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February 8, 2016

Book Notes - Paul Goldberg "The Yid"

The Yid

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Paul Goldberg's debut novel The Yid is a darkly comic masterpiece centered around a 1953 assassination attempt on Stalin.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Goldberg ingeniously captures the brutality and lunacy of Stalin’s rule as well as Russia’s stoicism in this spectacularly incisive, humanizing, and comedically cathartic theater of the absurd."

In his own words, here is Paul Goldberg's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel The Yid:

A playlist was a writing tool I used constantly as I wrote The Yid, a dark comedy set in Moscow of 1953.

Songs helped me establish connections with Russian history and with my characters. This playlist is, in effect, the novel's back panel. Remove it, and you will see the wiring.

My relationship with these songs precedes The Yid. I grew up with most of them; I can sing most of them, though God knows I shouldn't.

The heart of The Yid's sound track is Paul Robeson singing in Russian and Yiddish. In 1949, in the midst of the Soviet anti-Semitic campaigns, Robeson sang the Song of the Warsaw Ghetto in Yiddish at the Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow.

His diction in Yiddish is fascinating. I particularly like the way he sings the word oysgebenkte, final. He makes it sound like machinegun fire: oys-ge-ben-kte. In this remarkable interpretation of this remarkable song, it's somehow clear that the guns are ours.

In 1949, any Jewish role in victory over Fascism was denied by official propaganda. Yet, here was a hero of the Left singing the song of a major resistance movement, which was—yes—Jewish. Histories suggest that at the time he chose this song, Robeson knew that his friend, the Yiddish poet Itzik Fefer, was doomed. Indeed, he would be executed in 1952.

There are layers of complexity in this situation—not least of which is the slippery persona of Fefer—but one thing is undeniable: Robeson's choice of material constituted a clear affirmation of the Jewish role in the war.

It's fitting that an African American hero would sing the song of the fighters of the Warsaw ghetto. One of the characters in The Yid is an African American enlightened worker. Like Robeson, who had an extensive Russian and Yiddish repertoire, my character—Friedrich Lewis—speaks Russian and Yiddish.

Robeson sang in Hebrew, too. At the Tchaikovski Hall concert, he sang what the playlist refers to as Hasidic Chant. It's sometimes also called Kaddish of Levi Yitzhak, inspired by a Hasidic master from the town of Berdichev. In the novel, as in real life, the Robeson's song would have been the only possible source of a segment of the prayer for the dead—should one choose to pray for the dead.

One of the songs on this playlist—The Native Land (Shiroka strana moya rodnaya)—comes from a Soviet musical. The film, called "Circus," was released in 1936. It tells the story of an American circus star, who has a secret—she has a black baby. Circus includes an appearance by Mikhoels, a legendary actor and director of the Moscow Yiddish Theater—and one of the characters in The Yid. Mikhoels sings a Yiddish lullaby to the black baby. A line in that song surely appealed to Robeson and every other progressive then and now: "Net dlya nas ni chernykh ny tsvetnykh." Translation: To us there are no Blacks or Coloreds.

Marxism negates ethnicity and race. Alas, in the USSR, theory and practice diverged on this point. Hence, The Yid.

Mikhoels and Robeson knew each other. Both played Shakespearean roles on and off-stage. Mikhoels famously claimed Lear for the Yiddish-speaking Jews. (Indeed, who is Lear but an old fool with three daughters; a royal Tevye.) Robeson equally famously reclaimed Othello. As I tried to delve deeper into the lives of these characters, I turned to a recording of Robeson performing Othello's final soliloquy; skip to the end of this recording:

Soft you; a word or two before you go.

I have done the state some service, and they know't.

No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,

Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak

Of one that loved not wisely but too well;

Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought

Perplex'd in the extreme…

The cataclysms of the 20th century gave Robeson and Mikhoels a lot of material to be perplex'd in the extreme about.

Robeson's material also included a translation of a Soviet song From Border Onto Border (Ot kaya I do kraya) A basic glorification of the Red Army and the Soviet way of life, it sounds inspirational in Robeson's rendition. I can't decide what I like more: his accent in Russian or the charmingly awkward translation.

