All contemporary fiction eventually becomes historical fiction, especially when it’s translated and re-published 125 years after its initial release. Yiddish readers first celebrated Jacob Dinezon’s novels in 1877, but thanks to Tina Lunson’s new English language translation of his debut The Dark Young Man (adaptation by Scott Hilton Davis), his writing is now more accessible than ever before.
Reading Dinezon’s work, it’s easy to understand why The Dark Young Man became a best-seller in its time. Dinezon is a natural story-teller, maintaining humor and suspense throughout the book. His diverse cast of characters, while sometimes veering towards the predictable, jump off the page with a vibrant humanity. Readers may feel like they’ve met them before, but it’s with this sense of familiarity that Dinezon brings authenticity to their voices.
With its cosmopolitan setting, The Dark Young Man offers a sharper, less nostalgic image of Jewish life in Eastern Europe than readers of Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer may expect. Yosef, the book’s protagonist, navigates the tension between his traditional upbringing and exposure to modern ideas without succumbing to unbearable angst. The business of middle-class life, trade, and politics all occur in tandem with the Jewish calendar and life cycle events. Above all, The Dark Young Man is the story of a family – the lovers at its center and the forces that threaten to upend their happiness. As such it has a timeless quality, with themes as relevant now as they were 100 years ago.
Lunson’s faithful translation maintains Dinezon’s original pacing and is painstaking in its attention to Yiddish idiom. Non-Yiddish speakers will be perfectly at home in this narrative, although those more familiar with the language might find it overly formal in places. Characters take leave of each other with “go in good health”, an accurate if solemn expression of the Yiddish “zei gezunt”. Others are described as “idlers” when they’re clearly schnorrers. Most readers would probably experience smoother sailing if Lunson had simply left such phrases untouched. Alas, in the debate for colloquialism versus consistency, consistency must have won the day.
Readers who enjoy a good story with a strong plot and well-developed characters will find much to appreciate in The Dark Young Man. It is well-suited to book club discussions and as a starting point for examining the lives of middle class Jews in Russia in the 19th century. As an example of popular Yiddish literature, it’s a fun and fast read, perfect for a relaxing Sabbath afternoon.
BooksandBlintzes received an Advance Reader Copy of this book at no charge for the express purpose of writing this review. The views included here are solely those of the reviewer. The Dark Young Man has a publication date of February 12, 2019. Additional information about the book and its adaptation can be found at https://www.jewishstorytellerpress.com/the-dark-young-man-press-room