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Character and Context is a slender but ambitious book. It is both a theoretical speculation on narrative structure and a study of four novels by three of modern Hebrew literature's most accomplished writers: S. Y. Abramovitsh [Mendele Mokher Sefarim] (1835-1917), Y. H. Brenner (1881-1921), and S. Y. Agnon (1888-1970). Of the three, only Agnon, winner of the Nobel Prize, is likely to be familiar to American readers. Among the virtues, then, of Character and Context are its yeoman services in providing an outline of the literary and cultural environments that helped to form these very different writers and the old fashioned "plot summaries" that precede the heavy-water discussions of Abramovitsh's The Beggar's Book, Brenner's In Winter and Breakdown and Bereavement, and Agnon's Only Yesterday.
But as Fleck hastens to point out, the word "context" in his title does "not refer to the historical or social factors that may determine, to one degree or another, the kind of character that appears in a novel of a particular period. . . ." Rather, context, for Fleck, is a term freighted with the theoretical, signifying
the needs and requirements of a particular genre, in this case the novel, and the manner in which those needs and requirements determine the nature of what we refer to as fictional characters.
The result is a good deal of heady talk about fictional characters as "constructs" and about "narratologies" as belonging to this or that structure. In such a critical universe, questions like "is there a person in the text?" are not simply rhetorical; often it takes a full chapter before one gets to the structuralists' version of No! in thunder. Fleck rehearses the best that has been thought and said about theory, from the Russian Formalists to Roland Barthes and the Israeli semiotician Benjamin Hrushovski. Put another way: one is hardly surprised to learn that the first incarnation of Character and Context appeared as a dissertation.
But if Fleck makes it painfully clear that he is au courant, he makes it equally clear that even the best of the structuralist bunch has fallen short where the question of character is concerned. That is, of course, where Fleck comes in. By applying structuralist terminology to the work of Abramovitsh, Brenner, and Agnon, he can not only fill a theoretical gap, but he can also put to rest those internecine quarrels that have dogged the heels of modern Hebrew literature. Thus we learn that Mendele Mokher Sefarim, ostensibly the "protagonist/ narrator" of The Beggar's Book, is:
simply a voice, or more accurately, a series of voices attached to a proper name that neither add up, reveal psychological depth, nor reward efforts to find human analogies . . . Mendele's function is nothing less than the methodical familiarization of Jewish society. [End Page 457] [As such] Mendele is a character in pieces or, rather, not a character at all but a collection of identities, a "figure," in the Structuralist vernacular, that cannot be analyzed in terms of "biography, psychology, or time."
No doubt such assertions would perplex Mendele as much as they befuddle me. And no doubt he would have a disarming quip somewhere up his sleeve, one exactly right for the occasion and for what people such as Fleck call the "seme."
Yet, for all its overqualified, creaky sentences, for all its tortured analysis, Character and Context forces us to look at modern Hebrew literature in ways that, at last, move beyond the threadbare talk about "great themes" or the passionate quarrels about a given writer's allegiances. For the novice, Character and Context may not be the best place to begin a study of modern Hebrew literature, but it is well worth reading when one is ready.