Photo: Abraham Shakargy
By Noa Shakargy
Translated from Hebrew by Yaron Regev
It was in the summer of that year that the last literary critic died. People did not remember his death. Nor did they remember the deaths of those he had criticized. They had all expired that same summer one after another with astounding speed, as if unwilling to part from their rivals. It seemed that as soon as one had passed another followed, and then another. As if demanding to have the last word. To settle the score. To engage in more arguments about contemporary affairs whilst despairing of the earthly state of literature.
Yehiel Vatik’s death was a silent one. Not just because he was the last literary critic and no one could be found to eulogize him, but because those days abounded with funerals and eulogies and once they had passed, the editors of the literary sections crowded into their rooms exhausted, all the while amusing themselves with talk of “The Black Plague of Literature,” as that summer had been referred to in editorial board meetings.
I was never a big fan of Yehiel’s. I was envious of all the writers who had hated him; the spoiled brats who complained about the vicious words he had written about their books. Yet Yehiel, in criticizing their work, saw them as literature’s children and had not spared them his rod, unwittingly entering them into the closed club of literature. After publishing four books of poetry, I knew my poems were too marginal for Yehiel to ever notice or read, let alone write words of any kind about them, neither brimstone nor praise. With the publishing of each book I prayed anew for the ink of Yehiel’s pen to rain down upon me. But my books were criticized by the regular hacks, columnists who related to my writing as a secondary endeavour. Columnists unprepared to take on the title of literary critic, thereby not risking themselves by performing the act implied by the title – the writing of criticism.
They wrote about my books from a safe distance, refraining from kneading the dough of the words, supervising the mechanical operation from afar. They wrote about my books as if they were something of no consequence, a synthetic body that would never be assimilated into the living flesh of literature. Sometimes I and my neighbor, a poet himself, entertained the thought that the reviews of my books were written by algorithms stuffed with databases of clichés: “a mixture of secular and holy,” “faith through poetry,” “a compromise between high and low,” “restraint and precision,” “a fusion of pain with humor.” In brief, they had neither praised nor denigrated, neither studied nor taught. A new and nasty habit had snuck its way into the work of literary critics: they reflected. After four books and five reviews I knew my literary destiny was to be crushed in middle ground: neither old enough to die or suffer some disease that would earn me tribute, nor young enough to be discovered.
Yet literature was my only home. Despite no one ever having opened its doors for me or appointing me a designated seat, I belonged to literature. Fated to dwell forever on the hunted side of the food chain, a stubborn weed trampled under the predators’ foot.
One rainy afternoon at the end of the previous decade, soon after the publication of my second book, I had returned home from the funeral of one of the great poets, Pinhas ben Hanna. He was a barren man. Never having married, he had no children to say the Kaddish prayer by his grave.
My own father was still alive. I hardly frequented the synagogue anymore and barely observed the most basic of religious commandments. I felt sorry for Pinhas Ben Hanna, leaving the earthly world without anyone to speak for him in the heavenly courts.
I finished my meal and muttered the proper blessing. When I had finished, I stood and intoned a prayer for the elevation of his soul, reciting from memory the hashkava prayer I used to say over departed family members. Pinhas ben Hanna had earned a place in my heart and on my lips that continued to say prayers over his departed soul until the mourning year had ended. At the end of that year, Pinhas exited my prayers and others took his place: Dalia bat Michal, David ben Pnina, Miriam bat Zehava. I prayed only for the barren ones at first. Yet I adopted others over time, studying the pictures of their descendants in the newspapers, convincing myself that they would not faithfully undertake the task of praying for their parents’ souls.
