- Futurity: Contemporary Literature and the Quest for the Past by Amir Eshel
Amir Eshel’s Futurity is a perceptive, wide-ranging, and thorough investigation into the possibilities for literature to “affect our future condition” (10). Combining philosophical premises laid out by Richard Rorty and Hannah Arendt, Eshel successfully shows how literature has responded to some of the devastating man-made catastrophes of the twentieth century by both describing and invoking humanity’s individual—and even mundane—capacity to make choices. Eshel locates his subject in modernity, focusing on three bodies of work: post-Holocaust German literature, post–Israeli Independence Jewish literature, and Anglo-American literature after the end of the Cold War. Throughout his investigations into literatures of and about the past, Eshel remains resolutely focused on their prospective dimensions, what he calls their futurity.
To this end, Eshel maintains an attentive formalistic perspective rather than a thematic one. Indeed, the cumulative effect of Eshel’s analysis is a poetics for contemporary literature. Focusing on themes of shame, guilt, or trauma, he suggests, fails to recognize new questions of representation raised by postmodern discourses. In fact, Eshel’s analysis corresponds consistently with many proponents of these discourses, offering a nuanced corrective to what he convincingly argues has gone astray in the well-meaning efforts of postmodern critiques.
In the first section of Futurity, Eshel investigates two groups of writers: those who began writing under Nazi rule or its immediate aftermath, including Günter Grass, Alexander Kluge, and Martin Walser; and others “for whom Germany’s Nazi past is but received history, authors who seek to move beyond exhausted language” (37), such as Hans-Ulrich Treichel, Norbert Gstrein, Bernhard Schlink, Katharina Hacker, and W. G. Sebald. Eshel adopts vehicles of interpretation such as orientation, for Kluge, dissensus, in Walser, and gift for the more recent writers. This approach pushes the literature under analysis past the stasis of trauma and guilt, reminding readers that “[r]eading is not merely the intake of words and images. Rather, it is a process demanding an active participant constantly reflecting on ways to relate occurrences to one another, to find orientation in the maze” (57).
As Eshel navigates the turbulent waters of post-1948 Jewish Israeli literature from S. Yizhar and A. B. Yehoshua through to Eshkol Nevo and Michal Govrin, part two is guided primarily by the notion of Zeischichten, layers of time, and the Unsaid. Throughout, Eshel resists symptomatic readings, offering instead fresh and [End Page 121] illuminating close readings to show how these novels critically expand the pool of images available to describe what has been largely relegated to silence: the plight of Palestinians after 1948. Narrative thus serves to enact Michael Oakshott’s notion of a ‘practical use of the past’ by powerfully disrupting what is ostensibly an unchangeable reality.
Herein lies one of the strengths of Eshel’s study: it bridges the wide temporal, historical, and cultural gaps between the texts within and across its different sections. It does so with an overarching structuring of the past as an accumulation of contingencies, rather than as a given, static, or inevitable result of external forces. Narratives of the past become a contemporary strategy of agency and ethical choice. This privileging of poetic language and the possibilities of narrative stem in part from Eshel’s ongoing dialogue with the work of Arendt. This becomes paramount in the third part of the book as Eshel turns to prominent new beginnings in literature that preserve futurity. Nineteen eighty-nine marks for Eshel the moment when the sweeping utopian ideologies of the twentieth century effectively came to an end. Analyzing novels by Ian McEwan, J. C. Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Roth, and Cormac McCarthy, Eshel does not balk at taking the logical next step in his analytical progression as he turns to examine Alternate Histories, ultimately demonstrating how they deflate the very idea of historical inevitability. Eshel deliberately moves away from any grand reactionary, revolutionary, or revisionary gestures and aims instead for much more modest possibilities of...