- Edmond Jabès: The Hazard of Exile
Edmond Jabès: The Hazard of Exile is a meticulously researched account of backgrounds to Edmond Jabès's poetry. In what might be called a biography of Jabès writing, Jaron argues that Jabès's Egyptian background is pivotal to his poetic life, despite the fact that the early Egyptian poems are not much read and that Jabès himself seemed more or less to have dismissed them, not including them in his own bibliographies. The emphasis on the Egyptian background in turn grounds Jaron's central argument about Jabès himself: that his uprooting from Egypt after the 1956 Suez Canal war marked him essentially as an exile. Although he moved to a France with which he had long felt strong identification, his exilic status remained with him, preventing him from fully assimilating into French culture and opening [End Page 201] him to the larger imagery of exile that becomes tied to a growing self-consciousness of himself as a Jew.
A large part of the study accordingly centers in Egypt (in fact, rather little is said about Jabès situation in France, with almost no concrete biographical details from that period). There is a general history of Jabès's family from its origins in Spain through its move into Egypt; an account of the sort of Jewish community life led there, in which Jabès grew up and into which he married. Most attention is paid to his emergence as a poet. Here Jaron reconstructs Jabès's publication history, piece by piece, review by review, interchange by interchange. Jaron devotes sections of his chapters to each of Jabès's important literary relationship and influences, starting in Egypt and moving to France. These include Max Jacob, Georges Henein, Gabriel Bounoure, with the final chapter focusing on Maurice Blanchot. What emerges is something between an intellectual history and a reference book. The pages of Hazard of Exile provide rich background material for scholars of Jabès who are interested in his published face —that is, the traces left of his literary activities in various groups, friendships and contacts, the publications that emerged from them, the literary exchanges within them, especially for the early period in Egypt.
As to intellectual concerns, the main attention of the study is to the question of identity. Jabès from the start enacts multiple or divided identities. First he is divided between Egypt and France. His earliest literary milieu and endeavor is devoted to attempting to negotiate, and essentially to link, these two. Jaron reviews in great detail Jabès's concern to create cultural ties and mutual recognition and interaction between Egyptian French culture and France. At this point, there is little of Jewish identity at work. Jaron emphasizes that Jabès had very little Jewish education or religious affiliation. The Egyptian period seems instead totally consumed between Egyptian and French cultural issues. It is only later, when in France, that Jabès, out of his sense of exile from Egypt, begins to evolve toward a Jewish consciousness.
The irony that exile from Egypt is the basis of Jabès's Jewish sensibility is something Jaron does not explore; nor does he remark on the fact that Jabès's sense of a religious dimension to his writing, of his writing as connected to Jewishness —which Jaron presents as a vexed issue, Jabès having resisted being called a "Jewish writer" —seems to have been particularly nourished by Gabriel Bounoure, a Jewish convert to Catholicism. In fact, the question of identity, and particularly of [End Page 202] Jewish identity, is something Jaron raises but does not really investigate. This vagueness, or perhaps evasion, may however be itself a manifestation of the very cultural world that Jabès and even more broadly French and European Jewish intellectuals and artists inhabit. Jewishness is entertained as something more or less symbolic; and what it symbolizes is not a particular commitment or identity, but general, universalist principles. Yet these two are almost at odds...