Bukiet's Other Side


Pondering Jewish literature’s lost-and-found department summons to mind the critic Harold Ribalow in a used-book store—remember those fantastical places?—carefully turning the yellowed pages of Henry Roth’s long out-of-print Call it Sleep (1934). Thanks in part to Ribalow, Roth’s novel was reissued in 1964 and became something of an instant classic, 30 years late. It’s a shame that the shuttering up of used-book stores increasingly precludes such archaeological rediscoveries. But take heart. Given our increasingly impatient and capricious book market, a market in which trade publishers back an ever-dwindling list of sellable, star writers, there are plenty of lost gems right under our noses, many of them published with little fanfare by small independent presses. The Jewish book I’d deposit squarely in this category is Melvin Jules Bukiet’s second work of fiction, Stories of An Imaginary Childhood (1992).

Published by the well-regarded but small Northwestern University Press, Bukiet’s collection received scant attention upon its release. It garnered enthusiastic, back-cover blurbs by James E. Young and Lawrence L. Langer and a few positive reviews here and there, but also inspired a downright churlish entry in Publisher’s Weekly, which no doubt discouraged several would-be readers. Thankfully, the collection caught the favorable attention of the judges for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize for Best Jewish-American Fiction. One of those judges was Dan Walden, the founder of Studies in American Jewish Literature and, at the time, one of my graduate-school professors at Penn State. “Here,” he declared, waving the paperback before me in our overheated English Department mailroom. “This is our Wallant Prize winner this year. See what you think. It’s yours.”

The gift of Bukiet’s collection came at a pretty important moment in my graduate-school career. I was still trying to sort out exactly what I wished to study in earnest. While the familiar Jewish-American writers of our golden age, Bellow, Malamud & Co., appealed to me, there didn’t seem much point in pursuing Jewish-American fiction as a specialty if it were only a blip on the vast screen of American literature. I wanted to study, and perhaps even contribute to, a living literature. But it seemed a genuine possibility at the time that Bellow and his cohorts might have devoured their literary young. Had contemporary Jewish writers in America—those who wished to think, feel, and write Jewishly—simply been born too late? I glanced down at the flimsy paperback now in my hand. The front cover of Stories of an Imaginary Childhood featured a blue, almond-shaped eye toward the bottom, which seemed to look directly at me, vying for my attention amid a busy semester that included seminars (if I recall) on Faulkner, American Transcendentalism, and British Romanticism. Nu, the almond eye goaded me, what do you got to lose, kid?

I read the book and was immediately enthralled, for Stories of an Imaginary Childhood forcefully carves out new space for the contemporary Jewish-American imagination. In the collection, Bukiet essentially leapfrogs the well-trod post-war American terrain and reclaims an authentically Jewish site across the years, and across the water. Rather than hang out in the stale secularized middle-class Jewish suburbs, Bukiet, in an audacious act of the imagination, constructs a prewar Polish shtetl, Proszowice, right down to its muddy river, craggy yew trees, tired storefronts, and town square, “a lumpy table with sheds and carts like misshapen pottery scattered around its edges.” It’s a benighted, hardscrabble place, but also a place where magic might intervene at any moment—an ancient well doubles as a crystal ball, the nearby woods bequeath mysterious gifts—a place of nebulous and permeable borders between the unromanticized, gritty realm of the here and now and the yeneh velt, or other side.

The elastic form of the collection—the interconnected stories, or novel-in-stories—gives free rein to Bukiet’s omnivorous imagination, but also allows him to evoke his postage stamp of non-native shtetl soil, an environment that both nurtures and starves his unnamed artist-as-a-young-man protagonist. Moreover, the form permits Bukiet to fully clothe his hero and other recurring supporting characters, such as Isaac the Millionaire, Zalman the Digger, the lame music teacher, Mrs. Hemtobble, Old Man Medisky, who grows flowers in a magical greenhouse, and the corpulent Rebecca the Whore. Ah, Rebecca. When the rabbi’s wife tries cutting in front of the town’s prostitute in the mikvah line by claiming that the rabbi is waiting for her, Rebecca winningly replies, “So what?... The whole town is waiting for me.” The interconnected story form has since emerged as a particularly fruitful aesthetic for subsequent young Jewish writers (Thane Rosenbaum’s Elijah, Visible, Allegra Goodman’s The Family Markowitz, David Bezmozgis’s Natasha, Ellen Litman’s The Last Chicken in America), just as any number of contemporary Jewish writers (Chabon, Horn, and Safran Foer) set their artistic sights on prewar European Jewish turf in the wake of Bukiet’s collection.

