I am in no way immune to the charms of Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance by Sholem Aleichem, but, like The Country of the Pointed Firs, it seems to me one of the lighter of the Art of the Novella series, and similarly “regional.” I’m also not one to disdain regional literature—I like it—but I must note that something like this is just not as strong as The Beach at Falesá, say. I find that sometimes this shorter length makes for a compact, dense work, while other times it allows for a comfortable exploration of a lighter subject. This would be the latter.
That seems unfair when we get down to what the subject of Stempenyu is. Not just love or romance, but marital fidelity. I think that is the story’s real charm, in fact. The funny Jewish matrons, the bickering old couples, the absurd family weddings, the profligate musicians, these are all picturesque and comic and time-honored, as is the budding romance between a young and somewhat unhappy married woman and a dashing violinist. But it’s Rochalle’s virtue that makes her lovable to the reader, so she must come to her senses and rightly spurn Stempenyu. There is a romance, and she does find love—with her husband. There is something very wholesome about all of it, and it’s completely self-aware.
This is the first thing I’ve read by Aleichem, but I assume its style to be characteristic. The narrator is folksy and intrusive, a seeming third person often coming in as an unidentified, mostly anonymous “I.” He repeats himself and tells things out of order. According to the flap, the “contemporaneous ‘authorized’ translation” by Hannah Berman “is a wonderful introduction to Aleichem’s work as he wanted it read,” and it is exuberant and very funny. (Unfortunately, though, the Art of the Novella edition is riddled with typos.)