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Never Better!

Never Better!: The Modern Jewish Picaresque

Miriam Udel
Copyright Date: 2016
Pages: 266
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    Never Better!
    Book Description:

    It was only when Jewish writers gave up on the lofty Enlightenment ideals of progress and improvement that the Yiddish novel could decisively enter modernity. Animating their fictions were a set of unheroic heroes who struck a precarious balance between sanguinity and irony that author Miriam Udel captures through the phrase "never better." With this rhetorical homage toward the double-voiced utterances of Sholem Aleichem, Udel gestures at these characters' insouciant proclamation that things had never been better, and their rueful, even despairing admission that things would probablyneverget better.The characters defined by this dual consciousness constitute a new kind of protagonist: a distinctively Jewish scapegrace whom Udel denominates thepolitor refugee. Cousin to the Golden Age Spanishpícaro, thepolitis a socially marginal figure who narrates his own story in discrete episodes, as if stringing beads on a narrative necklace. A deeply unsettled figure, thepolitis allergic to sentimentality and even routine domesticity. His sequential misadventures point the way toward the heart of the picaresque, which Jewish authors refashion as a vehicle for modernism-not only in Yiddish, but also in German, Russian, English and Hebrew. Udel draws out the contours of the new Jewish picaresque by contrasting it against the nineteenth-century genre of progress epitomized by theBildungsroman.While this book is grounded in modern Jewish literature, its implications stretch toward genre studies in connection with modernist fiction more generally. Udel lays out for a diverse readership concepts in the history and theory of the novel while also explicating the relevant particularities of Jewish literary culture. In addressing the literary stylistics of a "minor" modernism, this study illuminates how the adoption of a picaresque sensibility allowed minority authors to write simultaneouslywithinandagainstthe literary traditions of Europe.

    eISBN: 978-0-472-12173-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. vii-x)
  3. Table of Contents (pp. xi-xii)
  4. PREFACE (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. INTRODUCTION “In Life, but Not of It”: The Modernist Picaresque (pp. 1-30)

    The novel’s first hero, Don Quixote, led a life ruined by literature.¹ The Spanish squire descends into madness through his addiction to books of chivalry, “which he perused with such rapture and application, that he not only forgot the pleasures of the chace, but also utterly neglected the management of his estate” (28).² A similarly dubious course of reading, this one comprising travelogues and Jewish folklore, has an equally distorting effect on the most direct Jewish heir to the Iberian knight-errant, one of the foundational characters of modern Yiddish fiction. Before embarking on our primary object of study, it is...

    • CHAPTER 1 SHARKS AND MARKS: The Swindles and Seductions of Modernity (pp. 33-66)

      While Yitskhok Bashevis (later to become known as the phenomenon Isaac Bashevis Singer) began to publish within just over a decade of the passing of Sholem Rabinovitsh (also to be enduringly known as a phenomenon: Sholem Aleichem), their total corpora span more than a century. Written nearly at the temporal poles of modern Yiddishbelles lettres,²the work of these two authors marks, respectively, the starting and ending points of thepolit’sjourney through Yiddish modernism. Rabinovitsh’s fictions repreesented a structural departure from much of the contemporary European fiction that his fellow Yiddish authors had tried to emulate, and in...

    • CHAPTER 2 LIVING SERIALLY: Neoteny and the Polit (pp. 67-90)

      The comedy of Sholem Rabinovitsh, especially when read through Soviet critical lenses, was easy to misapprehend; to wit, the generally incisive critic Meir Viner¹ saw a body of work “imbued with faith in man and his future” (42). Regarding Rabinovitsh’s formally picaresque novel,Motl peysi dem khazns (Motl the Cantor’s Son), Viner discerned in the rollicking treatment of dislocation and immigration the author’s testimony to “a faith in the progress of the human race, a hope for a better, more intelligent social order. He exhorted his readers to strive hopefully, not to submit to the obstacles before them, but to...


      “Demobilization is just as much a part of the war game as mobilization. It requires the same soldierly qualities. So play the game out to the end.”

      So runs the avuncular patter of Major William Brown Meloney, American journalist, historian, soldier, and author of a 1919 handbook called “Where Do We Go From Here?”¹ and subtitled, confidingly, “This Is The Real Dope.” In order to guide American doughboys through the details of their demobilization, the War Department published five million copies of the manual. Including sections on all of the veterans’ financial, vocational, and educational entitlements, the publication chummily but...

    • CHAPTER 4 SPILLAGE AND SHARDS: The Polit between the Wars (pp. 113-140)

      In the introductory chapter, we considered the contours of the modernistBildungsromanand its critique of conventional plots of progress. Jed Esty carefully documents the passage from a world understood as a consortium (or contest) of nation-states to a world-system constituted by empires and other postnational global structures. In so doing, he recurs to the key termcontainer, which is the function he assigns to the nation-state in relation to the potentially messy or overflowing complex of cultural aspirations and expressions of its denizens:¹ “If the nation was the proper cultural container for the bildungsroman’s allegory of development, then modern...


      At this rather advanced stage of our acquaintance with thepolit, let us review some of his distinguishing traits. He is quintessentially mobile, albeit with varying degrees of energy and agency, which do not always align. Motl’s level of energy, for example, vastly outstrips his agency over the family’s peregrinations, while Rabon’s soldier moves diffidently, conserving energy and content to be borne along by circumstances largely beyond his control. Moreover, thepolitoften lives in some kind of alternate temporality, differing from linear, developmental time as well as from Bakhtin’s national-historic time. His heterochrony may involve immaturity that ranges into...

  9. EPILOGUE “YOU MUST TO DARE”!: Afterlives of the Polit (pp. 178-192)

    This account has explored the workings of a particular sensibility in Jewish literary modernism, positing the picaresque as a minoritarian worldview in contradistinction to the synthesis of self and nation represented by theBildungsromanamong other major European forms. “Novels of education,” as Jed Esty reminds us, “have always been entangled with the eschatologies of national myth” (54). The literary eschaton for the Yiddish-reading Jews of Europe arrived swiftly and decisively, redirecting the energies of whatever novels of education this culture continued to produce. The picaresque corpus we have thus far explored is shot through with exilic consciousness, with authors...

  10. NOTES (pp. 193-228)
  11. SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY (pp. 229-240)
  12. INDEX (pp. 241-250)