Marking Time: Modernism and Belatedness in the Writing of David Bergelson

Following the REEEC Fall Reception on Thursday, September 12, Professor Harriet Murav opened the 2013-2014 New Directions Lecture Series by speaking on modernism and belatedness in the works of David Bergelson.  Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Comparative and World Literatures, Harriet Murav is the current editor of Slavic Review. She is also the author of several monographs: Music From a Speeding Train: Jewish Literature in Post-Revolution Russia (Stanford University Press, 2011), Russia’s Legal Fictions (University of Michigan Press, 1998), and Holy Foolishness: Dostoevsky’s Novels & the Poetics of Cultural Critique (Stanford University Press, 1992).

Professor Murav opened her lecture by describing the emergence of a vibrant Yiddish literary culture in the early twentieth century and challenged the misconceptions that Yiddish was a folksy language confined to the older generations and the shtetls. By the 1910s and 1920s, Yiddish poets and writers were prominent throughout Eastern and Western Europe, and even the Soviet Union, which had sustained a brief period of Bohemian intellectual vibrancy in the early 1920s. The emergence of Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union had been supported in the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution, and David Bergelson, born in Ukraine, was one of such writers to emerge. In 1921, he moved to Berlin, where he remained until 1933, when he moved back to the Soviet Union as the Nazis gained power in Germany.

Prof. Harriet Murav

Prof. Harriet Murav

Murav’s lecture explored the concept and dimensions of belatedness in the early fiction of the Yiddish writer David Bergelson within the context of early twentieth century theoretical and artistic inquiries about memory, time, and consciousness. In her lecture, Murav conveyed the sense of “experiencing the present as if you’re too late” as a prominent theme in the early twentieth century in general. She cited the manifestation of such experience in Anna Akhmatova’s 1922 poem After Everything and brought examples from Bergelson’s fiction, specifically from Nokh Alemen (translated first as When all is Said and Done then as The End of Everything). A favored example was Bergelson’s Anna, who leaves behind a letter lamenting that someone else has lived out her springtime.

The train was the biggest symbol representing the crisis of time brought about by new technology. For Murav, this sense of belatedness also prevalent in Bergelson’s fiction opened up the world for new ways of understanding. She connected the theme of belatedness with Freud’s early twentieth century fixation on the “after effect.”  Freud claimed that every defining experience one would ever have would have occurred by the age of five, and the rest of one’s life would be resorted to making sense of those experiences. Professor Murav argued that while Bergelson’s characters were perpetually too late, Bergelson’s view was in opposition with Freud’s. For Bergelson it was never too late to recover from past experiences.

The lecture explored the ways in which Bergelson tried to juxtapose belatedness with change, how “remembering the past can be seen as the potential for something new.” One of her central arguments was that the after effect was not a sense of finality, but a way for transformation. This is where she explained that Bergelson’s early works went in line with the early twentieth century French philosopher Henri Bergson.

She paralleled Bergelson with Bergson, who wrote that the unremembered past contained the source for maturity and futurity, which she explained as recovery being possible through intuition and discovery.

Murav discussing a Yiddish artistic journal

Murav discussing a Yiddish artistic journal

Professor Murav’s central argument was in the greater context of memory, and she concluded her lecture by stating that memory is a source of futurity. The study presented in her lecture is part of her current book project “Marking Time: The Writing of David Bergelson,” which builds from the context of twentieth century artistic and theoretical approaches, and inquiries discussed in the lecture to explore the “tragic contraction and creative dilation of time” as experimented within David Bergelson’s fiction.

Alana Holland is a first year MA student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and 2013-2014 FLAS Fellow. She received her BA in History from Arkansas State University in May 2012. Before joining the MA program at REEEC she spent a year abroad in Izhevsk, Russia where she studied Russian at Udmurt State University. She is participating in an internship with the Russian Holocaust and Educational Research Center and volunteers with The Memorial Society (Moscow).

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