Alexan­dra Sil­ber Fid­dles With ‘Fid­dler’

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Ju­lia M. Klein Ju­lia M. Klein is a For­ward con­tribut­ing book critic. Fol­low her on Twit­ter, @ Ju­li­aMKlein

AF­TER ANAT­EVKA: A NOVEL IN­SPIRED BY “FID­DLER ON THE ROOF” By Alexan­dra Sil­ber, Pe­ga­sus Books, 336 pages, $25.95

“Fid­dler on the Roof” ends with the dairy­man Tevye and most of his fam­ily evicted from their shtetl of Anat­evka and head­ing to new lives in Amer­ica. In their mu­si­cal adap­ta­tion of Sholem Ale­ichem’s Yid­dish-lan­guage tales, Joseph Stein, Shel­don Har­nick and Jerry Bock pro­vided a back­story for the great mi­gra­tion of East Euro­pean Jews to the United States around the turn of the 20th cen­tury. Even as its depic­tion of Cos­sack-led pogroms ges­tures at the Holo­caust to come, “Fid­dler” is fun­da­men­tally an ac­count of adap­ta­tion and sur­vival, rel­e­vant not just to Jews, but also to gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­can im­mi­grants.

In her floridly ro­man­tic his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, “Af­ter Anat­evka,” Alexan­dra Sil­ber veers off in an­other di­rec­tion en­tirely. Rather than fol­low Tevye and his clan to the United States, as one might have ex­pected, Sil­ber — an ac­tress by trade — imag­ines what might have be­fallen Tevye’s se­cond daugh­ter, Hodel, and her rev­o­lu­tion­ary hus­band, Per­chik, in the wilds of Siberia.

Sil­ber has said that her por­tray­als of both Hodel, in a West End re­vival of “Fid­dler,” and Hodel’s older sis­ter, Tzei­tel, in the sub­se­quent Broad­way pro­duc­tion, in­flu­enced her writ­ing of the book. “Af­ter Anat­evka” boasts a fore­word by “Fid­dler” lyri­cist Har­nick, who calls it “a pow­er­ful and grip­ping tale of love, loy­alty, brav­ery and en­durance,” and there are lauda­tory blurbs by the­atri­cal col­leagues, such as the play­wright Terrence McNally, the ac­tor Ja­son Alexan­der and Sil­ber’s “Fid­dler” co-star Danny Burstein. This past spring, in New York, its im­pend­ing pub­li­ca­tion in­spired a con­cert of orig­i­nal songs by Project Broad­way at Sym­phony Space.

For all that, the novel sim­ply isn’t very good. It’s at once an over­wrought, cliché-rid­den ro­mance (“It was this surge of feel­ing that moved him to kiss her face with a cov­etous thirst, as if drink­ing in her very

essence”) and a grimly un­pleas­ant prison story, fea­tur­ing rape, in­cest, tor­ture and vi­o­lent death. Lit­tle of the hu­man­ity and hu­mor of the stage mu­si­cal, or of the orig­i­nal sto­ries, sur­vives Sil­ber’s nov­el­is­tic as­sault.

For all the crude­ness of her prose, Sil­ber does man­age her nar­ra­tive’s am­bi­tious tem­po­ral shifts with some skill. The novel seeks to il­lu­mi­nate Hodel and Per­chik and their pre­sum­ably epic love by delv­ing into their imag­ined past. In Per­chik’s case, we get a plot out of Charles Dick­ens: a bril­liant or­phan, “a soul teem­ing with great­ness,” born out of wed­lock, nur­tured by a rabbi men­tor and raised by a cold, mer­ce­nary un­cle whose love he craves and whose for­tune will play a role in the novel’s de­noue­ment.

In de­lin­eat­ing Hodel’s pre-Per­chik ex­is­tence, Sil­ber re­turns us, with some suc­cess, to the sit­u­a­tions and char­ac­ters we know and love from the stage mu­si­cal. From the prepa­ra­tion of the chal­lah for the Sab­bath to the dawn milk­ing of cows, she evokes the warmth and tra­di­tion of Tevye’s house­hold — now seen not from Tevye’s per­spec­tive (he is al­most ab­sent) but from Hodel’s and, even­tu­ally, Per­chik’s.