I added Yehiel ben Menia to the list upon his death on the twentieth day of the month of Elul, the eighth in my count of departed writing souls of that year. I was unable to ignore the fact that his name appeared in my prayers right after that of a female author he had loathed. I remembered that a few years earlier, my publisher, an enthusiastic Zionist, had relayed to me in shock that Yehiel’s son was leaving Israel. The son was a student. By then, anyone endowed with some influence and a pension plan had realized that their children would have neither unless the parents came to their senses and sent them as far away as possible from the Zionist dream, perhaps to study for some advanced degree far away. Yehiel’s son had already been overseas and had not even sat shiva for his father. He came to the funeral and left. Each day I took care to eat bread, say the right blessing, and stand up to recite the hashkava prayer: “May the One who has mercy on all his creatures have mercy, kindness and grace on the soul body and spirit that has expired with good name from the world, __ son of __. May the spirit of the Lord guide him gently in the Garden of Eden, him and all of the nation of Israel, and let us answer Amen.”
My fifth book of poetry, Honeyed Courage, was published on the twenty-eighth day of Elul, the eve of the Jewish New Year. As soon as I had finished my teaching duties at the school in which I worked, I rushed to the publishing house only to find it deserted. The publisher, a kind-hearted, elderly man, had already gone home. On the secretary’s desk he had left thirty copies of my book, just as the contract had specified. A note written in his own handwriting was pasted on them: Have a happy and sweet new year.
Even the intended blessing was a curse. No "Congratulations”, no “good luck”. Certainly not “It’s an honour”. No practical words of encouragement either, like, “The book will be in all major bookstores right after the holiday”, or, “Copies have been issued to all major newspapers”.
Honeyed Courage was the third book I had published with this publisher. This meant that the author participation fees I had to pay were significantly lower than those charged by other publishing houses. When my poet friends congratulated me on the upcoming publication, I could not admit to the fact that I’d had to pay for its printing. They assumed that the publishing house was my literary home and that I had continued with them by choice. That I’d refrained from sending my books to stores for fear they might be returned damaged, or that I avoided sending copies to journalists because they were an ignorant, stupid lot. My friends never could have imagined that I was actually paying. I left a post-dated check for the amount outstanding, stuffed a few of the books into my bag, shoved the rest under my armpit, and left.
The holidays barged in. I distributed my thirty copies among family and friends. I purchased additional copies at a discounted rate: twenty-five percent off the retail price. On Friday the thirtieth of Cheshvan, I woke up late, went out for a walk, picked up a newspaper, ate breakfast and sat by the computer. At noon, I searched for my cellphone to call my parents before Shabbat.
My mother answered. “I told you this book was something else!”
“Did you hear me?”
“Are you talking to me?”
“To you, to you! Who else could I be talking to?”
“How are you, Mom?”
“How am I? How are you, that’s what’s important! All my girlfriends have called to ask for signed copies of your book.” My poetry’s most loyal readers were the members of my mother’s social circle.
“No problem. How many copies should I get for you?”
“Tell me, have you even opened the morning newspaper?”
I went to the table and flipped through the literary supplement with my fingers.
“Page three,” my mother said, and hung up.
The review was there, on page three. I hadn’t expected such an early review and therefore had had no expectations whatsoever. Normally it takes at least three months for a regular critic to remember and stop squirming. But this wasn’t the usual brief review, written as part of a regular column. It was long, spread across the entire page and noticeably not written as a nagging necessity. A picture of the cover had been printed on the inner side of the double spread. The critic had inserted thin needles through my intentions as if into fine veins in transparent skin. We had never spoken but I was familiar with the name of the writer, a universally esteemed critic, who looked back at me with a generous glance, who bound me to ancestral writers, who praised, remarked, cautioned. The critic who stopped the music and held out a chair for me.
I remember the sense of tranquility, a sweet rest nestling in my body over the following weeks. Some time passed and the publisher called to congratulate. I and my poet neighbor spent long mornings sitting, sucking every bit of fat and marrow from the bones of the words. At the end of the month I carefully removed the review from the teachers’ lounge bulletin board and slid it into the sheet protector in my bag. My mother had collected five additional copies that her friends had saved for her.
My surprise over the first review had been so great that the second was almost expected. It was in a religious newspaper supplement, a regular full-sized critique by the regular critic. Yet the words were generously written, not obligatory. “Words washed in the hot springs of language, exposing the ancient sources of the poetry of faith.”
