Excerpt from Miriam Karpilove, Diary of a Young Girl, or the Battle Against Free Love (Yiddish, 1917), trans. Jessica Kirzane
Several times already I noticed an unfamiliar young man watching me as though he’d picked me out and decided to get to know me. I pretended not to see him. After these past few evenings, I’d grown used to his watching me, and when he wasn’t looking it seemed as though something was missing…
Although I liked the idea of someone watching me and thinking that I hadn’t noticed, his gaze did not make me feel any particular good feeling. To the contrary, it annoyed me, even made me angry. But even anger, for me, was better than feeling nothing at all. I don’t feel good when I can’t feel anything. A full emptiness narrows my soul. I must – if I can’t have someone to love – have someone to hate. I must have something to consume at least some of my feelings. And it seemed to me as though the young man had been created in order that I could feel that I couldn’t stand him. I thought, if he would try to talk to me, the first thing I would say to him would be, “Take a long walk off a short pier!”
He had oddly pale skin, but maybe that’s just his complexion? He was very tall, wore thick glasses on his squinty, sleepless eyes. His long, straight, dirty blonde hair was disheveled in an ‘artistic’ fashion. His upturned nose and pouty lower lip made him seem whimsical, or stubborn. His clothes were cheap and baggy.
I noticed that he stayed close to the art and philosophy sections of the library, while I tended toward literature and fiction. His glassy eyes gazed intently from behind a scholarly book, as though he wanted me to see what he was reading. I pretended not to notice. Then he approached my shelves, as though he was interested in taking a look at what ‘ordinary people’ were reading. He was a regular library visitor and he felt at home there. From time to time he chatted with the librarians and asked them to help him find a book for him. He often paused to give advice to others who didn’t know what to read. I could tell that sooner or later he was going to talk to me.
And today was the day!
I was sitting in a corner, reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I’d read it long ago in Russian and I wanted to know how it sounded in the English translation. I was so absorbed in the book that I didn’t notice him approaching. Sensing his presence, I looked up from my book.
“Excuse me, Miss…” he whispered in a voice that he meant to be soft but came out scratchy, “Can I ask you something?”
I looked at him questioningly.
“Do you know a girl named Altka? Altka, or Anna?”
“Really?” He seemed surprised, “You look like you could be her sister!”
I waited until his surprise passed, and then I returned to my book. He asked if he could ask something else.
“Are you from Palestine?”
“From Palestine? No, I’ve never been there.”
“You must be from Poland, or maybe from Lithuania…”
“Well, I must come from somewhere, after all.”
“You read a lot…but only novels?”
“I think you aren’t supposed to talk here. We’re in a library! You might bother someone who’s trying to read.”
“Talking is fine, as long as it’s quiet,” he said, speaking in a slightly hushed tone, “Isn’t it fascinating how so many people are drawn to reading made-up stories, while there is so much truth that they ignore.”
“Made up things must be nicer than real ones. That’s why…”
“That’s why what? They just prefer not to know the truth? And then when you try to get together with them, you are totally lost. Knowledge – that should be the foundational principle for everything, and for everyone! A person should, above all, try to understand life. To understand it, in the fullest sense of the word. You can only do that by living, not by studying it in a book.”
He was now speaking twice as loud, and it seemed like he was only going to get louder. I looked around uncomfortably to see what impression he was making on the people around us.
“Are you waiting for someone?” he asked me, as though we were already friends. “Lots of people come here for ‘rendez-vous,’ as you call them, and not for reading.”
“Is that so? And is that what you call them too?”
“I call them… I call them… maybe I’d better not tell you what I call them. Unless you promise not to get angry with me. I’m the kind of person who likes to call things what they are. I look at them from a scientific or philosophical perspective.”
“Oh,” I said. I let him look at it from whatever perspective he wanted, and I stood up to leave.
“What does it look like?”
“May I escort you?” He asked, following me.
“That won’t be necessary. I live close by,” I gestured to show him how far it was.
“No matter. I’ll walk with you just a little while. I’m tired of sitting in the library.” He followed me out.
