Adrian Stumpp's Reviews > Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories

Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories by Sholem Aleichem
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Feb 05, 10

bookshelves: comedy, fiction, literary, modern, russian, short-stories
Read in January, 2010

Sholem Aleichem, a Yiddish idiom which basically means, “Hey, what’s up?” is the pseudonym of Sholem Rabinovich, who has been heralded as the Jewish Mark Twain and who, in my opinion, favorably deserves the comparison. I became interested in reading this book when I learned it was the inspiration for Fiddler on the Roof, one of a precious few Broadway musicals my stomach is strong enough to endure. The novel runs just 131 pages, made up of eight episodes written and published over a twenty-three year period, from 1894 to 1917. As an episodic novel, or a novel told in a cycle of short-stories, it is exemplary. Each episode manages to both build on the previous installments and still remain self-sustaining unto itself.

The episodes happen in real time. That is to say, if five years have passed since the publication of the previous episode, Tevye is five years older at the onset of the next one, so that by the end of the novel Tevye has aged twenty-three years since the first, just as the author has aged twenty-three years, and, theoretically, just as the reader has aged. How effortlessly Alecheim sustains the narrative over such a span is one of the interesting things about the novel, for me. Tevye’s maturation seems seamless, natural, and believable. The reader can sense throughout the narrative that Tevye is changing, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, and not necessarily in response to major events in the plot, but just as a matter of course, because he is aging.

Tevye as a character and as a narrator becomes a joyous treat. The narrative mode is a series of monologues in which Tevye directly speaks to Sholem Aleichem, who apparently writes the stories down at a later date. This makes the voice conversational, homey, colorful, and occasionally digressive. The style is easy to read and quickly absorbing, as the reader feels as if he is listening to an old man spinning a clever yarn. The effect is that we think of Tevye, and not necessarily the author, as an entertaining storyteller. Tevye fancies himself a scholar and constantly misquotes scripture or quotes it humorously out of context. “Tevye is no woman,” is the most often repeated phrase in the novel, humorous because, as Ryan pointed out to me, if Tevye had been more inclined to behave “womanly,” he might have avoided the misadventures that provide the basis of the plot. But Tevye, like many men, is only superficially a misogynist. The most compelling aspect of the story is his powerful, constant affection for his daughters and his unflinching pursuit of their happiness.

Aleichem, like Twain, uses humor as a means toward social criticism, and like Twain avoids ideological preachiness or scathing bitterness. His satire is warm and compassionate with a firm eye to the story. However, none of the sentimentalism of the musical is found in Tevye the Dairyman. Injustice, ignorance, and even death take important roles in the tales, and while the novel is far darker and more human than the musical, Aleichem’s triumph is the harmony with which he mingles comedy and tragedy, and the befuddled amusement with which his protagonist relates all his sad experiences. Despite his many flaws and sorrows Tevye’s good-will, humor, and charm ultimately carry the day.

A tremendous short novel.
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