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The Paragraph That Changed My Life

On Yaakov Shabtai’s Past Continuous

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Yaakov Shabtai
Yaakov Shabtai

I spent a good part of the summer of 1996 in a failing café in Berkeley, California. Four semesters had passed since the beginning of graduate school, and while things were beginning to look up, I worried this was only in a relative sense. I had entered a PhD program in order to study modern Hebrew literature, but my initial excitement was obliterated by the painful realization that my uneven street Hebrew wasn’t worth a damn when it came to Bialik, and moreover, I didn’t really know how to study literature in the first place. Somehow—maybe because I was being funded or because my only fear greater than failure was admitting failure—I hadn’t dropped out, and now, two years later, I was beginning to find my footing. And I was in this café, this empty café, because I needed a place to hide as I crawled, weary and exhilarated, through a 277-page-long paragraph that I felt might just make it all worth it: Yaakov Shabtai’s Zikhron Devarim, translated into English as Past Continuous.

Yaakov Shabtai was born in Tel Aviv in 1934, moved to a kibbutz after his military service, and returned to Tel Aviv with his wife and family ten years later to concentrate on writing, something he came to rather late. Before writing fiction, Shabtai wrote plays. His short story collection, Uncle Peretz Takes Off, published in 1972, includes a story also called “Zikhron Devarim,” this time translated literally as “Memory of Things,” that contains features of the novel he would publish five years later: an exacting, dispassionate, omniscient third person narrator; remarkably long sentences filled with detailed digressions; a plot organized around the swirling, achronological flow of a character’s thoughts and memories; and, finally, a story overwhelmingly concerned with death, despair, and an unmistakable sense of loss. Shabtai died of a heart attack in 1981 at age forty-seven. His second novel, Past Perfect, was published posthumously in 1984. That’s it. A decade and a half of writing. A solid short story collection, a second intriguing novel that his wife together with his editor—the eminent Hebrew scholar Dan Miron—completed out of various drafts Shabtai left behind, and Past Continuous, a book regarded by many people as the most significant Hebrew novel yet.

Here’s how Past Continuous opens. This is taken from Dalya Bilu’s very good translation, reissued by Overlook Press in 2002. My only alteration has been to remove the paragraph breaks the original English publisher inexcusably added, presumably for reasons related to the bottom line:

Goldman’s father died on the first of April, whereas Goldman himself committed suicide on the first of January—just when it seemed to him that finally, thanks to the cultivation of detachment and withdrawal, he was about to enter a new era and rehabilitate himself by means of the Bullworker” and a disciplined way of life, and especially by means of astronomy and the translation of the Somnium. The only one to notice the peculiar connection between the date of Goldman’s death and that of his father’s was Caesar, who even remarked on it a few days after Goldman’s funeral while standing in the kitchen with Israel, who was making them both a cup of tea—but he mentioned it only as an anecdote without any significance, because by then he had thrown in the towel and was no longer prepared to make the slightest effort not connected with his own immediate needs.

Here in the first couple of relatively short sentences of the novel (the longest ones last more than five pages), Shabtai introduces the three main characters (Goldman, Caesar, and Israel), gives away the two central events of the novel (the deaths of Goldman and his father), sets the morbid tone for the narrative as a whole, and seamlessly shifts his focus from the external to the internal, from one character to another, and, above all, from one time to another, expressing little interest in conventional modes of chronological organization. While one can find similar instances of this or that gesture in other novels, it’s fair to say that overall Shabtai’s approach to the genre is singular. Form and content are so perfectly united it’s impossible to disentangle them. How, for instance, are we to characterize Shabtai’s disregard for standard notions of temporality? When, after all, does this passage take place? The present of the scene—in Caesar’s apartment a few days after Goldman’s funeral—is one of a half-dozen different times—some specific moments, some vague periods—introduced here. Was Shabtai’s fluid approach to organizing time the initial strategy that determined much of Past Continuous‘ unique form? Or is this treatment of time instead the product of the narrator’s unique perspective as he expresses the deep decay of an entire society precisely by abandoning the sort of linear sequence that would allow him to chronicle this decay in the order in which it occurred?

Shabtai teaches you how to read Past Continuous as you struggle to get through it. I started the novel, like anyone else would, expecting to follow a main character or two through a linear series of events. And, to be sure, the first third or so of the novel does indeed follow two of the three main characters, Caesar and Israel, as they try to make it to Goldman’s father’s funeral and, having missed it, attend the shiva instead. But the actual attention given to the two of them wandering around a massive cemetery, or the various conversations and interactions at shiva later on, is remarkably scant. Instead, the narrator digresses from character to character, from place to place, from time to time, not to mention from character to place, from time to character. Moreover, these digressions frequently take on a life of their own, as the narrator demonstrates again and again a breathtaking ability to reveal the complexity in the people, places, and times his meandering narrative comes across. Here’s Shabtai’s description of Eliezra, one of Caesar’s many mistresses and a relatively minor character, whom the narrator describes in his prolonged, if intermittent, survey of those in attendance at the shiva:

She was a beautiful woman, and she knew it. In fact, she was so preoccupied with her beauty that on the one hand she managed to convince herself that it was imperishable, like some kind of spiritual quality, but on the other hand she did not really believe this and lived in constant fear of its ruin and destruction, and this double feeling made her into a vain and capricious woman, full of fears and bitterness.