I decided not to let him follow me any further, since I didn’t like him at all. But something in the way he followed me made me hold my tongue and walk in front of him, silently. I decided to be as unfriendly to him as I could. I thought that he must be one of those annoying types who study the lives of people on the East Side and I should try to be rid of him as quickly as possible.
“Do you really live here on the East Side?” he asked, trailing after me. “Right here, on the famous Broadway of the East Side?”
I could tell that he was mocking me with his question, so I didn’t answer.
“You can say goodbye to me at the next block,” I told him.
“Why can’t I go further? You don’t want me to know where you live? I wouldn’t come to your place without an invitation, regardless.”
“Goodbye,” I said when we were at the next block. I wanted to go, but he ran ahead of me.
“What a nerve he has!” I thought, looking him up and down. But he thought nothing of it. He just walked next to me with even more certain steps. I was prepared to walk with him all the way to my house, and then let him stand there while I went in without so much as a goodbye.
“You are a very interesting girl,” he said. “You don’t seem to have any desire for others to like you. I’ve never met another girl like that. How do you explain it?”
“It’s just that… I have no interest in appealing someone who I don’t find appealing.”
“You certainly speak your mind! So you don’t like me. Why not?”
“You latch on to people.”
“I’m sorry if you find that offensive.”
“You force the offense on others.”
“But, as a lady, you must…”
“A lady is a person, after all.”
“A lady is a lady first and foremost. I would never allow myself to make an acquaintance with anyone who didn’t seem intelligent enough to me. I must tell you that I have graduated law school and I’m a medical doctor too. I’m in my second year of college and I give scholarly lectures. I’m studying with a full scholarship. That shows you what an exceptional student I am. If I’m interested in you, it’s not because I’m interested in whether you like me or not. It’s because I like you, and I rarely find women I like. I can’t even say what it was about you that drew me to you. It wasn’t your looks, because you aren’t that attractive. Your looks are pleasant enough. You aren’t so young either. Your eyes are full of hidden sadness, and you often press your lips together like you are holding back a sigh so that no one will hear it. You are too proud to show how sad you are. I have often noticed you looking in a book but not reading. Your thoughts take you somewhere far away, and then I can see the hatred or bitterness in your eyes. You pretend not to notice other people so they won’t notice you, just like a rooster that closes its eyes while it crows so that no one will hear it. I would love to see what you look like when you laugh. I imagine that you laugh with your mouth and your lips, but your eyes still have the same sadness… Maybe someone close to you died? If so, it must have been someone very dear to you, maybe a lover? Oh, there’s no need to look away. I know, even without looking at you, what you must be feeling. I know human psychology like the back of my hand. Your severity doesn’t scare me. You’re really very mild and malleable in your character. You could be as soft as wax. You just haven’t met the right sculptor who could make from you the figure that you want. It wouldn’t take long for me to win your trust, your friendship, and maybe even your love.”
I gave him a derisive, close-lipped smirk. He noticed.
“Really? You don’t believe me?”
“How could I believe something that’s unbelievable?” I answered.
“A while ago, you said ‘goodbye’ to me, and yet here you are, listening to everything I’ve said.”
That was true. I had even walked past my room. He had a good point, and I wasn’t sure how to answer him.
“You heard me out because I was talking about you,” he continued, not waiting for my response. “You are very interested in yourself. You are one of those people who never gets tired of plumbing the depths of her own soul. I hit at the truth with something that I said. And if you didn’t like it, you won’t tell me. You’ll just be quiet about it. But you’ll think to yourself that what I said is true, and wonder how I knew, how I was able to guess at the truth. Did I get it right? Didn’t I hit the mark?
“You guess like… a blind horse in a cave.”
“That comparison isn’t very pretty, and it’s also not fair.”
“You talk so much, that I guess something that you say has to be true.”
“So you admit that I know the truth! You couldn’t guess as much about me.”
“I think I could…”
“But you would probably be pretty insulted.”
“It doesn’t matter. Go ahead.”
“You are… audacious. I don’t mean that you are daring, just fresh. You’re trying to make an impression with your bad manners. You flirt with the ‘truth’ about someone else – about the person you are speaking to. You want to be original, surprising, exceptional, and so you share your opinions and your company, not caring whether or not it is welcome. Rather than staring so much at other people, you should take a look at yourself. You would be able to make many more aesthetic comparisons. You… don’t believe in water.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean you don’t care much for it.”
