Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge: The North of God, by Steve Stern

One of my favorite bloggers, Frances of Nonsuch Book, is engaged this month in a challenge that I think is just fabulous: she's reading all 42 of Melville House's Art of the Novella books, and blogging about them! She's attracted Melville's House's attention, not surprisingly, and they're promoting the challenge with a host of giveaways throughout August. To participate, go to Melville's page here.

I'm participating at the "Curious" level- one book- and the book I've chosen is Steve Stern's remarkable The North of God. Part of The Contemporary Art of the Novella series, Melville published it in 2008. It's the story-within-a-story of Velvl, trapped in a cattle car with an unknown woman and her child, on their way to God-knows-where during the Holocaust. To keep them all sane he tells her the story of Herschel, a young shtetl scholar set to marry the daughter of a rich man, then seduced by a succubus. He loses his mind and runs out of his wedding ceremony only to be haunted by his passion for this elusive demon. Part one is wholly Herschel's story; Velvl appears only as a supporting character, one of the boys at Herschel's cheder.

The theme of this brief tale is the power of storytelling to save. First and most obviously, Herschel survives because Velvl is there tell his tale. But storytelling saves Herschel, too; he meets a traveling theater man, and storytelling becomes his way out of his life of wandering when he gets the idea to go to America and put on Yiddish plays: "He thought he might be able to do something interesting with the story," he thinks to himself. Herschel's stories therefore have a power to save him that may be denied to his storyteller, on his way to a concentration camp. For his part, trapped in the train, Velvl believes that his stories will help ensure the survival of his little trio: "So long as he could keep the mother and daughter captivated, he could keep them safe." Later, when Velvl tries to bargain with a Nazi officer using storytelling as a chip, he's rebuffed: "What am I thinking? This is the place where all stories end."

Stern is an exuberant writer and this story is heartbreaking as well as full of bluster, sex, scatology and violence. If you've read his novel The Frozen Rabbi you'll have a little idea of what to expect here- a mixture of legend and realism, flights of fancy combined with raw, moving and unexpected expressions of human nature. It's a little gem! I wish I had more of these books around!