Reading A.B. Yehoshua can make a historian like myself uneasy. The Israeli novelist knows me and my colleagues too well: this explorer of the most diverse individual psyches, young and old, male and female, ancient and modern, showed his usual acuteness when he made one of his characters express our methods, questions, and obsessions. In A Late Divorce, published in 1984, Asa Kaminka—a young university teacher in Jerusalem, sullen and emotional—exhibits the two deep-seated, contradictory drives that make historians function. As a teacher, Asa uses an impressive mastery of detail, a passionate delivery, and dramatic gestures to re-create the lost world of the Russian radicals of the late nineteenth century. The humane revolutionaries Vera Zasulich and Vinarofsky, fearless in their attacks on enemies of the people and equally firm in their refusal to harm the innocent, make vivid appearances in his lectures.
Asa’s eloquence deeply impresses his wife and father, who visit his class—but not his actual pupils, who are distracted, underprepared, and sarcastic. In his moments of glory and frustration Yehoshua captures the experience of everyone who has taught history, in Israel or elsewhere, with all the power he can muster, only to find that the amiable and intelligent young people to whom he sings his Siren songs have their ears blocked, like Ulysses’ crew—not with wax but with the white noise of a common culture that takes little interest in earlier times and with the hum of pressing practical concerns which make the past seem irrelevant. Like all good teachers, Asa never gives up. Sitting in a bus on his way back to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, smelling the orange groves in blossom, he plans his campaign: “I’ll hook them with the flashy little items and take them quickly on to the big significant ones. They’ll learn to love those young terrorists yet.”
Yet Asa, as a scholar, believes he has found something like a historical equivalent to Mr. Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies—a set of simple, general social laws, irresistibly powerful, that will make it possible “to understand the pulsing shuttle of the historical grid,” proving that “the historical process…is inherent in human behavior and has its own laws that render it both predictable and quantifiable.” Asa fantasizes that the historical laws he has reconstructed, rather than the dead people he has brought back to life, will serve as his ticket to immortality—the bait that will lure his “eager young biographer,” a hundred years from now, to far-off Minneapolis to try to understand his exiled father’s formative impact on him.
Asa, in other words, manages to occupy, simultaneously, the two extreme positions we find among historians’ attitudes: he is at once the Rankean historian, as steeped in the details of past life as a nineteenth-century historical novelist, and the Saint-Simonian theorist, the would-be scientist of past processes, trying to frame an army of unalterable laws from a world of facts that scatter at his …