“Are you trying to say that I don’t wash myself?”
“How can you tell?”
“From your face.”
“It’s just a tan.”
“You’ve tanned so much that it even got under your nails?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” he said, looking under his nails and then quickly hiding them. “It’s nothing, just a little mud.”
He was quiet. Though I was outwardly angry, inside I was gloating. I’d managed to get back at him, and to make him feel like a schoolboy! Now I wanted to hear what he would say, but he was stubbornly quiet, and that made me a little uncomfortable. Perhaps my insult about the dirt had gone a little too far? But something impelled me to keep behaving badly, and I told him not to take the dirt to heart. It’s not worth it. A little water can wash it away…
“Do you want to know what I’m thinking?” he asked, as though he hadn’t heard my comments.
“Yes, I’d like to know.”
“You’re going to fall in love with me.”
“Because you hate me so much right now. Ordinary people start with loving someone and then eventually hate them. But you are no ordinary person. You are unusual. You start out your loving with hate. That is to say, you start from the end. You sense, instinctively, the battle that is ahead of you, and in order to protect yourself you shield yourself with hate. You try to get even with me now for the dejection you’ll feel later.
I looked at him while he spoke and, strangely, felt in his words an inevitable danger. How could he talk about this right now? What kind of a subject is this for idle chatter?
“Goodbye,” he suddenly said, and before I could say anything else, he disappeared. I looked for him to no avail. He was nowhere. I felt powerless. I was the one who was supposed to leave him behind. If I go to the library again, I will certainly meet his insult with an insult of my own. How dare he act this way toward me?
This text is an excerpt from Togbukh fun an Elende Meydl (Diary of a Lonely Girl) by Miriam Karpilov, which was first published serially in the Yiddish daily Di Varhayt in 1916-1918, and appeared in book form in 1918. A tale of love and passion, intimate feelings and scandalous behaviors, Karpilov’s novel offers a raw personal criticism of radical leftist immigrant youth culture in early twentieth century New York. From the perch of a diarist writing in first person about events as they unfold, the novel critiques a vacuous and self-important male-dominated radicalism that overlooks and undervalues women’s experiences. It reveals the hypocrisies of societal expectations that the narrator be at once sexually available to freethinking young men and maintain her respectability according to the mores of nosy landladies. The narrative is told through a voice that is at times pining and heavy with raw emotion, and at times distanced and wry, at times self-consciously modern, and at times filled with clipped, fast-paced, cinema-style dialogue.
Miriam Karpilov (1888-1956) was born in Minsk and immigrated to America in 1905, settling in New York and in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where several of her brothers lived. Karpilov wrote short stories, belles-lettres, plays, and novels, and served as a staff writer for the Yiddish daily newspaper the Forward in the 1930s. Although Karpilov was a widely read author among early twentieth century Yiddish audiences, she is all but unknown today. Women writers in Yiddish are woefully undertranslated, and Karpilove is no exception – aside from one short story, her work has never been translated.
In this excerpt, the narrator first encounters a new suitor who will pursue her in ways that are troubling and coercive, as well as comical, for much of the rest of the novel. The excerpt captures the narrator’s sharp tongue, her ability to defend herself through clipped and understated dialogue. It also demonstrates her honesty about the wide range of emotions she feels, even in this brief encounter: her desire for passion, even if it’s hatred; her disdain for this pompous man; her self-doubt; her attraction to this man she will come to love to hate.
In this translation I have tried to capture the narrator’s cynical stance and the way that her economy of words gives her power in a conversation with a desperately and annoyingly verbose partner. I have also tried to convey the way that her dialogue does not always match her inner turmoil – she is attracted in some way to the man but holds her cards close to her chest. She confesses to her diary that she longs for the kinds of feelings that a potential romantic partner might evoke, but her conversation does not reveal this desire.
Jessica Kirzane holds a PhD in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University. Her translations have been published in jewishfiction.net, In geveb, Pakn Treger, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of a Yiddish Book Center translation fellowship to support her translation of Miriam Karpilov's Diary of a Lonely Girl.
Original artwork by Michael Welsh.