The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The Wedding Jester by Steve Stern

Posted on: May 20, 2007

I’m a bit disappointed in myself — I finally feel the urge to settle down and write about this collection of short stories when the details are not as sharp. It only takes a glance through the table of contents and a perusal of a story’s first page to have me throwing back my head to silently laugh, but I distrust memory. It will have to do.

There are two living authors whose works make me ache, that get me excited, authors for whom I desire mountains and oceans of readers. Steve Stern is one of them. His writing makes me so happy. It makes me joyous, eager, curious, it enlivens, it fills me with wonder, and under all this expansive felicity, he slips in a sobering observation that reminds you of the darker, sadder things that exist in his tales of mythic realism. But you smile afterwards, anyway, because you recognise that he is offering you a complete experience, a life, a whole world. And how could you, after taking this in, not want to share it with everyone, with the whole world?

That must sound ridiculously over-the-top but I can’t help it because as I type this now I have the biggest grin on my face. Let me see if I can tell you something about his stories before I do cartwheels.

One thing that struck me as I read The Wedding Jester was that most if not all of the main characters in the stories were wrestling with desire, known or unrecognised, spiritual or earthy. Whether it was a desire for themselves or for others, a career or spiritual goal, for the idealised mate; and whether they possessed the knowledge to identify precisely what it was became a significant source of conflict. Was this desire even a good thing for them or their family? Would they attain it or would it be thwarted? The drama of these desires take place in different settings, often with one story starting out in the “Old Country” of Russia and changing to the more secular and raucous life of early 20th century Manhattan. Angels from heaven descend to earth to guide, help and occasionally meddle in human affairs, and the mundane life here brushes against the ethereal when an unassuming rabbi levitates.

In “Romance” we have a boy and girl in the Old Country, who lived in two separate villages, betrothed to each other in their childhood. “It was a mitzvah, a good deed, and an act of faith that families should pledge to each other, over honey cakes and brandy, infants born at approximately the same time.” Eli Goldfogle grew up to be a religiously studious young man intent on the Torah, disdainful of saints, levitating rabbi, and anything that makes one too happy. Esther Bluestein, on the other hand, appeared to be his opposite: she loved reading fairy tales — a lucky thing as girls were barred from anything weightier — especially chivalric tales of handsome men who could woo the ladies while defeating his enemies. This developed into a love of historical romances and a yearning for a romantic, courageous hero of her own, even though she knew she was fated to marry the sombre, humourless Eli.

When they met each other for the first time to get married the two were so disinterested in each other, so reluctant to step outside the worlds they’d created for themselves, that when they were allowed to look at each other they did not even try. Not even once. And the marriage was not consummated before Eli was smuggled off to America in order to avoid the draft and certain death.

The most absurd parts of this story were the most poignant. Later on Esther joined Eli in Manhattan, but has not let go of her dreams, nor has neither lost stubborn reluctance to look each other in the eye. On one of her usual walks from the market she went, for the first time, into one of the cafes that held all her fantasies: “the writers indistinguishable from the creatures of their own inventions — poets, revolutionists, renegade scholars in threadbare cutaways, their frayed collars upstanding, hair fallen in crescent forelocks over their face.” And Eli, finding it hard to hold on to his Torah in the secular vulgarity of his new home with the strange, visited the same cafe in an effort to test himself among the “idlers” and “heretics”. One saw the other, to each a stranger, and they fall in love.

In “Bruno’s Metamorphosis” a Mr. Bruno Katz was a callous, self-absorbed high school teacher with an urge to write. At first he erroneously attributed his wayward restlessness to a failed relationship, but he eventually realised that a bout with the typewriter is what he needed. Predictably he pulled on a childhood memory, but it was an embarrassing one, an event he wished to rewrite so that he could turn out braver and hardier. The problem was that he could not write past the moment of shame, no matter how hard he tried. After much effort he went to sleep, only to wake up the next morning to find his tale typed to completion, executed with more talent and enthusiasm than he ever thought he had. This mysterious occurrence led to triumphant highs and dismal lows, that concluded with a mythical twist that leaves one satisfied and yet strangely not, still burning with curiosity and the sense that something escaped one’s grasp.

Transformation on various scales was another strand running through the stories, whether the characters wilfully sought or avoided it, and did so because of mainly internal or external influences or both. In “Sissman Loses His Way” an angel lost the celestial map that charted the life of one Ira Bluestein, at whose birth the angel attended in order to tweak his nose to prevent him from being born with the “wisdom to see without obstruction from the beginning of one’s life to its end” and “the memory of paradise, a memory that would naturally make living on earth unbearable.” (Ironic because in a previous story Stern had shown just how bearable life could be compared to a paradise not unlike the “seedier precincts of Miami Beach”.) This map was a curious artefact by which an angel could defy space and time, follow the often boring checkpoints of an individual’s life to birth, and then use it to find his way back to heaven.

