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Absalom in Israel

Past Continuous

by Yaakov Shabtai, translated by Dalya Bilu
Jewish Publication Society, 389 pp., $16.95

So many secret disappointments and betrayed visions accumulate over the years and bear down upon the consciousness of people who may not even know the source of their dismay. In the culture of Israel, this burden is perhaps the very idea of Israel itself, as if people—at least, some people—were haunted by a vision of what Israel was supposed to be but, in the nature of things, never could become.

This weight of feeling clouds, yet ultimately defines, Past Continuous, an Israeli novel of great distinction which was first published in 1977 and has now been put into fluent English. (But with one “concession” to American readers: the occasional paragraphing of what in the Hebrew text is an unbroken flow of language.) I cannot recall, these past several years, having encountered a new work of fiction that has engaged me as strongly as Past Continuous, both for its brilliant formal inventiveness and for its relentless truth-seeking scrutiny of the moral life. While a difficult book requiring sharp attentiveness on the part of the reader, it still satisfies traditional expectations that a novel should lure one into an imaginary “world.”

Until this book Yaakov Shabtai had been an Israeli literary figure of middle stature. A tremendous breakthrough, which can be compared to that of Faulkner when he moved from his early novels to The Sound and the Fury, occurred in Shabtai’s middle age, the kind of breakthrough that becomes possible when a writer gains possession of his own culture, uncovering its deepest sentiments and secrets. Shabtai died of heart disease in 1981 at the age of forty-seven, leaving behind another unfinished novel that has been published in Hebrew, but not yet translated into English.

The opening pages of Past Continuous plunge us into a bewildering mixture of fact, memory, reflection. A voice speaks, and it is of an omniscient narrator who seems in complete control. Nothing can be heard or seen except through its mediation. Neither colloquial nor very eloquent, it is self-assured, exhaustive. It records; it quietly corrects both itself and the book’s characters; and, although rarely, it keens over their fate. Above all, this voice tries to get things exactly right, as if some higher power had assigned it the obligation of making final judgment.

The opening sentence—“Goldman’s father died on the first of April, whereas Goldman himself committed suicide on the first of January”—sets the bounds of time and the tone for all to follow. The present in Past Continuous consists of the months between the deaths of father and son, with the speaker, whose identity we don’t yet know but whose authority we accept, leading us back, through his own associations of event and impression, to events in the past. As the relatives and friends of Goldman’s father, Ephraim, gather after the funeral, there begins an unraveling of shared memories. The local detail is very dense, matted into synoptic vignettes of the characters’ lives. There are dozens of characters, though strictly speaking they are glimpsed rather than developed. Shabtai offers only sparse physical descriptions of these people, yet one soon comes to feel that one “knows” a good many of them, for his is an art of the representative, an art of the group. A community is releasing its experience, a generation is sliding toward extinction: the community, the generation of “labor Israel,” socialist Zionism, which was central in the creation of the young country but has by now—say, the late 1970s—succumbed to old age and debility. If there can be such a thing as a collective novel, then Past Continuous is one.

The book takes off from one of the conventions of Western literature: a myth of historical and moral decline. By no means (and this is worth stressing) should it be taken as a straight account of Israel’s recent condition. It offers something more complex and ambiguous: a voice of the culture quarreling with itself, an evocation of buried yearnings and regrets, a social elegy whose tone is somber and unsentimental. Like Faulkner, Shabtai subjects to merciless scrutiny the very myth upon which his book rests and to which he seems residually attached. The griefs weighing upon his characters may thereby, perhaps, be unpacked and allowed to settle in the calm of memory.

In the forefront, though not quite at the center, of Past Continuous stand three men in early middle age: Goldman, a reflective and melancholy man, Chekhovian in the way he registers losses and the book’s uncertain center of intelligence; Caesar, whose lechery is almost comic and who registers nothing, but serves, in the novel, as a kind of foil to Goldman; and Israel, a pianist of sensitivity but feeble will, who forms a connecting link with the other characters. These three can be seen as “representing” a generation that has inherited the life of Tel Aviv but not the strength of its founders, a generation, indeed, that in moments of self-pity feels crushed by that strength. As in all myths of decline, the sons have been weakened. Behind this myth there is history, but history bent and misshaped.