Bukiet, who worked for a short time in the 1980s as Bernard Malamud’s research assistant, surely felt the anxiety of his forbears’ influence. For several of the stories here originate in his protagonist’s struggle to stitch together a viable artistic identity for himself. In “Virtuoso,” the opening story, Bukiet’s hero labors under his parents’ delusional fantasy that the violin might represent their son’s artistic calling, that he might become the next Jascha Heifetz. “Show me a Jewish home without a prodigy,” Stories of an Imaginary Childhood begins, “and I’ll show you an orphanage.” Trouble is, our young protégé can’t play the instrument worth a lick. Bukiet evokes through artful metaphor what musical brilliance does not sound like: “Lacking the strength to chastise myself, I lashed the piglets mercilessly. My arm was a blur of such useless vigor that a string sprung back into a curly tail, and the remaining little swine oinked their hearts out—andante, allegro, staccato—until the massacre finally came to its foregone crescendo.” The narrator’s flair for figurative language, of course, suggests that his talent lay elsewhere—specifically, in writing.

In “New Words for Old,” our fledgling writer most explicitly struggles to be heard over the powerful voice of a literary predecessor, the famous Jewish poet Kimminov. When the aged Kimminov deigns to visit the backwater of Proszowice, the Jews insist upon hosting a poetry reading and, after removing the holy books, crowd the shul to listen to their great man from the secular literary realm. As Kimminov’s voice is weak and raspy, the town assigns our protagonist the honor of intoning loudly the poetry that Kimminov whispers into his ear. Not content to simply parrot his elder’s words, however, our young narrator begins to enact revisions on the spot, between hearing and speaking; in short, he substitutes new words for old. “That single word viper was mine,” the narrator reflects upon one such daring intervention. “Viper,” he continues a few lines later, “was better than snake. It was different, and the v subliminally reinforced the word venom before it. It was just good poetry.”

The protagonist’s (and by extension, Bukiet’s) struggle to exert his artistic powers against the rival influences of his elders might ring hollow were it not couched in such specifically Judaic terms, and in such a strange and wondrous Jewish place and time. The collection begins, we should note, in Jewish time. The second and third stories, “Levitation” and “The Apprentice,” span the Jewish Days of Awe between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as the protagonist’s still inchoate hunger to access the sublime in his unlikely environs vies against the ancient prohibitions of his tribe. During his town’s already unorthodox tashlich ceremony—when Jews typically throw bread in a body of water to represent the casting away of their sins—our hero attempts to levitate in Proszowice’s muddy stream: “A buoyant, ecstatic power enters the tips of my toes, rises through my feet, and stretches the muscles till my legs turn rubbery.... I thrust my arms upward, as if to grab ahold of the clouds.” Importantly, it is through language, in the ecstatic recitation of the Sh'ma, that the protagonist gropes toward divinity, while the community elders seek desperately, even heartbreakingly, to save him from what they perceive as his dangerous foray into Jewish mysticism.

We know early on that the rationalist strictures of our hero’s Jewish community will not be able to hold him. He will become an imaginative, which is to say, pagan, writer. Yet Bukiet does not trivialize the dangers of the pagan realm. In “The Apprentice,” for example, it’s not altogether clear whether the hero’s bottomless hunger for the food in his father’s store on Yom Kippur—“The metal-gray herring winked, the creamy white sturgeon beckoned”—symbolizes an artistic hunger that he ought to abide or, ultimately, resist. The narrator’s fevered negotiations throughout between his individualistic, artistic impulses and the expectations of his family and tribe, which he can’t so easily eschew, imbues the collection with special poignance. It’s a familiar theme in Jewish-American writing, but one that Bukiet makes new given the specific terms, locale, and historical gravity of the struggle.

