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Saturday
Sep112010

Behind a Mask

One April thirteen years ago on a day of commemoration in my second of many semesters in graduate school, I was approaching the university library when I noticed a group of shivering students (this was Massachusetts, after all) standing on its steps and reading names off a list.  The reading was mechanical but heartfelt; in other words, they were trying not to get too emotionally involved as excessive thought about their tribute would have probably made it impossible to get through the day.  They all took turns: walking near and in and out of the library that day, I saw at least twelve undergraduates rapidly passing the baton and solemnizing as well as their youth might permit.  Further along in my studies my adviser, the chair of Yiddish and Hebrew letters, told me about this great library destroyed in times of horror, with priceless and unique manuscripts kept alive only by their faint memory and secondary literature.  After the destruction of human lives, it is our memories which suffer most greatly when evil reigns (one Czech writer even detailed examples of early photo shop techniques to erase unwanted former leaders from famous pictures).  Yet we all have this tendency to want perfect memories: all writers who began with the usual throwaway juvenilia devote many more mature days to their abjuration.  We want life to be a series of events both planned and fortunate, the precise combination of ability and luck that justifies our decisions over time's endless horizon.  And it is equally satisfying when we learn of works that would have perished but remained miraculously preserved (often thanks to very brave people, such as this widow's memorization of all her incarcerated husband's poems).  Which brings us to a hundred-year-old short story found in this collection.       

The time is 1909 and the place is the small, predominantly Jewish town of V– in what is now this country.  The three young men who will be target of the villagers' scorn reside in "Anton Kovadle's ramshackle house in the gentile section."  Kovadle has many young men as lodgers, and they all seem to pursue activities that do not befit the holy life that their parents have wished for them – they do not study the Torah, they smoke on the Sabbath, and they consume swine.  Kovadle is one of those literary creations that has no purpose other than introducing an alternative point of view, a nexus for contradictions and dislike that will allow other characters to violate whatever laws the plot wants them to violate without assuming responsibility.  As such, we are told something about Kovadle and his boorish habits and then he disappears entirely from our ken.  We are left with three Jewish men, all young and unsung: Krantz, who is the main lodger, Braines, a skinny, nerdy fellow from very humble origins, and Shekhtl, who will pivot the story in the necessary direction.  Although Krantz as a pseudo-revolutionary and Braines as a delicate intellectual are old chestnuts in both literature and life, the description of the soft-spoken Braines could not be more insightful:

Ill-suited by temperament to the frivolous merrymaking of the group, he nonetheless tried to show an interest in all that interested them, taking active part in their pranks and disputes.

Among the college students of today you will be able to identify many Braineses.  They will invariably be the terminal and least funny link on a chain of joking oneupmanship, inviting the mockery of all the witsters who are quick to make their irony known.  They are too strong to buy into fraternity mores but too weak (often owing to a lack of success with romantic interests) to do without companionship.  As it were, the two fellows have a peaceful series of habits.  Braines devotes his energies to studying for exams to try to get into university and Krantz, the son of a distinguished Orthodox rabbi, spends his time fostering an image of "a fiery heretic, seized with the passion of the Enlightenment."  Krantz is notoriously known (and shunned) as a maskil, a freethinker or adherent to Enlightenment (Haskalah) ideals who finds those of faith provincial and backward, trapped in a past that could never consider progress.  While aware of the Enlightenment's many advantages, Braines is far too intelligent to give in to these silly rebellious urges, and properly regards Krantz and the third lodger, Shekhtl, with a "smile on his lips [that] remained ironic and pitying."

Shekhtl's arrival marks a period of great indigence for the men who neither work nor derive any allowance from their disappointed families.  They may indeed have intellectual ambitions, but nothing is more oppressive than the banality of poverty.  Since Braines often starved as a child he seems to deal better with their misery.  But not so for Krantz and even worse for the seventeen-year-old Shekhtl:

His fantasies now began to take a new turn.  Instead of broad plans for religious and social reform or geological transformation, his mind turned to the simple dream of finding a wallet stuffed with money or an easy way of making a bar of silver: if you took ten thousand silver coins and filed a little off each of them .... The only trouble was, he didn't know where to find the ten thousand silver coins.

Pressed into service because there is no other option, Shekhtl never develops a plan for his own betterment or that of his fellow lodgers; rather, he convinces Krantz to go back to Shekhtl's village in disguise (hence the title of the story) and sing his praises as a pious and dedicated student of theology so that his parents might send them enough money to live on.  And Krantz, whose ego has few limitations, does exactly that.  He poses as a teacher of Russian and orthography, whereas his secondary plan is to link up with the other maskilim in the town to see what else can be done in terms of support.  But he is warned: Shekhtl's parents, especially his mother, are not fools.  He will have to be particularly convincing and manipulative and is briefed accordingly about other people in the town who might prove dangerous.  Krantz arrives, meets the parents as if by chance, and ingratiates himself as rapidly as can be expected – and here, of course, is where the meat of the tale can be found.  The lovely similarity of mask and maskil is probably not extant in Yiddish, but Ansky's prose has bite and superb detail at every turn.  Consider Krantz's first night in disguise:

That night, Krantz lay awake for a long time in a state of high excitement, like an actor after a particularly brilliant performance.  Going over in his mind the many incidents and conversations of the day, he buried his head in the pillow and giggled madly.  Had anyone told him that in fact he had spent the day cheating and lying with more malice and treachery than a thief, Krantz would simply have been incredulous, so intoxicated was he by the artistry of his performance. 

There is also the repeated motif of a test, here to mean one of integrity although cloaked in more pedestrian terms.  Yet for all his wit and talent, Krantz is a bad listener doomed by his own success.  He would have done better to listen to Shekhtl's father when he claims that "a woman is afraid of everything and believes no one" – except perhaps when a person tries to be exactly what she desires.  But that, we know, is not feasible for all of eternity.

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