Through these younger characters Shabtai reaches toward the older generation, which engages him more keenly. Men and women in their sixties and beyond—one can see them sitting at the beach-front cafés of Tel Aviv, soaking up the sun and reading Davar, the labor newspaper—this older generation consists of an elite in an advanced stage of decomposition. Nothing about the manners or appearance of these people would suggest this, and they would hotly deny they ever did form an elite, except perhaps an elite formed to eliminate all elites. Israeli readers would have no more trouble in recognizing these figures—the people of the Histadrut, the cadres of labor Zionism—than southern readers a few decades ago would have had in recognizing the aristocracy of the Sartorises and the Compsons.

Mostly, Shabtai’s older characters come from Eastern Europe and have settled, not quite at ease, in Eretz Yisroel with a budget of expectations as wildly improbable as they are (for some of us) affecting: to establish a Jewish nation, to live by an egalitarian ethic, and to create a new kind of Jew, standing erect, doing his own work with his own hands. To put it this way is to yield to abstraction, for what was really involved was a tremendous yearning for social and moral transfiguration, a leap through history, a remaking of souls.

This “design,” to lift a phrase from Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen, was partly realized, but for the plebeian veterans of Tel Aviv, stirred in their youth by a whiff of the absolute, the very process of realization brought disappointment. History gave a little but not enough, and now it has left these people—Shabtai’s people—with a grief they cannot comprehend or shake off. They seldom talk about it any longer, and some of them have begun to doubt the genuineness of their own feelings, but this hardly matters since those feelings continue to oppress them.

What—as Sutpen asks in Absalom, Absalom! about a very different sort of “design”—what went wrong? External circumstances? Strategic blunders? Impossible expectations? Or some deep flaw in the original “design”? Shabtai’s older figures have put these questions largely behind them, for it’s as if he had deposited them at a point where neither asking nor answering can do much good. Political people stranded in a postpolitical moment, they either cling to their received values, tightening themselves into righteousness as their world slips away from them, or they slump into an irritable mixture of rectitude and cynicism, a condition Shabtai is very shrewd in depicting, as if it were the atmosphere of his own years.

After Ephraim’s funeral the mourners sit in the Goldman apartment, nibbling cakes and chatting emptily. There is little for these people to look forward to, but there is little pleasure in looking back, so they become entangled in foolish quarrels, as blocked in their love as in their enmity. Individually, Shabtai’s characters are mostly pitiable, but collectively they bear the stamp of history—history the destroyer—and this lends a certain magnitude to their plight. By its technique, the book creates an enlarged reflection of its theme, with the intricacies of memory cast as emblems of human entanglement. Voice gives way to voice, through the narrator’s “overvoice.” Goldman’s father, Ephraim, a tyrant of idealism who feels “his anger had to be everyone’s anger” and believes “in a world order with good and bad and no neutral ground between them,” towers over the book, and it’s around him that a good many of the other figures turn. The pianist Israel recalls that as a child he had seen Ephraim kill a neighbor’s dog because the neighbor, a “dissolute” woman, violated the standards of the “new society.” Later, this trivial, chilling incident comes to seem a preparation for a terrible moment illustrating the costs of fanatic purity: Ephraim refuses to meet his brother Lazar who years earlier, against Ephraim’s Zionist advice, had gone off to fight in the Spanish civil war, ended somehow in Stalin’s arctic wastes, and has finally been freed. Ephraim is a man of strong feelings, but they have been corked and soured by the monolith of a redemptive faith.

It is, or was, a faith calling for self-transformation, and the desire for this goal, at once noble and destructive, has many versions, twisted and parodied. Manfred, the old lover of Ephraim’s wife Regina, had begun as a communist, only to become a student of Christianity “mapping hell as it was described in lay and ecclesiastic literature,” and now, stripped of belief, he returns to a love that is nothing but the love of loving “the memory of their love.” Shortly after Ephraim’s death, Regina acts out a fantasy in reply to the mania for selftransformation: she regresses into the Polish past, calling herself Stefana, “painting her lips in a subtle shade of violet-red,” wearing “old silks and velvets,” as if to undo all the grim years of Tel Aviv.

