Biography / The Founding Father

Hagit Halperin's biography of the seminal Hebrew poet Avraham Shlonsky is authoritative and comprehensive - though perhaps a little too detailed for general audiences

The Maestro: The Life and Work of Avraham Shlonsky by Hagit Halperin. Sifriat Hapoalim and the Laura Schwartz-Kipp Center for Hebrew Literature and Culture (Hebrew ), 630 pages, NIS 128

"No man is an island, entire of itself," wrote 17th-century English poet John Donne. And a journey into the life of another person is of necessity a journey into oneself. The desire to touch the other, to know the other, is one of the reasons for the popularity of biographies, a literary genre that no longer needs to make apologies for itself. In bookstores the world over, biographies take up entire walls, and in the virtual stores of Amazon and Barnes & Noble, one can purchase any of over 2,000 biographies that have been published in the past year alone. It would seem impossible to write anything new, and yet every few years there is another new biography of Pushkin, Hemingway or Plath, not necessarily because a trove of missing letters or hidden diaries has been discovered, but because there is a new generation whose members are looking for another perspective on their favorite writer.

Ilan Bronner

But not in Israel. Maybe it's another vestige of the puritanical culture of shame dating from the beginnings of the state, or perhaps an assumption by publishers that biographies won't sell, but the fact is that it remains a rarely published genre in Hebrew. There is one type of biography that does relatively well here, however: the life stories of politicians, prominent businesspeople and military men. To some extent this may be because readers find the lives of those subjects interesting, but these are for the most part not objective works, but, rather, self-serving memoirs and made-to-order bios, like "Moshe Katsav: From the Kastina Ma'abara to the Government Compound" (in Hebrew ), by journalist Menachem Michelson.

In the past year, as in every year since the establishment of the state, only a few original biographies were published here in Hebrew, and almost none was about a writer or a poet. Last year Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, the country's largest publisher, brought out translations of biographies of Barack Obama, King Hussein, Joseph Stalin and Genghis Khan - the last of these made the best-seller lists - but not a single original one in Hebrew. The same year, Keter published the translated biographies of Marguerite Duras, Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as Israeli historian Tom Segev's "Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends," which was first published in English, and a new edition of "Yona Wallach" by Igal Sarna, a best-selling biography that was first published 18 years ago and has never been out of print. Yedioth Books published only one literary biography, of Isaac Bashevis Singer, translated from the French. And this year, the only original Hebrew-language biography published by Am Oved is "The Last Commissioner: General Sir Alan Gordon Cunningham, 1945-1948" by Motti Golani.

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It's no coincidence, then, that the only biography to date of Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai was written in New York rather than in Israel, by Nili Scharf Gold, and has not been translated into Hebrew. Not a single biography has been written of Shaul Tchernichovsky, whose poetry is studied in Israeli high schools and whose portrait will soon be appearing on one of the new banknotes.

Literary biographies began flourishing all over the world in the 19th century, based on Goethe's statement to the effect that if you want to know the poet, go to his homeland - not only his physical homeland, but his life circumstances, his psychology and his childhood origins. The assumption, explained Dan Miron in his 2001 book "From the Worm a Butterfly Emerges: Young Natan Alterman," was that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the literary work of writers and their biographical backgrounds. Indeed, the Hebrew literature of the late 19th century saw monographs about Peretz Smolenskin and Abraham Mapu, and later about Haim Nahman Bialik and other writers. But in the 1950s, as the Hebrew literary scene became influenced by Russian formalism and a strain of literary criticism that demanded that the text be examined as a closed work that stands on its own, the writer's life became irrelevant, and writing about it came to be seen as embarrassing gossip-mongering.

Postmodernism brought biography back into fashion, with a recognition that everything is of value: the artists' conscious and subconscious thoughts, their lives and personalities, the influences on them and the books they had read. Hence, writers have not been altogether absent from Hebrew-language monographs and biographies, whose subjects include such writers as Alterman, Bialik, S.Y. Agnon, Ahad Ha'am, Avot Yeshurun, Dahn Ben-Amotz, Yosef Haim Brenner, Lea Goldberg and Yona Wallach.

