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  • Writer's pictureCorbin Allardice

My Lexicon - Leibl Olitski

Leybl Olitski

1894 Trisk (Turiisk, Turiysk), 1932 Warsaw, in the Soviet Union since 1941.

There are writers who can take minute, intensive experiences or individuals and create them into symbols of great, world-historical events, but there are also writers who can condense great, world-historical events into such narrow forms that they become nothing more than individual experiences. Intensive, idiosyncratic experiences--solely personal. Leybl Olitski belongs to the latter group. Were I not so afraid of hyperbole, I would describe him as: Dostoyevskian. This kind of literature is a literature of the uncanny, and its books really should be published with the serious warning that people under forty ought not read them...*

It is a paradox that Leybl Olinsky is a teacher by trade, and yet more paradoxical that, aside from uncanny novels and novellas, he specializes in writing children’s fables. A psychological puzzle. But the puzzle can be solved if one reads the fables and convinces oneself that only the pedagog writes the fables, and that he writes them with his mind, while his heart is really in the novels and novellas, which are, after all, his true element.

I never had the opportunity to visit Olinski’s shtetl, but it seems that the quotation “Who wishes to understand the poet, must go to the poet's land,”** is nothing more than a fine, classic bit of pap; how else would it be possible for Zishe Vaynper (Weinper), a most friendly and sanguine poet, to come from the same town?

He is a quiet man, Olitski, always full of quiet complaints, though he never voices them. After a long conversation with him, you always get the feeling that there was something that he hadn’t said, that he would never say, something which, because he hadn’t said it, you desperately wanted to know. But all efforts to the contrary are fruitless. In his silence there is something of the obstinance and suspicion felt by the villager to the urbanite. You will often see him with an umbrella on a hot summer day. An umbrella on a sunny day--that is an expression of a mistrust of God, a mistrust of the entire world.

If an author’s most recent work is, from their perspective, their greatest achievement, then Olitski’s last uncanny novel, with its record-breakingly uncanny name Dogman (huntman), is an equal achievement from our perspective as well. He, Olitski, remained loyal to his style, loyal to his comparisons--you can never quite decide whether they are good or bad (“His brow creased like water on the cusp of freezing,” etc.)--loyal to his themes--some strange thing plucked out of life, like the half-dead winds of a spider web--under Olitski’s influence, we had to use an Olitskian comparison…

There are writers who use uncanny thematics without, in fact, rendering life for the reader uncanny or frightening (Do you remember Tolstoy’s comment about Andreyev?), Olinski’s books, however, render the world frightening and uncanny--that is an authentic writer (ufrikhtiker dikhter), and authenticity (ufrikhtikayt) is always worthy.

He is a quiet and anxious man--Leybl Olitski--a typical, black-eyed, provincial Jew--and he has a brother who is also a writer--Borekh Olitsk--a typical, but very handsome, provincial Jew. They are very similar, but the handsome one is Borekh.

When he turned up in Warsaw, he was all but glowing. Like a refraction of those beautiful years when Perets Markish was in Warsaw...but it wasn’t so. It wasn’t the youthful years of the khalyastre (The Gang.)

And Leybl was always frightened of his brother, constantly looking at him with suspicion when they were together in the writer’s club, his ears always perked and ready, any second, any second a cart of glassware will shatter and--Borekh, who if not wild Borekh--and him--Leybl--would have to pay for the damages and, worse still, suffer the shame...and Borekh’s poems, his good if loose and wild poems, Leybl was frightened of those too...And they followed their own paths, Borekh to the North and Leybl to the South, as it is written in Genesis.


*- This is a (somewhat) ironic reference to Kabbala, which is traditionally thought to be too dangerous to teach to those under 40.

**- Goethe, “Besserem Verständniſs,” West-östlicher Divan. Stuttgart, 1819. “Wer den Dichter will verstehen / Muſs in Dichters Lande gehen.”

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