Others find different strategies. Erwin, Caesar’s father, who had emigrated to Palestine as a pioneer, concludes that there is “always a gap between the world of values and that of action, and that actually everything [is therefore] permitted”—a lesson Caesar takes to heart as he races from woman to woman. Moishe Tzellermaer remakes himself through a religion “which contained neither a belief in God nor reflections on the nature of God,” but consists of mere dry rituals dryly observed. Goldman, who has never known the idealistic raptures of the older generation, also turns to religion, dabbling briefly in cabala, “but his religion had nothing to sustain it and died.” After this he turns to Taoism and Jungian psychology, which also “die.”

The handful of Shabtai’s characters who find their way do so by remaining still, accepting the thin margin onto which history has thrust them and trying nonetheless to survive decently. Uncle Lazar, though still acknowledging a “redemptive instinct” in man, concludes “that there [is] no single act in public or private life, however right or revolutionary, which [is] redemptive in the sense that from a certain point onward a new era would commence in which everything would be perfectly good.” The thought itself is familiar enough, but the dignity it allows Uncle Lazar is impressive. He forms an alliance with YehuditTanfuss, a modest, unassuming woman, and “in the early hours of the evening, they would sit on the balcony talking or reading…or [go] for walks arm in arm, which [is] the way they always liked to walk together.” And Aunt Zipporah (who made me think of Dilsey) keeps washing clothes and ironing and cooking and helping her sisters and friends through sickness and old age, for she believes in “the dignity of labor” and that “it was forbidden to lose the will to live,” and that the difficulties of life “were not accidental but the very stuff of life.”

Only the Goldmans, father and son, cannot make their peace with limitation. Pure, sterile, Ephraim resists the trickeries of history until “all of a sudden he turned into an old man…and all that was left of him was obduracy and bitter but helpless rage.” The aggressions of the father become the self-torments of the son, who before ending his futile life gains a moment of illumination that may be no more—but it is enough—than ordinary sympathy:

Love and hate, together with the force of habit and family ties [reflects Goldman], chained people to each other in a way over which logic and will had no control, and…even death could not sever these bonds, except through the stubborn strength of time, which wore everything away, and even then something of the other person remained behind as part of your being forever….

All—rectitude and opportunism, hedonistic frenzy and calm acquiescence—melt into a life that was once to be transfigured but now, simply continuing, must be endured.

About the older generation Shabtai writes with great assurance. About the younger generation, Shabtai’s own—Goldman, Israel, Caesar, and the women they pursue and abandon—he is neither judgmental nor very sympathetic, but wary and bemused, as if a writer can understand the chaos of those who came before him but not of his contemporaries. Shabtai describes Caesar’s “deepest feeling about life…that it was fluid and formless and aimless, and everything was possible in it to an infinite degree, and it could be played backward and forward like a roll of film, just as he wished”—a feeling that’s the very opposite of the one held by Goldman’s father or Uncle Lazar and Aunt Zipporah. The pages that describe Caesar’s prowling and Israel’s dawdling are evocative, but Shabtai does not seem quite certain what to make of a younger generation staggering under the glare of its elders.

There is no reason why he should be, and one comes to appreciate the interplay between the voice of authority summing up the entire lives of the elders and the portraitist not quite ready to assess his own contemporaries. A curious note creeps in here concerning the women involved with Caesar and Israel. These women yield to sexual diversion but in an oddly detached and apparently deracinated way, keeping a part of themselves at a distance from their “personal lives.” This self-sufficiency, if that’s what it is, seems attractive after the excitability of the elders, but it also, disturbingly, lacks emotional intensity and echo. Shabtai sketches the motions, rather than examining the motives, of these young women—something, evidently, has to be left for later writers.

In certain respects Past Continuous seems closer to a chronicle, in which the past is granted a stamp of certainty and contrivances of plot are not allowed to interfere with the passage of events, than to a traditional or even modernist novel, in which events, whether or not ordered by plot, may still be represented as being in flux. But the book’s density of texture is closer to the novel than to the chronicle.

