Beltz’s Beaux

D.A.N. Jones

  • Marienbad by Sholom Aleichem, translated by Aliza Shevrin
    Weidenfeld, 222 pp, £7.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 297 78200 2
  • A Coin in Nine Hands by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Dori Katz
    Aidan Ellis, 192 pp, £7.95, January 1983, ISBN 0 85628 123 9
  • Entry into Jerusalem by Stanley Middleton
    Hutchinson, 172 pp, £7.50, January 1983, ISBN 0 09 150950 5
  • People Who Knock on the Door by Patricia Highsmith
    Heinemann, 306 pp, £7.95, January 1983, ISBN 0 434 33521 5
  • A Visit from the Footbinder by Emily Prager
    Chatto, 174 pp, £7.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 7011 2675 2
  • Dusklands by J.M. Coetzee
    Secker, 125 pp, £6.95, January 1983, ISBN 0 436 10296 X

Aliza Shevrin has served her apprenticeship as one of the dutiful translators of Isaac Bashevis Singer, along with Ruth Schachner Finkel, Rosanna Gerber, Dorothea Straus et al. She seems no less expert with the Yiddish of an older master, Sholom Aleichem, best-known to English readers as the chronicler of the Jewish poor in the shtetl of the 1880s, the low-life, high-thinking world of Fiddler on the Roof. The world of Marienbad, in 1911, is more classy and farcical: plenty of high life and low thinking. The Bohemian holiday town is thronged with merry Jewish ladies from Warsaw, reluctantly let off the leash by their merchant husbands, slaving away in Nalewki Street. Marienbad is felt to be as dangerous to marital fidelity as Bath and Scarborough were for Restoration playwrights.

This charming comic novel is very like such an English play, strangely enough because it is written entirely in the form of letters – finally speeding up into frenzied telegrams – between Warsaw and Marienbad (and, in the telegram coda to the suite, the yet more dangerous Ostend). In the letters we hear the voices of the writers, like those of stage-actors taking turns to make their witty or foolish speeches, according to character. The tone of The Country Wife is almost echoed when pretty Beltzi Kurlander writes home to her busy old husband in Warsaw, telling him what a good girl she has been in fending off the attentions paid her by the young schlimazels on the train to Marienbad. Thus did Margery Pinchwife virtuously tell her old husband: ‘He put the tip of his tongue between my lips and so mousled me – and I said I’d bite it. He’s a proper goodly strong man; ’tis hard, let me tell you, to resist him.’ Such boasts, as the gloating audience well knows, are not so reassuring to Messrs Pinchwife and Kurlander as their candid ladies think they are.

Mr Kurlander has a trustworthy old friend, Chaim Soroker, trying to slim down in Marienbad, and it is Mr Soroker’s duty to keep an eye on Mrs Kurlander, to make sure that she is not led astray by fashionable, extravagant Mrs Tchopnik. Mr Soroker takes the duty most seriously, eager to protect Beltzi from such beaux and rakes as Meyer’l Mariomchik, the Odesser Womaniser. The intrigues are observed by a ‘school for scandal’ of Warsaw holidaymakers, all watching each other for signs of misbehaviour. Will Sheintzi and Kreintzi, the wives of that unnervingly pious pair of husbands the Itche-Meyers, finally ‘cast off their wigs’ (Yiddish for ‘hats over windmills’)? All the scandals of Marienbad are whizzed back to Warsaw in ever-increasing circles of indiscretion and misdirection.

It must be hell being a Jewish fool, with all those Yiddish epithets flying around. A schlemiel (so Isaac Bashevis Singer once told me) is really the funniest kind of Jewish fool and may be easily distinguished from the mere schlepper or the schlimazel or the wretched schmuck. Less clever Jews and gentiles must rely on the Oxford English Dictionary which thoughtfully suggests that when the waiter spills soup on the customer the waiter is the schlemiel and the customer is the schlimazel. Most of the men in Marienbad count as schlimazels but the philanderer, Meyer’l Mariomchik, is a schlemiel with a touch of schmuck. (Aliza Shevrin has given an exotic flavour to his billets-doux, since he writes in his own curious blend of Russian and Yiddish.)

The incompetent wife-protector, Mr Soroker, is something of a schnob (to coin a word, perhaps) and sets the Marienbad social tone pretty well with his remark that ‘the Jewish Marienbad has gone downhill since the British King Edward died.’ But Mr Soroker’s social standing is toppled by an epistle in the most ceremonious and denunciatory Hebrew from the formidably orthodox Itche-Meyers, accusing him of paying Falstaffian attentions to both their wives: their letter (here translated into the high Jacobean of our Bible) shrivels Soroker, who ‘does not possess the fluency of the holy tongue’. The translation of all these Jewish languages into good English is a real achievement – and the charm of Sholom Aleichem’s comedy makes the reader long to buy a 1911 railway ticket to Marienbad.

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