Life & Culture

Review: Essential Prose

Mark Glanville welcomes a new translation of one of the great Yiddish writers.


Essential Prose

By Avrom Sutzkever (Trans: Zackary Sholem Berger)

White Goat Press, £20.80

Reviewed by Mark Glanville

Avrom Sutzkever was born in Smorgon (Vilna Governorate) in 1913. Two years later, his family was exiled to Siberia, whose landscape and people inspired his early work. After his father’s death in 1921, the family returned to Vilna. Sutzkever was initially rejected by the Yung-Vilne literary group whose radical political agenda did not square with his essentially lyric voice. But the Khurbn (Holocaust) brought the poet face-to-face with the full horror of the mid-20th Century. And The Grave Child, Sutzkever’s poetic meditation on the murder, by poisoning, of his newborn son, won the ghetto’s 1942 literary competition.

Sutzkever emigrated to Israel in 1947. His first prose fiction, Green Aquarium, did not appear until 1955, though A Diary of the Vilna Ghetto, a non-fiction account of his Holocaust experiences, had been published in 1946 (Justin Cammy’s translation will appear later this year). Some of Sutzkever’s “short descriptions”, as he termed his fictional prose, were included in Benjamin Harshav’s A. Suztkever: Collected Prose and Poetry, but Zackary Sholem Berger’s book is the first complete translation.

In her illuminating introduction, Heather Valencia, translator of an excellent recent selection of Sutzkever’s verse, concludes that he turned to prose when he did because “he needed another, complementary medium to explore his Holocaust experiences in more detail.”

Some of Sutzkever’s short fiction reworks earlier, non-fiction accounts; most of it involves encounters with natives of Vilna whom he once knew but who now remained aloof from him.

Even in prose, Sutzkever remains a poet. His “descriptions” are impressionistic. His magical-realist approach apotheosises its subjects, triggering in his readers a subliminal yet visceral response to the horror of what he recounts.

At his best, as in the story, Death of an Ox, Sutzkever has created Holocaust literature as powerful as any and arguably some of the finest short fiction of the twentieth century. With no reference to Jews or Germans, Sutzkever paints in words a Goya-esque portrait of a tormented, bellowing ox, its “burning horns — two crooked wax candles… The dried dung stuck to its hindparts steams with purple mist, and the flesh from its front legs all the way up to its head glows like torched weeds.”

The fire devours snowflakes that have morphed into doves (one of many symbols from his verse that Sutzkever reworks in his prose) and sits on the animal’s back “like a naked satyr.” As the story nears its end, the ox looks back towards its village, “where only a dark chimney like a dead hand remains.” It is breathtaking writing, more successful in evoking its terrible subject than most non-fiction Holocaust prose.

Sutzkever’s poetry is marked by a rigid adherence to rhyme and metre, making its Yiddish particularly difficult to render successfully in translation. His prose does not present the same issues, and it is, perhaps, easier for readers with no Yiddish to access his voice through that medium.

His translator, Berger, himself a poet, has done full justice to Sutzkever’s dense, metaphor-rich prose.

Though lacking notes that might have clarified certain words and passages, this is an important contribution to the expanding oeuvre in English translation of a neglected genius.


Mark Glanville is a writer and musician

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