Here is a close look at one of the book’s most attractive figures, Uncle Lazar, who was caught up in the political struggles of Europe but is now quietly aging in Tel Aviv:

Although the truth is that Uncle Lazar was not a taciturn man by nature, and if he hardly ever spoke it was only because he knew the limitations of human knowledge, the invalidity of human reason, and the restrictions of human possibilities, and everything was so contradictory and ambiguous that doubt seemed the only thing which possessed any reality, and the ability to believe was possessed by only a few, and there was no use hoping for much, and he also knew just how far a person had to deceive himself in order to live through a single day, and how fate could play tricks on people, as it had on him, and that all the words in the world were incapable of moving the world a single centimeter from its course, or bringing back one single day that had passed, or filling in the gaps, or consoling a man whose eyes had been opened, and Uncle Lazar’s eyes had been opened, and they remained open, although he was not at all despairing or embittered, but simply very realistic and sober, with all the calm detachment of a man who had experienced much and who saw clearly and for whom life, to which he continued to relate seriously and positively, held no more surprises, because he had already died and risen again….

The Hebrew title, far more evocative than the English one, is Zikhron Devarim, signifying a protocol or memorandum, and indeed, the pace and tone of the book are rather like that of a protocol or memorandum: precise, measured, detached. Shabtai’s technique is in radical opposition to the prescriptions for the modern novel of Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford: dramatize, dramatize, show rather than tell. There are few large scenes in the book; it consists mostly of compressed biographies, life histories in miniature. The voice of Past Continuous tells more than it shows, on the valid premise that, with enough pressure of thought and feeling, the act of telling can become a way of showing.

Chronicling the rise and fall of a generation, almost never stopping for psychological detail or nuance, steadily widening its reach so as to gain the illusion of totality, the voice of Past Continuous achieves an authority quite beyond that of the omniscient narrator in the traditional novel. And while its use of associations bears a similarity to “stream of consciousness,” especially as practiced by Faulkner, Shabtai’s method is finally quite different, since in his book we do not enter the inner life of the characters. Brooking no pretense of relativism, the narrative voice does not hesitate to say with assurance about Ephraim or Lazar or Caesar, “The truth is….” If only as a premise of reading, we come to suppose we are listening to a communal recorder, a choral observer who may just possibly be the consciousness of a city.

The narrator speaks:

From one day to the next, over the space of a few years, the city was rapidly and relentlessly changing its face, and right in front of [Goldman’s] eyes it was engulfing the sand lots and the virgin fields, the vineyards and citrus groves and little woods and Arab villages, and afterward the changes began invading the streets of the older parts of the town, which were dotted here and there with simple one-storied houses surrounded by gardens with a few shrubs and flower beds, and sometimes vegetables and strawberries, and also cypress trees and lemon and orange and mandarin trees, or buildings which attempted to imitate the architectural beauties and splendors of Europe, in the style of Paris or Vienna or Berlin, or even of castles and palaces, but all these buildings no longer had any future because they were old and ill adapted to modern tastes and lifestyles, and especially because the skyrocketing prices of land and apartments had turned their existence into a terrible waste and enabled their owners to come into fortunes by selling them, and Goldman, who was attached to these streets and houses because they, together with the sand dunes and virgin fields, were the landscape in which he had been born and grown up, knew that this process of destruction was inevitable, and perhaps even necessary, as inevitable as the change in the population of the town, which in the course of a few years had been filled with tens of thousands of new people, who in Goldman’s eyes were invading outsiders who had turned him into a stranger in his own city….

The culminating effect, for this reader at least, is overwhelming Dispassionate in grief, this narrative voice seldom drops to judgment, though once or twice there is a sentence that can be taken as a judgment of sorts. At the funeral of Goldman’s father, a mourner says, “In spite of everything he deserved to be loved.” (“Why do you hate the South?…I dont. I dont. I dont hate it. I dont hate it.”)

Kafka once said, “We must have those books that come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-ax to break the sea frozen within us.” Before he died Yaakov Shabtai wrote such a book.

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