I got carried away in my joy. My poet neighbor felt the abyss widening between us. I suggested that he wait patiently, that those who write in tears shall reap in joy. The third review aroused my suspicion. In a beautiful review, a veteran reviewer claimed that, “Memory serves as the lens of the book, allowing the poet to turn the reader hither and thither without giving him a moment’s rest.”
Festival invitations followed. Telephone calls from poets asking me to read at the launches of their own books. A modest second edition was printed. Two teachers told me they had read my poetry in a weekend newspaper’s supplement, one in which I had never published a single word. An established magazine published three poems taken from the book, poems they had rejected when I had submitted them fifteen months earlier. No evidence was found, no reason offered. Spring came and went, and my suspicion continued to grow.
In the summer I returned to the physical act of writing. The world of literature had returned to its own affairs and my relationship with my neighbor had improved. The number of searches rendering my name greatly diminished. I was hoping the book would continue to resonate, that readers would continue to seek copies in every bookstore. But the wheels of literature kept on grinding. Many tributes had meanwhile been dedicated to other forgotten or neglected poets. The wanderers of literature found refuge.
One night, Vatik came to me in a dream. He sat at my kitchen table and looked at the stove. A minute or two later I approached him, carrying a tray of baked pastries, a hardboiled egg, a tomato, a pickle and tahini. I placed before him the dish he’d ordered and left the room. Yehiel ate his breakfast while reading the morning newspapers. When he had finished, he wiped his mouth with a deli napkin, folded the newspaper under his arm, and left through the refrigerator door without paying. I got up in the morning thinking that in a few weeks it would be eleven months since he had passed and it would be time for his hazkara service. The time from which the burial prayer should not be recited for a week, then should be recited for three weeks more until the end of the full mourning year period.
“Vatik came to remind me,” I muttered.
All through that week I thought of Yehiel Vatik, a mammoth unheeding of his observers. I missed the man I had never met. The last blue-blooded literary critic who had missed my time a moment before it came; who had been invited to participate in my celebration but could not attend. I was so preoccupied by him that when he visited my dreams again a few nights later, I instantly stormed him with questions. He sat on a street bench in my apartment corridor, reading.
He raised his eyes when I addressed him, “Do I have the pleasure of your acquaintance??”
“No,” I answered. He turned his eyes back to his newspaper. I stood over him, waiting for his attention.
“Filthy liars!” he spat.
“What happened?” I asked.
He did not reply immediately, merely continued with his swearing. A brief while later he raised his eyes to me. “Is it me you are waiting for?”
“Yes,” I said.
“What did I write about you?”
“And how many times have you called?”
“Is this about some deferred payment?”
“There are no debts,” I said.
“I can’t recall,” he said, and left.
The following afternoon a former parliament member had called me, an elderly civil appointee designated to inform literary prize candidates of their winning. His call was the embodiment of complete happiness. He said his name, waiting for me to complete the sentence for him. I said nothing. He announced that I had won the Prime Minister’s award. I thanked him for calling, wished him good health, and hung up. I checked the internet to see if the list of winners had already been published on the news sites. Too early. It would take a few more days. Once more, something to look forward to.
That night I expected him. “Have you heard?” I asked.
He was standing by my bedroom window scattering ashes from his cigarette over the poet neighbor’s porch. He looked at the basketball court across the street and chuckled, “So, you’re an award winner now?”
“So, do you know me now?” I answered.
“From the newspaper.” He blew smoke. “It’s important to keep updated.”
“And have you read anything about me?” I asked.
“Honeyed Courage,” he answered.
“Have you read it?” I dared.
“This has been a successful year for you.”
“I have been waiting two decades for it,” I answered.
He took another puff of his cigarette. “I’m leaving.”
I rose to stop him. “Why don’t you stay? We could talk a little about new literary trends.”
He looked at me befuddled. “I’m not interested in literature.”
“But you walk about with newspapers in your pocket, read all the reviews, store clippings, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”
He tossed the stub away and muttered, “Just settling scores.”
