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Answers Without Questions

Mr. Mani

by A.B. Yehoshua, translated by Hillel Halkin
Doubleday, 368 pp., $22.50

Katerina

by Aharon Appelfeld, translated by Jeffrey M. Green
Random House, 212 pp., $18.00

There is a sense in which all novels are “state of the nation” novels, because the state of the nation is what we have come to think of as our communal consciousness. As a form that instinctively wishes to claim authority the novel has become more and more absorbed in pronouncing on the changing nature of such consciousness. Nationalisms and local awarenesses now lie there close together, replacing in some degree the mass ideological consciousness once associated with fascism or communism.

The state of Israel is virtually a test-tube for observing and experimenting with the process. The great advantage for an Israeli novelist is that he has a topic vital for his art ever ready at hand. An Israeli novel is bound to be about Israel, its problems and its destiny. At the same time this very privilege lays the novelist under a curse. Writers as talented as A.B. Yehoshua and Aharon Appelfeld must often reflect, and probably with a certain wryly old-fashioned ruefulness, on the case of Ibsen or Joyce, of Proust, Hemingway, or Thomas Mann. All those novelists in their different ways were able to ignore or set aside the problems and identity of a particular national enclave. However much it may be locally enriched, or nourished by special outlooks and values, their work has an unself-conscious and universal validity: their fiction is a currency accepted everywhere. Ibsen and Joyce may have employed a certain deliberation in internationalizing themselves, while Tolstoy and Dickens did it spontaneously, but in all such cases national identity seems to be something their creative imaginations can shrug off without difficulty, in its shaping of personal and suprapersonal worlds and myths.

To do this can be increasingly difficult for the novelist. Israel and the Israeli situation may perhaps be the reductio of a more general dilemma. We are all nowadays trying to find out who we are and where we are going; and the novelist is there to help us. One of the most effective and most striking things about the work of today’s highly talented Israeli novelists—Yehoshua, Appelfeld, David Grossman, Amos Oz—is their exact and attentive feel for what has befallen individual persons. The tears are in the bottle; the hairs on the head are numbered. And this gives a strange comfort to the reader, as if he too were intimate with the process, himself recording and recorded. The history of the Jews, and the horror that lies behind the creation of the Zionist state, gives a kind of inevitability to this process: but—this is the really important thing—it is one in which we can all involuntarily share. Who does not wish the hair of the head to be numbered somewhere? In this knowledge, which steals over the reader before he knows what is happening, the novel from Israel has found its truest, because least intentionally sought, universality.

Of course a novel may make as general and as genuine an appeal by revealing an opposite truth. The authority of one of Hardy’s novels, for instance, and in an odd way its comfort too, consists in the power of its awareness that the individual is literally nothing, a scrap blown from the total disorder of the universe and extinguished as meaninglessly as it arrived. Human life is a minute episode in something that is not even a history or developing process. The history of the Jewish people, and the Holocaust above all, forbids acceptance of that view of things. And yet it would be merely banal if a contemporary Israeli novelist were to insist in his novel that this was the case. The art of A.B. Yehoshua, and the special art of his latest novel, Mr. Mani, is to seem to take for granted the obviousness of recent history and its significances.

Denis Donoghue has observed of David Grossman’s remarkable novel, See Under: Love, that its invisible, indeed unmentionable, comedy lies in its author’s awareness of the fact that “the Holocaust is an event about which nothing useful can now be said, and yet that this nothing must continue to be said.” In one of Appelfeld’s novels, The Immortal Bartfuss, Bartfuss, in conversation with his dead mistress’s husband, “irrelevantly” comes out with the unmentionable question. “What have we Holocaust survivors done? Has our great experience changed us at all?” Only a novelist, and a very good novelist, could keep the matter before us in so deadly a fashion by putting it back to front, as it were, and in so casual a manner.

This is what Yehoshua has done in his own way in Mr. Mani; but he has also achieved a wider perspective, more rich in the novel’s resources of contingent detail. Everything is various, and in its own nature meaningless, and yet everything comes together and adds up: so that, as I have said, the comfort is both undeniable and apparently unbargained for. It has its own sort of poetry, too, not unconnected with Keats’s comment that we don’t care for poetry that has “a palpable design upon us.” Mr. Mani seems to have no palpable design, and yet it enfolds the reader with a kind of meaningful solicitude. As not infrequently in a Jewish context, the sense of belonging and of being belonged to can become a shade oppressive. Yehoshua’s characters are born with an exasperating awareness of the wish for independence and the impossibility of being independent: the insight this gives his tales is somehow at one with the fact that they seem at once both free fictions and preordained.

