Western Canon, A Lifetime's Reading
Brow: Sprawling family tragedies can only rate as middle brow, even if they're about Jews in Warsaw at the beginning of the 20th century and even if they're written in Yiddish.
Summary: The story of the Moskats, a wealthy Jewish family in Warsaw from just before World War I to moments before the fall of Warsaw in 1939. At the centre is the forbidden romance between Asa Heshel Bannet, a poor student from the countryside and the beautiful Hadassah Moskat, granddaughter of family patriarch Meshulam Moskat, but the book has dozens of major and minor characters, each with his or her own plot, which may or may not intersect with what the other characters are up to.
What I liked about it: Despite the tragedy and the doomed romance, some parts of the book are hilarious, like when a Hassidic bumpkin comes to the city in search of his wayward wife who longs for modernity and refuses to stay in her house because she lacks a mezuzah. When she offers to go out and buy one, he again refuses, because it needs to be inspected by a rabbi in case it contains spelling errors. In just a few sentences, you understand fully why the wife wanted out. A lot of the minor characters are equally interesting, and I found myself wishing I could spend more time with say, Abram Shapiro, a womanizer who is married to one of the Moskat daughters and who is the character who seems most alive, or Leah Moskat Berman, who marries the family's thieving bailiff and moves to America, rather than the central romantic triangle, which quickly becomes tedious.
What I didn't like about it: Asa Heshel Bannet must be one of the most infuriating characters in literature. First, he falls in love with Hadassah, one of the Moskat granddaughters, but her grandfather Meshulam insists she has to marry a rich man, because forcing someone to marry against her will always works out so well. So Asa goes off to Switzerland, where he is followed by Meshulam's new stepdaughter Adele. They get married but then on their first visit back to Poland, Asa runs off to fuck Hadassah and get drafted in to the Polish army for World War I. He comes back after the war and is finally able to divorce Adele and marry Hadassah, only to leave his new wife for a gentile communist. Oh, and he never has a job through any of this, but he has tons of women throwing themselves at him all the same. Of course even more infuriating than Asa is Hadassah, who spends most of the book hiding in various rooms feeling sick or depressed or waiting for Asa to come back.