The mé­nage that Tevye nom­i­nally rules turns out to be a woman’s world, a train­ing ground for Jewish do­mes­tic­ity. Golde, Tevye’s wife, is the gen­eral. But Sil­ber’s Tzei­tel, fol­low­ing in her foot­steps, is the ul­ti­mate home­maker, who “at­tacked the laun­dry with vis­i­ble signs of plea­sure” and felt a “deep de­gree of con­tent­ment… af­ter a day of bak­ing, mop­ping floors, wash­ing, iron­ing, and giv­ing baths to the lit­tle ones.”

Sil­ber imag­ines a tense, ri­val­rous re­la­tion­ship be­tween Tzei­tel and the less tra­di­tional Hodel, which be­gins to thaw when Tzei­tel faces the heart­break­ing loss of her child­hood love, the tai­lor Mo­tel Kam­zoil, to an ar­ranged mar­riage with a wealthy butcher. That par­tic­u­lar cri­sis, as we know, is averted. Later, af­ter she and Mo­tel have moved to War­saw, Poland, Tzei­tel sends the dis­tant Hodel mov­ing let­ters ex­press­ing a long-re­pressed sis­terly love. It is in the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the two sis­ters that Sil­ber’s stage ex­pe­ri­ence comes clos­est to pay­ing off.

The rest of the novel is mostly a dark gu­lag story, filled with threats, be­tray­als and an ar­ray of male char­ac­ters — pris­on­ers and their jail­ers — whom the reader may strug­gle to dif­fer­en­ti­ate. When Hodel tries to fol­low Per­chik to Siberia, she is thrown into prison, where she dreams of home. Then, af­ter con­sid­er­able suf­fer­ing, she is al­lowed to join and marry Per­chik in the la­bor camp of Nerchinsk, in Siberia.

There, the in­tel­lec­tual Per­chik, im­pris­oned along­side var­i­ous vi­o­lent and petty crim­i­nals, works in a salt mine and talks of revo­lu­tion. His clos­est friend, Dmitri Petrov, is a cel­list who some­how man­ages to re­tain and play his beloved in­stru­ment while quar­relling con­tin­u­ally with his ex­as­per­at­ingly sim­ple bunk­mate, Yevgeny, and pin­ing for Hodel. Pre­sid­ing over the camp is a man known, with in­creas­ing irony, as The Gen­tle­man; his seem­ing acts of kind­ness are pre­ludes to treach­ery. He is, in turn, ruled by some­one known only as The Voice, whose iden­tity re­mains a se­cret till al­most the end.

Set against the tribu­la­tions of the prison camp is the sup­pos­edly in­de­struc­tible love of Hodel and Per­chik. “He was Jerusalem,” Sil­ber writes, “and she a holy pil­grim.” When they first make love, Sil­ber writes, with char­ac­ter­is­tic ef­fu­sion: “He leaned far­ther into her, his arms wrapped around the en­tirety of her frame, en­velop­ing her as if to fuse with her be­ing for eter­nity — as in­deed they both wished to do in this mo­ment and ev­er­more…. It was a tri­umph of such in­tense ec­stasy that no en­twin­ing prom­ise, no ar­dent avowal, no other ut­ter­ance of devo­tion would ever be nec­es­sary.” Nei­ther is it nec­es­sary to read fur­ther — un­less ro­mance fic­tion is your par­tic­u­lar guilty vice.

Sil­ber’s novel, ‘Af­ter Anat­evka,’ is a dark gu­lag story, filled with threats and be­tray­als.

JOAN MAR­CUS

A DICKENSIAN TALE: Au­thor Alexan­dra Sil­ber played Hodel in the Broad­way re­vival of ‘Fid­dler.’

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