In his earlier novels, like The Lover and A Late Divorce, the desire for personal independence was frenetic but unworkable. In A Late Divorce the younger son of the intellectual couple who wish to obtain the divorce is himself the most anxious and repressed kind of intellectual, married to a girl whose only wish is to be a writer. Asa’s and Dina’s marriage is still unconsummated, and they represent the most extreme sort of “non-Israeli” detachment and alienation. There is a certain characteristic humor in Yehoshua’s exploration of these extremes: on the one hand the most up-to-date kinds of desire for self-fulfillment, and on the other an almost monastic hankering for the communal life and the greater cause. Isaiah Berlin has observed that Jews are just the same as other people, only more so; and one of the features of the Israeli novel—those of Yehoshua in particular—is to show this truth in action. Without necessarily knowing it, everyone wants and needs for himself both freedom and servitude—the rubric of the Church of England has a neat phrase about God “whose service is perfect freedom”—and here too Israel and the Israeli novel provide a kind of testing bench where we can see these needs and wishes in action, and also in extremes of conscious experiment.

The need for servitude sometimes requires cooperation of a bizarre sort. The husband in The Lover spends his time searching for his wife’s lover, who has disappeared in the confusion of the Yom Kippur war, presumably into the army. This is not in order to “have things out” with his rival but to restore him to the proper communal relationship which existed previously among the three. Other aspects of community living are equally unorthodox. The lover, who runs a garage, gets his fifteen-year-old Arab mechanic to look after his ninety-year-old grandmother, an old lady who has spent most of her life in a European ghetto. The boy rather goes for this, though he remains routinely derisive about Israelis in general and their habit of washing (“Mecca is cleaner than all Israel”). After the lover is found and restored to the married couple, communal harmony seems cemented by the love affair between the Arab boy and the couple’s teen-age daughter; but this of course will only bring fresh separations and difficulties. Not even the Israeli army is spared by Yehoshua’s ironic feel for the gap between alienation and community: it is plagued not only by ultra-orthodox “black coats” who roam the battlefield and get in the way, but by recruits like the lover himself, who had no wish to be in Israel in the first place, and who describes himself as “a free man” (“What is a free man?” an old Jew asks him, smiling).

In Mr. Mani the question is not even asked. As if demonstrating to us his striking ability to look at the whole matter from a different angle, and radically change his fictional techniques, Yehoshua has here produced his own version of an epic chronicle, a homecoming in which the present is fulfilled in the past, the seed implicit in the future growth. The novel has something of the quality of a modern prophecy, of the still, small voice in the wilderness. An Old Testament prophecy is itself in a sense a one-sided conversation, and the book is told in the form of conversations in which an invisible speaker asks an inaudible question. In fact there are answers but no questions—an ironic reversal of a more familiar fictional technique. Perhaps tired of laying before the reader situations and dilemmas which are desperate but not serious, admitting of no solution beyond a rueful, stoical hanging on, the author has found an ingenious method of bringing forth the truth: not indeed about the universe or the future, but about the particulars of human destiny.

A girl student on a kibbutz in the Negev desert tells her mother about the time she met in Jerusalem a judge called Gavriel Mani, who turns out to be the father of the boyfriend whose child she will shortly bear. Invisible and inaudible as she is (a nice joke on the loquacity of the Jewish mama) the mother enfolds her daughter in loving but practical interrogation. That was in 1982; and it leads us back to the island of Crete in 1944, occupied by the Germans, who are involved in a two-way struggle with the British in the Mediterranean and the local inhabitants on the island. Now a German soldier recounts to his adoptive “mother” back home the story of how he has been ordered to hunt down the Mani family, a Jewish clan fleetingly domiciled there.

