My intention is to write one or two things about contemporary Hebrew literature, but as a matter of fact I already have second thoughts about my subject. It’s the word ‘contemporary’ that baffles me. It occurs to me, really, that I should tell you some of the story of modern Hebrew literature, rather than pretend to sum it up for you and squeeze it into definitions and formulae: I am a storyteller, not a scholar. And stories of course are never ‘contemporary’, not even if they are set in the present time or told in the present tense. A story is bound, almost by definition, to relate the past. Storytellers are cripples, monsters really, born with their necks and faces turned backwards. So, although you may expect a report about the present, hoping perhaps to get a glimpse of the future of Israel and its literature as well, I am here to sell you nothing but old hats.

But just how far into the past do I go? Where does my story properly begin?

I could describe a number of significant recent Hebrew books – that would be the easiest thing to do – along with some plot summaries, and then put them all in a familiar context: so I could tell you who exactly is Israel’s Saul Bellow, who is Garcia Márquez, who resembles Günter Grass, who are the Frosts, the Ted Hugheses or the Solzhenitsyns in our little Israeli village. This is tempting and could be fun. In fact, I sometimes amuse people faintly familiar with Israel’s literary scene by telling them that it is much like a continuing earthquake, with various geological strata exposed that have to be watched simultaneously: if you hit the right café in Tel Aviv at the right time of day you would see – at least until a few years ago – the John Donne and the Lord Byron of Hebrew poetry, and the Walt Whitman and the T. S. Eliot sitting together at the same table with the local Allen Ginsberg, all of them alive (and kicking hard), all of them on speaking – or rather on screaming – terms with each other. All this results from the fact that literary developments that occurred in English and other European literary traditions over centuries have taken place within decades in Hebrew.

I could go even further along the same line by pointing out that modern Hebrew has several features in common with Elizabethan English: our language is still like melting lava, an erupting volcano; it’s bubbling still with steam and with fumes and with fury. A poet or a writer of modern Hebrew is still in a position to ‘legislate’ within the language, to force or seduce the language into ‘having it his or her way’. I dare say that by comparison, modern English is a respectable elderly person with whom you do not dare take wild liberties so easily. (Admittedly Faulkner and Joyce and some other raving poets did just that to English.) But Hebrew nevertheless seems to encourage such practices: she still is a character of easy virtue.

The truth is, however, that despite some striking similarities and despite the strong influence of literature from eastern and western Europe, the basic context of Hebrew literature has always been Hebrew and Jewish and, recently, Zionist. Which makes my task much harder than it could have been if I thought that the context was basically European.


So where, at last, do I begin my story? I could start with the madmen, the desperados, those Hebrew poets and writers who emerged from the ghettos of Eastern Europe at the turn of this century: Mendele and Berdichevsky, Bialik and Brenner and Gnesin, the figures of ‘The Great Generation’. I refer to them as madmen and desperados because they were writing in Hebrew for an audience that hardly existed, with little hope of future generations of readers. For many years they wrote in Hebrew to be read mainly by their fellow Hebrew writers and by very few others. Some of them died without ever dreaming that their words would be taught in school or that streets and kibbutzim would be named after them. In fact, at least some of them felt that they were the very end of Hebrew. They regarded themselves as authors of a tragic epilogue for an ancient drama that had begun millennia earlier and that was now, as they saw it, dying in the gutters.

So why didn’t they simply quit? They were, after all, excellent writers in other languages. All of them could easily write in Yiddish – still the language of millions and, incidentally, the native tongue of them all. Some of them could have gone very far in this world by switching to Russian or German or Polish. Who, at the turn of the century, really cared to read Hebrew? Whom did they have in mind? There was a further complication: Bialik and Brenner and Berdichevsky knew only too well that there were millions of Jews at the turn of this century who could read Hebrew but only in their holy books, and not – Heaven forbid! – in secular ones. While at the same time there were already more and more Jews ready and eager to read stories and poems, but who would rather read them in Russian or German or Polish. So for whom did those members of ‘The Great Generation’ write their Hebrew, whom did they have in mind? I happen to believe that at least a touch of the same madness and despair is still present in every significant contemporary Hebrew work, just as it is still secretly feeding the true Zionism (not the distorted Zionism – I refer to despair and zeal not insanity and fanaticism).

