Commentary Magazine


A Whole Loaf: Stories from Israel, edited by Sholom J. Kahn

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A Whole Loaf: Stories from Israel.
by Sholom J. Kahn.
Karni (Tel Aviv). 344 pp.

 

Hebrew literature in English has been, until recently, a kind of literary curiosity: artificial and quaint, remote and lifeless, it has concerned only those who, for one reason or another, have possessed a special interest either in the Hebrew language itself or in the results of its rejuvenation in Israel. Even with the establishment of the State and the subsequent attempts, both official and private, to attract a wider English-speaking public for Israeli literature, the generally low caliber of the translations published has precluded any real impact being made.

A Whole Loaf, a selection of Israeli stories published in Israel but obviously intended primarily for export, is superior to its many predecessors in three important respects. While conforming to the familiar pigeonholing of Israeli literature into three “literary generations”—those with strong galut ties, writers of the second and third aliyot, and the new sabra writers—the accent has wisely been placed on the modern. Seven out of the fifteen stories collected in the book are by writers of the “young generation,” and all of them are set in the 20th century. Most of the translations lack the familiar archaisms, crudities, and barbarisms of language which have littered the pages of past efforts and made much Hebrew literature in English seem hardly literate. Last, and perhaps most important, A Whole Loaf gives us reasonably good translations of two stories by S. Y. Agnon, the giant of contemporary Hebrew letters and heretofore certainly one of the most abused in English. Agnon emerges from these pages as a world literary figure of the first order, notwithstanding his almost complete immersion in a special Jewish tradition, and despite the well-known aversion to his work of most young sabras.

Five of the stories by younger writers are either about the War of Independence itself or its prelude or aftermath: “The Party” by Aharon Meged, “Doctor Schmidt” by Moshe Shamir, “The Seven” by Nathan Shaham, “The Dead and the Living” by S. Yizhar (an excerpt from his novel, The Grove on the Hill, which dealt with the Arab riots of 1936-1939), and—by far the best of the group—“A Roll of Canvas” by Benjamin Tammuz. The piece by Yizhar is not a self-contained unit and suffers from its excision from the original work, but the other four have a directness and force reflecting the world of dynamism and flux which was the struggle for independence, and all translate very naturally into English. Meged’s study of a legless veteran of the War of Independence, utilizing a kind of modified stream-of-consciousness technique, seems to lose the most in translation. The two worlds of the story, the tortured, paranoic internal world of the amputee’s mind and the pat-on-the-back superficiality of the party he unwillingly attends, never fully meet because the hero’s musings lack a realistic, convincing medium; and one is left with a feeling of an experiment that did not quite come off. In Tammuz’s contribution to the volume, the conflict is essentially between two generations (a theme, incidentally, which appears in no less than six of the stories in this book), an independent, self-confident, yet searching young sabra, and Pesach Katz, an inarticulate and ineffective champion of traditional Jewish humanism and humaneness who refuses on moral grounds to contribute to the Haganah. Their characters are sketched brilliantly in short, incisive strokes, and the ambiguous ending, without any real reconciliation, is full of pathos and grim irony.

Part II of the book contains, in addition to the two stories by Agnon, an Arab tale by Moshe Smilansky, “Shaitana,” whose erotically sensuous prose is beautifully rendered into English by I. M. Lask; two accounts of the old life enduring amid the new, “Reb Shmelke of Safad” by Yaakov Churgin and “The Late-born” by Yehoshua Bar-Yosef; two stories which touch in different ways on kibbutz life, “Country Town” by the late Yitzhak Shenhar and “Polka” by Yigal Mossinsohn; and “Enigma” by Yisrael Zarchi, a subtle, penetrating character study of a headstrong sabra girl in Jerusalem. Like Tammuz’s Tel Aviv story, “Enigma” is most successful when it focuses directly on the sabra mentality; and both pieces are graced by careful, precise English translations. On the other hand, Shenhar’s account of life in Afula and a neighboring collective settlement during the 20′s, and Mossinsohn’s story of adultery and reconciliation on a kibbutz, seem stilted and artificial, chiefly because the translators tried to carry the Hebrew present tense (a “literary” present tense) bodily into English—with drastic results. It is doubtful, however, whether even a faultless translation could have saved Mossinsohn’s effort, so full is it of stereotyped characters and situations and so empty of any literary grace.

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Dr. Kahn has done a commendable job in bringing together, for the most part, an impressive variety of competent English translations. It is all the more surprising, then, that his own contribution is the most eccentric piece in the book, a glaring lapse in taste, and surely one of the most extraordinary translations ever to appear anywhere. Dr. Kahn has chosen one of Hazaz’s Yemenite tales, “The Lord Have Mercy,” a story of a Yemenite couple in early World War II Mandatory days who, because they have no children, face the likelihood of the husband being drafted. Most of the charm and effect of the story lie in the description of the passionate characters of the husband and wife and Hazaz’s transcription of their rich, flavorful, quite unique speech. “The editor, searching for some equivalent in English for the language of Hazaz’s Yemenites,” Dr. Kahn tells us in the introduction, “was struck by the many affinities in this particular story with certain qualities of Negro character and dialect. . . .” (his italics), and he proceeds to rattle off a deceptive list of sociological abstractions (“racy humor, carelessness with respect to grammar . . . sincere religiosity which sometimes descends to superstition; folk idiom and readiness with epithets . . . and in general a certain likeable ‘primitive’ quality”). “He therefore makes so bold as to present here Hazaz’s very Jewish Yemenites speaking a sort of Negro dialect. . . .” Anyone whose fancy is taken at first with the originality and ingeniousness of Dr. Kahn’s melting-pot is swiftly restored to reason when the actual carnage begins:

His missus, Badra, she saw things the way he did, and she wanted what he wanted. Why, man’ says she, ‘y’ is d’on’y husban’ ah’se got. Is ah gonna give mah honeybunch, mah sweetiepie, mah big buck, to study war? Not on yo’ life! Not on yo’ lives, damn yo’ souls! An’ ah d’on’t mean yo’ pappies! . . .

More than half the story is made up of conversation and monologue, and this orgy of apostrophes runs on for pages. The Negro dialect is not even authentic, but rather a monstrous pastiche of the language of Green Pastures and other similar false dialect works of the 30′s and 40′s. This “language” simply does not exist, never has, and would have been better left to die a natural death than to be resuscitated to fill the mouths of Yemenite Jews.

The two stories by S. Y. Agnon strike a more affirmative note. “Metamorphosis” (“Panim Acherot”), the only selection in the book which takes place in the galut, is a delicate and sensitive account of an estranged middle-aged couple who, on the day of their divorce, spend a few hours together in the peaceful countryside and, despite their radically different outlooks, share a few moments of equivocal communication. It is very European in style and mood; the fact of the couple’s Jewishness is almost incidental. I. Schen’s translation is both faithful and stylized. He has wisely refrained from trying to duplicate Agnon’s style in English—so often the pitfall of former efforts—and has instead concentrated on conveying the mood of the story in suitable English prose.

The title story (“Pat Shlemah”) is a product of Agnon’s more recent work, and if “Metamorphosis” reminds us of Thomas Mann, the first name that one calls to mind in reading “A Whole Loaf” is Kafka. Set in the new part of Jerusalem sometime during the Mandate and at moments very naturalistic in style, it tells of a lonely man whose wife and children are abroad and who has no food in the house for the Sabbath. On his way to a restaurant he meets two acquaintances, each of whom detains him for a short while. The first, Dr. Yekutiel Ne’eman, admonishes him for not really trying to bring his family back to Israel and gives him some letters to mail at the post office. En route there, he encounters a Mr. Gressler, gets himself entangled in the latter’s horse and carriage, promptly forgets about the letters, and enters a near-by restaurant. From this point on the story ceases to be wholly realistic, and the strange ensuing scene in the restaurant is described in bare, unadorned prose. The narrator insists on being given a “whole loaf,” waits hours without being served, finally falling asleep in his chair, where he remains the whole night with only some rats and a cat for company. When he wakes in the morning he remembers the letters, but “. . . that day was Sunday, when the post office was closed for things the clerk did not consider important.” Nothing is accomplished, no action completed: the narrator does not satisfy his hunger, the letters are not mailed, and the last sentence of the story brings us right back to the beginning.

Agnon’s Hebrew in this and other stories is so personal and unique that the term “style” does not do it justice. It can perhaps be more accurately described as a special literary language all its own. Basically derived from Mishnaic Hebrew, it is filled with allusions to Rabbinic literature, yet possesses a precision and at times a lyric quality rarely surpassed in any more conventional Hebrew prose. In the present story, theme and language coalesce and reflect one another. For when read allegorically—it is hardly possible to understand it otherwise—this tale of a lonely, hungry man unable to make the smallest decisions or to satisfy his most immediate needs is a parable of the modern Jew, whom Agnon sees as cut off from the “wholeness” of a once full, traditional life. The language of the story is itself a kind of re-creation of the tradition, and a veiled reference in one place, or the changing or addition of a word in a traditional phrase in another, affords ample opportunity for accenting the disparity between the past and the present.

No translation could possibly carry all this into English and still be readable. I. M. Lask’s transcription is, aside from a few eye-stoppers (a roof “fevers,” “. . . the power of imagination arrived”), more than competent in catching the staccato, yet decidedly rhythmic quality of Agnon’s prose, and when it errs it errs on the side of literalness.

With the Tenth Anniversary celebrations just over, and the fever to publicize and display attacking all spheres of Israeli society, more books like this one are probably in the offing. It is to be hoped that the selection of writings and quality of the translations will not be unduly influenced by the pressures of time and publicity for the State. In a speech honoring Gershom Scholem, published recently in the Israeli newpaper Ha’aretz, Agnon himself has underlined the importance of more good translations of Hebrew literature. After describing Scholem’s translations into German of some of his own stories as “. . . an example worthy of imitation of translations from Hebrew into a foreign language,” he remarked that “if we had [more] translators like Scholem the nations of the world would know a little bit more about the Jewish people, and even those among the Jewish people who do not know the Hebrew language would perhaps make an effort to know our literature in its own language.” At a time when so much energy is expended in bemoaning the cultural gap that exists between Israel and the Diaspora and so little expended in doing something about it, Agnon’s vision is a goal worth striving to attain.

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