Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Brothers Ashkenazi


I didn't even know he had a brother! Isaac Bashevis Singer I mean. Back in the day (those days being prior to his death in 1944) I. (Israel) J. (Joshua) Singer was the big cheese. Isaac of course would go on the win the Nobel Prize. Yeah that's fab-o but Flower, Israel Joshua wrote one of the best novels I have ever read, so who's the real winner here?

Other Press has reissued Israel Joshua's long out of print
The Brothers Ashkenazi. This 427 page (Yea!) novel was first published in 1937 in Yiddish. This edition is a reprint of the 1980 English translation by Singer's son Joseph. I first heard of this masterpiece on the wonderfully interesting blog Neglected Books.

Singer gave us a broad view in Brothers. This is a family saga but it is also a saga of the economics, history and the culture of the Jewish community in Lodz, Poland. There is a constant march of conquerors and the conquered through this city. I am no scholar and there are no dates in Brothers so I am best guessing the timeline. I think the novel runs from roughly 20 or so years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the 1920's. There are a couple special guest star moments when Lenin and Nicholas and Alexandria appear which help to place a date to the action but other than that let your knowledge and a good history book be your guides.

There are three main characters in Brothers: twins Simha Meir and Jacob, and the city of Lodz. Simha and Jacob are a kind of Cain and Able in the story and Lodz is the catalyst for constant change. From birth Simha is clever and grasping. A boy with a businessman's brain and a conman's heart. Jacob is handsome and popular but a bit dim and unfocused compared to his brother. Their father is a hard working and deeply religious man. He lives his life for God and his Rabbi. His only wish is for his sons to value piety over prosperity but the family fortune mirrors the secular fortunes of Lodz.

As Lodz grows from workshops to factories, from farms to ghettos the opportunities to make money grow too. The quickest way to wealth is to marry well and the quickest way to expand your wealth is to go European, abandon your Jewishness. Both of the brothers follow this path. Jacob's financial success is a haphazard mixture of luck and his good looks. Simha's success is a graduate level course at The Wharton School of Business. His Machiavellian machinations are intricate and predicated on his enviable insight into human nature and ability to predict.

Singer wrote The Brothers Ashkenazi in a style reminiscent a 19th century novel. The depth of detail into the novel's events, the number of events covered over the roughly hundred years of the story and the cradle to grave stories of so many characters make you think of War and Peace or a slum ridden, Jewish, Middlemarch. Where it does not compare to 19th century fiction is in Singer's clear eyed vision. There is no sentimentality in this novel. All of the drama, humor and surprises come from mercilessly honest storytelling.

I wish I was better equipped to explain the magnitude of this novel. The Brothers Ashkenazi is a powerhouse. A timeless novel that addresses the poverty, greed, religion, revolution, capitalism, communism, war, prejudice and loves experienced in a Jewish community in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. I cannot imagine that I will read a better novel this year.


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