Where on earth do I begin? With Peretz Smolenskin perhaps, or with Mendele, who struggled to compose mimetic Hebrew prose à la Charles Dickens or à la Balzac and Victor Hugo, many years before any man in the world had ever said to a woman, ‘I love you,’ in modern Hebrew? Or do I start with Hayyim Nahman Bialik, who loved and hated and demolished, and who at the same time preserved and reconstructed in his Hebrew verse a Jewish world which in his days was still alive (in Yiddish) and still creative and vivacious (in Yiddish) and still blossoming (in Yiddish) with its last pulses of vigour? Oh, those sons and lovers and killers and undertakers and monument-builders and museum-keepers of the great shadow-state of the Jews in Eastern Europe, why and how did they do all this in Hebrew? After all, those writers, as well as their heroes, used to laugh and to weep and talk and dream and make love in languages other than Hebrew, which at the time was almost as dead as ancient Greek or Latin. Why on earth did they do it?

I suspect a deep sense of despair was behind all this. A terrible premonition of doom. Perhaps they sensed somehow that all was lost anyway, that soon there would be no more Jews, no more Yiddish or Hebrew. Perhaps it really was like a homecoming of a dying man. At least of Bialik, Berdichevsky and Brenner I suspect in fact that sometimes they wrote not for the living, not for any future generations of readers, but precisely for the ancient dead. Or was there, after all, some secret hope beyond hope? I do not know. All I know is that all of us write or talk to the dead in moments of great despair.


So where does my story begin? Perhaps at 48 Mile End Road, Whitechapel, London, in the year 1906, with twenty-six-year-old Yosef Hayyim Brenner who lived there, a wretched Jewish refugee from Russia, in a miserable rented room. He worked as a typesetter and lived on cabbage and potatoes, yet he was putting together nothing less than a fresh and modern and non-conformist Hebrew literary magazine. He printed it with his own hands and bound it with cheap glue and carried it in a sack on his back to the Post Office to be mailed to his 212 subscribers, scattered in eight or nine countries (hardly a handful of them in London itself), just a bunch of lunatics like himself who had not abandoned Hebrew, but were nonetheless bitterly divided into half a dozen rival literary ‘movements’.

Not that Brenner had much faith in what he was doing. On the contrary. Just like his wistful characters, and just like his raving opponents, Brenner felt that it was all over and doomed: Zionism and Hebrew, as well as the world of Jewish Eastern Europe. Many of his characters, Tolstoyans who stepped right out of a Dostoevsky novel, were desperate people who maintained that the Jewish people was dying of an incurable, malignant, inherited disease. Nevertheless, something ought to be done to survive and even recover, no matter how pathetic or useless this ‘something’ might be. Brenner made his characters speak Hebrew; he made them pronounce in it thoughts that were, if anything, existentialist long before existentialism. His stories suggest that all of us are left alone in the world and it’s up to us to struggle against odds, that we are bound to lose the battle and yet we ought to fight it. Brenner made his lone heroes say all this in Hebrew, perhaps as a kind of metaphysical protest: Hebrew was, after all, the language of the non-existing God; so with a complaint that God would never hear, let Him not hear it in Hebrew.

It would be unthinkable to call those writers of ‘The Great Generation’ orthodox in any sense, but then it would be equally wrong to call them secular. Even the raving atheists among them were obsessed with theology. Even those who denied God along with Judaism altogether were obsessed by the absence of God, and agonized over the stagnation of Judaism. Sceptics like Berdichevsky were nonetheless intrigued by believers. Rebels like Bialik and Brenner were nonetheless writing with a mixture of loathing, anger and envy about faith and redemption. Brenner himself even went so far on occasion as to create his own kind of theology for a Godless world.

