Sunday, May 31, 2009

The literary shlimil

Illustrated by the Bard paperback cover of Pnin and starting with Lucky Jim, Mark Sarvas’s list at commends eight “literary losers” (h/t: Books, Inq.). “Today, we call them antiheroes (it’s more polite),” Sarvas says, “but to me, they will always be literature’s losers—tormented, feckless, sometimes lovable, sometimes not, but almost always heartbreaking.”

Another word for such a person, at least when he is a Jew, is shlimil. In her brilliant first book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (1971)—written before the YIVO standard of transliteration was widely adopted—Ruth R. Wisse shows how the character emerges from Jewish folklore to invade modern prose fiction by Jews, creating a multilingual literary tradition. The shlimil, she says, is the loser who becomes a victor, “the model of endurance, his innocence a shield against corruption, his absolute defenselessness the only guaranteed defense against the brutalizing potential of might.”

For such a turnabout to occur, fiction must take place, as I have argued elsewhere, summarizing the views of David Lewis, in two worlds. In actuality, where success is valued above all else, the shlimil is a loser. In the moral realm of fiction, however, he inverts these values and rises above them. Fiction is thus morally indispensable, in creating a realm where innocence and defenselessness overcome might. As Wisse says, “The schlemiel’s naïve substitution of his illusory world for the real one resembles the mystic’s supernaturalism”—and the novelist’s methods.

Wisse locates “the genesis of the literary schlemiel within the context of Yiddish literature” in a tale circa 1805 by Nahman of Breslov, the Hasidic rabbi who was a contemporary of Jane Austen. Then she traces the typology through Mendele Moykher-Sforim, Sholem Aleichem (Menahem Mendl, “an epistolary novel written between 1892 and 1913”), and then into modern literature.

Perhaps her most daring claim is that “the icy beginnings of the schlemiel in American fiction” can be found in The Sun Also Rises. Robert Cohn is the “foil,” or the fool, who “betrays all the book’s standards, especially the aesthetic.” He is anything but hardboiled. Because Hemingway was not merely an outsider to it but also an antagonist to Jewish tradition, Cohn “remains a schlemiel-manqué,” Wisse argues. Hemingway is unable to see either the humor or the irony in his condition. Cohn is, for Hemingway, merely a sniveler among tough guys.

The shlimil à succès arrives in Dangling Man (1944). Bellow explicitly reverses Hemingway’s aesthetic: “Most serious matters are closed to the hardboiled. They are unpracticed in introspection, and therefore badly equipped to deal with opponents whom they cannot shoot like big game or outdo in daring.” Or, as Wisse puts it (and it is a testament to her abilities as a critic that her prose might be quoted as an alternative to Bellow’s), “The new spokesman for an altered America would be more like Cohn than like Jake Barnes. . . .” Instead of the bullfighter’s “purity of line” there is the “spreading circumference of a pot belly.”

Wisse then follows the career of the literary shlimil as he stumbles through Malamud’s New Life, Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern, and Bellow’s Herzog. Not until Norman Podhoretz’s autobiography Making It (1967), which eagerly embraces the notion that “it is better to be a success than a failure,” does Jewish literature in American hands undertake “the unmaking of a schlemiel.”

Since the publication of Wisse’s study, successes have outnumbered failures. Not even characters like Roth’s Swede Levov or Coleman Silk could be described as fools or foils, although they do not ring the gong of success in the end. Here are some novels whose main characters are closer to the classic type of the literary shlimil:

• Steven Millhauser, Edwin Mullhouse (1972). How else would you describe a great writer who contrives to die at the age of eleven?

• Adele Wiseman, Crackpot (1976). An obese prostitute finds favor in the eyes of God, if no one else.

• Stanley Elkin, The Franchiser (1976). My second-favorite Elkin. Ben Flesh is a reverse shlimil: a man who thinks he is a success when in reality he is not.

• Richard Russo, Nobody’s Fool (1993). Can an Italian-American Catholic write about the type? Sully may be nobody’s fool, but he is the world’s shlimil. His belief in personal autonomy bites him in the ass.

• Robert Cohen, The Here and Now (1996). Sam Karnish, a self-described “half-Jew,” finds himself drawn to Judaism by his fascination for a Hasidic couple. The last section of the novel is entitled, in an ironic tip of the cap to Podhoretz, “Making It.”

• Francine Prose, Blue Angel (2000). Swenson, a novelist and creative writing teacher, falls in love with one of his students, although she is not particularly sexy, and destroys his career and family as a consequence. Art turns out to be more powerful than responsibility—the moral choice of a true shlimil.

• Gary Shteyngart, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002). Explicitly compared by some reviewers to the title character of Lucky Jim, Vladimir Girshkin is a Russian immigrant who relies upon his ignorance of American culture to surmount it.

• Alan Lelchuk, Ziff: A Life? (2003). A mock literary biography makes a Philip Roth figure into a shlimil, who fails in his most important endeavor: namely, preventing a biography of him from being written.

• Richard Price, Samaritan (2003). A thoughtful 400-page police novel on the theme No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. Ray Mitchell, an ex-high school teacher, falls victim to his own foolishness.


Jonathan said...

How about Singer's "Gimpel the Fool"?

D. G. Myers said...

Wisse does indeed discuss Singer’s story as the first example, she says, of a post-Holocaust shlimil. In fact, the passage that I quote regarding the “schlemiel’s naïve substitution of his illusory world for the real one resembles the mystic’s supernaturalism” is from her analysis of “Gimpel the Fool.”

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Wisse discusses Adalbert von Chamisso's Peter Schlemihl (1813), but does not distract herself by pursuing the other German Romantic shlimils. The shlimil is a common type in early 19th century German fiction, for example in Joseph von Eichendorff's Life of a Good-for-nothing (1827) and a number of E.T.A. Hoffmann's fantasies. I assume that some of this comes from folk tales shared with Yiddish - the stupid third son who becomes prince because he's kind to animals, that sort of story.

Nikolai Gogol introduced the type into Russian, possibly via French translations of Hoffmann, or possibly through keen observation. The heroes of "The Nose" and "The Government Inspectors" are examples. Variations persist through Chekhov, at least.

Ma femme and I were racking our brains, trying to think of French shlimils. We were completely stumped. French characters, even French fools, are too elegant, or decadent, or knowing. We were, however, able to come up with several French shlimazels.

D. G. Myers said...

Wisse discusses Schwarz-Bart's Ernie Levy, The Last of the Just, to name one French example.