Reading the novel, I quickly abandoned my standard reading expectations, not reluctantly, but joyfully. Though I had never read anyone like Shabtai, my response, once I overcame my initial disorientation, was, Of course.” This wasn’t just how I wanted novels to be written, this was also how I was already trying to make sense of the world outside the novel. My life overwhelmed me: too many people, too many places, too many memories to sort through, every last one of which, whenever I stopped to think about it, seemed too complicated all by itself. Reading Shabtai showed me the satisfaction to be found in explaining these complicated people, in describing these intricate places, in drawing out fully the surprising richness of a single moment.

Only a couple of weeks after I started reading this Hebrew novel I started, quite suddenly, writing fiction in English, transposing Shabtai’s style and technique into what would become my own. Only I didn’t feel that I was simply copying or even imitating Shabtai, though obviously on one level I was. This is going to sound unforgivably corny, but it’s true: I was using him to locate something already in me. The truly euphoric resonance I felt reading his prose brought my incipient and often incoherent verbal strategies for understanding the world into perfect focus all at once. That’s the only explanation I have for how, a month or so after starting his novel, my voice as a writer emerged almost fully formed. As the Hebrew writer Judith Katzir said of her own decisive encounter with Shabtai’s fiction—I’m not alone here, his mark is all over Hebrew fiction of the last thirty years—it was like he placed a key into the palm of my hand.

Now the other half of this experience involved remembering why I was reading Past Continuous in the first place. While I was busy enjoying the exhilaration that came with my new dual identity—aspiring graduate student and aspiring writer!—the former was really the only identity that I could legitimately spend long hours cultivating. The challenge now was to connect my enthusiasm for Shabtai to whatever it was I was after as a graduate student, a task that back in that lonely—if now decidedly happier—café remained daunting. Up until that time, there had always been a slight incongruity, something that didn’t quite work, in my approach to Hebrew literature. You see, I chose to study this literature even though I was first and foremost interested in Israeli history. In particular I was obsessed with trying to make sense of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and I had a hunch that Hebrew literature (I was studying Arabic then, too, only it turns out that some things for me were in fact doomed from the start) might give voice to aspects of the conflict—especially the pure overwhelming experience of it—that conventional historiography couldn’t reach.

Overall, I was right about this. Hebrew literature had a great deal to say about the conflict, and about Israeli history and society in general. Indeed, the relationship between Hebrew literature and Israeli society is unlikely to remind you of the place of literature here in the United States. There’s a street named after Bialik in just about every Israeli city. S.Y. Agnon, the only Hebrew writer to win the Nobel Prize, is on the fifty shekel note. Try imagining an America that would put Mark Twain or even Nathaniel Hawthorne on the twenty dollar bill, and you begin to get an idea of what I’m getting at here. Sure it’s symbolic, but that doesn’t mean it’s only symbolic. Hebrew literature imagined Zionism and didn’t just narrate its realization, it led the way.

Which isn’t to say that Hebrew writers were simply eloquent Zionist cheerleaders. Far from it. Though their writing started as a critique of European Jewish society, the acute honesty of these early writings carried over into many accounts of life in Zionist Palestine. Less than a decade after Hebrew literature became Israeli literature, the literary establishment was on its way to becoming a permanent opposition voice of sorts to the political establishment.

Coming to understand this confirmed my suspicion that Hebrew fiction was much more than just a collection of stories about Jewish farmers and fighters. So long as my ultimate interest in the books wasn’t the books themselves, they were all relegated to so much pretext. My analysis of them remained impatiently one-dimensional, because I was always looking at this or that fictional narrative solely to see through and past it to the grand national narrative. Reading Shabtai was the final, decisive blow to this approach (though certainly not the first one; I was set up for it by having already come to appreciate Gnessin, Yizhar, Yehoshua, and many others). Reading Shabtai made me, or more accurately, allowed me to accept that this literature couldn’t, or at least shouldn’t, be subordinate to some other discourse. Past Continuous was simply too rich, too brilliant, too inventive, too good to deserve to be anything but the center of my attention. It had to be read and understood on its own terms. Though I soon saw, thankfully, that the inside (characters, plot, perspective, etc.) and the outside (history, society, ideology, etc.) of any given text are ultimately inseparable, for the first time I was trying to make sense of narrative fiction by understanding the unique ways in which it makes sense of the world. It would no longer be a manner of simply asking, for instance, how this or that writer represents this war or the Arab other. The questions got much more complicated, but now they pointed to instructive, rewarding answers.