Another character in The Yid—Kima Petrova—is informed by a song by one of my favorite contemporary Russian poets, Aleksandr Galich. Galich played guitar and sang extraordinarily intricate compositions—it's difficult to call them songs. One of these compositions, called The Song of the General's Daughter or Karaganda, was the story of a semi-literate young woman who lives in squalor and harbors dim memories of a happy early childhood in Leningrad.

Her parents—the general and his wife—were executed. Now, the protagonist lives in Kazakhstan, the coal-mining city of Karaganda. She is having an affair with a married truck driver. The relationship begins with what sounds a lot like rape. But the protagonist isn't bitter. In fact, she plans to obtain some herring and, as a charitable gesture, send them to her lover's wife.

Kima, one of my conspirators, is the daughter of a martyred commissar. (The commissar I chose, Yefim Zeitlin, was a distant cousin of mine.) The protagonist of Karaganda seems to work at some nebulous Soviet enterprise, probably a food store. My Kima works in bottle redemption. The difference between them is that Kima is not a docile, charitable victim. She seeks revenge, and she takes revenge.

Two of my principal characters, Solomon Levinson, an actor and leader of the plot, and Aleksandr Kogan, a surgeon, were once members of a band of Red partisans. For inspiration, I listened to some of the campy Civil War songs, including Chapayev the Hero (Chapayev geroy), which describes battles along the Ural Mountains that are a part of the flashbacks in The Yid. Vasily Ivanovich Chapayev was the subject of a pretty good movie and a series of hilarious jokes. This is simple folksy, hero-worship dreck, which I love, but I wouldn't recommend listening to it when sober. Singing it while sober is so unthinkable that I am certain that it has never been done.

Another song from the same time and place is the Partisan's Song (Po dolinam i po vzgoryam). It turns a real military campaign into mythology. I like it so much that I made it into a bedtime song for my two daughters.

The Samovars song by the Red Army choir, kitschy as it is, is also one of my favorites. It's not about samovars at all. It's about Red Army tanks blasting away at the Nazis, scalding them, at it were. It's possible that the Nazis had a similar song—a counterpoint—but I prefer this one.

The song that matters more is The Dugout (Zemlyanka). The song is literally a love letter from the trenches of the 1941 Battle of Moscow. The lyrics were written by Alexei Surkov, a war correspondent. It's a small-scale song; no heroics. Surely a German could have written something similar, but I'd like to think that a Nazi couldn't have.

Zamlyanka has been performed by the Red Army choir and many others. I don't like the version on this playlists. It sounds like something performed at a night club on Brighton Beach. Alas, this is the only version that exists on Spotify—and all the words are intact. The version I love was performed with a slight Yiddish lilt by the American klezmer singer Michael Alpert. It's part of the soundtrack of one of my favorite documentaries, Partisans of Vilna.

Finally, The Yid is about my native city, Moscow. Sometimes it's entertaining to wonder what a city would sound like if it were a song. I am convinced that Moscow would sound like Bulat Okudzhava, a singer-poet who can best be compared to Paris's Yives Montand.

In The Yid's finale, as my characters drive toward what could very well be their doom, they hear songs that are yet to be written—and may never be. As they drive along the nighttime Arbat, they could very well hear the yet-to-be-written Okudzhava song about the human cost of heroic adventures, Song About the Soldiers' Boots (Pesenka o soldatskikh sapogakh).

The final song on this playlist is also Okudzhava. Trolley Runs Down the Street (Shel trolleybus po ulitse). It's about a Moscow trolley passing a beautiful woman,

And all the men in the trolley looked at her for a long time
Only the trolley driver didn't turn his head,
Because somebody must always look ahead.

It's about love, humanity, hope—all the aspects of life that Comrade Stalin and his heirs would regard as frivolous.

Paul Goldberg and The Yid links:

the author's website

Booklist review
Fresh Air review
Kirkus review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New Yorker profile of the author
Publishers Weekly review
Washington Post review

Duke Chronicle interview with the author
Slate essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

Online "Best of 2015" Book Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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