In The World of Yesterday, Stephan Zweig makes fun of his high school Latin teacher, who didn’t realize Zweig was hiding Rilke’s latest poems inside his textbook. Today, most students haven’t heard of Rilke or of any Latin author, and often not of Tolstoy or Dickens. I do not exaggerate: students have told me, about an exam which asked them to name a “19th century novel”, that they don’t know of any. When I, incredulously, mentioned David Copperfield and War and Peace, they said they’ve heard of these novels, but have no idea what they’re about, or when they were written.
The Hebrew book week just passed us and showed, again, that Israelis are voracious book readers, and that serious novels (excluding romantic potboilers, detective fiction, etc.) are a significant share of books bought. But by forgetting the classics – not merely not reading them, but not being aware of their existence – the literary world of the serious novel is flattened: it is judged, not by the best, but by the merely good, or even the mediocre.
Contemporary Hebrew novels, according to various newspapers’ best-sellers lists, generally seem to have a similar plot (I shall name no names): a person discovers, due to some trauma or significant event, that their entire world is not as it seems; they go on a journey of self-discovery; they create a new identity and fight existential angst; and (possibly) find some sort of meaning to life. All this, the back-cover blurb tells us, being told in “deceptively simple” language describing “seemingly prosaic” scenes. Alas, there is nothing “seeming” or “deceptive” about it: the author, and most readers, usually (with some important exceptions) do not know the complexities of language, or how to write about significant situations, and considers such formulistic “voyages of self-discovery” to be deeply significant literature.
Why? Because they are no longer aware of what true depth in literature is, since they do not know the classics. What is lost is, first, the joy and insight of reading the classics. Second, far worse, the desire to read them at all. Third, the reader loses the ability to appreciate the virtue of those books that still strive for excellence. Grossman’s See Under: Love, to name one, creates a stream-of-consciousness, fantastic world is deeply influenced by Kafka, Joyce, Proust, and others. But what if one had never heard of these authors?
Fourth, and most important here, not being aware of Joyce or Tolstoy means that literature is reduced to mediocrity which the readers and authors mistakenly believe are the best that can achieved, neither aware from the classics that writing is a craft requiring much training, nor of its abilities and potential. There is the implicit belief that craftsmanship and language are secondary, and that personal experiences and their psychological effects are the only things worth writing about, unlike those “impersonal” and “boring” classics which are not “relevant” anyway. Indeed, some literary critics have publicly claimed, or rather admitted that classics bore and annoy them – the equivalent of a music critic confessing he cannot tell the difference between Beethoven and a buzz-saw. As Mephistopheles tells Faust, they believe “all theory is gray, but the tree is life is green”.
The “flattening” effect of ignoring the past is well known in other fields of literature. Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings are derivative works (of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Norse mythology coupled with Christian dogma, respectively), yet are (or at least were for decades) considered as the ultimate standard of achievement of their genre. This is one reason so much science fiction and fantasy is bad. The elevation of Asimov and Tolkein was, at least, somewhat justified: while hardly of transcendental value, their work is much superior to the garish trash that comprised the genre before, thus making them the standard by default, as it were. But surely Hebrew literature is not as poor as science fiction was in the 1930s?
In the past, authors attempted (often badly) to write the new War and Peace or The Great American Novel, while others, less self-assured, merely attempted to write in the style of some great writer or poet. Rarely if ever are such works attempted today in Hebrew literature, successfully or not. Is it modesty? Better awareness of one’s limitations? Perhaps; but cultural amnesia seems more likely. Should we not try again – although, knowingly, surely often fail again – to write the Great Israeli Novel? With too many writers, the awareness that such a thing is possible is lost. Nothing is further from the truth than Mephistopheles’ claim: as Bertrand Russell notes, this is not Goethe’s opinion, but a convincing lie the devil tempts us to believe. Let our authors shun the devil, and go back to the classics, especially the forgotten classics of Hebrew literature. They might just write a new one.