She Was a Novelist, Chicago-Born
‘Yudl’: And Selected Short Stories
By Layle Silbert
Seven Stories Press, 240 pages, $17.95
Layle Silbert’s “Yudl” opens with the protagonist, an immigrant Jew with a thick accent and heavy socialist leanings, inspecting a building that appears incomplete. “With its empty unglassed windows,” the three-story-high, red brick building “could be a new building not yet finished or it could be a building wrecked by war and disaster.” But as Yudl dryly notes, “Here in America there are no wars or disasters, therefore it is unfinished.” The building is, in fact, Yudl’s, and the saga of its unfinished business is what drives Silbert’s novel forward.
A proud journalist and active Zionist, Yudl is an idealist repelled by capitalism but unable to avoid its grip, which comes by way of his wife, Ryah, a headstrong woman who is determined to become a landlord. Her plans are thwarted repeatedly — thanks to the brazen laziness of the building contractor and to her own husband’s deep resentment. As Yudl, who dreams of crafting stories and creating an alternate political reality, laments:
What was a man who made his living on a Yiddish newspaper, the Jewish Courier, a member of the Poale Zion Branch One, a socialist, doing as the owner of a piece of property, an unfinished building with four flats and even soon to be collecting rents?
The backdrop against which Yudl’s frustration plays out is 1920s Chicago, a milieu that was familiar to Silbert. The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Silbert was born and raised in Chicago, where she lived until her death in 2001. Though she was best known as a photographer — Silbert’s portraits of New York writers were featured in exhibits internationally — Silbert published short fiction in dozens of literary journals throughout her lifetime. But it was only near the author’s death that her first major work, “The Free Thinkers: Two Novellas,” was published. “Yudl” is being released posthumously, accompanied by stories selected by the author in the months leading up to her death.
In “Yudl,” Chicago is ever-present. Silbert’s depiction of State Street beautifully evokes the Chicago of her own youth:
…a world of women drawn to the department stores on either side. Wherever he looked he saw only women, talking, going somewhere, in hats that looked like helmets as was the fashion, each woman unique, young and old, fat and thin, shabby, elegant, nearly all with a housewifely burden and once in a while with a tiny child by hand.
If Chicago is home, America most certainly isn’t. When a truck runs over his young nephew, killing the boy, Yudl insists that the term “accident” is a deliberate misnomer. “It wasn’t an accident,” he says. “It was America, the true nature of America.” Yudl is repulsed by the American way of life, by “the gasoline that entered the blood and the blood that mixed with the gasoline.” For Yudl, “to be in business is to be in religion,” and America represents the worst of both — consumerism and fundamentalism.
But Ryah is Yudl’s true nemesis, embodying all that Yudl despises about America — the desire for wealth and ownership, and the ability to lord these over others — and she shares none of Yudl’s idealism. Repeatedly he thinks of leaving her, but is held back by the conviction that “we are bound together like the pages in a book.” Though he experiences fleeting moments of tenderness, as when he reminisces about their courtship, or wonders about his wife’s inner thoughts and feelings, Yudl cannot shake himself free of the desire to be liberated from Ryah. He wishes she were taken and packed “away as the children of Israel had been packed in with the straw from which bricks were made to construct a pyramid for the Pharaoh.”
This association of building with violence is fitting for a man who sees himself coming undone with the acquisition of property. For Yudl, ownership represents the death of the imagination, the freedom to dream.
Shoshana Olidort is a frequent contributor to the Forward. Her work has also appeared in The New Republic and The Chicago Tribune.