A Story about Mr. Silberstein

139 pages,
ISBN: 0810112779

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The Edge of the Roof
by Norman Ravvin

When Erland Josephson, best known for his roles in the influential films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman, was asked how he managed his prodigious literary output alongside his film work, he remarked that there was a lot of dead time for an actor to kill during a film shoot. Josephson is well-known in his native Sweden for his novels, radio plays, poetry, memoirs, and short stories. But this translation by the Toronto poet and teacher Roger Greenwald will likely be the first that Canadians have seen of this large body of work.
Josephson's novel is enigmatic and affecting-a moody character portrait, which takes an extremely oblique view of Europe after World War II. The reader is led to believe that Silberstein is a Holocaust survivor, although the particulars of his experience are never alluded to. Almost everything the reader learns about his recent history comes by way of the musings of the other characters, who discuss their unforthcoming neighbour at length:
"Others derived great pleasure from the hard fate he had suffered or avoided. Their pleasure too was propelled by compassion, but also by horror and disgust. The poor man, they said, you know of course what it was like in those camps he may have been in, no doubt you saw the films, you read the reports."
But this kind of gossip and guesswork is all we get to offset Mr. Silberstein's unspoken past. At the outset, he arrives with his "miserable" belongings, to move into a building that stands by itself on an otherwise ruined street. His appearance immediately engages the interest of his neighbours, an interest that rises when he places outside the door of his apartment "an exceptionally handsome name-plate of polished brass with wonderfully curlicued letters, the most beautiful letters in the whole stairwell: SILBERSTEIN." This artifact of the new tenant's earlier and obviously more prosperous life becomes an object of compulsive discussion among others in the building, just as Silberstein's "not very new ulster", his "slouch hat", and his "indeterminable age" provoke their curiosity.
But A Story about Mr. Silberstein is not a book about the Holocaust. It is, in fact, not about any particular event in Jewish or European history. It is, more generally, an investigation of the role of the Jew in society. The dynamic that Josephson is most interested in is the tendency, in the absence of any knowledge about Silberstein, for all who come into contact with him to project their own fantasies, fears, and self-loathing onto him. A spinster librarian accosts him, not only to flirt, but in the hope that he will affirm her belief in humanity. "Oh, yes," she tells him on their first meeting, "there are so many frightful things going on nowadays. But one mustn't despair of people." Far more intrusive are figures like the would-be actor Asp, who is perversely drawn by Silberstein's presence to fulfill the stereotype of the anti-semite: "Aren't I speaking crudely enough? . . . But don't you think I understand what you're using me for! I'm supposed to sit here and be the court anti-Semite for you!" Finally, a journalist who lives in Silberstein's building corners him in the stairwell to grill him on this very tendency, and admits that against his better instincts, he cannot help dwelling on his own grim opinions of Jews.
"I feel like talking," the journalist tells him, "there is something affecting about your person,.I'm as generous as the next fellow, I never mistreat animals, I don't hold many grudges, I get furious with kids when they set traps for small birds. But it is quite obvious that I am inclined to dislike Jews."
The journalist's easy-going way of admitting this prejudice is mirrored throughout the book by the almost joyful habit children have of jeering and belittling the stranger they call the "old Jew".
Josephson's novel, then, asks what is a long-established question: Why are the Jews so despised? And he answers it in a familiar fashion: Because little is known of them and the worst is imagined out of this ignorance. But A Story about Mr. Silberstein takes this equation one step further. Silberstein, we discover, through a rare conversation he has with his neighbour the journalist, admits to having consciously fashioned himself as man with "no qualities. I have freed myself of coquetry. In this way I have come to be of no concern to anyone. I am no concern of yours, and that's just fine." In his urge to escape the judgement of others, Silberstein has chosen the "expressionless" face he shows the world, the "completely empty nakedness, the eyelids heavy, the mouth half open. You could read into that face anything you cared to." It is with this quirk in his character's makeup, that Josephson departs-rather bizarrely-from more conventional narratives that focus on what motivates anti-Semitism. As well, it is at this point that Silberstein, and not his pursuers, appears as an ironic victim; if the Jew himself decides to be a cipher, a characterless screen, can we be surprised when his tormentors project their own pathetic imaginings onto him? Silberstein's key traits are his reclusiveness, his inability (and his lack of desire) to make contact with those around him. He talks to no one if he can avoid it. He hides his face, in some weird imitation of Bogart, beneath the brim of his slouch hat. Even Silberstein's appearance at the novel's outset, with his "miserable" possessions and his unspeakable past, finds him playing the role of the Wandering Jew: a stock figure of Christian legend who is doomed to an aimless exile until the day of judgement in return for having mocked Jesus on the way to Calvary. Silberstein recounts a version of this legend to entertain himself as he spends an afternoon in his unsuccessful shop:
"Once upon a time there was a Jewish shoemaker who gave his son the name Ahasuerus. His wife didn't want to go along with this at all, since such a terribly unfortunate fate was associated with the name, but the shoemaker got his way. He thought that the name Ahasuerus would serve his son as a reminder and a warning: that's what happens to the Jew who is not good and merciful, that's how we wander forever through the world, that's how poor a foundation our house stands on, and our misdeeds visit greater punishment on us than misdeeds do on any other people."
How then, does The Story of Mr. Silberstein, in Liv Ullmann's words, ask us to view the uneasy relationship between Jew and Gentile? As a Jewish reader, I can't speak for the impact of Josephson's parable on the non-Jewish imagination. Initially intrigued, I found the novel grew baffling, and by its end, deeply disheartening; it was as if the narrative, unwittingly, had represented the stereotypes it set out to debunk. Silberstein is repeatedly described in terms that only substantiate stereotypes of the Jew, with his "large ugly face", his dark and hairy hands, his "thick lower lip". It is worth noting that A Story about Mr. Silberstein first appeared in 1957, before the now established tradition of Holocaust literature began to take shape. It may be fair to suggest that Josephson was only dimly aware of the tangled problems that have proven so daunting to writers in their struggle to write about Jewish culture in the wake of the Second World War. In this context, Josephson's book can be seen as an intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying forerunner of more successful fictional investigations of the subject.
This is a shame, because the novel's spare elliptical style is enticing. Roger Greenwald translation is elegant, never jarring. And there are moments in this very short novel where Josephson captures the haunting, poetic effect conjured by the tiny novels of German writers such as Peter Handke and Patrick Suskind. In these authors' work, the arrival of a pigeon, or the compulsive behaviour of a character, take on surprising metaphysical and metaphoric resonances. When, finally, Mr. Silberstein's enigmatic presence leads to his persecution-his neighbours chase him onto a rooftop where we last see him, teetering, contemplating suicide-we are neither surprised nor edified. We recognize the completion of an age-old narrative, in which the sacrificial victim is brought low by the instinctive, thoughtless actions of his pursuers. And unpleasantly, Mr. Silberstein acknowledges to himself that the role of pariah suits him: "This was exactly how things should be. This was his place, at the extreme edge of the roof."

Norman Ravvin's novel, Café des Westens, won the Alberta Culture New Fiction Award. He has forthcoming a collection of stories, and House of Words: Jewish Writing, Memory & Identity.


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