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Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe (review)

From: Hebrew Studies
Volume 53, 2012
pp. 425-428 | 10.1353/hbr.2012.0000

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In the second chapter of Yaakov Shabtai's groundbreaking novel, סוף דבר (in English translation, Past Perfect), the native born Israeli Meir Liphshitz, who has unexpectedly lost his mother, decides to travel to her beloved Europe, where she would have "been granted something of those wishes and desires after she had already despaired of everything and had been drained of her strength and the remnants of her vitality by the unendurable disappointments of her life in Eretz Israel" (Y. Shabtai, Past Perfect [New York: Penguin, 1987], p. 50).

Meir Liphshitz was not the only contemporary Hebrew literary protagonist to head for Europe in search of a brief respite from their disenchantment with the Zionist dream. Other characters before and after him, from Lea Goldberg's Nora (L. Goldberg, והוא האור [And this is the light; Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2005]) to A. B. Yehoshua's Molcho (A. B. Yehoshua, מולכו [Molcho; Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1988; in English translation, Five Seasons]), journeyed to Europe in an attempt to question the unidirectional trajectory from Eastern Europe to the land of Israel, which has driven Hebrew literature during most of its history. Unlike these other characters, however, Liphshitz's journey to Europe culminates in a return to his own Hebrew origins. Thus, while in London, he suffers a nervous breakdown, which is almost a precise transcription of the breakdown suffered, also in London, by the protagonist of Y. H. Brenner's well-known novella "עצבים" (Y. C. Brenner, "עצבים" [Nerves], in "כתבים" [Works; Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1978], 2:1229-1264), echoing the depression Brenner himself struggled with during his stay in London in 1904-1908. Furthermore, the writer's bloc that afflicts Meir in London resonates with the plot of another well-known, fin-de-siècle Hebrew novella, Uri Nissan Gnessin's "הצדה" (U. N. Gnessin, "הצדה" [Besides], in כל כתביו [Complete works; Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1982], pp. 135-162), which documents Gnessin's own erotic and literary adventures across Europe.

The European episode in Past Perfect came to my mind while reading Literary Passports by Shachar Pinsker, and not only because Shabtai's novel evokes some of the most significant early twentieth-century prose works that Pinsker examines in his book. In fact, it seems that Shabtai's novel could be read as the ultimate exemplar of Pinsker's argument about the pivotal role played by Europe in the emergence of Modern Hebrew literature.

Indeed, Hebrew literature scholarship has, to date, not paid much attention to the formative years of Hebrew literature in Europe. Only recently, the prominent Israeli scholar and literary editor Menachem Perry argued that contemporary Hebrew literature has turned its back on its rich Diaspora heritage, in particular Eastern European Hebrew and Yiddish literary traditions, which have been excluded from current Israeli curricula. Critical as it may seem, Perry's statement is in keeping with a long tradition, prevalent in Hebrew literary history, which, following Gershon Shaked, put forward what has been often referred to as the "Zionist meta-plot." Indeed, as argued by Pinsker (p. 33), the Zionist meta-plot not only draws a direct line from Eastern Europe to the land of Israel, but also views the diverse Hebrew literary activity, taking place in Europe, mainly from the vantage point of its destruction in World War II.

Into this huge scholarly gap between Odessa and Tel Aviv, enters Pinsker's impressive, comprehensive research shedding a new light on it. This light is not, however, the bright and optimistic light of Zionism (as the title of Lea Goldberg's And This Is the Light, also written about the European Jewish experience, was mistakenly thought to suggest). Rather, Pinsker's is the flickering and elusive light of modernism, which enabled a group of Jewish authors, wandering throughout the continent of Europe at the turn of the century, to explore their homelessness and lack of national affiliation via a new artistic medium. This group of young Jewish writers, including Gershon Shoffman, M. Y. Berdichevski, Y. H. Brenner, U. N. Gnessin, Dvora Baron, and David Fogel, forms the core of Pinsker's study. Throughout the book, he conducts a fascinating examination of these writers' poetics and the European experience facilitating them, moving between three prominent realms of modernity: urban...

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