The first thing I did in the morning was check the date of his memorial service. The twentieth of the month of Av, Thursday evening. I was choked by my own stupidity. Three reviews, an award, and I didn’t get it, I hadn’t said a word. The hungry man devours what he’s served without questioning, either before nor after, the nature of the hand that feeds him. With a swollen belly, I calculated the year backward, seeking the source of the blindness, resettling in literature’s squalor. The maggot recalled that it wasn’t itself the body; that it merely infests it. Literature’s goddamn squalor, the odious seed, the only source, always popped up its pitiful head.
I waited for the night to come so I could talk to him, but nightmares replaced the dreams: I was a newspaper stand owner and I didn’t know how to read. Buyers stopped and asked for this newspaper or that newspaper and I had no idea which pile I was supposed to take it from. The next morning, I refrained from bringing the newspaper in. I went to work with my already punctured dignity stripped from me, heart throbbing. I didn’t know how I would survive the day. I couldn’t guess what would happen if Yehiel failed to show up again. I ate sandwiches in dense intervals, saying the proper blessing once every two hours, coaxing him into showing his face. Toward evening I returned home, sat in the kitchen chair and instantly fell asleep. No dreams came. I woke before dawn, my eyes dry, unable to look at the computer. I showered, then made some coffee. Wednesday was my day off. I took out a copy of Honeyed Courage, opened it to the first poem and began to read, gradually skipping more and more syllables and lines, hiding from the embarrassment, finally closing the book like a private web tab. The book wasn’t bad, but poetry is an attempt to reach heights, and can only be perceived upon landing, when the act of jumping is done.
“I never asked you for any favors!” I screamed at him as he sat on my bed that night, wide and heavy. “It was all your doing! You had to settle all your scores!”
He said nothing.
“What are you coming here for, anyway? Any more scores left to settle? Or are you waiting for me to thank you?” He fiddled with his hands, eyes scrutinizing the standard pattern of the floor tiles. “For years I have been waiting to hear the truth, and you’ve robbed me of that opportunity.”
He sighed and cleared his throat. “I came to ask you to stop with the prayers.”
“I know that tomorrow is the last day,” I answered offhandedly.
“Thank you,” he said, tightening his blue windbreaker over his body.
“Then I’ll stop for a week and resume saying the prayers for the three weeks following.”
He turned his head to me, “No need.”
“Why?” I asked.
“You’re detaining me, I need to move on.”
“You’ve detained me for years, Yehiel. I sent you all my books, and you got them, but never read them. You never wrote a single word about them.”
“The time wasn’t right,” he interrupted.
“But why, Yehiel? Why the favoritism? Why not let me into the literary pack with everyone else?”
“How is everyone else admitted?” he asked. I was silent. “What do you think?” he said. “That I called the editor and forced him to have someone sit down and write about you? That I possessed the body of that new columnist? That I exchanged drafts before it went to the printing house?”
“What did you do, then?” I insisted.
He placed his right hand on my forearm. “Don’t interfere with my work.” His hand dropped towards the floor. “I’m familiar enough with the prayer book, but I’ve never heard the hashkava prayer recited the way you say it.”
“It’s the Sephardic version,” I said.
His wiseeyes filled with laughter, “Now you tell me?”
I kneaded my forehead with tired fingers.
“Just leave it,” he said. “Don’t try to settle scores that don’t belong to you.”
“But all of this esteem, what if it’s not really mine?” I said, trying to buy myself more time, to push him into a corner, force some confession or denial out of him. He stood, pulled up his pants at the waist, and leaned on the sill of the open window. The darkness recoiled, narrowing its domain from the confines of the city to the neighborhood streets. Orange hues of first light illuminated his face.
“Are you leaving?” I asked, recognizing the writing formed by his body. He did not turn his eyes to me, offered no reply. “But you’ll come again?” I reckoned it was ending.
“Sometime,” he said stretching. “Now I'm needed elsewhere.”