The loss of the map and its eventual discovery decades later by its subject, Ira, changed both of their paths forever. Galvanised by his dull past and his predicted dull future Bluestein decided to take matters into his own hands. And Sissman, who managed to retrieve the part of the map he needed, saw it change before his very eyes, and was forced to stick close to Bluestein to find his way back to heaven.

Other characters discovered that latent invigorating facet of themselves too late in their lives, like the grumpy, quarrelsome Morris Silverman in “Swan Song” or found it, to disastrous results like Hershel Kevreman, the bright, handsome scholar in “Yiddish Twilight” who had the misfortune to release a succubus from enchantment before his wedding.

The diction Stern employed, that distinctive Yiddish cadence and frequent use of Yiddish words, is one of the best things about the collection. It brought such character, energy to the work, both to read silently and out loud, particularly the evocative Yiddish terms. It was the inextricable cornerstone of these stories, that, above all things, makes them such a sensuous pleasure.

After all my effort at trying to convey what is it to read Stern’s fiction, I found a perfect description in “Romance”. Here Eli described how he felt when he read the Torah (a desire he stifled, of course): “…he had himself been tempted, through chanting the words of certain texts, to fly clear of the rotting rooftops of his village.” There aren’t many rotting rooftops in my town (I hope) but if any literature could make me fly out through my window, this one would be it!

As usual I haven’t covered even half of what these stories can do, more treasures await, go get it. I’m very grateful to Graywolf Press which published the two living authors I’m so enthused about: Steve Stern and David Treuer.

11 Responses to "The Wedding Jester by Steve Stern"

In my view this writing, with the common theme you describe as being; “desire for themselves or for others, a career or spiritual goal, for the idealised mate; and whether they possessed the knowledge to identify precisely what it was”, is bound to be a very fertile one, and the writing good, so I now plan to read this author.

Many thanks for your review.

Excellent discussion of Stern’s work. I’ll link to it later in the week.

You know I can’t help but feel that two out of three of these comments are cleverly disguised spam. What to do, what to do…

At least I know that you’re real Dan. Thanks for the compliment and the future linkage — that’s heady praise.

You know, I haven’t read Treuer. I’ll have to take a look. And I haven’t read this particular Stern–you make it sound interesting, imani! I’m wondering if you’re a Singer fan, and feeling sorry that I didn’t attempt to find Steve Stern while I was in Saratoga for almost a month.

I could see no hat in that last message! I connect you with hats. Don’t you need a grand new icon with hat for spring?

Oh marly, you should you should you should! I’ve been trying to get every man, woman and child to buy his book. It’s stupendous.

*ahem* ok enough of that. As for hats I’m afraid I have no spring ones, as it were, only winter tuques. Maybe I could consider buying one? I’ve no earthly idea where one would get those though and if I’d wear it outside of the house anyway.

Edit: oh and I just realised I hadn’t answered your question about Singer: I’m afraid I have no idea who that is — only the painter comes to mind. Is his/her stuff similar?

Oh, fooh!

I don’t believe that you don’t know Isaac Bashevis Singer! Talk about great writers of Yiddish! If not, try his story, “Gimpel the Fool,” for a start.

You must look! Hats and imani go together. A wild straw, or an eye-popping crocheted oddity, or one of those springy ones that fold up into a tiny disk–or the ones from Thailand that fold up like a slatted fan?

Well, really, I never knew that Yiddish writers existed until Stern and that was through the Litblog Co-op. *shuffles* I will search the shelves of the library for Singer.

There are a lot of quirky little stores in town — I’ll look for a hat. 🙂

Ah, well, isn’t it perfectly grand to discover good people we’ve missed? Just check out a big fat Singer story collection, and you can’t go wrong.

Steve Stern has definitely read Singer.

But now I’m feeling guilty because you caved in so easily! You’re off to read Singer, and you’ll look for a hat. Astonishing.

Now if I could only figure out a way to get my children to respond that way…

Oh, offspring never give in to their parents so readily — that would be making it too easy. 😀

At least I have the image of a behatted imani reading Singer inside my head–and that will have to console me for the general disobedience of the world!

[…] big in Spain. I’m expecting big things here because the other two Graywolf books I read this year retain their top […]

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