Swans Commentary » swans.com June 30, 2014  



Girl Alone


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Silbert, Layle: Yudl and Other Stories, 2013, SevenStories Press, NYC, ISBN 978-1-60980-440-4, 301 pages.


Her first question was going to be, Where were you? Her life depended on knowing where he was. Page 181

I am your husband. Respect, if you please. Page 173


(Swans - June 30, 2014)   Chicago hasn't entirely forgotten Layle Silbert. Her papers have been sorted and lodged in the University of Chicago's "Uncovering New Chicago Archives Project." However, on the centenary of her birth the writer and photographer who taught and wrote in China in 1946-7 and was a voice in radical American feminism in the 1960s hasn't become one of the city's literary talking points. Yudl, her book of stories that some have called a novel, is more exactly a veiled memoir. It furnishes a fresh look at the author, who died in 2003.

Yudl is all self-examination. Starting with her childhood, Layle Silbert sets out with tenacity to discover what made her. In the nineteen short pieces and one-hundred-page novella, her focus on herself is relentless. She grips Ellen, her literary stand-in, with what seems like obsession, an unembarrassed preoccupation with self. In Ellen's immigrant Chicago of 1920s' exuberance and 1930s' collapse, should we have our eyes fixed on one growing girl? In the measured view of a historian or sociologist, perhaps not. In the realm of art, however, where values surge from a writer's passion, the answer is a resounding yes.

Moreover, the teen who sneaks a reading of her parents' copy of Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie senses full well what is going on around her and can't help reflecting it. While intent on whatever is shaping her, she reveals the forces at play. That self absorption was the right recipe for Yudl is clear from the final stories. Factual and journalistic, they look beyond the heroine and seem to belong to another book. This one belongs to young Ellen in all her surgical egotism. It's an account of how a precocious reader brought up on print must gradually catch up to reality.

Ellen's parents were born in the same village in the Ukrainian Pale where Jews were confined. She grows up in Chicago, part of the political evolution of similar immigrants. Ellen's father, Yuhl, an educated man who began studies to be a rabbi, works for a Yiddish newspaper, writing advertising copy. He has refashioned himself in the new world as a secular Jew. A vibrant community of like people lived at the time on the city's "old vest side" around the Lawndale Theater where Yiddish stock companies stopped and the Blue Inn where the opinionated held forth.

As the Jews of Western Europe had been emancipated in the previous century, he'd emancipated himself when he left the yeshiva in Tels before finishing to become a man of the world, at first a Bundist, later a member of the Poale Zion. p.126

Like immigrants of all stripes, Yuhl was shaken by the condemnation of Sacco and Vanzetti. The Paole Zion society was Hertzl inspired. Members parroted on about socialism and a homeland. ("...Herzl who'd founded the modern Zionist movement and spawned a tribe of dreamers." p.124) But American life had given their ideals the cold shoulder. "Idealists do not smoke cigars." (p.132)

In truth the members have already found the only homeland they are going to have. They know this and have no intention of pulling up stakes for an illusion. Nevertheless they keep meeting and mouthing the same slogans. Small businessmen who are necessarily on the make, they gradually put socialism away together with the hairstyles of their youth. Their get-togethers become moments of escape from family and demanding wives. Their children refuse to stand on street corners, "Collecting pennies for a parliament building in a land which did not exist." (p.186) The contradiction in their position cannot always be suppressed.

Forced to move house, Yuhl has a panic attack brought on by uprooting and depression. At a raucous meeting of Branch One of the Poale Zion he takes the floor and spits out his truth. America, he tells the gathering, is their home. It's time to wake from their dream. Saturated with Yiddish culture, Yuhl finds it unreasonable to replace the language that binds the immigrants together with Hebrew. He even falls back on the argument for a homeland in Uganda, a crackbrained dispute that had raged among Zionists. When the listeners cry scandal, Yuhl readily admits that he's confused. Soon he's admitting that his outburst was an aberration. He apologizes for having stepped out of the dream.