Shabtai published Past Continuous in 1977, the first year that a version of what we now know as the Labor party did not win the Israeli elections. In its way, 1977 was every bit the earthquake that 1967 or 1973 was, because this was the year that Labor Zionist hegemony came to an official end. And though passages dealing overtly with politics are few and far between, there’s no denying that Shabtai’s novel captures this moment and the process that led to it. Past Continuous revolves around the failure of the founding generation—represented here by Goldman’s father, a monstrously idealistic man—to pass on its ideas and values to the next generation—characterized here by Caesar (cynically and obsessively hedonistic), Israel (introverted and bitter), and, of course, Goldman (tormented from within and without to the point of suicide). This focus on men is hardly coincidental, as Zionism, in addition to its obvious political agenda, took upon itself the task of reinventing the Jewish man. Out with the weak, sickly Diaspora Jew, in with the strong, healthy Hebrew. Talk about the return of the repressed.

To get a sense for how Shabtai’s narrative techniques sharpen his portrait of Israeli society and amplify its effects on the reader, consider the following passage, describing Goldman’s visit to his dying father in the hospital:

Goldman sat down on the edge of the bed and placed his hand near his father’s shoulder, and for a moment he even touched him lightly, stroking him without love, while Israel remained standing a little distance away looking at him with indifference and even revulsion, but later on, when he and Goldman had left the hospital and were walking in the street, and on the following days too, and after the old man died, the memory of the sight depressed him profoundly because of the impotence and estrangement he sensed everywhere …

This morbid scene finds the narrator shuttling quickly between characters and times with little notice. The passage begins with two central characters, Goldman and his father, the central pair in a novel deeply concerned with the shift in Israeli society from the generation of the founders to that of their children. The reader already knows, from the novel’s very first phrase, that both father and son will die in the near future. Both men represent dark aspects of their generation: the vicious cruelty and abusive authority of Goldman’s father, Goldman’s own paralyzing existential alienation. And here the two converge, Goldman’s father weakened and vulnerable, Goldman directly confronted with his father’s inevitable mortality. A potentially juicy scene to say the least. Yet after barely two lines the narrator’s gaze shifts to Israel, a figure who is not only trivial in the present action, but also literally—spatially, that is—marginal in the mise-en-scène. This sentence continues for another eight lines and eventually ends by saying that the main cause of Israel’s negative feelings of late is his longing for his ex-girlfriend, while the following sentence recounts the beginning of their relationship. Goldman and his father are left behind, the scene never returned to again.

Shabtai’s unconventional approach to time and space is well suited to represent a society that has fallen apart. If the center has truly given way, and you want to illustrate not so much the process as the result of this collapse, the center must be marginalized in the retelling. That is, Goldman and his father, who should have been key links in a regal Israeli dynastic chain, must now be viewed and experienced from a perspective that renders them secondary and easily forgotten. Shabtai’s narrative steadily and disorientingly refuses to value any storyline, any perspective, any character, any moment above any other, because any such prioritization would bestow on this character or that time a privileged position around which the pieces of the crumbled society could then be reassembled, or at least made into a standard, stable tragedy. Shabtai, in what is perhaps the boldest gesture in a bold novel, refuses to give his readers such an opening. In this light, Shabtai’s various stylistic and technical experiments give voice to, and were perhaps motivated by a post-Zionist view of Israeli society. Content, meet form.

Despite its strange form, Past Continuous is realistic, too; its unconventional realism explains why the novel both disrupts our normal expectations as readers and opens us up to new ways of seeing the world. The primary obsession of the narrator is exhaustive description; detailing elements while positioning them within the novel’s vast network of relations, which has at its center three young men, nine months, and the city of Tel Aviv, but which relentlessly branches out to include dozens of secondary characters, large chunks of the twentieth century, and places all over the world.

And the deeper the narrator delves into a detail—the steady deterioration of a long-standing building, the final breakdown of a strained relationship between two old friends, the brutal murder of a neighborhood dog—the more we come to see the underlying connections between things that on a superficial level appear to have nothing in common at all. At first this deliberately swirling narration can be frustrating—it’s certainly disorienting—but over time I found it liberating.

Here’s why I read novels: I want to see someone use language to make sense of the world. No more and no less. I suppose there must be some story in there somewhere, but ultimately it’s about language.

After I stumbled upon Past Continuous I became a good bit wiser, but far more desperate, struggling as I was not just with the great big world, but with a foreign language and its relationship to an ambitious, broken country I wanted so badly to understand, an understanding I was naïve enough to bank my professional future on.

As I limped through 277 unbroken rectangles of Hebrew text over the course of that long summer, I grew fluent in Shabtai’s way of making sense of the world. By the time I came out the other end I had more than just a foothold in Hebrew literature. I had started writing fiction myself, trying to translate into English Shabtai’s swirling, hyperrealist mode of understanding Tel Aviv; to make use of his innovations in my efforts to say something intelligent about the places I had seen. If you haven’t guessed by now, Past Continuous isn’t for everyone. It’s dark and dense and isn’t exactly going to make it onto anyone’s light summer reading list. But if it is for you, you’ll be glad to have read it, even if “fun” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you later describe your reading experience. To the extent that anything ever came together for me all it once, it was back in that crappy Berkeley café, where a single novel, a single voice, taught me not just how to read or even write, but how to finally begin the impossible but necessary task of making sense of it all.

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The Paragraph That Changed My Life

On Yaakov Shabtai’s Past Continuous

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