Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 723
The basic premise of this novella-length, seriocomic story is Edelshtein’s envy of the success of the writer Yankel Ostrover and his obsession with sustaining Yiddish as a language. Parallel to this plot line is the contradiction involved in Edelshtein’s ironic need for a translator, without which he can never achieve...
(The entire section contains 723 words.)
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The basic premise of this novella-length, seriocomic story is Edelshtein’s envy of the success of the writer Yankel Ostrover and his obsession with sustaining Yiddish as a language. Parallel to this plot line is the contradiction involved in Edelshtein’s ironic need for a translator, without which he can never achieve success as a writer, but with which he cannot really sustain Yiddish. Although Edelshtein finds American writers of Jewish extraction such as Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow puerile, vicious, and ignorant, he reserves his most passionate vituperation for Ostrover, who seems patterned after Isaac Bashevis Singer in some ways and Jerzy Kosinski in others. Ostrover is a writer of stories in Yiddish that, when translated into English, have become highly popular. For Edelshtein and his friend Baumzweig, editor of a Yiddish periodical, Ostrover’s Yiddish is impure and his subject matter is pornographic. They call him “Pig” or “Devil” or “Yankee Doodle.” With his focus on an imaginary Polish village named Zwrdl, however, Ostrover is considered “modern” by contemporary critics. Free of the prison of Yiddish, he has burst out into the world of reality. Taking Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy as his literary gods, he has been published in The New Yorker and Playboy.
There are other reasons for Edelshtein’s hatred of Ostrover than his envy of his success. Thirty years earlier, Ostrover had an affair with Edelshtein’s wife; Edelshtein blames Ostrover for the fact that he and his wife have remained childless. It is the envy that gives the story its title, however, that most eats at Edelshtein. He writes Ostrover’s publishers asking them to provide him with a translator so he might show them that there are Jewish writers other than Ostrover. The irony of Edelshtein’s position is indicated by the publisher’s response that reputation must precede translation, to which Edelshtein replies that without translation there can be no reputation. Edelshtein then writes to a spinster hack who translates for Ostrover, from whom he receives a long reply arguing that she is the one that makes Ostrover modern, although, like a wife, she has the passive role.
When Edelshtein goes with Baumzweig and Baumzweig’s wife, Paula, to hear Ostrover read, Ostrover reads a story about a poet who sells his soul to the devil in order to get a translator and then, when he still cannot find success, is condemned to Hell to write poems that are immediately consigned to oblivion. The story is an obvious allegory about Edelshtein and his desire for a translator, and it serves only to infuriate Edelshtein more. It also enrages Edelshtein that Ostrover responds with jokes to the homage he receives. He believes that the Jewish intellectual, in the modern world, is reduced to being a comedian. At the reading one is also introduced to Chaim Vorovsky, a mad lexicographer who, after completing seventeen years’ work on his dictionary, began laughing and could not stop, and then began wetting himself. Now alcohol has cured the laughter but not the incontinence. Edelshtein also meets Vorovsky’s niece, Hannah, who knows his poetry from her grandfather, and he begins his efforts to make her his translator.
The climax of the story comes when Edelshtein goes to Vorovsky’s house and finds that he has reverted to his laughing madness. Still, Edelshtein tries to convince Hannah to be his translator, telling her that she will be like a messiah to a whole generation. She, however, recognizes him as merely another jealous old man from the ghetto, looking not for a translator but for someone’s soul to suck out like a vampire. When she tells him that Ostrover is not of the ghetto but in the world, Edelshtein realizes that for him the ghetto is the real world and the outside world only a ghetto. Hannah attacks him with the accusation that he is a cannibal who hates imagination, magic, and God. When he leaves, Edelshtein calls the number of a fanatical religious organization with whom he argues about the values of Judaism and Christianity. Finally, the religious fanatic calls Edelshtein a “kike” and a “Yid.” Edelshtein shouts into the telephone that the whole world is infected with anti-Semites who have caused him to lose everything, and most tragically, to fail to have a translator.