Friday, March 11, 2011

What a Pack of Lies - #19

STORY: "My First Love Affair" by Sholom Aleichem


BASICALLY: An impoverished young tutor has a pupil so lazy that he must write love letters on the pupil's behalf to the pupil's fiancé. In the process, a heartfelt romance blossoms, but as the wedding day draws near, how will the poor tutor confess that he is the one the fiancé truly loves?

1. He Tantalizes and Taunts with Titles

In my copy, "My First Love Affair" spans pages 129-146. What I'm saying is, it's not that long. But Aleichem divides the story into eleven numbered sections, each with its own subheading. They have sly titles like "My Boss' Tall Tales Rock Me to Sleep" and "Material for an Epistolary Romance." (Today's divided story write-up is inspired by this format, you see.) It's an interesting choice—for one thing, I think it mirrors, a little bit, the idea that the story unfolds for the protagonist letter by letter as he writes to his pupil's fiancé and reads her responses. But letter-writing doesn't actually come into play until the story's sixth section. Section 1 discusses how the "power of pull" (knowing the right people) helped the tutor obtain his post, Section 2 covers the "tall tales" of his boss, Section 3 includes a meditation on types of liars and tells us which one his boss is, Section 4 is self-explanatory—"The Boy Eats Like an Army While his Tutor Starves," and Section 5 has the pupil blackmail his tutor into playing checkers and "Sixty-Six" instead of conducting lessons. As short as it is, this story has an episodic feel that allows the reader to be entertained by each separate foible that's satirized.

2. Some of What's Worth Knowing

Sholom Aleichem was the pseudonym of Shalom Rabinovitz (1859–1916), an important writer of Yiddish plays, stories, and novels, whose works inspired FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. (You know the wry voice of Tevye that dominates FOTR? That's straight out of Aleichem.) He is totally so much fun, you guys. "My First Love Affair" lampoons while it humanizes and wraps suspense around a punch line. What Aleichem handles most masterfully is voice—his stories, though written and literary, read like oral tales. This quality reminds me of Hans Christian Andersen, many of whose stories (like "The Ugly Duckling" and "The Little Mermaid") are so powerful and timeless that they frequently get lumped in with tales that possess a true oral heritage (e.g., "Little Red Riding Hood"). Aleichem reads nothing like Andersen, but he has a great gift for channeling a humorous, self-deprecating personality that seems archetypally Jewish.

3. How to Build a Joke

Writing teachers love to harp on about avoiding the pitfall of a bad ending. They are not wrong! If an entire story is built on weird occurrence after weird occurrence, ending it with "And then he woke up!" (or something equally abrupt) will make the reader feel cheated and angry, as though the writer has been too lazy to wrap up his own conundrums. Similarly, a punch line at the end, while good for a momentary laugh, tends to have an overall deflating effect. A punch line suggests that the story wasn't important in its own right, but served only to set up the laugh at the end. And "My First Love Affair" builds gloriously, but to an ending that is basically just a joke. It's a funny joke—I did, actually and truly, laugh out loud when I realized what was going on—but still just a joke. And yet, it works. Here, the story is not deflated, it doesn't feel like a cheat, and I'm fascinated by how Aleichem pulls this off.

It goes back, in part, to those five introductory sections I mentioned above. By the time we reach the question of the letters in Section 6, the tutor is a fully-realized character. His fixation on his own experiences leading up to the main conflict—how he got the job, the state of his poverty, the way that everyone in this well-off household continuously spouts lies—keeps the reader's focus firmly grounded in his point of view, wondering how events will affect him. This focus continues as the tutor begins ghost-writing his pupil's love letters and intensifies as the tutor begins to worry about the approaching nuptials. If Aleichem had begun with Section 6, when the tutor first begins writing to the fiancé, the reader wouldn't have understood what was at stake for the tutor and become invested in his emotional journey into love.

4. I Don't See What You Did There

In other entries on this blog (see here and here, for example), I've referred to the way an author seems to distract us from what she's doing in order to pull off something else. It is hard to see how the distraction is done and, precisely for this reason, so gratifying when it's done well. When reviewers refer to an author's "sleight of hand," this is probably part of what they mean. Aleichem's sleight of hand has him creating a suspenseful situation in which the audience wants to know, along with the narrator, how the tutor's love will come to light. Two entire sections—"9. The Wedding Preparations—My Foolish Dreams" and "10. The Guests are Welcomed"—are devoted to increasing this suspense. Wrapped in a cloud of suspense in one direction, the reader is far less likely to see a joke coming from the other.

There's another reason the joke works, too. Throughout the story, the narrator gripes about the ease with which everyone, his pupil and his boss and his boss's wife, all tell lies: "[My pupil] looked so innocent that I suddenly felt like spitting into his face and shouting: 'God Almighty. What Liars you people are. One lie after another. One lie greater than the next!'" He just barely comments, however, on his own speedy slide into dishonesty. When the punch line hits at the story's end, it completes the cycle of lies and takes it to its most absurd level. This is the really brilliant thing, the technique to note. Instead of undermining the story, the final punch line unifies it. 

Aleichem makes it look easy, but that's just more sleight of hand.