Preliminaries

By S. Yizhar

Translated by Nicholas de Lange

(The Toby Press, 305 pp., $24.95)

S. Yizhar, who died last year as he was about to turn ninety, is theone major Israeli writer who has remained almost unknown outsideIsrael. The single, somewhat marginal exception involves twostories fraught with political implications, "The Prisoner" and"Hirbet Hizah," which Yizhar wrote during the Israeli War ofIndependence: the former about the brutal interrogation of ahapless Arab shepherd, the latter about the banishment of Arabs fromtheir village by Israeli troops. These powerful tales have beentranslated into many languages--including, of course, Arabic--andhave predictably been placed in contexts that Yizhar scarcelyintended. But the intrinsic difficulties of Yizhar's densely lyricprose and of his slow-paced, associative narrative style haveraised a high barrier to translation. Although Israeli readers andcritics have for many decades been virtually unanimous in regardinghim as the foremost novelist of the Generation of 1948,Preliminaries is the first of his novels to appear in English.

Yizhar's career, it must be said, followed a peculiar trajectory.Born Yizhar Smilansky, he was the son of Eastern Europeanimmigrants who came to Palestine during the Second Aliyah, at thebeginning of the twentieth century. This, and the fact that theSmilanskys were a well-known literary family, make him the Israeliequivalent of Mayflower stock. He followed a practice once commonamong Hebrew and Yiddish writers of using the initial of his lastname before his first as his pen name. (This name was actuallygiven to him at the beginning of his career by the editor and poetYitzhak Lamdan, perhaps to put distance between him and hisfather's cousin, the writer Moshe Smilansky.) The revival of Hebrewas a spoken language fully took root only after World War I, soYizhar, born in 1916, was at the center of the first literarygeneration of native speakers of modern Hebrew. Since thisgeneration came of age in a baptism of fire, war is understandablythe defining experience for most of Yizhar's writing during the1940s and 1950s.

The newness of the language, with a very old tradition behind it, isparamount to Yizhar's enterprise. His prose embodies anextraordinary degree of linguistic innovation. He invents wordsfrom existing Hebrew roots with an Elizabethan zest; he findsabundant ways to make the new Hebrew vernacular literary, whilealso drawing on the forms and the syntactic strategies of earlierHebrew writing, both modern and classic. Reading him, one senses aPromethean impulse to refashion the Hebrew language so that it cancomprehensively register the world in all its minuteparticularity--the landscape with its nuances of changing colorsand textures and multifarious flora, the fluctuations of thoughtand sensation in the observing self.

Yizhar had some English models for both his prose style and hisnarrative technique--Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and perhaps Joyce(though, as is clear in Preliminaries, this would for the most partbe the Joyce of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man rather thanof Ulysses). Even more decisive, however, was the precedent of theearly Hebrew modernist Uri Nissan Gnessin, who, writing in Russiabefore World War I without a vernacular Hebrew base, produced fourutterly remarkable novellas cast as interior monologues that becomethe vehicle of a finely nuanced lyricism, in long, serpentinesentences hitherto unknown to the Hebrew language.

It was this radically interiorized narration, often lyrical andassociative, that Yizhar brought to perfection in his major novel,Yemei Ziklag, or The Days of Ziklag, which appeared in1958--celebrated by many, an object of controversy for some. Thenovel sprawls over two volumes and 1,143 large, closely printedpages. In English, it would run to nearly 2,000 pages, and so it isscarcely surprising that it has never been translated. The bookfollows a platoon of Israeli soldiers fighting the Egyptians forthe possession of a hill in the Negev over the course of sevendays. It impressively conveys, in dialogue and in stream ofconsciousness, the anxiety and, chiefly, the boredom of warfare,and it raises uncompromising questions about what it is all for, andwhether the slogans of Zionism on which these young men have beenraised really do justify the sacrifice they are now called on tomake. (To further this theme, the familiar literary motif of thebinding of Isaac is introduced on the first page and runs throughthe novel.) Many younger Israeli intellectuals at the time regardedThe Days of Ziklag as the definitive reckoning for theirgeneration, while some older critics denounced the novel as abetrayal of the national cause.

