Past Continuous by Yaakov Shabtai

About Yaakov Shabtai: “Yaakov Shabtai (1934-1981) was born in Tel Aviv. After his military service, he moved to a kibbutz and started to write. Ten years later, he returned to Tel Aviv with his family and devoted himself to his literary career. He wrote two novels, a book of short stories, a children’s book, two collections of plays and a collection of poems and ballads.

“Shabtai holds a unique place in Hebrew literature. His novel, Past Continuous, is considered one of the high points of modern Hebrew fiction. It received the Kenneth B. Smilen Award for Literature and is included in “The 100 Greatest Works of Modern Jewish Literature” (2001). In 2007, Past Continuous topped the list of the most important as well as “best loved” books since the creation of the State of Israel. Yaakov Shabtai was awarded the prestigious Agnon Prize posthumously. His work has been published abroad in 10 languages.”

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Mark Kamine. See his bio below.

Imagine a work of fiction appearing today, written by an unknown or little regarded American writer already in middle age, that suddenly vaults said writer to the peak of the literary mountaintop. The name linked to writers of grand reputation. An exemplary swath of the work to be snipped out for inclusion in future fiction anthologies. Squeezed in alphabetically between Marilynne Robinson and Mark Twain, say. Impossible, you’d think. Yet it happened, in the demographically smaller world of Israeli letters, as a result of the publication in 1977 of Yaakov Shabtai’s single-paragraph magnum opus, Past Continuous. He was a playwright and the translator of Harold Pinter and Neil Simon. He had brought out a single volume of conventional short stories. Irving Howe described him pre-publication of his first novel as “an Israeli literary figure of middle stature.” Gideon Nevo of Ben-Gurion University goes further: “Shabtai’s prose was indeed middle-range, conventional; his stature as a writer marginal. He wasn’t really on the radar and if he did show up on the critical screen it was in a negative, derogatory light.” With Past Continuous, he instantly took a seat at the dais of his nation’s writers, maybe the bar mitzvah boy’s seat itself. (“Widely regarded as the greatest Hebrew novelist of his generation,” as Peter Cole, in Hebrew Writers on Writing, puts it.)

Before Shabtai, Israeli novelists participated in the Modernist project in ways not unlike those of other nations. That is, with modest use of its strategies, including stream of consciousness and shifting point of view. If they weren’t pushing the ball forward the way the great Latin Americans had done or pushing at the boundaries of legibility like the French, neither were they simply substituting jet planes and nuclear physicists for horse carts and cobblers in happy adherence to the tried and true formulae of the Victorians. Shulamith Hareven’s City of Many Days, from 1972, presents its action in brief sections, alternating between use of sentence fragments and poeticized prose, and conventional sections of standard dialog and straightforward description. A.B. Yehoshua, at the time the author of a number of story collections, published his first novel the same year as Shabtai’s. The Lover forms an interesting companion piece to Past Continuous. Its story of love and war is told from varied points of view, the intermixed voices labeled in boldface with each narrator’s name. It’s a reader-friendly, clarifying device. It helps in tracking frequent shifts among narrators. As the narrative picks up steam, the device becomes unobtrusive enough. The rather racy and ardently political story (it takes place during the Six Day War) succeeds under criteria of Cheever and Waugh, full of suspense and undeniable moral seriousness. Like much good recent literature, it pays lip service to innovation while remaining a good and easy enough read.

Past Continuous is something else altogether. It is first of all – stunt alert – a one-paragraph novel broken only by the insertion just past its midpoint of an advertisement for a workout aid called “The Bullworker” featuring a droll Q & A promising a “4% increase in power a week” as a result of a 70-second, 17-exercise workout per day. The format change provides a breathing point, but it hardly slows the pace. If you’re involved in what’s going on, and I daresay having made it halfway through you’re bound to be, it won’t feel like the natural place to insert your bookmark. You’re stuck like readers of all such novels to arbitrarily choose whatever illogical moment you want to put the book down.

Shabtai’s explanation for his experimental approach, in the sole interview that exists (he died four years after his novel’s publication, at age 47, of heart failure, with a semi-complete draft of the novel’s follow-up on his desktop), is straightforward. “It was clear to me from the start, from the moment I began writing, that I was going to use long rather than short sentences. Several things went into that. Some of it was clearly capricious – a kind of rebellion against the sort of writing that was common here [in Israel] – writing that used short and seemingly ‘winnowed’ sentences, and created a certain effect of cleanness and style. I simply rebelled against all that. It provoked a certain resistance in me.” No matter. Like any work of art, the thing has to work. A novel like Finnegans Wake, composed of a few thousand made-up words, or Mathias Enard’s Zone, comprised of one extremely long sentence, might pique your interest or strike you as a gauntlet thrown down. To take the dozen or more hours to do the reading, you’ll need something more than tricks of form. Something to relate to or engage with. Shabtai squeezed in among his country’s big names by providing plenty of those.

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Past Continuous, set in Tel Aviv in the 1970s – if that’s the word for a novel that jumps decades and continents at the drop of a pronoun or conjunction, centers on or radiates out from three principal characters. Its opening (“Goldman’s father died on the first of April, whereas Goldman himself committed suicide on the first of January”) demarcates the nine-month-long present-tense of the novel and introduces Goldman, the first of the three friends who witness, overhear, rub up against or take part in all of what happens. He’s a lawyer indifferent to his profession but intent upon translating a Renaissance text called the Somnium, an actual work by Johannes Kepler whose celebrated advances in the study of planetary motion and optics are neatly balanced by the Somnium’s far-out astrological writings. Shabtai puts these to excruciatingly apt use, for example, by quoting from Kepler’s description of his father, “A man vicious, inflexible, quarrelsome, and doomed to a bad end” –  apt because in tenor and bluntness it matches and reinforces Shabtai’s method of characterization and his take on humankind, while also encompassing an endearing theoretical kookiness so often manifested by the strident and overblown personalities that pepper his novel.