Yuhl is happy and fulfilled in his job at the Yiddish language Jewish Courier. His rented flat satisfies his idea of home. Summer brings some weeks in the country with other Jewish immigrant families:

The labor Zionists gathered in one cottage, the Bundists in another, the trade union needle workers in another. There were even two vegetarian families. p. 89

But his wife Ryah unsettles his life. Her refusal to take his conversation seriously makes him feel lonely. It's not clear whether her insistence on building an apartment block offends Yuhl's socialism or his need for a quiet life. "Ryah praised nature as she praised rich men." (p. 175)

He was pondering how the ambition to own a building and starry idealism could be housed in the same imagination. The ambition to own a building came from living in America and the idealism they had brought with them from the Pale. p.160

Both he and his daughter Ellen have guilty fantasies of seeing Ryah in her coffin. She gives them no peace. They accept her as a necessary evil. Yet Ellen's view of her mother contains an explanation:

In life her mother was not independent as a nation is independent. She was an imperialist predator, overrunning the life of her family but only to the boundaries of their flat, no further. p. 21

Ryah is unbearable because she only operates within the household. Her enlightenment is limited to her shopping. "Ryah did not buy kosher meat. She was enlightened. It had been one of their bonds from the first." (p.156) Whenever she can take action outside her home, Ryah stops her imperial preditation -- she leaves off strong arming her family. Her desire to own an apartment block is not only a symptom of American capitalism and insurance in case of her husband's death. Being a landlord would give her a role in the larger world where she could exercise her undoubted talents and throbbing vitality.

Ellen is at grips with her mother from early childhood. Their differences are of the classic mother-daughter kind, a strongly independent daughter jibbing at her parent's forceful controlling hand. There is also a specific Jewish tension. The former rabbinical student has a strong traditional respect for learning. It keeps him from criticizing Ellen's obsession with reading from morning till night. His wife dislikes Ellen's flight into books but can't naysay the tradition, although she only honors it morosely from the outside, as it were, from the kitchen. Like Yuhl, Ellen wishes simply to be left alone by Ryah. But Ellen-Layle Silbert is also the creator of both father and daughter and herself a feminist. She knows these family conflicts are unavoidable. In several instances when Ellen isn't on the receiving end of Ryah's imperialism, she admires her mother's force of character and realpolitik.

With her father Ellen has a more relaxed and fraternal relationship. The pattern here is the Freudian family scenario and reminds us that Layle Silbert was at university in the 1930s when Freud's system resounded in America like a brass band. Her other reactions to her parents follow a familiar itinerary. American born, and monolingual, she's embarrassed by their foreignness.

At university Ellen was already reading Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night (p.279), which had only appeared in French in 1932. She would have been familiar with the publishing difficulties of James Joyce's Ulysses, a book around since the early 1920s but only declared non pornographic with much ado by a New York district judge in 1933. It's hard to believe that a bookworm like Ellen (and her creator) had not read Joyce's long-available earlier book Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Like Yudl it was autobiographical, another veiled memoir. Would it be reckless to indulge the conceit of placing the bildungsroman that was Portrait of the Artist beside its Chicago literary cousin, Yudl, for purposes of comparison?

Stephen Dedalus, who represents Joyce, knows Ellen's family predicament in its male version. He is close to his mother and in combat with his father. Only later, on reflection, will he come to value Dedalus Senior despite his flaws. Layle Silbert, the feminist, tells us between the lines that Ellen's annoyance with her mother overlooks the fact that Ryah has been given too restricted a role in life. While the young Dedalus's bugbear was a sentimental Irish nationalism, Ellen's was Yiddish tearful fantasies of a homeland. Notably, both writers changed direction later in life, Joyce speaking up for Irish independence in Trieste and Layle Silbert identifying with Yiddish culture in New York.

Stephen's and Joyce's education was eminently classical, carefully filtered and transmitted by the Jesuits. It looked to Europe and antiquity. Ellen's and Layle Silbert's culture came through the local library and editions of the Modern Library, afterwards disciplined and widened by the University of Chicago, which she attended in its best and most outreaching years.

Pushing our conceit too far and overdoing the analogy can also be instructive. Joyce restricted himself to fiction and poetry. If art for art wasn't his credo, all for art certainly was. He was a niggler for esthetic form. His Portrait was a completely rewritten version of another book that went unpublished, Stephen Hero. Layle Silbert, as the "Archives Project" shows, also did social work and professional photography; she wrote fiction, poetry, and essays. She didn't pore endlessly over the form of her stories. That's why Yudl, as interesting as it is, won't be on the reading list of the Ellens of the future.


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Published June 30, 2014