Remembering a Writer Who Should Have Been Forgotten

A new PR offensive transformed Pinhas Sadeh - an elderly, bothersome and unglamorous writer - into an object of prestige.

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

There are few Hebrew-language writers who are not forgotten after their death. (Indeed, some are forgotten during their lifetime.) Some are unjustifiably forgotten, which is definitely not fair. Most are rightly consigned to oblivion, however unpleasant it is to acknowledge this. That’s life: For a time, the work of the rightfully later-to-be-forgotten writers made an impression, for various reasons. For example, as long as they walked the face of the earth, they were able to take themselves to an editor and nag him to publish their pieces until he gave in and published them. And because he published them and received good responses, they nagged again, were published again, and so on and so forth.

Some of the forgotten writers, who happened to possess personal charm, had particularly good looks or were successful with women, or used their personal charm to gather a flock of groupies, male and female, around them. As it happens, some of the fans outlived the writers, and from time to time, when asked, they relate curiosities from the life of the forgotten writer whom they knew. They reveal how he courted them or abused them, and what he was like in bed, and so on and so forth.

Polish-born novelist and poet Pinhas Sadeh occupies a unique place in this long list of forgotten writers. Anyone who opens one of his books today, 20 years after his death, at a random page, and starts to read is in for a major disappointment. He will discover childish outpourings of emotion, prophetic ecstasy and embarrassing, dilettantish reflections that have completely lost their relevance.

Still, this wretched man left behind a kind of intriguing aura surrounding his supposedly scandalous sex life. Television and film director Hagai Levi has been attracted by that aura, which is his right. A new quasi-documentary TV series of his, entitled “The Cursed,” will begin to be aired later this month, and the first episode is about Pinhas Sadeh.

For anyone to take an interest in the series in general and in this specific episode, in particular, they have to be persuaded – first cajolingly, and if that doesn’t work, then forcibly – that Sadeh really was something. In our time this is called branding. In other words, Sadeh has to be branded, come what may.

How is branding accomplished? You make the object of it desirable. And how do you make it desirable? As I was, for a time, the victim of a quite aggressive PR offensive that was fomented around the branding of Sadeh, I can testify first-hand about the method for transforming, in a week-and-something, an elderly, bothersome – and did we mention forgotten? – writer into an object of prestige.

Here’s how it works: Someone from the firm that’s doing the PR for the show calls a certain journalist and hints that there’s a certain woman, a former lover of the Sadeh, who would perhaps be ready to give a revealing interview – except that she’s already been taken by the rival newspaper. However, the woman from the PR office says, we have found another lover for you, and she is ready to reveal all. Do you want her? Because if you don’t, a third newspaper is really eager, and it’s only because we have a personal fondness for you that we’re making the offer to you first.

That is exactly how the Pinhas Sadeh festival had its genesis. Behind it is one big nothing. His books continue to be forgotten, which is perhaps for the best. He continues not to interest anyone other than a handful of experts on his work, and some die-hard fans. Yet alongside this blatantly unglamorous, concrete Pinhas Sadeh, there has suddenly sprung up a peculiar and prestigious growth whose name also happens to be Pinhas Sadeh – though the connection between him and the concrete Pinhas Sadeh is very tenuous. To what extent can a poor, bitter and blatantly unglamorous writer be interesting as a subject for a documentary?

The answer is: An unglamorous writer can be interesting if what he wrote is interesting. But to find that out, you have to read what he wrote. And who has the patience for that? It’s a lot easier to read the revealing confession of the woman who remembers the way he, uhh, touched her. And the revealing confession of the second woman, which the third newspaper wanted to publish but she was given to you because someone had a special fondness for you.

So, here we have Pinhas Sadeh without the need to read even one line of Pinhas Sadeh. Which, as noted, is for the best. Reading him can only ruin the brand that’s been created with such effort. And it’s all so that, when the first episode of “The Cursed” is broadcast, the viewer will say, “Aha, yes! I read about that. Isn’t he the sonofabitch who all those women committed suicide over? Interesting.”

Another question is how Sadeh, who in his lifetime was a famous person whose books appeared under the prestigious Schocken Books imprint in Hebrew, along with S.Y. Agnon and Baruch Kurzweil, got into the category of “the cursed”? I have a hunch: The curse that hovers over Sadeh is that there are enough gossips still alive who knew him, so that a PR firm can divide them and their revealing confessions up among weekend magazines in the newspapers, to promote the program made by Hagai Levi about him, which has drawn praise from journalists who saw it in a preview.

Illustration by Eran Wolkowski.