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Having been previously familiar with and indebted to Robert Alter’s insights through his work on biblical poetics, as well as on modern writers like Kafka and Benjamin, I was intrigued to have a look at his work on modern Hebrew fiction, an area which, although I am interested in, I have little experience with. As with Alter’s other works like Necessary Angels: Tradition and Modernity in Kafka, Benjamin, and Scholem (1991) and The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981), the prose and style are a joy to read; Alter is gifted at conveying literary and historical insights with an economy and simplicity of language which is refreshing. Indeed, over the past two years my fondness for the “elder statesmen” of literary criticism (Kenner, Alter, Kermode et al.) has grown surprisingly. Surprisingly, I say, because so much, if not all, of their works remain relatively untouched by the theoretical models of the past decade which have so influenced my own work: feminism, poststructuralism, and cultural studies. Through reading this book, I am realizing that part of what I enjoy so much is concise and well-drafted prose, unridden with the jargon and pseudo-radical posturing that characterizes so much of my usual critical fare. [End Page 923]
Hebrew and Modernity collects a series of essays Alter has written on the topic from 1981 through 1993. For the uninitiated and curious, the first three chapters, “Hebrew and Modernity,” “Secularity and the Tradition of Hebrew Verse,” and “Inventing Hebrew Prose” give the reader a wonderful introduction to the long and rich history of Hebrew literature, one that extends back through the tenth century, where Jews living in Spain used both Hebrew and Arabic models for their literary creations. The focus of Alter’s work, however, is on the last two centuries, when it could be said that the tensions between Hebrew and modernity began to manifest in more overt and openly conflicting ways.
His historical insights expand our understanding of the myriad ways in which “Jewishness” has been expressed in literary traditions both in this century and in the millennium which preceded it help us to realize that Hebrew literature is not just a modern invention vamping on Biblical texts but rather a rich and ongoing tradition; thus, the modern writer of Hebrew literature engages both ancient and contemporary forebears. Although the ancient texts may well be the more pressing concerns of modern writers struggling with the conflicts and continuities of tradition and modernity, they do so building, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, upon the struggles of preceding generations.
The role of Hebrew as both a holy tongue and the marker of Jewish “otherness” in the Diaspora sets up the complex ancient and modern contexts that writing in Hebrew simultaneously evokes. This observation is the source of some of Alter’s keenest insights, for example when he invokes Hebrew as “the undying dead language” and yet later cautions that “Hebrew refuses to be entirely subdued by the contemporary.” As is to be expected, Alter frequently reminds us of the debt that modern Hebrew writers owe to the Bible. But Alter is again unique in that he opens up the resonances of both the modern and ancient texts so that one actually comes to a better understanding of both in the end.
That being said, I now offer a few words of critique: although I am generally open to such readings, Alter’s psychoanalytic molds often seem to be a bit forced and old-fashioned, especially in the two chapters on S. Y. Agnon. Of greater concern is that Alter never deals with women writing in Hebrew. The book’s cover (at least in the paperback edition) represents for us the stereotypical image of “the Jew and his [End Page 924] book” through Chagall’s lovely painting, “Literature,” but the reinforcement of this male stereotype is a serious stumbling block for the study and understanding of both Jewish and Hebrew literature. This casting of (male) Jews as preoccupied with intellectual and literary concerns obviously plays well in literary critical circles, but cultural critics such as...