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Zelman Skalov's Attempt to Novelize Jewish Warsaw, September 1939–June 1941 in Real Time: Catastrophic Contingency and Novelistic Discourse

Sun, December 18, 10:00 to 11:30am, Sheraton Boston Arnold Arboretum E 5th Floor


This paper explores Skalov's necessarily strained attempt to accommodate the radically contingent events unfolding between the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and of the Soviet Union in June 1941within a remarkably conventional novelistic framework in Di Hak on krayts (literally “the ax without a cross” but also a homophone in Yiddish for swastika). Since Skalov was attempting to novelize his contemporary reality virtually concurrently with the events themselves, none of the elements that make up the DNA or unreflected presumptions of conventional novels could remain stable—presumptions, for example, that the social milieu presented as a microcosm of the wider society will remain even moderately intact or, indeed, that the representatives of different social strata will remain part of “society” itself; or that characters will retain enough integrity to remain legible as characters in a novel rather than slip into inscrutable states of abjection; or that the would-be omniscient narrator will be able to maintain authoritative knowledge of the shape of the far-flung events. I am interested in Skalov’s ostensible faith in the novel as an adequate hermeneutic and ethical discursive paradigm for reckoning with what he imagined would be coming, and the eventual breakdown of the novelistic paradigm in the face of the events that in fact occurred. The standard narratological binary opposition between story and narrative discourse construes story as the stable, settled component, and novelistic discourse—the myriad ways story can be told—as the infinitely variable one. But in Skalov’s novel of unfolding events, it is the story itself that is dynamic, perilously and intractably so, whereas the plot and narration strain to order the contingent events of the story. Ultimately this strain becomes impossible to sustain, and the final pages of Skalov’s attempted novel signal genres beyond itself—lyric and reportage—that were perhaps more adequate than the novel for reckoning with the realities and experiences of the Warsaw ghetto and which for this reason, and in contrast to Skalov’s sole, valiant attempt at a novel, are richly represented among the literary corpus preserved in the Oyneg Shabes.