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…

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