restricted access The Invention of Hebrew Prose: Modern Fiction and the Language of Realism (review)
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Reviewed by
Robert Alter. The Invention of Hebrew Prose: Modern Fiction and the Language of Realism. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1988. 122 pp. $15.00.

The contemporary study of Hebrew literature, particularly in its modern phases, generally points in two opposite directions: inside and outside. For the "insiders," the miraculous revival of Hebrew in the last two centuries, both as spoken language and as secularized belles lettres, is a totally indigenous business—a sui generis evolution, determined by its own unique laws, that of stylistic and ideological continuities (namely, the consistent reliance on the ancient sources, and the national motivation behind this literary awakening). (As late as 1923, Hebrew poet laureate, H. N. Bialik, admonished a young Hebrew novelist against foreign imports: "One does not draw analogies from one language to another, and certainly not from an Aryan to a Semitic language" [quoted by Alter].) For the "outsiders," the modernization of Hebrew is a case of comparative literature par excellence: conceived and developed in Europe for more than a century before finding a home in the land of Israel, it absorbed the norms and modes of operation of the cultures surrounding it, thereby becoming an intriguing testing ground for issues of polysystemic changes and literary transfer.

In either case, what is at the center of attention is language itself, "the story of Hebrew." For the fascinating question is: how was Hebrew transformed from a scriptural idiom to a viable vehicle for the modern experience? And more specifically—in the absence of Hebrew vernacular (a function fulfilled in Europe by Yiddish)—how was the impression of mimetic realism created in Hebrew?

To answer this question in English is an almost impossible task, as anyone who has tried to do it can attest. Yet this is precisely what Robert Alter has undertaken in his book, The Invention of Hebrew Prose. Nor should we be surprised: for who would be better suited for this task than an author who introduced the English reader to The Art of Biblical Narrative (and Biblical Poetry)? Indeed, this compact exposition demonstrates the same features that made Alter's studies of biblical art so popular: lucid and accessible prose, even when discussing subject matter most distant from the contemporary (English) reader; a concise historical introduction, both cultural and sociological; a careful selection of "three pivotal moments" in the Europeanization of Hebrew (1886-1930: mainly Mendele, Gnessin, and Fogel); sensitive close readings of hefty passages (deftly translated by the author), in which—and this is crucial—certain key words and structures are highlighted in the original (in transliteration, of course); and finally, the delightful use of cultural analogues, culled from the vast repertory of European (and Anglo-American) literatures. The latter are very helpful in "domesticating" this alien phenomenon, making the "anomaly" or otherness of Hebrew somewhat less daunting.

But only somewhat. For linguistically, modern Hebrew presents a greater challenge than the biblical. In fact, it was the very limitations of biblical Hebrew that triggered the reactivation of postbiblical (rabbinic) Hebrew by the moderns. As recent studies (mostly in Hebrew) have demonstrated, it is to the specificity of the latter in diction, syntax, grammar, and tone that Hebrew realism owes its coming into being. Moreover, modern Hebrew in general would be unthinkable without the rich interplay of its historical linguistic layers. Yet English is often at a loss to render these minute diachronic nuances, as Alter repeatedly admits [End Page 692] (this or that stylistic difference is "evident only in Hebrew"). So what is the point of such a detailed exercise in translation?

The point is to demonstrate (and here Alter uses the "uniqueness" of Hebrew as an investigative deautomatization, the way Russian Formalists used Sterne's Tristram Shandy) that the original question, the one motivating most studies of Hebrew modernism, is no question at all; that the assumption that a vernacular is a necessary condition for the creation of "realism" is a fallacy, based on erroneous "mimetic" expectations. "[T]he illusion of mimesis," he reminds us, "involves more working against the grain of ordinary language than we are willing to admit," and Hebrew modernism is only a(n extreme) case in point.

With this...