June 3, 2010

Hebrew Book Week - Part III: The Great Israeli Novel

As I mentioned in my last post, there is one Hebrew novel that consistently takes the first spot on any list of best Israeli novels (including best book since 1948, best novel about Tel Aviv, favorite novel according to several Israeli reader surveys) - Past Continuous by Yaakov Shabtai (published in Hebrew in 1977; translated into English in 1983).
I don't particularly like the English title the novel was given, but otherwise the English translation by Dalya Bilu is quite good (yes, I've read the book in Hebrew and English, I liked it that much). The original title, Zikhron Devarim means "memorandum," though it could also be translated literally as "Remembrance of Things," which already gives you an idea of the work it relates to (Gabriel Josipovici, writing for The Independent,  named it the greatest novel of the 1980's, explicitly comparing it to Proust's In Search of Lost Time).

The novel is Yaakov Shabtai’s first, and only completed, novel. Starting out as a playwright and translator, Shabtai then wrote several short stories (most of which are collected in Uncle Peretz Takes Off) before turning to the novel form. The novel is a unique work of Israeli modernism, often considered to be the first novel to be written in truly vernacular Hebrew, and is composed as a single paragraph (broken up in the English translation), with some sentences spanning several pages.

The novel is also revolutionary in content, being one of the first to openly criticize the Zionist ideals of the older generations, expressed by the despair and deep sense of personal loss felt by the three main characters, and echoed by the city around them. The most successful and haunting literary device employed in the novel is a unique rendition of stream-of-consciousness, where the characters' thoughts drift through past and present events, and through the landscape surrounding them, where certain objects and shared experiences connect them to the thoughts of others. This technique allows Shabtai to puncture all the great events and ideals through a subtle use of irony, as in the following section:
For more on the novel I can recommend the Wikipedia entry about it (which I contributed to extensively), though actually, I suggest you just go get yourself a copy. There are three English editions - the hardcover pictured above which came out in 1985, an edition published by Overlook Press which came out in 1983 and reissued in 2004, and a Schocken Modern Classics edition published in 1989 (on a recent Google products search I saw them selling for between $3-12).
Yaakov Shabtai
After completing Past Continuous, Shabtai began working on Past Perfect (Sof Davar, or "Epilogue"), whose earlier parts are similar to Past Continuous in style and themes, but later develops in a different direction, with a greater variety in narration and form. Unfortunately, Shabtai died of a heart attack in 1981, before completing a final draft of the book. Literary scholar Dan Miron, working with Shabtai's widow, compiled a full manuscript out of the novel, though according to Shabtai's notes it is evident that he was still not pleased with what he had as there were many parts he wanted to develop.

Unlike the constant discussions and arguments regarding "The Great American Novel" I don't think there's as much of a concern in Israel to name the great Israeli novel - perhaps because Israel is much smaller and younger, and perhaps because it has not really settled into its final state - but there is at least one more novel that I know of which should be mentioned in this context - Days of Ziklag (1958), by S. Yizhar, a massive novel of over 1,000 pages which describes seven days of fighting during Israel's war of independence. Unfortunately, the novel has never been translated into English (and I must admit I have not read it yet, but when I do you'll be the first to know).

No comments:

Post a Comment