“Preliminaries” by S. Yizhar

Reviewed by Tsipi Keller

Image of “Preliminaries” by S. Yizhar

S (milansky) Yizhar (1916-2006) was born in Rehovot, in what was then Ottoman Palestine. His father, Ze'ev Smilansky, also a writer, had arrived from Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, and, like the father plowing a field in the first pages of Preliminaries, had come to take part in "the spectacle of the birth of the new Jew in the new Land," carrying two books, "the Bible on one side and Tolstoy on the other, stuffed among clothes that are unsuited to the climate and the work."

Yizhar, who had a long and varied life as a writer, farmer, politician, and teacher, published his first short story in 1938, and thereafter a second story, Hirbet Hizah, which sparked a national debate, both literary and political. Yizhar never courted controversy, but never shied from it either. His monumental Days of Ziklag (1958) tracks, in twelve hundred pages, a week-long excursion of a group of soldiers for whom Zionist utopian rhetoric has become "a millstone around our neck." Later, after three decades of near-silence, the seventy-five-year-old Yizhar published Miqdamot [Hebrew for Preliminaries], which the scholar Dan Miron, in his instructive introductory essay, describes as Yizhar's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Boy.

Idiosyncratic, innovative, encyclopedic, Yizhar's cadences and repetitions invoke the Bible, as well as the Talmudic minute and obsessive probing and codifying of every aspect of daily life. In the words of Israeli author and essayist Yitzhak Laor, Yizhar endeavored to give a Hebrew name to every speck in the land, and to make every noun a verb and to use every possible grammatical construction. Subtle, forgiving humor is always present, in peace with irony, heartbreak, and resigned melancholy. And everywhere the self-aware author asks himself how to go about his task: If the Bible begins: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth," Preliminaries begins: "And where was the first place? The very very first??"

There follow long, patient, yet nearly breathless, sentences, suffused with the need to express the inexpressible, the intangible, to tell the full story in a single outpouring--not so much the "what" as the "how": how to encompass all in the telling, the full spectrum of human experience, relying all the while on sensory memories and their emotional impact. So you begin with the physical, with the soil you've cherished as a man and as a farmer. And on that lumpy soil, a two-year-old boy sits under the shade of an ancient carob tree, placed there by his father "until he has completed the ploughing of the last strip or two." Yizhar the man (and the writer he has become) looks back, trying to capture, re-imagine, his two-year-old self, and so, per force, speaks for both the child and the man:

"and what does he know, since he has nothing yet to know or to remember, and everything apparently is from the stories from later . . . . but nothing apparently from the actual substance of things . . . . because what could he know of all the things that happened at the time, even though they are in his body, even with pain, with intolerable pain."

Yizhar is a writer that you want to continue to quote. Each phrase resonates and ripples. So much has already happened in our minds and souls by the time we reach this paragraph, there's no way to summarize these eight pages, let alone a "plot," except perhaps to say: The novel opens with an infant of two under a carob tree in what is to become, in thirty years, the Land of Israel, and ends when the boy is nearly thirteen, and in-between, the complex unfolding of lives, of events, in the short span of a few years, an eternity, and, as repeated throughout the novel, "And that's the way it was."

A giant who belongs in the international literary pantheon, Yizhar, like his contemporaries in other lands (Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf, Hamsun, Sarraute, to name a few), remained close to home: Israel was his arena, its soil and history his point of reference and departure. Still, his subject matter is human nature, and humans in nature, which recognizes no borders. A word on the cover, which features a beautiful, intimate drawing (1996) of Yizhar in a moment of repose. It is by Naomi Smilanski, Yizhar's widow, and his wife of seventy-three years. And final kudos to Nicholas de Lange, whose letter-perfect translation of this difficult text bespeaks a true labor of love.

Tsipi Keller is a novelist and translator. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Award and of CAPS and NYFA awards in fiction, and the author, most recently, of the novels Jackpot (2004) and Retelling (2006), both published by Spuyten Duyvil.