, and his two younger sisters with their overweight, wheezing mother often came to visit, bringing him gifts of home-baked pastries. In his own home he always smiled at his sisters because they were being tutored by a university student and because they were still meeting her, the young woman who'd returned the betrothal contract to him. He pressed their hands and asked them:
—How are you? How are you getting on?
Here in his own home he wanted to show his mother exactly the same respect that mothers received in the homes of those landowners who ran estates they either owned or leased in the neighborhood. He always remained standing in her presence, and since courtesy dictated that he could address her in neither the familiar nor the formal mode, he always spoke to her in the third person:
—Would Mother like to drink tea? Would Mother perhaps like to lie down?
Only when, complaining about her illness and bewailing the fact that he didn't get married, she began cursing her, the young woman who'd returned the betrothal contract, was he displeased, and pulling a somewhat sour face he rebuked her angrily but politely in the same way he would rebuke her angrily and politely in his father's house:
—Hush! Hush! Just look at her.
He seldom returned to his parents' home and then only when business made it necessary. There he conducted himself courteously and quietly, like a welcome guest from out of town, smiling politely as he stood opposite his sisters, or slowly lifted the little boy who ran past, placed him on the table, stroked his grubby cheeks, and asked winningly:
—What are you doing, eh? Are you running around?
He spent almost all his time there with his father in the small, perpetually smoke-filled study, discussing various commercial transactions, thinking of the dowry money—his six thousand and Mirele's three thousand rubles, all still on deposit with the old Count of Kashperivke—and fearful that his father would soon start in again:
—Yes, those six thousand rubles still lying with the Count ... What'll become of those six thousand rubles on deposit with the old Count of Kashperivke?
At that time Reb Gedalye Hurvits, the man who was to have been his father-in-law, an absent-minded Torah scholar of distinguished lineage with little head for business, was in serious financial difficulty, and his creditors stood about in the marketplace every afternoon openly calculating what he was worth:
—It seems that he's invested five thousand rubles in the Kashperivke woods ... and three thousand in Zhorzhovke poppy seed. And what about the mill? How much did he lose in that unlucky Ternov mill after Shavuot?
Why Reb Gedalye didn't withdraw his three thousand rubles from the Count was impossible to fathom, and, as Velvl sat in the small study, he wanted his father to go on smoking his cigarettes in silence, to go on pacing back and forth for as long as possible, and to go on thinking as he did about the man who would have been his father-in-law:
Apparently he understood his only child very well ... To this day he'd apparently not given up hope about making the match.
Once, late on a Sunday afternoon, when the whole house stood almost deserted awaiting the return of those of its occupants who'd gone out, he lingered longer than usual in that dark little study with his father. At length he heard his younger sister, who'd only just returned from her walk, taking off her corset in an adjoining room and wondering aloud about something.
—How do you like that Mirele? Can you understand her?
Obviously Mirele had met his sister on the promenade only a moment before, had stopped her there, and had asked her something, which was why here, in this half-darkened room, his heart leapt and he abruptly forgot what he'd just been discussing with his father. Perhaps three times he repeated the same pointless words, overcome with a powerful desire to join his sister in her room and question her about her encounter, but he composed himself, remained where he was in the study, and in the end asked nothing of her. Later, with other members of the household, his sister came out with him, saw him seat himself in his buggy and drive o. to spend the night on his farm. As he pulled away from the house, he merely smiled at her and nodded somewhat too vigorously. He knew that Mirele, escorted by the crippled student, was quite capable of accosting his sister on the promenade and shamelessly inquiring after him, her former fiancé:
—What's Velvl doing at present?
—Why don't we ever see Velvl in town?
Anything was possible with Mirele. That other incident, for example—when had it taken place? Only the other day, in company with the crippled student, she'd gone into the town's only grocery store in the middle of the marketplace regardless of the fact that she'd recognized his buggy waiting for him outside and knew that he must be inside himself. At the time he'd been overcome with confusion, had wanted to get out of the shop as quickly as possible, and had asked the shopkeeper more loudly than normal:
—Please see that the account is prepared by Sunday ... at least not later than Sunday.
And then, without hesitation, she'd stopped him to ask:
—Did he really think it suited him, that soft light beard he'd recently permitted himself to grow?
The crippled student, standing with someone in the doorway of the shop, wanted to show that he wasn't in the slightest concerned that Mirele was talking to her former fiancé, so he shouted out rather too loudly:
—Who says that a through draft can be harmful? Does it say so in black and white in the medical textbooks?
As Velvl's perfectly healthy young man's heart began beating abnormally fast, he imagined that he did well to smile and answer with a barb:
—Some people like beards, and some do not.
Anyway, he made known that he still had his pride and was quite capable of defending himself. And the main thing ... the main thing was that he'd done well to repeat loudly to the shopkeeper:
—Could he be certain that his account would be prepared by Sunday?
In this way he'd at least given her to understand that he was a busy man wholly engrossed by his farm, and cared very little for the idle chatter she engaged in every day with the crippled student.
All the way home he'd been greatly agitated and had reflected:
—Practically all the grain on his fields had sprouted and was already starting to turn green.
The grain looked promising, but even without it he'd still earn tolerably that year. In the winter, when trodden snow lay frozen on the ground and his workerless farm stood silent and dormant, he'd buy a polished sleigh and a fur coat with a detachable collar and, traveling into town, would frequently come upon Mirele with the student on their way to visit an acquaintance somewhere.
