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The Freedom of the Café

Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe
By Shachar M. Pinsker
(Stanford University Press, 487 pp., $60)

Elias Canetti, the German-language writer, born to a Bulgarian Sephardic family, who won the Nobel Prize in 1981, tells in his memoirs of his daily meetings in a Viennese café during the 1920s with a certain Dr. Sonne. A man of broad culture who radiated a quietly powerful sense of authority, Dr. Sonne was known by Canetti, somewhat to his perplexity, to be a Hebrew poet. (And he was a Hebrew poet who was on conversational terms with Broch, Schnitzler, Schoenberg, and Joyce.) In the course of their conversations, Sonne would sometimes recite by heart long passages of biblical poetry in Hebrew to an uncomprehending Canetti, who was mesmerized by the music of the ancient words. Sonne is familiar to Hebrew readers as Avraham Ben Yitzhak, the name with which he signed his poems. His was one of the most anomalous careers in modern literature. Whatever he may have consigned to the wastebasket, he published only eleven poems in his lifetime. You may think this hardly qualifies him to be thought of as a serious poet, but four or five of these poems are among the greatest Hebrew poems written in the twentieth century—verse of astonishing richness and imaginative complexity, modernist in its disjunctions and elisions while mobilizing multiple layers of biblical allusion.

People unfamiliar with modern Hebrew literature have some vague idea that it emerged after the Zionists established settlements in Palestine and began to revive Hebrew as a living language. In fact, a secular literature written in Hebrew long antedated the resuscitation of the spoken language. It originated in Germany during the Enlightenment, in the circle around Moses Mendelssohn. The new literature moved by stages eastward during the nineteenth century, from Berlin to Vienna and eventually to Lvov, Vilna, Warsaw, Odessa, and other centers in the Russian-Polish sphere. The first steps of this literary movement were understandably faltering, linguistically and artistically, and much of the writing was didactic or ideologically tendentious. But by the 1890s a major novelist had emerged in S.Y. Abramowitz, known as Mendele the Book Peddler, as well as two poets of the first order of originality, Hayim Nachman Bialik and Shaul Tchernikhovsky—all clustered around the Odessa center.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, a generation of young writers rebelled against the tradition-steeped language and the harmonious classical forms of Mendele and Bialik, and embraced the themes and forms of European modernism. One of those writers, Uri Nissan Gnessin, worked out a stylistically supple and psychologically subtle mode of interior monologue a decade before Joyce and Virginia Woolf. The seeming human anomaly who sat opposite Canetti drinking his coffee mit Schlag was actually part of a robust if historically curious movement. It was a movement that drew most of its writers from the shtetls and mid-sized towns of Eastern Europe, but by the first decade of the twentieth century many of them had moved to Central Europe, and some as far as London or New York, fleeing the grim fate of conscription in the czarist Army as, a decade later, others would flee the Russian Revolution.

All of these developments have long been studied by scholars of modern Hebrew literature, though for the most part from a somewhat skewed perspective. Zionism has repeatedly been imagined as the bourne of fulfillment toward which the European literature was implicitly pushing all along. “Through an as-if Hebrew reality, they arrived at a Hebrew reality,” observed Dov Sadan, in most respects one of the most acute Hebrew critics of the mid-twentieth century, about the paradox of representing in Hebrew fiction a world where no one was actually speaking Hebrew. Against this prevalent view, Shachar M. Pinsker argues vigorously in his extraordinarily impressive book that this Zionist teleology distorts the fundamental character of European Hebrew literature in the early twentieth century. Pinsker’s study is based on wide ranging and thorough research that includes scrutiny of many forgotten texts and also actual visits to the places where Hebrew writers gathered.

Pinsker persuasively demonstrates that this was a quintessentially European movement, sharing the concerns and the formal experiments of European modernism and animated by a sense of attachment to European settings. All of the writers took a certain interest in the new Zionist settlement of Palestine, but many of them were far from committed to going there themselves. Some visited for a few months, only to return to Europe; others never made the journey; some ended up in Palestine but with great ambivalence, like the centrally important novelist Yosef Haim Brenner; and still others, like Avraham Ben Yitzhak Sonne, came to Palestine late because Hitler left them no alternative.

Their cultural horizon, in any case, was firmly European, and it remained so, as Pinsker shows, even for those who made the move to Palestine. When the center of Hebrew literature definitively shifted to Palestine in the early 1930s, it continued to exhibit European characteristics, with the café culture of the new Hebrew city of Tel Aviv “clearly modeled on ... European predecessors.” Literary Passports defines the multiple linkages of Hebrew modernism with the European modernist movement through three large topics: the intimate connection of this literature with urban experience (for the Hebrew writers, chiefly in the cities of Central Europe); the preoccupation with sexuality, and especially with troubled and aberrant manifestations of the erotic impulse; and a renewed exploration of the spiritual or explicitly religious realm.