Yizhar's career as a writer appeared to have come to an end not longafter The Days of Ziklag. He published a small volume of stories inthe early 1960s and then stopped writing fiction altogether. Hecontinued to be publicly and politically engaged in a variety ofways. He was a member of Israel's parliament for seventeen years,many of them as a representative of Mapai, then the dominantparty--a role that surely demonstrates how perceptions of him as adisaffected or "subversive" Israeli are off the mark. He lectured oneducation at the Hebrew University and on Hebrew literature at TelAviv University, and over the years he wrote a series of essaysarguing for an ethically responsible Zionism, much in the spirit ofMartin Buber, whom he admired. Then, to everyone's astonishment, in1992, at the age of seventy-six, he published Miqdamot, orPreliminaries, a powerful autobiographical fiction written in therichly lyric style of his earlier work but focusing on the highlyindividual experience of a child--a striking change from hisprevious fiction, where the typical subject is the collectiveexperience of a group of young men in battle, with the narratingconsciousness located in someone belonging to the group yetstanding apart from it.

American readers are likely to think of the analogy of Henry Roth,who after a half-century of silence following the publication in1934 of Call It Sleep began to produce the three volumes of hisautobiographical novel Mercy of a Rude Stream in the waning yearsof his life. But the analogy is imperfect, because Mercy of a RudeStream, for all its remarkable moments, seems to a large degree adirect transcription, episode by episode, of Roth's earlyexperience that has been thinly fictionalized, with the names ofmany people he knew often barely disguised. By contrast, Yizhar'sreturn to novel-writing has nothing of this sense of a sunsetgesture by a gifted writer. Preliminaries pulsates with imaginativeenergy. In many respects, it is a more attractive piece of writingthan his earlier fiction; and the creative elan it manifests wouldimpel Yizhar to produce another four volumes of fiction before hisdeath.

Preliminaries has now been splendidly translated by Nicholas deLange, who is constantly resourceful in finding apt Englishequivalents for Yizhar's evocative prose (and in my spot-checksagainst the Hebrew also proves to be consistently accurate). Thenovel is not quite as well served by the introduction written byDan Miron, one of the leading critics of modern Hebrew literature.His essay is very well informed and includes some keen perceptions,but it is ponderous and imprecise and lengthier than it should be(this is true of almost all of Miron's writing), and at points itexhibits a somewhat uncomfortable relationship with English usage(a "stream of consciousness modality"). Worse, it is somewhatmisleading about what Yizhar says in this novel about Zionism.

Is Preliminaries in fact "about" Zionism? Miron seems to think thatit is, representing the book as an unflinching account of thehistorical failure of Zionism, "a great prose threnody for thedream that has faded away." There is an element of truth in thiscontention, but the way Miron insists on the idea comes close totransforming Yizhar's autobiographical fiction into an allegory ofthe doomed fate of Zionism (allegoresis being a chronic malady ofHebrew criticism); and finally this is not what the novel isabout.

To be sure, there are elegiac elements, as well as rapturous ones,in Preliminaries. It could not be otherwise. Vast waves ofhistorical changes have swept over the coastal plain ofPalestine-Israel where Yizhar spent his early childhood in theyears after World War I, and the shining ideals of the Zionistpioneers have not played out as the first settlers had hoped.Shopping malls stand where orange groves once flourished and, stillearlier, the less lucrative vineyards that they replaced. The newlybuilt Tel Aviv of modest dwellings surrounded by sand dunes todaylooks like a Mediterranean version of downtown San Jose. And so,inevitably, Yizhar's novel from time to time strikes chords oflament for a young hopeful world that has utterly vanished. Thereare also moments, heavily emphasized by Miron, when theconsciousness of the young child, captured retrospectively, is madeto wonder whether the whole project undertaken by Jews to plantthemselves in a land from which they had been severed for twomillennia was bound to fail: "As though you are suddenly seized bya realization that maybe it was a fundamental mistake. That maybethe land doesn't want us at all, really. Because we came here tomake changes that it doesn't want."