Brenner, it has been pointed out many times, hated Jews. One Jew he hated in particular: himself. He called his collection of miserable characters – those dropouts and self-educated little refugees from Eastern Europe without guts or purpose – ‘Dead Souls’. There are, however, a few stunning exceptions in his stories. But most of them – including even his characters of pioneers in Palestine, where he himself settled in 1909 and where, in 1921, he was murdered in Arab riots – are, as he described them, ‘Living Ghosts’. Hopeless Puritans, endlessly talking of sensual liberation; intellectuals chatting day and night about manual work and about ‘going back to the land’. Little politicians using big words. Eternal wanderers, uprooted forever, exchanging phrases on ‘roots’; atheists, sweating with guilt and shame whenever they dare to dream about a shadow of a woman. Would-be world reformers who cannot even tie their own shoelaces. Oh, he hated their guts. Yet let me tell you something: with an enemy like Brenner, who needs friends? Read Breakdown and Bereavement and see for yourself the desperate compassion he had after all for his characters, of whom he sometimes wrote like the worst of all anti-Semites. He made them look sick and phony and pompous, or at best pathetic and hopeless. That’s what Brenner did, and that is what many other members of ‘The Great Generation’ of modern Hebrew literature did, if not as vehemently. And this is the real context of even the most contemporary Hebrew literature: the soul-searching self-hatred mingled with compassion, wrath, irony and a sense of ‘unrealness’: about the people, the time, the place and the language.

What then happened when Brenner’s own characters, his own models in real life, read his stories? Something that is, I believe, unique in the history of world literature: once the characters had read about themselves in the stories by Brenner and his fellow writers, they were deeply hurt, insulted, humiliated and shocked. In fact they grew very angry, not with Brenner (after all, they had all been through Dostoevsky before) but with themselves and with the entire air of decline and decomposition of Diaspora Jewish life, traditional and ‘modernized’ alike. So Bialik and Berdichevsky and Brenner and the others, without really meaning to, started the fire and the zeal of those few hundreds and eventually thousands of ‘desperados’ who created the foundations for modern Israel. Our grandparents. My own family. In a strange, paradoxical way they burned with desire to show Brenner just how wrong he was. So they stepped right out of his stories and indeed right out of their own skin just to show him that they were not at all what they really were. I realize that, with characters suddenly leaping out of the pages to demolish their author, this may sound like some wild detective story, but that’s how it worked: a literature meant ultimately to commemorate a dying world ignited a revolution beyond its authors’ wildest hopes. And so, eventually, Brenner’s own characters made his stories sound wrong and cruel and hateful and shortsighted: his heroes became his refuters. Which is exactly what he might have wished in his heart of hearts.


Now, what has this to do with present-day Israeli literature?

When, if ever, am I going to get to the point and discuss Natan Zach, Yehuda Amihai, Dan Pagis and Dahlia Ravikovitch? And what about Aharon Appelfeld and Abraham B. Yehoshua and Amalia Kahana-Carmon and their more recent successors?

Apparently, what is happening in the free state of Israel belongs to a brand-new story. Apparently, gone are the days of a ghost language used by desperate writers to mourn a dying world. Can’t we just let the dead bury their dead and go about our own business? Indeed, such a mood prevailed over so-called ‘Sabra Literature’ for about one decade, just before and just after independence was achieved. Books seemed to convey a lot of heroism, and to celebrate the Gentile-Jew type, the new heroic, Jewish John Wayne, toiling over the land all day, fighting Arab attackers at dusk, then making wild love to the kibbutz girls all night. There was a combination of glee and machismo, perhaps a touch of Hemingway at his worst, and a touch of enthusiastic, Soviet-inspired Social Realism. But let me stress that even for those euphoric late-forties and fifties, my description is unfair to some major writers and poets like S. Yizhar, Amir Golboa and Haim Guri in his better poems. In fact my description refers just to the general widespread literary mood in those years. The pulses of dread and of guilt, of unreality and of neurosis had never disappeared completely from the literary scene.

Since the sixties, roughly, one can decipher a significant revival of themes and tunes and melodies and even techniques which used to be identified with ‘The Great Generation’. It is the basic Hebrew context which reappears in the last two decades: the persistent fear of approaching disaster. Time and place feel suddenly unreal. There are longings for far-away places. Scepticism, irony and even self-hatred. Political siege is conceived as emotional siege. There are persistent, tormented moral ambiguities. And ultimately: the effort, which used to be so typical of ‘The Great Generation’, to seize within a fluid language a fluid, transitory reality.