Goldman is prone to similarly unsubstantiated beliefs about the efficacy of the aforementioned Bullworker and a new diet he’s read about in an “American aviation magazine,” but these don’t hold a candle to the intricate self-justifications of his friend Caesar, focal point number two. Photographer, womanizer, good friend and inept father, Caesar is harried and self-interested, and quite humorously raunchy and crude. In the midst of his unsuccessful search for the site of Goldman’s father’s burial service, which he has embarked upon partly for his friend’s sake and partly because he expects to run into one of his girlfriends, he throws in the towel at the Nahalat Yizhak cemetery gate by exclaiming in regard to his friend’s corpse, “He’s not here, the shit,” and goes on to proclaim, “He was a horror when he was alive and he’s a horror now that he’s dead. Let’s go home. He’ll manage without us.”

The novel, initiated with a dual announcement of death and suicide, resolutely chronicles disease and disintegration, never more poignantly than when tracking the troubles afflicting the dying son of boisterous and vibrant Caesar, who “would like to eat in restaurants for the rest of his life, only never the same one; he would like to go from one restaurant to the other just as he would like to go from one woman to the other,” and who at novel’s end “grabbed the joint of chicken lying on his plate in both hands and tore off a piece of flesh with his teeth,” his gusto no match for what life does to him, falling apart on announcing that his boy has leukemia. Tears streamed “out of his eyes and they flowed slowly down his big face because he didn’t try to stop them and they slid into his mouth and fell onto the plate and onto his hands and onto the chicken, which he bit into again and again.” Time, in Shabtai’s world, ultimately pulls the rug out from under everyone and everything: entire generations are upended, their Zionist and communal and socialist ideals chewed up by greed and indifference. Cities are overrun by ugliness, quaint and close neighborhoods bulldozed into unrecognizability. Tel Aviv grows over the decades “like a crazy creature over the sand dunes and the vineyards and the melon patches.” The nation, founded with the certitude of necessity, has lost its way. Israel is “sinking into a mindless nationalism and undergoing a process of fascisization and increasing brutalization under the cloak of religion or other irrational theories.” Diseases and their deleterious effects are national as well as personal.

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Ever since Jane Austen swooped down from the 18th-century’s authorial perch to look closely over Emma’s shoulder, novelists have been messing around with point of view, zooming right inside the heads of their characters, Being-John-Malkovitch style, or jumping around from character to character, as in Yehoshua’s The Lover. Shabtai, too, does voices, of the limited close-third sort and, in accordance with the dictates of an unbroken margin, without the typical aids for separating speakers such as paragraphs, space-breaks, alternating chapters or name-headings. In truth, the mechanics of his technique become, as the novel progresses and the looping, backtracking, digressive timeline folds into itself far more frequently than it progresses, noteworthy and unusual. Sudden changes in point of view are a crucial element in the terrific momentum and richness that are the novel’s great strengths.         These shifts take on a life of their own, and in their abruptness and variability echo the temperamental instability of the characters, the mutability of the urban landscape, and the overarching uncertainty of the Shabtaian universe. Sometimes the point of view is handed off like a baton in a relay race, as in the instant-karmic moment when Caesar returns from a family visit to notice Israel’s girlfriend Ella beating him to his own building: “[Caesar] saw Ella crossing the road with a black fringed shawl around her shoulders, and he waited until she had disappeared into the lobby, and after a moment’s hesitation he decided to collect his wallet the next morning and turned away and went to Tehilla’s, and Ella climbed the stairs and rang the bell, and Israel, who could tell by the sound of her footsteps that it was Ella, lay on the couch…” Similar shifts from one character to another happen during telephone calls, car rides, sleep, or simply parts of speech, as when a sentence from Goldman’s POV about his avoidance of work pivots to Caesar on the antecedent-pronoun combo “Caesar, who”: “[Goldman] did not go back to work, or even let them know at the office that he was back, and apart from one brief meeting he did not see Caesar, who was restless and depressed and hardly listened to what he said.” After which we have jumped onto Caesar’s bandwagon as he mulls over the dire effects his girlfriend Eliezra’s impending divorce will have on his freewheeling love life.

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Shabtai had at the time of his death (which he feared would come too soon) a second novel, Past Perfect, partially completed. His widow and the scholar Dan Miron assembled it from various drafts and notes. In his New York Times review, Robert Alter reports on an Israeli friend calling it “one long kvetch.” Past Perfect describes the impact on its middle-aged protagonist of a diagnosis of high blood pressure and the truly awful European vacation it prompts. It features a stunningly transformative finale. Unlike the monumental and game-changing Past Continuous, it is divided into four chapters, and many paragraphs.

Editor’s note: The aim of Invisible Books is to shine a light on wrongly neglected and forgotten books and their authors. To help bring more attention to these works of art, please share this article on social media.

Mark Kamine has written for the Times Literary Supplement, The Believer, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Sunday Book Review. His novel Not So Fast came out in January 2020. He works in the film business, and has been an executive or co-producer on movies including 21 BridgesBrad’s StatusAmerican Hustle, and Silver Linings Playbook. He’s on Twitter @mckamine.

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