Local color and the international military situation are as well established here as in the next conversation, which takes place in British-occupied Jerusalem in 1918. The Turks have been evicted: a dangerous vacuum is created between Zionist agitators, of whom young Yosef Mani is one, and other communities and pressure groups. A young Jewish lawyer serving with the British army has various replies to the usual unasked questions, his delicate task assisted in some degree by several fair-minded and reasonably enlightened English officers. Yehoshua brilliantly suggests the unseen background of the British mentality, tacitly contrasting it with the unedifying and humorless single-mindedness of the German authorities in Crete. The same delicacy of perception for the ways in which place and custom, mental attitude and bureaucratic procedure interrelate informs the next conversation. This takes place in Poland in 1899 and involves a young doctor at the third Zionist congress and his sister, who on a trip with him to Jerusalem falls in love with Dr. Moshe Mani, an obstetrician. In the final sequence, in 1848, another Mani reports to his mentor, an elderly rabbi, the details of his own trip to Jerusalem and the death there of his young son.

It is not easy to give an impression of the novel’s style and idiom. The effect is one of a certain masterly casualness, which is not concerned to emphasize the coincidental or symbolic, but deals even-handedly with every sort of social, racial, and class intricacy encountered on the Mani family’s pilgrimage. At one moment we are conversing with Theodor Herzl; at another watching a Swedish midwife deliver in Jerusalem the baby of a Sephardic mother. Yet the cosmopolitanism is in no way insisted on. Something in the book’s calm, almost bland flavor could be illustrated by the stage directions at the beginning of the Polish “conversation.”

DR. EFRAYIM SHAPIRO a twenty-nine-year-old bachelor, born in 1870 on the estate of his parents, Sholom and Sarah (neé Pomerantz) Shapiro. Until the age of ten, Efrayim was taught Jewish subjects and a bit of arithmetic by private tutors: subsequently he continued his education at a small Jewish school in a nearby town. Despite his humanistic tendencies, his parents convinced him to study medicine and helped arrange his enrollment at the famous Jagellonica University in nearby Cracow, where—although he showed little enthusiasm for his studies and was considered no more than a mediocre student—he finished the seven years of medical school. All of his vacations, no matter how brief, were spent on his parents’ estate….

Efrayim was a tall, slender young man with the perpetual hint of an ironic smile on his face and a melancholic disposition. He was not particularly attached to the local Jewish community and attended synagogue only on the High Holy Days. Much to the displeasure of his parents (who had put a wing of their house at his disposal, in which he maintained his small clinic), he liked to spend his evenings in long conversations with the Polish servants, sometimes joined by his younger sister Linka.

It is Linka—the significance of the name quite swallowed up in the density of the narration—who will become involved with a Mani in Jerusalem. It might be permissible to see Efrayim as a kind of fantasy self-portrait by the author, whose inbuilt sense of irony is also of course producing something of a parody on our present earnest preoccupation with “roots.” The “answer with no question” technique itself enhances this faint aroma of the parodic: a characteristic which few serious novels of today are ever wholly without.

Aharon Appelfeld’s latest novel, Katerina, neatly exemplifies at book length the point lightly touched on in the above quotation. It is typical of human nature to seek and to feel more “at home” outside an accustomed cultural atmosphere: Efrayim is more drawn to the world of his parents’ Polish servants than to that of his own Jewish relatives. A class phenomenon between the wars was the nostalgia of some English writers and intellectuals—Auden, Isherwood, and Orwell come to mind—for the life and lore of the working classes: a world romantically unfamiliar to them. Katerina, which begins “My name is Katerina, and I will soon be eighty years old,” is about a Polish maidservant whose whole life becomes identified with the nurturing ambiance of the succession of Jewish households in which she has worked. We might note—and it may be a part of Appelfeld’s intention, for he is as subtle a communicator through the novel as Yehoshua—that there is nothing superficial or romantic in Katerina’s absorption in Jewishness: it happens quite naturally and involuntarily as a result of togetherness and work, not through any willed self-identification. She does not become Jewish: it becomes a part of her, and the most treasured part.