The lasting conflict with the Arabs, sixty-five years of bloodshed and five full-scale wars, has not turned our literature into either a patriotic battle-cry or else a shallow, whining pacifist manifesto. The conflict has been conceived in Israeli literature as a Greek tragedy, a clash between right and right, rather than as a Wild West film. The sufferings of the Palestinian Arabs are often confronted, in a tragic way, with the historical ordeal of the Jews. Arab fanaticism and ruthlessness is mirrored in several recent novels by the new Israeli arrogance and short-sightedness. Very much in the footsteps of Brenner and his fellow writers of ‘The Great Generation’, contemporary poets and storytellers tend to fuse the private, personal experience with public, political and historical dimensions of reality. To many Israelis, history is a biographical experience, and biography is soaked with history.

As I was gathering material for my recent book, In The Land of Israel, I was fascinated to discover to what extent the person in the street in Israel is obsessed with public affairs; to what extent the entire Israeli nation is but a passionate seminar on politics, on ideology, on metaphysics, on ‘the real purpose of God’: a fiery collection of arguments, rather than a country or a nation. In a street café in a small town called Bet Shemesh, I found myself surrounded by an angry mob of observant, right-wing, hawkish, Oriental Jews, almost all of them sworn Beginites. They screamed at me that I ought to be hanged, drawn and quartered for being secular, a social-democrat and a dove. Yet those people were showering me with loving kindness and with warm, Oriental hospitality, insisting on paying for my coffee and lighting my cigarettes for me. They treated me as a stray lamb, a confused and embarrassing member of their own family. Rather than hang me, they actually strove to save my soul. Which is exactly what I tried to do with them.

Every queue by a bus stop in Israel is likely to catch a spark and turn into a soul-searching, theological session (with its participants, while speculating on ‘the real significance of Jewish history’ and about the secret divine scheme, nonetheless elbowing their way to the front of the queue). If you promise to take it with a pinch of salt, I will tell you that this nation of four million citizens is really an uneasy coalition of four million prime ministers, if not four million self-appointed prophets and messiahs.

The current literature reflects this vividly. You are not likely to find an Israeli novel about an academic writer unable to produce his next book, dashing to see his analyst, and ending up writing yet another bloodless novel about an author who went to discuss his writer’s block with his psychotherapist. Rather, you will find in our current literature family stories reflecting a general social crisis, or a public crisis that becomes the background for a family tale. The political tends to turn metaphysical. An intimate pain begets a theological quest. A struggle between parent and child reflects a gap between the magnitude of the initial dreams and visions and the dreariness of petit-bourgeois realities. Nostalgia is not the right term here; it is a perpetual yearning for what could have been, rather than for any past ‘finest hour’. There is in almost every current work of Israeli literature a secret pulse of messianic yearning.

If there is any common denominator for writers as different from each other as, say, Amihai and Amalia Kahana-Carmon, it is the following: the language is stretched to contain a gushing river of an unsettled reality. It is still the widespread feeling in today’s Israeli literature that whatever looks real and permanent today has not been there yesterday and might be gone tomorrow; or else that tonight’s dreams, nightmares or horrid memories might become real life next morning.

Israeli readers do not really enjoy their literature. They read it as if obsessed. They often complain that present-day writers and poets endanger the ‘national morale’ and damage Israel’s self-image and reputation in the outside world. So, it may be that one day we, too, are going to irritate our readers to the point that they throw away our books and curse us and are moved to do something far-fetched and angry.

If and when this happens, it will turn contemporary Israeli literature, even though post eventum, into a political literature in the broadest sense of the word. Our readers may then become our refuters. If and when this happens, we may deserve to share the same bookshelf with Brenner and other members of ‘The Great Generation’. And finally: you must have seen for yourselves that the story of modern Hebrew is characterized by despair and longing and incredible obstinacy along with a tremendous will for life. Indeed, it’s a story full of sound and fury. Maybe it takes an idiot to try and squeeze some of it into a piece like this.


© zeevveezz

Italo Calvino