'Songs For The Butcher's Daughter'

Host Scott Simon talks with Peter Manseau about his first novel, Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, in which a young man befriends the last living Yiddish poet.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR news. I'm Scott Simon. A young man from Boston of imprecise religious feeling has studied Hebrew and hopes to apply his scholarly skills to translate great works of literature, but he winds up working in a warehouse in Western Massachusetts shlepping, picking up old books owned by old people written in Yiddish and delivering those books to a Jewish library so that the stories do not disappear.

In one of those volumes, he learns the story of Itsik Malpesh, the Russian immigrant in his 90s who is the last Yiddish poet in America. That's the plot of the new novel by Peter Manseau, the author of a highly acclaimed memoir called "Vows." It's his first novel, "Songs for the Butcher's Daughter." Peter Manseau joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. PETER MANSEAU, (Author, "Songs For The Butcher's Daughter"): Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And how does a nice gentile boy like you wrote a book like this?

Mr. MANSEAU: A bit like one of my characters, I ended up quite by accident working for a Jewish cultural organization a few years ago. I had done some work with religious languages, with Greek and with Hebrew, and I stumbled into the Yiddish language, a language which I had no cultural, religious or ethnic affiliation with, and through the process of learning that language, I learned about the great literature written in Yiddish and I fell in love with it.

SIMON: You have a section that I want to get you to read, which is just one of the best descriptions I have ever heard about the nature of a library, if you wouldn't mind.

Mr. MANSEAU: Yes, in the Yiddish book warehouse in Western Massachusetts.

(Reading) As July turned to August, the heat inside the warehouse caused the books to sizzle on the shelves. Filled with nearly a century of moisture and the oils of readers' fingers, they hissed in the arid air, yielding up the scent of warm paper. Just looking at the maze of books, such a fire hazard, all that potential energy, I had soaked through my T-shirt by noon, so I sat and I read. Three days each week, alone among the bookshelves with boxes piling up at least as high as they've been in June. Instead of sorting through them, I'd position myself by the largest of the metal fans and work my way through page after page. I did so haltingly, with a Yiddish-English dictionary by my side from the moment I arrived until it was time to go home.

SIMON: And in so doing, that's when he catches up - that's when he notices - first notices the story of Itsik Malpesh. Itsik, your narrator, discovers was born during an act of violence.

Mr. MANSEAU: Yes, born during a pogrom, and throughout his whole life he lives with these stories he's heard from his parents that a neighbor girl, the butcher's daughter of his title, has saved his family somehow, miraculously. She was just four or five years old as this happened, and he never meets her. She leaves the town in which he was born, and he spends his entire life trying to find this woman who was a young girl who somehow overcame this violence.

SIMON: Malpesh says that - he says that translation's an act of intimacy.

Mr. MANSEAU: Yes. For me, who has dabbled in many languages but has real fluency with none, I'm always aware that the books I love best are the books that have been translated. And the awareness that works created in another language could be so meaningful to me, so transformative to me, it does seem a kind of intimacy, that these authors who I couldn't have spoken to had I met them in life, that they can be inside my head, the most intimate space.

SIMON: I wonder if you see a relationship between immigrants' stories and religious parables.

Mr. MANEAU: I am drawn to both stories of religion and stories of immigration because to me they are - they are stories of self-conscious self-transformation. They are stories in which the people involved in them know they are becoming something different, something new, and they hope through religious transformation or through the act of immigration to leave whatever they were behind and become something that they would not recognize themselves.

To me, that's the stuff of great drama, and what makes it most interesting to me is that most of the drama happens on the inside, even as you go through the act of getting on the ship and coming to a new world. The person you're becoming, the new person you're becoming is what arises from within.

SIMON: Sasha is the young woman, the butcher's daughter, has her own extraordinary lifestory which is sketched out in this book.

Mr. MANSEAU: She does. As I said, she is - as Itsik understands it, she's responsible for his survival in the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. She leaves Kishinev with her mother after having lost her father in the violence and takes the road not traveled, goes the other path that Itsik does not take. She ends up first in Odessa and then eventually in what was then Palestine and lives through the birth of a new kind of Jewish existence - Israeli Jewish existence. And she, likewise, eventually ends up back in New York for the first time and finally feels pulled away for reasons I will leave to the telling of the tale.

But I wanted her story to be mostly off the page because for me she was the ghost that hangs over the novel. She is both Itsik's muse and his love. In Yiddish they have the term "beshert(ph)," destiny. Itsik believes that Sasha is his destined one made for him by God. And yet for her, she is troubled by this idea of destiny because if we truly have people who are - we are destined to meet, does it mean we have any free choice at all? So she is - spends her life striving against what she knows or fears to be her destiny.

SIMON: I'm struck by something that Itsik Malpesh says in the book. He says, to be the greatest, one only needs to be the last.

Mr. MANSEAU: Those who are left to be the last bear the burden of collective memory, of having to be the ones who tell the story, who keep them safe just through the act of telling the story. And so the poet I've created, Itsik Malpesh, he's not a good poet, and I wanted that to be the case because many of the Yiddish poets who I most admire for their life story in fact weren't very good poets. They were immigrants with very particular religious educations who had no experience writing modern poetry.

SIMON: They were also working like 10 hours a day.

Mr. MANSEAU: Yeah. Many of them were part of the group that liked to call themselves the Sweatshop Poets because they came to New York, they worked in the garment industry. They worked 16-hour days, and somehow, when they went home, they spent four hours writing poetry. I'm just fascinated by that. Whether or not they were good poets is really beside the point to me.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. MANSEAU: And so I just find such heroism in that. There's a figure in Yiddish literature who comes up again and again whose - he's called basically The Little Man, Das Kleyne Mentshele in Yiddish. And to me, he's not a sad sack(ph). He's a hero. And that's the story I wanted to tell with this book.

SIMON: You worked a job once where you began to write poetry on paperbacks, didn't you?

Mr. MANSEAU: (Laughing) As many writers do, I've worked many odd jobs in my life, and I was not a particularly good carpenter for a while. I worked on a house-building crew in Massachusetts, and just not long before, I hppened to learn about these Sweatshop Poets. And so, on one of my lunch breaks I sat down on a rock in the cold, and as I was eating my sandwich I began to write a scene on my paper bag that was, in fact, of a Yiddish poet writing a poem while he was on his lunch break 80 years before. And to me, what really stayed with me and what made me continue to write this story of a Yiddish poet was the fact that I could feel such fellow feeling with these men and women who lived lives totally removed from mine - culturally, linguistically and religiously - and yet I did have this fellow feeling with them. I felt that we were having similar experiences, and that, to me, is what is wonderful about literature.

SIMON: Peter Manseau. He studies religion and teaches writing at Georgetown University, and his new novel is "Songs for the Butcher's Daughter." Mr. Manseau, thanks so much.

Mr. MANSEAU: Thanks so much for having me.

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