Near the middle of V, the main character of Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, Benny Profane, enters into a dialogue with a character named Mafia. Profane, throughout the novel, is dubbed a schlemiel by the narrator (Pynchon spells it “schlemihl”). And as the novel unfolds we see how that is the case. Mafia is astonished that he is “half-Jewish and half-Italian”(241). Playing on Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, she tells him that he has “an amusing role. Like Shylock, non a vero, ha ha”(241). After having her fun, Mafia gets serious and says that Profane has an “aristocracy of the soul” and that he “may be the descendent of kings”(242). In reality, the novel tells the reader that Profane is a child of humble origins. He was born during the Depression and lived a difficult life. In response to her query, Profane posits a genealogy. Rather than being a descendent of kings, “I am a descendent of schlemihls, Job founded my line”(242). What does Job – who is noted for his horrible suffering, argument with God, and resignation – have to do with a comic character who is often prone to endless fumbling constant bad luck?
The end of the Book of Job has been called a fairy tale ending. After all the suffering Job goes through, after his quarrel with God, and after his refusal of comfort, it doesn’t seem to fit. But in terms of the schlemiel, the Book of Job reads like many schlemiel stories that end comically rather than tragically. Although the schlemiel stumbles and falls by the work of his own hand, in many tales and stories he still gets away with the shirt on his back. But is this what Pynchon is getting at when he has Profane insist that Job founded his line? Is this enough to call the Book of Job a schlemiel narrative? Was it the ending that defines the story arc of the schlemiel, which includes suffering and even rebellion but ends comically?
In his reading of Job, Eli Wiesel posits an alternate ending which suggests something other than a schlemiel narrative. Wiesel argues that Job, “the fighter,” has “turned into a lamb”(247, Messengers of God). The “true ending” of the story has been lost (247). The true ending would be different because, in it, Job would not repent and would not humiliate himself, that he would succumb to his grief as an “uncompromising and whole man”(247). Wiesel doesn’t stop there. He writes his own ending:
I was offended by his surrender in the text. Job’s resignation as a man was an insult to man. He should not have given in so easily. He should have continued to protest, to refuse the handouts. He should have said to God: Very well, I forgive You, I forgive You to the extent of my sorrow, my anguish. But what about my dead children, do they forgive You? What right have I to speak on their behalf? Do I have the moral, the human right to accept an ending, a solution to the story, in which they have played roles that You imposed on them, not because of them, but because of me? By not accepting Your inequities, do I knot become Your accomplice? Not it is my turn to choose between You and my children. I refuse to repudiate them. I demand that justice be down to them, if not to me, and that the trial continue…Yes, that is what he should have said. Only he did not. He agreed to go back to living as before. Therein lay God’s true victory: He forced Job to welcome happiness. (248)
Wiesel could end his words here. However, he does otherwise. Following this, Wiesel inverts his proposed ending and argues that Job, “by repenting sins he did not commit, by justifying sorrow he did not deserve, he communicates to us that he did not believe in his own confessions; they were decoys”(248). In other words, it seems “as if” Job is choosing resignation, but in reality he hasn’t. He still sought for justice: “Thanks to him, we know that it is given to man to transform divine injustice into human justice and compassion”(248). Job is the personification of “man’s eternal quest for justice and truth” because he “pretends to abdicate before he even engaged in his battle”(248).
This reading of Job is thought-provoking and unexpected. It speaks, in some way, to Ruth Wisse’s reading of Gimpel – I.B. Singer’s emblematic schlemiel character in his story, “Gimpel the Fool.” Wisse argues that he knows full well that, in trusting people, that they will lie to him and even betray him. But Gimpel acts “as if” he doesn’t know because he wants to preserve the good. Put another way, Gimpel, in his capacity as a schlemiel, is seeking truth and justice. He does so by playing the fool.
While we don’t know if Pynchon read Wiesel’s essay on Job, this reading has resonance with his own schlemiel character. Although Profane suffers by virtue of being dealt a bad hand, by virtue of his own foibles, and because he happens to always “be in the way of things,” he acts as if he has chosen a life of resignation when, in fact, he doesn’t stop trying to re-engage with the world that seems to have cast him aside. For Pynchon as for many others, there is a goodness in this persistent desire to re-engage with a world that, based on what the reader can see, has done him wrong. The schlemiel may stumble through this world and, along the way, he may mess up one opportunity after another; but in acting as if it is alright and by continuing to move on, his desire to find truth and justice is disclosed (albeit in the most ironic and human manner). Although the suffering of Job is much much worse than the suffering of Benny Profane or Gimpel (and he can certainly be called a schlimazel), these characters may be seen, given the reading of Wiesel, as the “descendants of Job.”*
*Take note that Wiesel is more interested in Job’s response to God – that is, in his freedom. He pays less attention to Job as victim/schlimazel. And that is a major point that distinguishes the schlemiel from the schlimazel. The latter is, as Ruth Wisse notes, a victim of circumstance. In contrast, the schlemiel is more of a free agent who brings things on by his own doing; or alternatively, who acts “as if” he is a fool. While the schlemiel and the schlimazel sometimes overlap – which is something both Ruth Wisse and Sanford Pinsker agree on – they are not the same. This reading is making a possible case for such an overlap. Nonetheless, as I note above, Gimpel and Profane’s suffering is miles apart from Job’s. The relation of tragedy to comedy as well as the relation of being a victim to being a comic agent is the point of convergence and overlap.