Yet what needs to be observed is that the perspective of the novel,in this regard as in others, is not essentially political butexistential, or one might even say cosmic. Yizhar does not speak ofPalestinians, nor does he sentimentalize them as authenticallybelonging to the land; he speaks, rather, of the land itself. Inthe next paragraph, he goes on to invoke God in an unblinkingvision of a timeless existence in which any human presence isfinally irrelevant: "only she and He, the land and God, she silentlyturned to Him through all the emptiness and heat and little cloudsof dust, and He silently to her through all the torrid, empty skiesgrey from so much arid light, until the perfect nothingness of theskies above reaches and touches the perfect nothingness of the landbeneath, on which there is nothing." Such moments, which abound inthe novel, read more like Melville's confrontation with thepitiless splendor of the indifferent cosmos than like a criticismof the Zionist enterprise.

The consciousness of the child repeatedly questions where his placemight be- -or the place of his family, of his community, and ofhumanity at large--in the world around him, but that turns out tobe the vast world under the aspect of eternity and not just thestrip of land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean over whichtwo peoples will fight bloody war after war:

You can see ? how the faint patchwork of green made by human beingshere and there, now and in all generations past, is all rendered ofno account by the calm forward movement of the element of earth, onwhich the whole of history, both written and oral, has not etchedthe most tenuous trace, and you can see that the earth is just likethe sea, including the hard, red earth and the brown plough, andthe powdery soil that flies away, and the slightly green here andthere, and the smoky at the far edge, they are all like the sea,unchanged and unscathed by human deeds, and like the sea it iswhole with its being, needing no justification in respect of theutility or comfort it offers, it simply extends peacefully, andeverything it is is there?.

Such expressions of the existentially marginal condition ofhumanity, which Yizhar clearly means to underscore thematically,are haunting, but they are far from pervasive in the novel. What Ithink is pervasive is a gorgeous sensuousness ofimagination--precisely the quality that slips through the broadgrid of allegorical readings--deployed to convey the vivid immediacywith which a sensitive child apprehends the world around him. Theopening lines of the novel memorably announce this imaginativemode, like a fanfare announcing mood and theme at the beginning ofa musical composition:

And where was the first place? The very very first? Because thefirst place, although there is no supporting evidence, was orange,all orange, wholly orange, very orange, totally.

Smooth like the smoothness of silk, and there was also a casualfluttering of rich orange drapes, orange to very orange, andapparently, there is no other logical explanation, there could onlyhave been, perhaps, a lining of a tent, whose inside was veryopulent with a rustle of very orange silk and a bellying profusionmoving in waves all of it orange beating in soft waves, lightorange and dark orange lighting the orange and all the opulence inits response, all totally silky, in that big tent?.

The sentence cascades onward for another page, profusion being theessential characteristic of this style. We soon learn that theobserver of the orange tent-cloth is a two-year-old. The languageis clearly not that of the child, but belongs to a third-personnarrator, implicitly the child now a mature writer, whoreconstructs in his own artful language his childhood witnessing ofthat visual symphony in orange. By and large, this, and not streamof consciousness, is the narrative procedure of the novel: nothingmuch happens, but there is a superabundance of experience.

This frail, virtually anorexic kid, followed in the novel from histhird year to his thirteenth, is above all put forth as a portraitof the artist as a young boy, though Yizhar is careful not toinsist on the future vocation in any heavy-handed way. There are afew brief mentions of writing as a calling, but for the most partYizhar makes this future implicit and persuasive by concretelyrepresenting the child's response to the arresting presence of theworld that he encounters. And far more frequent than those scaryvisions of the vast indifference of sky and earth are the child'senchantments with all that impinges on his senses: the contour of ahill, the explosive clattering rush of a passing train, theflickering images of the silent cinema, a choir singing, a donkeypeeing, the strange bulbous shapes of the Hebrew letters he cannotyet read. Many of these experiences are epiphanies precisely in thesense given currency by Joyce. Here, for example, is theobservation of a sunset that occurs late in the book:

Somebody could see ? how the sun was turned into a big red wheel,shamelessly stripped of all the pallor of its dazzling heat, and amoment later, in all its blazing majesty, it descended beautiful,light and naked into that hollow between the two hills that seemedto have been prepared for it since time immemorial, graduallyentering it, into the concavity that opened up to receive it togather it into its prepared embrace, and a moment later the entirewheel is inside, in that depression between the two hills whichenfolds it entirely and it enters it entirely all red and hot andentirely entirely, and then there is a fullness than which nothingis fuller.

The elegant precision of this rendering is quite striking. A certainvulgar reading might see explicit sexual imagery in this sunset(though the solar disk is surely the wrong shape); but the realpoint is that the enraptured gaze is suffused with erotic intensityin the act of meticulously observing a concrete natural event. Thelanguage is ripe, but its emotive use of repetition and its generalavoidance of gestures of high style give it a degree of vernacularsimplicity that is uncharacteristic of Yizhar's earlier writing, andis beautifully apt for the retrospective articulation of thechild's consciousness. This small and weak boy is from time to timescared, as one would expect: when he suffers multiple hornet stings(Miron makes this a virtual allegory of the hostility of theenvironment and its natives to the Zionist settlers!); when he islost in a masked crowd during a Purim carnival; when he passes anabandoned building with smashed windows, which looks to him asthough some terrible act of violence had been perpetrated on it.Yet the recurrent thread in the novel is the child's constantdiscovery of the unguessed richness of the world. If the world canmake him feel small and helpless and ignored, it more oftenprovides him occasions for rapture, as in the passage just quoted,or as when he first hears a choir singing: "And suddenly there is aworld. Suddenly everything. And different from what there wasbefore. As though it's opened up and it simply flows." "Flows" is akey word for Yizhar's vision of reality.

At a few points, as I have intimated, the boy links this excitedresponse to the world with the idea that he might have a certaincalling to get it all into language. "It's hard to telleverything," the child, still quite young, muses, "and you alwaysthink that one day, when I'm big, perhaps, I'll be able to tell itas it ought to be told." Sensing himself hopelessly apart from hispeer group in a culture for which the peer group, for better or forworse, was everything, he reflects, "Or it's as though he's onlythere to watch, from the sidelines, watching, seeing, sayingnothing, but writing it down as it were in a notebook that doesn'texist yet." And this impulse to get things down in words is focusedand directed after he becomes a reader. Toward the end of thenovel, we find him, at the age of twelve, utterly absorbed in Crimeand Punishment and The Pickwick Papers (both, of course, in Hebrewtranslation): "curling up every evening to read and finding out howbeautiful it is to narrate the spate of things that exist correctlyand with enjoyment at putting one right color next to another, thentaking two steps back and knowing, yes, that's right, that'sexactly the way it is."

There is a generic kinship between such passages and the remarkablescene in Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness in which thesix-year-old, lying on his back in a courtyard taking in thespectacle of a sunset, senses his future vocation as a writer. Oz,like virtually all the leading figures of his literary generation,is a great admirer of Yizhar, and it is conceivable thatPreliminaries somehow served as a catalyst for his own imagining ofthis crucial aspect of his childhood, however different thesensibilities of the two writers. Whatever the case, Yizhar hascertainly continued to be important for later Hebrew novelists,even as they cultivated very different styles and pursued otherthemes.