I would learn some time after reading Stories of an Imaginary Childhood that Bukiet’s fantastical Proszowice is also a real place, a town in southern Poland near Cracow where the author’s father was raised. Unlike most of Proszowice’s Jews, Bukiet’s father survived the Holocaust and emigrated to the United States, where he became a successful businessman. Bukiet’s personal yet once-removed relationship with this place and time accounts for both the title of the collection and, I suspect, the depth of his artistic immersion into his “imaginary” Proszowice and its people. Zalman the Digger, for example, is not a mere stock character (as his name might imply); rather, in “The Woman with a Dog,” he emerges as a character in full flesh with a history of his own. Crushed under the weight of his lifelong losses, romantic and otherwise, Zalman attempts to bury himself in a shallow grave and asks our hero for his assistance. Our narrator refuses, reaching out instead to lift Zalman from the meter-deep abyss. “There, there,” he comforts the gravedigger, “It just wasn’t time for you to meet your destiny.” We know, of course, that Zalman’s time—and Old Man Medisky’s, and Rebecca the Whore’s, and Isaac the Millionaire’s—looms on the horizon, which adds a haunting dimension to this story, and to several others.

If Bukiet honors his characters by investing them with their distinct histories, he does the same for the character of Proszowice, itself, while alluding throughout to its catastrophic future. Rather than accept the town’s erasure, Bukiet restores Proszowice to the continuum of our ongoing Jewish story. In “The Blue-Eyed Jew,” for example, his protagonist descends into the town’s well—dug by the first Jewish settlers to the shtetl after their expulsion from Spain—whereupon Bukiet’s hero magically sees images of “water and the flaming rope, then the column of smoke seen in the Sinai four thousand years before.  There were pictures of dummies and violins and bicycles, a taste of lox, the scent of perfumed letters and earthen tombs, a premonition of greenhouses.” We were all at Sinai together, observant Jews like to remind us; Bukiet here breathes life into this assertion through his protagonist’s vision, these linked images of the Jewish story from Sinai’s holy smoke to the taste of Proszowice’s smoked fish. Why couldn’t tiny little Proszowice have been a place of sublime holiness? “Here, O Israel,” Bukiet’s narrator brazenly revises the Sh'ma in “Levitation.”

There’s a lot of love in Stories of an Imaginary Childhood, a love one can virtually taste in the narrator’s description of the morsels that crowd the shelves in his father’s store: the swollen jellied chestnuts, glazed pears, imported mustard, marmalades, and “salmon smoked to fleshy pink perfection, sable, sturgeon, and white fish, their opaque eyes staring like marbles through the display case.” At least for me, the unabashed love permeating these stories accounts for the book’s staying power. Indeed, one reason the collection might have faded from view is that Bukiet’s subsequent efforts have at the very least challenged, if not altogether renounced, the tender, wistful spirit at the heart of his second work of fiction. Bukiet’s After (1996), for example, depicts an unfathomably bleak interior moral landscape after the European atrocity, and here I refer only to that novel’s Jewish characters!

The perspicacious reader can detect glimmerings of this darker, more mischievous Bukiet in Stories of an Imaginary Childhood, especially in the collection’s final story, “Torquemada.” In the narrator’s fevered nightmares of Jewish persecution, Bukiet provocatively blurs the lines between victim and victimizer. All the same, it’s hard to reckon the artistic tenor of Stories of an Imaginary Childhood, Bukiet’s “before,” so to speak, with Bukiet’s After. This may, in fact, be Bukiet’s overarching artistic thesis, that the Holocaust irreparably shattered the quaint human (and aesthetic) principles of hope, love, and redemption. It’s not a bad thesis. Yet while I continue to read and appreciate the later, darker Bukiet, I find myself drawn with much greater force toward the elegiac, near choral, voice I discovered almost 20 years ago within the rather flimsy paperback collection bequeathed to me by a most generous professor.

Unlike most neglected book stories these days, the story of Stories took a recent good turn. The collection, I just discovered, was republished in 2002 by the University of Wisconsin Press. And so I beseech those of you untrammeled by our financial crisis. Buy this book. Read this book. Then do a mitzvah. Share the wealth. Offer your slightly worn copy to your spouse, to your sister, to your friend, or to your poor student who has no idea what the future holds.