Almost all the Hebrew writers were the product of a strict Orthodox upbringing—that is how they developed their attachment to the Hebrew language—against which they rebelled. But this did not mean, Pinsker contends, that they simply became secularists in rejecting Jewish observance. There is a telltale line (not quoted in the book but confirming its argument) in a poem from the 1920s by the Hebrew and Yiddish Expressionist poet Uri Zvi Greenberg, in which he describes himself and his young bohemian friends “who smoke cigars on Sabbath nights to ruin the lungs of our Hebrew God.” The violation of tradition, one sees here, goes hand in hand with a continuing tense consciousness of the God of tradition, or, for other writers, at least with an attraction to the intensities of spiritual experience fostered by tradition, with or without God. Pinsker connects this interest in spirituality with a certain current in modernism—Yeats, Kandinsky, Hesse, Stefan George, Andrei Bely—that was drawn to mysticism, and even to crackpot varieties of it, such as Bely’s adhesion to anthroposophism and Yeats’s devotion to Madame Blavatsky. And in addition to their European contemporaries, many of the Hebrew modernists, as readers of Russian, were deeply influenced by Dostoevsky.

The interest in religion was an important motive, if not the only one, for the ambitious anthologies of rabbinic legend undertaken by Bialik, in collaboration with Y.H. Ravnitsky, and by the Hebrew Nietzschean writer and essayist M.Y. Berdichevsky. It was also manifested in the literary trend of recasting Hasidic tales as artful fiction, of which Y.L. Peretz was the most eminent practitioner. None of this looks much like the particularly European literary pursuit of spirituality in the early twentieth century, but Pinsker demonstrates that many Hebrew stories and novels of the period—even one by Gnessin, who usually deals with thoroughly secular materials—include fraught episodes centering on a religious experience of a traditional holiday such as Yom Kippur, or on a spiritual epiphany of some sort.

It seems to me that this latter case is the clearer link with European modernism, in which there is a characteristic turn to post-traditional forms of spirituality (Lawrence and Joyce are signal instances). Among Hebrew writers, a strong example is Tchernikhovsky, not discussed in this book because he was a poet, not a novelist, and also not formally a modernist, though many of his themes are modernist. Another of the writers influenced by Nietzsche, Tchernikhovsky used the Hebrew language to create intensely religious poetry, but of a pantheistic, vitalistic, neo-pagan sort. (An analogy with Lawrence suggests itself.) He tapped the archaic, poetic stratum of biblical Hebrew to evoke a world of potent mythic presences, quite in consonance with the modernist project of renovating myth, but with the special advantage of being able to use abundant linguistic elements going directly back three millennia to a world in which mythology was felt as a palpable reality.

The prominence of sexuality in Hebrew modernist fiction may be the most surprising of Pinsker’s themes to those who think of the new Hebrew literature primarily as an expression of national revival. In fact, the convolutions of the erotic impulse in the fiction of Gnessin, Berdichevsky, Brenner, Gershon Shofman, Agnon, and others of this generation have received a good deal of attention in Hebrew criticism. Pinsker’s innovation in this regard is to show how central deflected or contorted sexuality is to this whole literature, how it is intertwined with redefinitions of the role of women, and how it mirrors the concerns of European decadence and modernism with ambiguities of sexual identity, homoeroticism, and eros as a dark and disruptive force.

Pinsker begins his discussion of sexuality by instructively noting that in 1907 Brenner published, in the Hebrew literary journal that he edited during his sojourn in London, a Hebrew translation of Wilde’s Salome. This is not a choice one might have anticipated from Brenner, in many ways an austere and ascetic figure, but it reflects the keen interest that Hebrew writers manifested in what was being done in European literature in regard to the expression of dangerous, destructive, or previously forbidden sexual subjects. Some of this interest was no doubt owed to a desire to be engaged in what were perceived as the most daring and advanced aspects of European culture. Some of it, as Pinsker plausibly argues, may have been the consequence of the interiorization of narrative promoted by the Hebrew modernists: “The ‘inward turn’— ... a crucial element in the emergence of modernist Hebrew fiction, with its sustained focus on interiority and psychic (rather than social) life, as well as a self-consciousness about issues of literary artifice and language—happened to also be a major ‘sexual turn.’” The confluence of the two turns came about because the cultivation of fictional introspection led to a tautly pitched sensitivity to libidinal impulse and its frustration, and to the precarious structures of gender.

