Sunday, January 6, 2013

Israeli Conjugations:

Past Continuous and Past Perfect by Yaakov Shabtai

Meet Goldman, Caesar, and Israel. Past Continuous, Yaakov Shabtai’s ambitious first novel traces the lives and friendship of these three young men in 1970’s Tel Aviv. First published in Israel in 1977 as Zikhron Devarim or Remembrance of Things, the novel was written as one continuous 280-page paragraph, with some sentences spanning several pages. Deft and experimental in style, it is considered the first novel ever to be written in truly vernacular Hebrew.  Once translated into English by Dalya Bilu under the title Past Continuous, the novel quickly won international acclaim, prompting critic and novelist Gabriel Josipovici to compare it favorably to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

Past Continuous focuses on the lives of friends Goldman, Caesar, and Israel during a nine month period from April Fool’s Day to New Year’s Day, a period bracketed by the death of Goldman’s father and by that (by suicide) of Goldman himself. Reminiscent of Joyce’s Ulysses, the novel begins with a funeral and ends exactly nine months later with a birth, the story itself a period of intense physical, emotional, and psychological gestation.  While challenging to read, a story the plot of which develops largely by association and in which Shabtai’s verbs sometimes switch tense without logic or warning, Past Continuous is a dazzling existential foray into the life and fabric of modern Israel.  The very names of the principal characters--Goldman, Caesar, and Israel--signal the three often highly contentious strains of Jewish experience in Israel today: ghetto, assimilationist, and Zionist.

Now meet Meir:

At the age of forty-two, shortly after Sukkoth, Meir was gripped by the fear of death--a fear that took hold of him as soon as he had acknowledged the fact that death was a real and integral part of his life, which had already passed its peak, that he was moving swiftly toward it on a route that allowed for no digressions, and that the distance between them--which had seemed almost infinite during the Sukkoth holiday, let alone the summer, which now seemed no more than a distant dream--was growing shorter all the time, so that he could envisage it without difficulty and measure it out in ordinary, everyday terms, such as: how many pairs of shoes he would still buy, how many times he would go to the movies, and how many women he would sleep with, apart from his wife. 

A lonely, disillusioned engineer living with his unfaithful wife in an apartment in Tel Aviv, this often sadly comical hero of Shabtai’s second novel, Past Perfect, spends his days visiting his overbearing mother and anxiously obsessing about his health and his sex life, convinced as he is that his time on earth is running out.  When suddenly his mother dies, Meir undertakes a journey to Amsterdam and London in an effort to outwit, if not just outdistance, his nagging depression and angst.  Though his adventures in Europe prove largely unremarkable, even unsuccessful, as far as his recovery goes, the reader is moved to pity and compassion--and sometimes to joy--by this estranged and anguished man. 

Yet the novel is more than just the story of a man in crisis.  By combining scenes of everyday life in Tel Aviv (vivid, penetrating scenes in which this vibrant, sensual city seems to spring to life around one) with Meir's increasingly desperate dreams of Eretz Israel, Shabtai creates an unforgettable story of a man humbled by the realities--the hardships and contradictions--of modern Israeli life.  As described in a lengthy review in Le Monde, “Yaakov Shabtai dispelled the Israeli utopia. [This] is the reckoning of Israeli life of the second generation, of the sabra... It is a summary of the loss and failure of a generation."
Verbally and technically more modest than Past Continuous, Past Perfect (also translated by Dalya Bilu and first published in 1987) is to my mind not only a more focused, more artistically successful novel, but an even more deeply affecting portrait of life in Israel, both then and today.   

Peter Adam Nash

1 comment:

  1. A video based on past continues