Diary of a Lonely Girl
by Miriam Karpilove
Translated by Jessica Kirzane
Syracuse University Press, 321 pp.
Reviewed by Janice Weizman
Imagine the TV shows Sex in the City, or Girls, but with a few key differences; instead of four women, there are two, not American born, but Eastern European immigrants, completely cut off from the families they left behind. Their chief concern is not so much maintain a career as earning enough to pay the rent. And, more relevantly, their energies are focused not on finding gratifying sex, but avoiding sex at all costs. This is the scenario of Diary of A Lonely Girl, first published in Yiddish in 1918, (following its serialization in a New York Yiddish newspaper in 1916), and recently translated by Jessica Kirzane, with the support of a Translation Fellowship from the Yiddish Book Center.
Translations of Yiddish literature are missives from a lost civilization, a snapshot not only of what life rooted in a Yiddish-speaking cosmos was like, but how it felt within the increasingly porous border between the community and wider world, with all of the accompanying fantasies and fears. The early 20th century, in which this novel is set, offered tantalizing promises of unfamiliar freedoms to a generation of women (and men) who had to navigate between the confines of family and tradition, and ideologies that encouraged envisioning themselves in a new way.
However, for a contemporary reader, spending time with the diary’s unnamed narrator evokes a sense of claustrophobia. From her perspective, the world is a dangerous place, not only because she is defenseless against predators, not only because her situation is financially precarious, but also, or mainly, because her morality is under the constant scrutiny of her peers, admirers, landlords, and, well, everyone, at all times; even being seen on the street alone after dark can compromise her reputation. It is a world where no one is too insignificant to pass judgment or a woman’s behavior, and the only plan of action is unfailing vigilance.
Yet times are changing, and against this backdrop, old sexual mores are constantly being re-examined and revised. As part and parcel of revolutionary ideas about socialism and class relations, the notion of “Free Love” is in the air. Suddenly, and shockingly, the idea of men and women opting for sexual lives outside of marriage (or, rather, before marriage) is on the table, and it throws all received ideas about relations between men and women into a frenzied quandary. All this creates a heady new reality in which men (who pay no price for promiscuous behavior) have much to gain, and women have everything to lose. What, the book asks, is a girl to do?
The problem plays out through the eyes of the narrator as she describes the trials and tribulations of her love life. She is hopelessly in love with A, who has rejected her. B is interested in what we today might call “dating”, or in the language of the prevailing euphemism, “Free Love”, but he is married, and therefore, out of the question. Into this scenario comes C, a medical student and overbearing, self-aggrandizing intellectual. C believes in Free Love and rejects marriage as old fashioned and limiting. “Why should a man have to dedicate his whole life others, with only minutes to spare for himself?” He protests. “It isn’t right. A man must be free, free in every regard, so that he can be creative.” I’ve neglected to quote his thoughts about what a woman must be; let it suffice to say that he would not be popular with feminists.
Much of the book centers on C’s ardent pursuit of the narrator, and his impassioned arguments as to why she should abandon her principles, throw caution to the wind and let herself “live”.
But the narrator is having none of it. “If women didn’t restrain and discipline men, men would gladly ruin them,” she tells him a later passage. “A woman who is alone in life must be very patient and clever in order to prevail in the fight. There are so many stumbling blocks that, whether she likes it or not, she has to eschew desire for living in favor of logic, a strong will, and control over her own mind.”
These arguments form the basic plotline of the book, which plays out in numerous dialogues whose witticisms and repartee call up scenes from the Marx brothers. (Though of course, it’s the other way around – the Marx brothers routines drew directly from Yiddish-rooted sarcasm and humor).
For example: “Don’t’ make me go away,” C begs. “Let me stay here as long as you want me, darling. I’ll overcome all the natural restrictions you place on love. We’ll unite suffering with spirited union, love with joy, friendship with boundless devotion. You’ll get to have a man, but you won’t have to be his slave. You’ll be free. Don’t you want to be free, my darling?”
“Of you, yes.”
“You don’t mean that. You’re not saying what you really feel. You’re trying to be firm because you’re so soft, so gentle, so full of longing to be loved! You want someone to love you fiercely. Don’t you want that? What do you want, if not to be loved?”
“To love someone.”
“Good. Here is a man. Love me!”
“Not you. Someone else.”
“Someone who doesn’t exist?”
“Someone who isn’t here.”
The rallying continues: “You don’t know what freedom is.”
“If I don’t know what it is, I won’t miss it.”
“You’re ignorant, that’s what you are!”
“You just noticed?”
Miriam Karpilove, writing in a world where women’s abilities and aptitudes were subject to skepticism and misgivings as a matter of course, did not have the benefit of creative writing workshop where her classmates might have told her that the novel, while often clever and entertaining, is a little bit repetitive. Or that they want to know a little more about the narrator−how she makes a living, for example. They might have told her that once we get the idea of what she is up against, she might want to widen the plot, just a little.
Yet it could be argued that what we lose here in action, we gain in authenticity, in the chance to look into the mind of a woman negotiating a game where, in the quest for self-actualization, she cannot win. It is for this alone, this opportunity to hear a voice from one hundred years ago telling of her predicament that this book makes for fascinating reading. One can’t help thinking that the women of Sex and the City, and the tellingly named show, Girls, are her heirs.