To this I would add a sexual element of a specifically Jewish sort. Despite apologetic claims to the contrary, the traditional Jewish world from which these writers came was sternly puritanical. The typical trajectory of a future Hebrew writer was from kheyder to yeshiva, with scant opportunity for sexual experience in the years after puberty and only the dubious comfort of the homosocial yeshiva realm. Having broken free of the Orthodox sphere in his late teens, the future Hebrew writer might well be hesitant about his ability to assert himself with women and enjoy the pleasures of sex, and then might feel guilty if he succeeded in doing so. “They say there is love in the world. Where is love?”: those words, from a famous poem by Bialik, could easily be a motto for many Hebrew writers of the early twentieth century.

The result, in Hebrew fiction, is a pattern, scrupulously traced by Pinsker, of frustrated desire, guilt over consummated desire, uneasy triangles in which there is rivalry over an object of desire or in which the woman turns out to be a displacement of desire between two men, or frightened retreat from the erotic realm. An exemplary instance of this last case is Agnon’s novella Tishrei, which appeared in 1911 and was re-worked in 1919 as The Hill of Sand, in which the writer-protagonist repeatedly pulls back from the young woman who is attracted to him, refuses to recognize the clearly sexual nature of his interest in her, and is tormented by his subliminal awareness of the unbridled sexual activity going on all around him as he sits sequestered in his green-shaded room looking out at the sands of Jaffa. The male personages of this Hebrew fiction are clearly not happy hedonists—in part because they are behaving like their counterparts in the European fiction of the age (think of Stephen Dedalus), and in part because they bring with them from traditional Jewish society a great deal of cumbersome psychological baggage that impedes their movement in the new promised land of liberated individuals and free love.

The most fascinating of the three large sections of Pinsker’s book is the first, titled “The European Cities of Modernist Hebrew Fiction.” The impulse of cultural migration that he studies here is part of a larger movement on the European continent that swept through the nineteenth century and on into the early years of the twentieth century. A steady stream of people, predominantly but not exclusively young men, made their way from the provinces to the great urban centers, which doubled and quadrupled in size over the nineteenth century, in pursuit of economic opportunity and a new way of life. This migration was inscribed in the plot of novel after novel as the story of what Lionel Trilling called “the young man from the provinces.” Among Hebrew writers, as with other groups, the geographical displacement began well before the advent of modernism. You could scarcely hope to become a Hebrew writer if you lingered in the closed Orthodox world of the shtetl, where even the possession of a Hebrew grammar book was regarded as a subversive act. Thus young Hebraists with literary aspirations headed for Vilna, Warsaw, and, above all in czarist Russia, Odessa, which was a new development city with no restrictions on Jewish settlement and a place of rising secularism where, according to the reproving Orthodox adage, hellfire burned for a hundred versts all around.

Yet there was a noticeable difference in the migration of Hebrew writers around the turn of the twentieth century. Given the grim fate of twenty-five-year military servitude involved in czarist conscription, and with the increasing pressure of pogroms, many of the writers fled to the West—some, like Brenner, as deserters from the Russian army. Hebrew journals and limited Hebrew cultural spheres were established in Paris, London, and New York, but the Hapsburg Empire (much kinder to Jews than were the Romanovs) and Germany were the principal attraction, owing to their geographical proximity to the East and because these native speakers of Yiddish could acquire a facility in German more readily than in other European languages.

David Fogel, who would become a fine modernist poet and an interesting writer of prose fiction, arrived in Vienna in 1912 from his native Russian shtetl, and began, unaccountably in a milieu with scant users of Hebrew, to write a diary in Hebrew, in which he sometimes appears to be forging a new lexicon to represent his own introspection. Avraham Ben Yitzhak was another such immigrant from the East to Vienna. For these natives of the czarist realm, Vienna or Berlin or Lvov was pre-eminently “Europe” in a way that nothing in Russia could be. At the same time, some of the migrants headed for metropolises in the western part of the region dominated by Russia, Warsaw being the strongest magnet. Pinsker reports that by 1914 Warsaw’s Jewish population had risen to 337,000, an increase of almost 500 percent over the previous forty years, with Jews at that point constituting more than 38 percent of the general population of the city. Still more remarkably, by the end of the nineteenth century three daily Hebrew newspapers were published in Warsaw.

The situation was somewhat different in Austrian and German cities, because there was a smaller concentration of Jewish population and the Hebrew writers felt themselves more as a small enclave within the larger culture. It was here above all that cafés, such as the one where Elias Canetti sat in rapt conversation with Dr. Sonne, came to play a crucial role as a focus of cultural life. One of the chief virtues of Pinsker’s book is that it provides a concretely imagined space for seeing the life of Hebrew literature in Europe, where previous studies had typically sketched little more than a tenuous existence in cultural interstices until the frail Hebrew thread led to a fully woven fabric of Hebrew life in the land of Israel. The Hebrew writers and their Yiddish contemporaries were displaced persons, far from the Eastern hearth and home, who established a small zone in public space at the café—a Hebrew table for the Hebraists and a Yiddish table for the Yiddishists alongside the German tables—which could serve, however ambiguously, as a kind of home for the self-exiled.