There is an odd paradox underlying Preliminaries that is directlylinked to its strength as an autobiographical fiction. It is anintensely local novel, abounding in the social and cultural andmaterial minutiae of Zionist life in Palestine during the 1920s andso also reflecting the course of the Zionist enterprise in thisformative era and, implicitly, afterward. But it is at the sametime a universal story, in some ways a very familiar story, about asensitive child, something of a loner, discovering the multifariousworld and beginning to glimpse the possibility that someday hemight turn it into art. If Yizhar's protagonist chafes at thenotion that in his dull provincial surroundings populated by citrusgrowers nobody will do anything so riveting as to murder an oldlady with an axe, the same sentiment could easily occur to a boygrowing up in Iowa among cultivators of corn. What is interesting isthat though the future novelist is mesmerized by Dostoevsky, it isDickens to whom he is drawn as a literary ideal:

anyone who writes should write like Dickens, moving the action alongnot by hatred but with perceptiveness and indulgence, not reformingthe world but passing through it, the sentences not violent andaggressive, not ripping off masks and uncovering crimes, but likehere with a musical stream, a flow happy to flow, recounting allthe details that it is a pleasure to narrate correctly, everythingin movement everything boisterous everything coming more and moreand full all the time?.

These lines are a wonderful illustration of the inadequacy of theconcept of influence as an explanation of a writer's relation tothe predecessors he admires. A writer may pick up certain technicaldevices or stylistic strategies from a predecessor, but whatusually happens is that his imagination is fired by the verypossibility of compelling literary expression achieved in the workof a writer he has discovered and loves. There is nothing obviouslyDickensian about Yizhar's writing. It exhibits nothing of the wildand wonderful metaphorical inventiveness of Dickens, nor ofDickens's wacky and endearing humor, nor of the cozy and sometimesseductive relationship of the Dickensian narrator with his readers.And in fact, some of Yizhar's early stories might well be describedas "reforming the world ? ripping off masks and uncovering crimes,"although the manner in which they do this is not particularlyDostoevskian. But what Dickens, even in a highly imperfect Hebrewtranslation, revealed to the twelve-year-old was the magisterialconsummation of turning words into music page after page, and ofusing that music to take in the observed world in all its swirlinginterplay of variegated details. It is precisely this impulse thatdrives this late novel of Yizhar's.

Preliminaries is certainly an artistic success story, but in apeculiar way it is a Zionist success story, too. It includespassages of somber brooding about the ominous obstacles that stoodin the way of the new settlement of the ancient land, and about thesubsequent fate of the founding ideals of Zionism. Yet one aspectof the Zionist enterprise that is poorly understood outside Israelis that all along it has been not only about politics andgeostrategic considerations, but also about the creation of aculture. Thus, a few months ago in London, the tiresome ChristopherHitchens was proclaiming to a Jewish audience that Israel wasmerely a continuation of the Diaspora. He did not explain himself,but what he clearly meant was that if existence in the Diaspora byits very nature involves threats to the physical security of Jews,then Israel is a profoundly diasporic place. This glib little ironyentirely ignores the fact that Israel is not just a fortress-state(and it is not even exactly that), but also a place where Jews havecreated a vibrant culture that is not in the least diasporic.

One key to that culture is the spectacular revival of the Hebrewlanguage, a process that began in eighteenthcentury Europe andculminated in the Zionist settlement of Palestine. This revival isnot something that was "accomplished" during the 1920s. It is acontinuing process in which Yizhar--and after him Amos Oz, A.B.Yehoshua, Yaakov Shabtai, David Grossman, Meir Shalev, and otherprose writers, as well as the great poets of the period--played avigorous role. The ultimate triumph of Preliminaries is itsachievement of a fully realized world in the Hebrew language.Yizhar had begun to stretch the syntactic shape and the lexicalcontours of the language in his early fiction starting in the late1930s. Returning in this book to his own childhood with the subtleand capacious stylistic instrument he had perfected decades before,he writes with a palpable mimetic exuberance, leading the languageinto places it had scarcely touched before, with a stream ofsentences happy to stream, "a flow happy to flow." It is possiblethat his magnum opus The Days of Ziklag will never see light intranslation. It may be the kind of novel that is a searing documentof its time, now fifty years distant, rather than a book for theages. But this late novel stands as an alluring testimony to theabiding satisfaction of embracing the world, with all its dark andbright shadings, in the musical magic of words.

Robert Alter's translation of Psalms will be published by W.W.Norton in September.

By Robert Alter