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from the August 2007 issue

“Beside & Other Stories” by Uri Nissan Gnessin

Reviewed by Tsipi Keller

Uri Nissan Gnessin was born in 1879 in a small town in the Ukraine. His father was a rabbi (a Lubavitcher), yet in addition to studying at his father`s yeshiva, Gnessin, with his father's perhaps reluctant permission, immersed himself in secular subjects, seeing himself as part of the Haskala (Enlightenment) Movement—from the Hebrew sekhel, "reason" "intellect—a 19th-century intellectual movement among the Jews of central and eastern Europe who insisted that Jews must be a part of the secular culture. Gnessin was particularly taken with Russian and French literatures, translating Baudelaire and Chekhov into Hebrew. Afflicted with tuberculosis, the young and eager cosmopolitan nonetheless traveled extensively, living in Kiev, Warsaw, London, Palestine, until his death in Warsaw of a heart attack at the age of thirty-four.

Leaving behind a small yet remarkable body of work, Gnessin is considered one of the founders of modern Hebrew literature, and, one is tempted to add, had Proust, Joyce, or Woolf known and read Hebrew literature, they would have recognized Gnessin as one of their own. But, whereas the above-mentioned wrote within the familiar frame of hearth and language, Gnessin, the eternal exile, had to imagine the Hebrew dialogue of his characters, as Hebrew in the late 19th century was still a "dead" and unspoken language; Gnessin and his literary friends did not converse in Hebrew, but rather in Russian, or, when with their parents, in Yiddish.

The protagonists of the four novellas and two short stories in this collection are young Jewish men in search of an authentic life. Too intelligent for their own good, they are outsiders by choice; they're awkward, restive, anxious, self-doubting and, above all, self-aware and self-deprecating. They're elitists of a sort, they're moody, they chain-smoke. When they're in the country, they long for the city, and when in the city, they long for the country. They seek spiritual and physical communication with their contemporaries, but are either rebuffed or disappointed at every turn; occasionally, when nearly achieving the intimacy they seek, they retreat in horror.

Often, their inner world is reflected in or projected onto their surroundings: when they feel dejected, the physical world seems to corroborate their despondency. Here is Hagzar, the young tutor of the novella, Sideways: "He leaned against the shaky grating, staring down at the round well house by the stream and at the nearby bin of frozen ashes left over from the holiday pig roasts. The white willow was a blur in the thick mist. The cries of the crows assailed and stunned him, told him with a bitter vengeance that people like him could never take what life offered them, had no business living at all. Ka-a ka-a ka-a. He suffered from the childishness, or worse yet, from the simple blind idiocy of the eternal student, which was why he drew a line between his own inner life and his life in the world outside. Ka-a ka-a. Lies, lies." (Tr. Hillel Halkin)

And here is Naftali from Meanwhile: "The room filled with darkness, and in the darkness the windows grew gray and the shadows on the floor and on the white stove paled, and he sat and shrank more from moment to moment and pushed into the corner, as though he intended to nullify himself in it and clear his place—the best of rememdies: there is no Naftali here; and there is an end to everything…" (Tr. Jeffrey Green)

These protagonists are Gnessin himself, an archetype of the "conflicted Jew" at the turn of the 20th century, and, in retrospect, the clairvoyant Jew who understood that the cosmopolitan Jew belonged nowhere, and that for all his efforts to assimilate, he was doomed. Still, Gnessin the writer did not concern himself with the issues of the hour, but rather (like Woolf, Joyce and Proust) tried to penetrate the daily minutiae and confusions behind what we do and say. Whereas the writer Y.L. Brenner—a contemporary and friend of Gnessin's—insisted that literature should serve the political ideals of Zionism, advancing the idea of a Jewish homeland, Gnessin believed in art for art's sake.

It is noteworthy that these translations, rendered by various translators (David Segal, Yael Lotan, Yehuda Hanegbi, Reuven and Judith Ben-Yosef, in addition to Halkin and Green), achieve a Gnessinian fluency, bringing a sensitive, exquisite writer to life in the English. For all his restlessness, Gnessin achieved in his work what he could not in the world: a cohesion within the incoherent, a kind of a beginning, and a kind of a middle. Like he told a friend in a letter: "A middle. It all begins in the middle, and it all ends in the middle, and all that you see is nothing but the middle."

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