I return to The Street again and again.
I first read the novel when I working as a bookseller out on West 4th St. in New York. A man I sold books with lent me his copy, saying that it was out of print and he needed to make sure he got it back, but that he thought I should read it. The Street, a 1928 Yiddish novel by Israel Rabon, tells the story of a lonely, recently discharged Polish Army veteran trying to survive in the streets of Lodz. I assumed my friend was lending me the book because I was developing an interest in Yiddish literature at the time. He had been a bookseller for many years, and before that had grown up in a Yiddish household, so he often made recommendations on the subject. After reading it, though, I understood that he’d lent The Street to me because he was a lonely man, trying to survive in the streets of New York, and the novel had cut through to his own experience.
A couple years later, when I was lonely myself, I tried to locate a copy of the book. The New York Public Library’s website said there was a copy at the Mid-Manhattan Library, but when I got there I found the book on a shelf of Yiddish language books. I don’t read (or speak) any Yiddish. While it was cool to see the original text, it was ultimately a very frustrating experience. I stared at the cover of the book, knowing that the story I wanted was in there, but having no way to access it. The edition I was actually looking for was famed Vampire scholar Leonard Wolf’s 1985 English translation, released on the long defunct Four Walls Eight Windows.
The following year, when I was less lonely but more able to spend money, I ordered the Wolf translation off the Internet. Because of the way the novel was initially presented to me, and because of the way the narration travels to us from across the grave, I had convinced myself that the novel was more rare and more obscure than it is. Actually, there are lots of copies around, and you can order them cheaply. I got the book in the mail and I read it again. The first time, I’d read the book literally out on the street, and was caught up in the emotion of the experience. This second time, I was able to view the book with a more patient and critical eye, and take the time to internalize all the details I’d missed the first time. If anything, the novel hit me harder this second time around. In my excitement, I drunkenly forced the copy on a friend as an unwanted gift.
Yet another year later, I happened upon a copy of The Street at Book Thug Nation – a used bookstore in Brooklyn started by street booksellers – and I have just finished reading the book for the third time. Only now do I feel I know the book well enough to be able to talk about it. There is, admittedly, little to the plot. In the prologue, the nameless narrator is discharged from the Polish Army after four years of service (including combat in the Polish Soviet war) and boards a train for Lodz, for lack of any other destination. Most of the book is then devoted to the narrator’s daily struggle to feed and shelter himself. The story ends when he leaves Lodz in search of work, and subsequently dies. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to tell you he dies. There’s no other way it could end.
What remains in lieu of plot is the texture of life and struggle of living. The narrator has survived the brutality of war (one of the few full scenes that takes place outside of the real time of the book is an account of staving off freezing to death on the Russian front by crawling into the intestinal cavity of a dead horse), and now must survive civilian life. We follow him as he counts every kopek, savors every bit of bread and sausage, adjusts his army coat in an attempt to sleep comfortably in a corner. We also see, through his eyes, the people he encounters, all of whom are trying to survive in their own way. There this the tubercular clown, Doli, who is paid to cry in front of an audience. There is the pious Jew’s son, Jason, who runs away to become a wrestler in the circus. There are the weavers who strike for better wages, the veterans of various armies who sleep in the municipal Beggars’ House, the old women who carry baskets of laundry. Then there is the poet, Vogelnest, who declaims his work to an empty theatre and who, unlike all the others, has no will to survive.
Part of the excitement of The Street for me was how different it is from all the other translated Yiddish literature I’ve read. It is tighter, less polemic, less sentimental. It is more brutal, more focused on personal survival. In short, more street. I think the purpose of a lot of translated Yiddish literature in America is to preserve a communal cultural history. The Street has nothing to do with community; it is a book about isolation. I.B. Singer (who Wolf also translated) probably comes closet, but only at times and only so close. He has moments, in books like Lost In America and Shosha, where he (or his alter ego) wanders the streets of Warsaw penniless and considering suicide. As Wolf points out in his afterward to The Street, both writers were clearly influenced by Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger. Still, Singer offers us an escape. No matter how much Singer claims hopelessness, there is always the glimmer of hope in his eager yeshiva bocher eyes. His characters always secretly believe that there is another world, and that it may intervene in ours in some manner. For Rabon, though, there is no other world. There are no secret hopes. There is no escape. Despite the fact that that Rabon is telling an integrally Jewish story, his work has more in common with a Céline, the Nazi collaborator, than with any of his landsmen.
Part of me wonders if I am projecting the tragedy of Rabon’s biography – he was imprisoned and then murdered by the Nazis in 1941 – onto the book. But while the historical context is unavoidable, I do believe that The Street stands alone as a pure expression of the pain of living. There is no need for a plot or story beyond this, and there is no need for The Street to bear undo historical weight. Pain existed in the world (and certainly in Poland) long before The Holocaust. It existed deep in Israel Rabon’s heart. His novel is not unlike the performance of the clown Doli that the narrator observes from the wings: “Doli wept for ten minutes or so – sometimes like a hungry child, sometimes like an old man. Sometimes he wept like a woman, sometimes like a man. His grief rose to a crescendo – and always the two streams of tears flowed down his face.”