The time for harvesting and gathering in the grain soon came. The work on the farm intensified, and he had no time even to think about going into town.
Peasants, men and women alike, with scythes in their hands, were deployed across his fields, and wagons, both his own and those he'd borrowed, carted the dried sheaves uphill to the barn, where a steam-driven machine positioned between huge haystacks had been puffing away since very early that morning, whistling every time the water in its boiler evaporated, cheerfully threshing the full, dry ears of wheat.
All day long he galloped about on horseback, busy everywhere, supervising the reapers and the farm laborers who cleaned and weighed the grain in the gloomy low-roofed sheds, snatching time in order also to visit the steam threshing machine, where he rebuked the lazy, smiling peasant girls.
Almost every day during that period he rose at first light and fell asleep as the sun set, dropping onto his bed dusty and exhausted, content that the warm night gave promise of a fine, clear day to follow.
That was the time when he usually slept fully clothed, dreaming virtually uninterruptedly of his noisy, bustling barn and his newly furnished cottage in which, astonishingly, Mirele seemed somehow to be wandering about, smiling at those townsfolk who'd come to buy his wheat and suggesting, from her chair near the ever-ready samovar:
—Velvl, perhaps these men would like to take a glass of tea with us?
The all-embracing air, the huge barns filled with hay, and the great heaps of threshed grain all mutely suggested that his tireless work—his galloping about, his lack of sleep, and the money he was earning—had some kind of intimate connection with Mirele and the crippled student who spent days on end wandering about the shtetl together; all of it also suggested that possibly it would all lead to important changes ultimately, that in Reb Gedalye Hurvits's house there would be considerable regret about the broken engagement, and every time his buggy was seen through the window, those inside would comment to each other:
—Velvl's only just driven past; he's come by with a new pair of horses.
And when the work and the commotion that attended it had finally ended and the entire harvest of threshed grain had filled all his low-roofed sheds, only then, as though awakening from a dream, did he begin to look about him and to realize:
The hottest two and a half months of the summer had already passed and the days had grown noticeably shorter and cooler; he himself was exhausted and too often slept fully dressed both by day and by night, starting awake at the sound of the slightest spurt of rain that came clattering down on his tin roof from the overcast skies, and then lying halfasleep with eyes wide open, thinking:
—His beets ... they were growing ... they were growing ... In this way, fully dressed, he slept through one of the Gentile holidays. When he awoke, it was already dark and chilly outdoors, and here and there in the village houses the first fires of night were trembling into life. The dark air was heavy with silence, and only the light breeze outside knew sorrowful stories about the day that had died. Through the darkness it gusted in toward him from the open window, and once inside, it grieved despondently:
—The day has finally ended ... finally ended ...
Well rested and composed, he bathed, donned white collar and cuffs, slowly drank some tea, and ordered his buggy harnessed:
—It's high time, it seems, to take a trip into town ... eh? Certainly, high time.
He'd not been there for so long and yearned for it.
Sitting in his buggy, he unhurriedly considered whether he ought to instruct his driver to urge the horses on faster; that if he were to do so he might still reach the shtetl early enough to ensure that, from among the strolling couples at the head of the street, Mirele and the crippled student might yet recognize him.
But he said not a word to the driver, allowing him to travel the whole way at a dignified and leisurely pace. Once, when the driver was irritated at the right-hand horse and lashed it unnecessarily in anger, he rebuked him in the tone of a highly regarded householder, a prominent man of affairs:
—Gently! Gently! There's no reason to hurry.
Though a little annoyed, he was calm and sedate, thinking constantly of Mirele and shrugging his shoulders as he did so:
—Really, someone might think that he needed her ... that he was running after her.
Not far from the town, however, filled with more than usual yearning, his heart started beating faster, and in confusion he began casting agitated glances at the couples strolling past, heedless of the fact that it was almost totally dark outdoors and thus difficult to distinguish the features of people even from close by. He was angry at himself for continually turning to look at these couples, was loath to watch them, yet went on staring anyway, brooding all the while:
—She wasn't there ... Not that it made any difference to him ... But she was definitely not there.
From various corners of the town, early evening fires gazed pensively at his passing buggy. They reminded him of how much time had elapsed since he'd been here even once, intensified his longing for his former fiancée, and made dearer the remembrance of her sorrowful features, so long unseen.
Now she was undoubtedly sitting over there, in one of those brightly lit town houses, sad and indifferent to the people surrounding her, her blue eyes fixed on the lamp, saying nothing.
And were there to be some talk of Velvl Burnes, were someone over there to say,
"He'll earn a considerable sum this year ... without doubt a considerable sum ..." she would, for a moment, tear her sad eyes away from the lamp and ask, "Who? Velvl Burnes?" and then she'd go on staring sadly at the lamp for a long time and in silence, and no one would know whether she regretted returning the betrothal contract or not.
Unexpectedly, someone stopped his buggy near the first of the town's houses and began yelling out to him:
—They weren't at home, his father and mother ... Very early yesterday morning they'd gone off to the provincial capital.
Excerpted from The End of Everything by David Bergelson, Joseph Sherman. Copyright © 2009 the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature and the National Yiddish Book Center. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press.
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Table of Contents
Part I: Velvl Burnes,
Part II: Mirel,
Part III: The Beginning of the End,
Part IV: The End of Everything,