There were particular cafés in each metropolis where the writers congregated: the Arkaden Café, the Herrenhof, and the Café Central in Vienna; the Café Monopol and the Romanisches Café in Berlin. These meeting places, where one could linger over an inexpensive cup of coffee for hours, writing, bantering, engaging in intellectual debate, playing the occasional game of chess, constituted, as Pinsker shrewdly notes, an ambiguous substitute home for the writers. The café was a lively site of intellectual stimulation that involved exchanges not only among the Hebrew writers but also between them and the Austrian or German writers who also frequented these places: at times the ambiance of the café no doubt offered a certain sense of cozy cultural conviviality. But the café was also an essential expression of the marginality of Hebrew literature in Europe, which in its very migratory location was “provisional, temporary, and constantly shifting.”

This marginality, Pinsker goes on to observe, could generate a certain cultural advantage. “The lack of center could often create a kind of critical distance and a sense of independence, mixed with an atmosphere of shared exploration that proved essential for literary breakthroughs.” But the sharpened perspective of marginality scarcely alleviated the feeling of unease and anomie of the café denizens. Pinsker incisively summarizes this contradictory experience: 

This duality of the café is beautifully captured in the Hebrew expression beit-moed, which means the space in which people convene and congregate in order to meet each other, talk, make love, and so on. But beit-moed can also mean a cemetery, the space that contains the bodies of people who have died. The café is thus both a space that is a refuge from death and oblivion as well as a space that embodies the void and abyss.

European Hebrew modernism, in Pinsker’s illuminating account, constitutes a vivid instance of why it is so important to avoid what the late Michael André Bernstein called “backshadowing.” In his extraordinary book Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History, Bernstein argued forcefully, on both moral and historical grounds, that it is always a mistake to view the past as though it were inexorably leading to the chain of events that came after it, especially when those prove to be catastrophic. This retrojection of subsequent history on the past has the effect of denying those who lived in the past their autonomy as people to whom different choices were open, and for whom a particular future was by no means inevitable. In the obscuring perspective of backshadowing, these Hebrew modernists, pursuing their literary projects just a few years before the Nazi genocide and Stalin’s equally murderous reign of terror, might seem both hopelessly quixotic and pathetically doomed. But the terrible European future was not inevitable in the Vienna of 1912, or even in the Berlin of 1925.

Since the Enlightenment, Hebrew writers had dreamed of creating a literature in the ancient language they sought to renew that could become a full partner in European culture, and by the first third of the twentieth century there were encouraging signs that this aspiration was being realized. Lively and sophisticated Hebrew literary journals were appearing in Berlin, Lvov, and even Paris. Hebrew publishing in Berlin in the 1920s achieved an elegance of design and a fine craftsmanship that have not been equaled in Israel. Writers of fiction and poets of refined sensibility, attuned to the innovative currents of European literature, were producing arresting work that was often entirely free of any detectible Jewish problematic.

The restrained modernist poetry of Avraham Ben Yitzhak is an exemplary illustration of what this literature was becoming, before the turn of historical events swept it away. Let me cite in my own translation just one verse-paragraph from a free-verse poem titled “I Scarcely Knew Myself” (lo yadati nafshi, a phrase from the Song of Songs referring to erotic rapture), written in Vienna in 1909. The poem is set in what appears to be a house in the forest on a stormy autumn night and is addressed to a woman who stirs a surge of passion in the speaker (no guilt or frustration evident here).

And when you sit this way by the
and its gold plays over your inclined
   chestnut head,
the light drizzles through your fingers,
and in the mirror of your black silk
the flame’s splendor dances.
Apples on your table glow in the
a wealth of golden grapes overflows
   the basket,
and blessing gives off its ripe scent.
The forest thunders and roars
and sweet is its song
from within the stillness
of your precious corner.

There is a delicate balance here between the raging storm—which reaches a grand climax in the last five lines of the poem and is a palpable correlative for the speaker’s pulsating desire, on the brink of fulfillment at the end—and the finely etched interior scene that is almost like a still life. This is poetry that belongs to the same literary sphere as the poetry of Valéry and Rilke, though the Hebrew also has a strong biblical resonance—the thundering of the forest echoes the thundering of “the sea and all its fullness” of Psalm 98. Like the novellas of Gnessin, the fiction and the poetry of Fogel, the novels of Berdichevsky, and much else, it is the realization of a possibility that was then cataclysmically cut off. Literary Passports performs a valuable service in reminding us how rich and varied this possibility was.

Robert Alter’s most recent book is The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary (W.W. Norton). This article originally ran in the June 30, 2011, issue of the magazine.