A book about books

Last year, Sami Rohr's family surprised him with an 80th birthday gift: a $100,000 literary award for emerging Jewish writers endowed in his name.

By DANIEL SEPTIMUS
April 5, 2007 10:58
3 minute read.

 
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Last year, Sami Rohr's family surprised him with an 80th birthday gift: a $100,000 literary award for emerging Jewish writers endowed in his name. But no matter how appreciative Rohr may have been, it likely couldn't compete with the appreciation of Tamar Yellin, the winner of the first annual prize. Yellin was awarded the honor for her novel The Genizah at the House of Shepher (Toby Press, 2005), and while the prize inspired many to revisit the winning work, it nudged me to pick up Yellin's second book, Kafka in Bront eland, a collection of short stories published last year (also by Toby Press). I admit to a modicum of relief in discovering that Yellin is, indeed, a wonderful writer. While making a living writing books is as difficult as ever, the Rohr Prize did, initially, seem a bit excessive - if very generous. No doubt the prize would have seemed even more disturbing had the judges awarded it to a second-rate scribe. Yellin's victory is also notable because she's obviously a bibliophile. Books and literary references feature prominently in Kafka. The opening story features a Jewish Odysseus (and his son Telemachus), yearning for Zion. In "The Other Mr. Perella" and "Dr. Stein" the eponymous characters lend books - never to be read - to the younger narrators. Then there's the title story, with its dual literary references. This tale follows a Jewish woman living in the moorlands of Yorkshire, once home to the Bronte sisters, who is fascinated by a local eccentric named Kafka. The woman seems open to believing that the man actually is Franz Kafka. Of course, Kafka died in 1924, but Yellin is clearly intrigued by imagining new endings for the famous writer from Prague. The final story in the collection, "A Letter from Joseph K.," describes an alternate fate for Kafka's most famous character. At the end of The Trial, Joseph K. is executed, but in Yellin's tale, we find K. living out his life in prison. This story displays not only Yellin's craftsmanship, but also her playfulness. K. tells us that he could easily escape from the jail if he wanted: "Our prison, far from being enclosed by high fences, barbed wire and watchtowers, is surrounded by a low hedge and an abundance of honeysuckle." And with this, Yellin revises not only The Trial's plot, but also its major theme. In the original, Joseph K. is stripped of his agency. He is arrested against his will for a crime he can't recall. In "A Letter," Joseph K. can escape his destiny, yet he chooses not to. But Yellin's rewriting is not a complete redemption for K. In The Trial's most famous scene K. hears a parable about another man intimidated by an open gate that, though guarded, is seemingly passable. Kafka in Bronteland might have many literary allusions, but it is, first and foremost, concerned with its characters. Indeed, many of the stories are named for their protagonists: "Uncle Oswald," "Mr. Applewick," "Mrs. Rubin and Her Daughter." Yellin's tales are deeply humane character studies, reminiscent, in some ways, of an English (and sometimes Jewish) version of Sherwood Anderson's classic Winesburg, Ohio. Yellin has an uncanny ability to get deep inside a character's soul with just a few sentences: "Dr. Stein was a psychiatrist, an opinionated man; but, having retired, he was no longer paid for his opinions. For hours he held forth on strikes, the state of education, the meaninglessness of Henry Moore. He resembled a petty Freud without genius, a man chiselled in the granite of his disappointments." Kafka in Bronteland will not appeal to everyone. There are no suspenseful, or even substantive, plots. But Yellin is, no doubt, a serious talent, a writer I wouldn't begrudge $100,000. dseptimus@gmail.com

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