- Roman Vinai (Viennese Novel) by David Vogel
The promotion of worthy works whose initial reception failed to guarantee them long-term cultural circulation constitutes one of literary criticism’s [End Page 139] virtues. Such promotion can offer contemporary readers a better understanding of their options while advancing deeper cultural understanding. Modern Hebrew literary criticism’s dedication to the oeuvre of David Vogel (1891–1944) constitutes an excellent example of this phenomenon.
While not forgotten at the time of his death, Vogel’s work didn’t enthrall Hebrew readers. His poetry employed a minor key to express a fractured sense of self and the primacy of the inevitable encounter with death; his prose focused on seemingly marginal figures, such as Mediterranean coast vacationers, sanitorium-based tubercular patients, and an intermarried Viennese Jewish father charged with caring for his newborn child. Coping with the European Jewish catastrophe’s unfathomable dimensions and channeling increased energies into the State of Israel’s creation, Hebrew readers preferred the playful vibrancy offered by Nathan Alterman’s and Avram Shlonsky’s Hebrew poetry, Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s rich Judaically infused prose, and S. Yizhar’s portraits of emergent Palestinian Zionist society.
The State of Israel’s creation, however, drained youthful confidence and pushed Israelis to look beyond their immediate surroundings for alternative cultural expression. Vogel’s star has been on the ascent ever since. By the early 1950s, poet Natan Zach was directing readers to Vogel’s poetry, which he saw as viable alternative to the style and content of Alterman’s and Shlonsky’s verse, and critical consensus soon emerged concerning Vogel’s important contribution to Hebrew modernist poetry’s development. Subsequently, editor Menachem Perry initiated the republication of Vogel’s novel, Married Life, and his novellas, and published a previously unknown novel and diary found in manuscript. A new generation of critics, who had heretofore been unfamiliar with Vogel’s prose, approvingly noted its stylistic and thematic similarities to other works of European modernist fiction, shifting investigation of Hebrew modernism away from Palestine and the Zionist project to Europe and the urban experience.
Growing appreciation of Vogel’s place in modern Hebrew literary history explains Viennese Novel’s publication. Like the aforementioned novel and diary published by Perry, Viennese Novel was an archival discovery. Lilach Netanel, a doctoral candidate researching at the Genazim archive, found a manuscript copy of it haphazardly incorporated into a draft of one of Vogel’s published works and recognized the incomplete and unpolished novel’s ability to contribute to a better understanding of Vogel’s work and Hebrew literary history. Consequently, she prepared the manuscript for publication with editor Yuval Shimoni. [End Page 140]
To specialists’ chagrin, the editors reworked and updated the novel for a contemporary readership. Their most significant alteration involves their structuring of the unfinished work. Rather than keeping its opening exposition intact, they split it into two parts to create a narrative frame. In their version the novel opens with the protagonist Michael Rost sitting in a Paris café, wandering the night streets, contemplating suicide by the Seine, and then disinterestedly heading back with a prostitute to her place, and concludes with Rost arriving home to break up with a previously unmentioned girlfriend.
Sandwiched between the two frame pieces, one finds the framed story—Rost’s early life in Vienna following his arrival there from the east twenty years earlier. Eighteen-year-old Rost initially hangs out with other immigrant Jews at the Unity restaurant, but he quickly transcends this world when the mysterious millionaire Peter Dean recognizes his potential and bankrolls him. He provides Rost with a new suit and money to rent a room in a nicer part of town and find his footing. Despite the unusual opportunity given him, Rost never ascends to Vienna’s social and financial heights. Instead, when his unhappily married landlady Gertrude comes on to him, Rost happily accepts her advances. Then, when her husband returns and Rost grows bored of her, he transfers his attentions to her teenage daughter Orna. Rost successfully seduces Orna, but, before they consummate their relationship, her jealous...