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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Death

Zalman Shneour

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To purchase A Death

Title: A Death
Author: Zalman Shneour
Genre: Novel
Written: 1909 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 158 pages
Original in: Yiddish
Availability: A Death - US
A Death - UK
A Death - Canada
  • Notes of a Suicide
  • Yiddish title: אַ טױט
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Daniel Kennedy

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Our Assessment:

B+ : predictably bleak, but done well and to good effect

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       A Death is sub-titled (or fully-titled): 'Notes of a Suicide' -- an instance where something is gained in translation, as the English 'suicide' can refer to either the person or the act, while the original Yiddish (זעלבסטמערדער (zelbstmerder -- literally 'self-murderer')) only refers to the person -- and A Death is, indeed, an account by/of both. The narrator, the would-be/wannabe suicide, is Salomon -- also called Shloyme (and, more familiarly, Shloymke) -- a young man who makes his living as a tutor. His mother died while giving birth to him, and he was never close to his father, a man who was kind enough but focused largely on his work as a grain-dealer; he died when Shloyme was still young. After several failed apprenticeships Shloyme set out on his own. Now settled in an unnamed city, he has some friends and regular employment, but has few deep ties.
       Shloyme is not desperately poor; he seems to get by reasonably well with his tutoring work -- albeit hardly fulfilled by it. It was with the death of his father that his thoughts of his future, fate, and death: "which had hitherto wandered in my mind like a sparse, inchoate mist, began to acquire their characteristic traits". If not completely death-obsessed, it nevertheless is a thought that has long preöccupied him -- and now does increasingly so.
       The trigger, as it were, that really sets things in motion is his purchase of a revolver -- "the instrument of my ultimate demise; the slaughtering blade of the Angel of Death". If previously death had often been on his mind, and he long avidly followed newspaper reports of suicides -- "I thought about them day and night" --, the revolver now actually puts his fate in his own hands. If thoughts of suicide had always had an abstract quality, the revolver, facilitating the means, suddenly makes it very real. From then on, for the entirety of the novel, he carries the revolver like a totem and talisman, constantly fingering it in his pocket; it's a source of reässurance -- comfort and fall-back, a reminder that escape (the ultimate, and inevitable, escape) is always at hand. Shneour impressively conveys the meaningfulness Shloyme invests in his revolver, and the desperation with which he clings to it (and its potential).
       Shloyme's death-obsession, his suicidal bent, grows and blossoms -- nicely put by Shneour:

     Like a tree growing without sunlight, like thorns sprouting without rain, the idea flourished in my desolate heart.
       Shloyme is barely able to conceal the extent to which it takes hold of him, with a friend observing:
     When you pronounce the word die it sounds different than when other people say it. It would not have bothered me if someone else had said it.
       For all his resolve and determination, Shloyme still needs to egg himself on, to force himself to take the final step. He breaks the few ties he has, of friendship and employment, and sells his belongings. He wants to -- and does, quite successfully -- back himself into a corner, reducing his existence to the bare minimum, where the final extinguishing is then the only small step left. One major hiccough, however, is that, if he doesn't exactly have a bucket-list, there is one thing he hasn't managed to cross off his short list of experiences, and which he feels he must:
I must taste it before death so that I may die without a shred off longing for this life I have so thoroughly discredited. I have known -- in my scant years -- hunger and fullness, hope and despair, good moods and bad, deep-rooted desire and unending, futile sadness, but there's one thing I have never known: a woman.
       If he has pushed away any hope for love, sex seems an unlikely place to find salvation -- and he does what he can to ensure that it won't be. He's resigned to having to resort to a prostitute, and he long struggles with taking that step -- including, presumably, because he's convinced himself that it is the final hurdle to overcome before he actually pulls the trigger. Unsurprisingly, great amounts of alcohol are involved as he works himself up to going through with it (having sex, that is).
       Unsurprisingly, A Death is a bleak story; the black cover of the Wakefield Press edition hopefully warning enough to all those whom the title and subtitle didn't already convince: this is not going to have a happy ending. But it's not entirely grim. Aside from the gripping power of the near-frenzy Shloyme works himself into -- and the self-control he tries to exert, with the revolver near at hand always calming -- there's an acid humor, too, that makes the subject-matter, and turns of events, more palatable.
       Shloyme and his death-obsession, and the extent to which it consumes him, are a variation on familiar youthful excess; if sometimes painful, it all feels realistic enough. Shneour's protagonist is rather single-mindedly driven, but presented convincingly enough. It is the cruelty of how Shloyme breaks what few ties to others he still has that are the most difficult parts of the novel.
       At one point the repeatedly dithering-appearing Shloyme admits:
It's always easier to philosophize than to put one's philosophy into action.
       Shneour does an impressive job of balancing the two -- talk and action --, especially given the stakes. Part of what contributes to the power of A Death is that Shloyme does see his philosophy through -- if long only haltingly.
       A Death is an uncomfortable, dark novel, but a strong piece of work. Obviously, readers should be aware of what they're letting themselves in for, but for those up to it, it's a disturbingly satisfying read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 July 2020

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A Death: Reviews: Zalman Shneour: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Yiddish-writing author Zalman Shneour (זלמן שניאור) lived 1887 to 1959.

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