I finished this book, more than a year from when I’d started it, at 12:40 AM on a weeknight. I snapped it closed, set it down, stood up, and ran unthinkingly, like a scared child, into the bedroom where my girlfriend had been asleep for almost two hours. I shook and cowered and blubbered. This is not something that happens to me. There is, generally, a small group of books that have made my eyes a little misty.
In late 2009, back when I was still in college, I chose to write a paper on Sholem Asch, the first Yiddish author to become wildly popular amongst non-Jews. It was largely as an excuse for me to start reading Three Cities — a huge historical epic of the Russian Revolution from a Jewish perspective sounded amazing. At about 150 pages in I stopped, as the paper twisted and took shape into something that concerned an entirely different Asch novel. I attempted to read the rest of Three Cities (899 pages in total) on my winter break, but only got to the end of the second book, Warsaw, before classes started up again in early January. On December 31, 2010, I finally began the third and final book: Moscow. For me, Three Cities has been a goal, a curiosity, a diversion, and finally an honest-to-God project.
Why is it that I always seem more likely to give a sprawling, epic novel a perfect rating, even when, like Three Cities, it is not perfect. It isn’t genre elitism (even if it were, that would be an awfully old-fashioned and reactionary genre elitism) because sprawling and epic high fantasies and space operas get much the same treatment from me. Perhaps it’s the simple fact that when there is more good book, by the page, there is a greater chance for much of that good to leap forward into great. More likely, it’s tied up in my ridiculously nostalgic nature: when a book covers enough ground to make the reader nostalgic for earlier points in its story, it has its hooks in me deeper than it does in most. That I took an almost year-long break between books two and three of Three Cities only amplifies this, naturally.
(Before I continue, I would just like to point out that talking about this book in e-mails caused the Google Ads bar above my GMail to start advertising Russian and Ukrainian mail order brides.)
Three Cities is, if you want to sum it up in a phrase, Sholem Asch getting his Tolstoy on. That does a disservice to the book, but it’s a fair assessment. Asch loved Tolstoy, and was one of the few Yiddish writers in his period to be open about his non-Yiddish, non-Jewish influences, so in Three Cities he tackles events in Tolstoy’s beloved Russia that that celebrated man did not (thankfully, it seems) live to see. Like War and Peace, (which I, strangely enough, read during part of my break from Three Cities, forever jumbling my perceptions of the two) Three Cities is cynical and unflinching in its view of the machinations of government and war. But unlike War and Peace, Asch takes most of his book just working up to those large world events, instead preferring to show us the class differences that will lead to the Revolution by way of a rather unlikely focal point.
The point of view through which Three Cities unfolds, at least most of the time, is that of Zachary Mirkin, an unconventional and offputtingly modern protagonist. Like the heroes of most large, older, European books, Zachary comes from money and privilege, but unlike them he is Jewish, and so not of nobility and always something of an outsider. But, unlike the heroes of most Yiddish works, Zachary, when we meet him, has almost no experience with his Jewish heritage, and in fact didn’t even learn of his ethnicity until his teen years (I think it was his teen years, it’s been awhile). Privileged but a minority, Jewish with no sense of Jewish identity, he’s a protagonist that doesn’t easily fit onto either side of anything, and he certainly isn’t a hero. Zachary is a man who lets things happen to him, who tries to assert himself but usually fails, and often fucks things up terribly. He’s a naïve, entitled, overly-passionate outsider, and he’s the sort of modern character that the novels Asch was drawing on would not have used. But, so long as you never expect Zachary to pull himself together and be a real hero, he can be a great character to follow around, a sort of twisted barometer for all the social change going on around him.
Part of the beauty of Three Cities, though, is that Asch never feels that we have to stick with Zachary all the time. The third book often moves into a series of vignettes, featuring different characters, that show what happens to Russia in the aftermath of the Revolution far better than any one man’s story could have. Fucking hilarious, terrifying, and heartbreaking, some of these could have been short stories all their own, but together they show at least a small corner of the big picture. It’s the corner that Asch seems most interested in: privilege, the abuse of power, and the stark realization that if the tables are turned the former oppressed will not be any better than their oppressors. It’s extremely bleak, especially when shown through the eyes of more virtuous and idealistic characters. (The ruination of Halperin, a character we meet as the very soul of integrity and strength at the very beginning of the book, is especially painful.)
But Zachary is our focus, and Zachary has his own personal problems that do not directly tie into any of the larger themes of the Russian Revolution. Zachary is stricken with one hell of a mother-fixation (Asch was, himself, inordinately obsessed with mothers and motherhood), which drags him along (often by the nethers) and nearly destroys him time and time again. It’s the sort of thing that would make him unlikable if we weren’t in his head enough to just feel bad for what a poor, fucked up little man he is.
Yet near the end, even this links us to the Revolution, as it is shown that, time and time again, it’s the older generation that simply cannot adapt (or, at times, are not allowed to adapt) to the radical changes in Russia. It’s the parents, the centers of Zachary’s fixation (he’s got his daddy issues too) who seem to suffer the most. Many powerful moments in the third book revolve around those accustomed to the old order trying to keep on as they always have, trying to salvage whatever it was they saw as dignity, even in the face of being told that that is, in fact, not dignity at all. In the second-to-last chapter, there is an amazing jump to present tense, as Asch tells us of what two characters in exile are doing now (i.e. in 1933). The continuing failure of one of these characters to understand that this Revolution isn’t transient, isn’t a fad that will drop away any day now, is all the more tragic with the switch in tense.
There is so much more to Three Cities. An incredibly in-depth look at Jewish life in Warsaw, a perfect outlining of the excesses of pre-Revolution bourgeoisie in Russia, a linen fetish, ill-timed vomit, hate-fucking, amazing descriptions of weather, and the haunting presence of anti-Semitism that does not often make itself fully known but pops up at the most terrible times to remind characters that they will never quite fit in anywhere. Of course, there are also some sections that go on too long, some two-dimensional characters (including Lenin, who is treated much like Napoleon is in War and Peace), some over-blown moments, and some ideas about how every woman is filled with maternal instinct. Asch is not a perfect author.
There is no doubt in my mind that what affected me so strongly upon finishing the book would not have that same effect on all, or even most, readers. As a somewhat disconnected modern Jew myself (nowhere near as much so as Zachary, but still), I was predisposed to be particularly wracked by the moments of brutal oppression, both of the anti-Semitic variety and otherwise, that are so far from my personal experience and yet so close to me at the same time. What’s more, the last chapter alone was full of messages that resonate deeply with me, and which were, at best, happily unsettling (and at worse… very, very sad). Lastly, though I won’t give the ending away, I will say that it presented Poland as a safe haven for Jews who wanted to escape Russia’s oppression. That this was set in 1919 and written in 1933 added a whole new patina of tragedy, of which I’m sure Asch himself was starkly aware in the following decade.
This last chapter, on its own and as a culmination of everything before it, was why I closed the book and got up without a thought to my actions. I ran into the other room desperate for comfort because of course I did
— there was no other possibility in the world.
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