Both novels seem well translated, although it is difficult to judge nuance from a language so abstracted as Hebrew from the European background. And yet perhaps it is not so abstracted after all, for it seems to have come to enjoy a ghostly contemporary familiarity with German, Yiddish, Polish, Judaeo-Spanish, and Russian. Appelfeld’s “native” language is German—he came originally from the German-speaking Jewish enclave in Bukovina—and a perennial topic throughout his work is the differentiation, not to say enmity, between Jews of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Like Kafka and the poet Paul Celan (who also came from Bukovina) Appelfeld is a connoisseur of the German language; and in Badenheim 1939, his hauntingly memorable novel published at the beginning of the 1980s, he concentrated with Kafka-like intensity on the confrontation at a Jewish summer resort just before the war between the Ostjuden, who by force of numbers take over what has already virtually become a prison settlement, and the assimilated German Jews of Vienna and the West. Frau Milbaum, who has had two titled husbands, can’t bear to see Badenheim taken over by “those clowns…dragging every bit of true culture through the dirt.”

Like any sharp-eyed novelist of society Appelfeld cannot forbear to put on show his expertise in the matter of class superiorities, which like sex excite a universal interest. He does it however for the exceedingly bitter reason that such feelings among Jews were at the time a comparatively innocuous parody of those virulent racial hatreds which were to destroy them all, assimilated and primitive alike, the Sephardim and the Ashkenazim. Katerina is rejected and hated by her own Ruthenian people, even her special friend, because of her tacit loyalty to her employers and her fondness for them. In an earlier novel, The Age of Wonders, the Israeli son of an Austrian intellectual feels an inner compulsion to understand and to come to terms with his father’s need to protect his writings, and the status they have given him, by disassociating himself from his Jewish background. This destroys the father’s spirit totally, and does not save him from the Holocaust. His son, who lives in Jerusalem and whose marriage is on the rocks, is aware of the same sickness in himself, which may perhaps be healed by a true understanding of his father’s position, and by a pilgrimage to the Austrian city, now “ethnically cleansed,” which witnessed his father’s humiliation and ultimate disappearance.

Appelfeld’s own childhood was more traumatic even than that of his characters. When his parents were killed by the Germans he was put in a camp and would in time have shared their fate if he had not managed to escape, living in the woods on what locals and peasants gave him until the arrival of the Red Army, when he managed to get to Italy and later to Palestine. His understanding of kindness and cruelty in a social setting is not only as precise and humorous as comparable insights in the very different world of Proust or of Anthony Powell, but based unlike theirs on the most horrifying and elemental personal experiences. In the same kind of way all his novels, including Katerina, exhibit an extraordinary and highly effective contrast between the world of a waking, Kafka-like nightmare and a sophisticated and meticulous sense of the individual, of the comedies and superiorities of speech and idiom (the very best German being always in the background) and the pathos or viciousness of social or racial rivalry. Katerina, like a simple heroine of Tolstoy, has no awareness of these matters; but they emerge inescapably from the background of her story.

There is indeed a calmness and an authority in both these novelists which can only remind us of the great Russian masters. Like them, both are equally at home in the novel and with the short and the long story form, the form called by Russians the povest. Appelfeld’s povest, For Every Sin, which came out about three years ago, is a visionary tale of a wandering by refugees through looted and abandoned country, a tale as light as a starved body, but weighted with all the implications of past and future, those who may make it to the Promised Land and those, such as a character called Mendel Dorf, who disappear on the way. Many of Yehoshua’s stories have the same restlessness of perpetual quest, though in the altogether realistic and sometimes bizarre settings of modern Israel. It is this restlessness, no doubt, which endows both authors with their striking literary variety, and their versatility of form—Yehoshua has written essays and studies, a collection titled Between Right and Right on the themes and problems which occupy his fiction—and both novelists appear before the reader naturally in the aspect of dons and teachers, pillars of a university, even secular rabbis, wise men without God or religion but with a powerful awareness of the tradition of both.

The remarkable honesty in their work indicates, among other things, that there is no final homecoming, that Israel will remain divided to the end; divided not only by problems of race, culture, and community but by the curse and blessing of Jews being like other people, only more so of displaying on a grand scale every paradox and impasse that haunts human nature, every ailment for which no cure can exist. Yet both authors, and all their books, have moving moments of unity and reconciliation, of a sublimity which goes far back and finds its echo in modern Hebrew, the only language, as Gabriele Annan remarked when reviewing Yehoshua’s A Late Divorce in these pages, “that cannot possibly sound Jewish.”* Language, the great reality, has its own means of bringing together—as it does for the saintly Mendel Dorf, fallen by the wayside and unable to move at the end of For Every Sin. “He and his prayer had become one.”

  1. *

    The New York Review, June 14, 1984.

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