First-class subject

In order to justify a biography that will speak not only to professionals but to the general public too, the writers must, of course, be important, but they must also have a fascinating life story. In that sense, Avraham Shlonsky (1900-1973 ) is a first-class subject for such treatment. He is the father of modernist Land of Israel poetry, a playwright, critic, translator, songwriter and coiner of words who played a central role in literary groups and periodicals like Ketuvim, Yahdav and Turim and founded two publishing houses. And in addition to his writerly credentials, he also had a tempestuous personality and a bohemian way of life that help contribute to a dramatic life story.

Hagit Halperin, a professor of Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University and head of its literary archives, has previously written about Russian-Israeli poet Alexander Penn ("Shedding of the Stars: Alexander Penn - His Life and Work Until 1940" and "The Color of Life: The Life and Works of Alexander Penn" ), and has been a Shlonsky scholar for years. "The Maestro: The Life and Work of Avraham Shlonsky" is a comprehensive and precise literary biography that is so detailed it reads like large parts of it are meant primarily for teachers and students of Hebrew literature.

Avraham Shlonsky grew up in what is today Ukraine, between the extremes of Hasidic Judaism and secular cosmopolitanism, tradition and modernity. His father, Tuvia, was a Chabad Hasid, and his mother, Tzippora, was a Russian revolutionary, who even during her sixth pregnancy was concealing illegal posters on her body. In his naivete, 5-year-old Avraham informed on his mother and caused her arrest by the czarist police: "And Mother is not there, she's always not there," he writes in one of his poems. From that time on, writes Halperin, the child's secure world was irreparably destroyed. Four of his five siblings were considered prodigies and he, who eventually became more famous than any of them, was considered less talented. His challenge to the writing style of Bialik - the poet his father most admired - was a substitute for an Oedipal rebellion, as Halperin explains so well.

One of Halperin's major coups was discovering the archive of Tuvia Shlonsky, who encouraged his son every time negative criticism was published about him and consoled him by saying that he was simply before his time. Despite his son's adolescent rebellion, Tuvia, who was a writer but was forced to work as a warehouse manager and bookkeeper in the Shemen factory in Haifa once the family moved to Palestine, in 1921, is portrayed as an interesting and tragic figure. He supported his daughters even as adults - one of them, Manya, never recovered her mental health after she was raped - and when he died, at the age of 56, the family collapsed.

Overly didactic

At 28, Avraham took on his father's role of supporting his mother and sisters, even though he was already married and had problems of his own: His wife Lucia, a blonde beauty who never read his poems, cheated on him regularly. Shlonsky fell in love with Mira, the wife of his friend and colleague Yaakov Horowitz. The affair was clandestine and remained so even after Mira divorced her husband. When Mira became pregnant by Shlonsky in 1936, writes Halperin, he didn't know how to break it to Lucia, or to his mother, who loved Lucia like a daughter.

Mira, an actress who had one daughter from her first marriage, traveled abroad and stayed there for about a year and a half; even when she returned with a baby, Lucia didn't realize her husband had cheated on her. For several more years Shlonsky divided his life between the two homes and the two women. Because he was a private person, many of those around him didn't know about it, nor is the situation alluded to in his writing.

The vast majority of "The Maestro" is devoted to Shlonsky's first three dozen years, with the rest of his life - he lived to age 73 - compressed into the book's final 35 pages. At 515 pages (in addition to about 100 pages of footnotes and an excellent timeline ), the book gives only a cursory description of several dramatic events that greatly influenced the way Shlonsky was perceived by the public. These include his attitude toward the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, his admiration of the Soviet Union, his influence on the generation whose members fought in the War of Independence, and their revolt against him, and later the revolt against him by writers of the succeeding generation (e.g., Zach, Yehoshua, Oz). The personal tragedies in his life, such as the death of his beloved father and Lucia's suicide in 1953, are also sketched hastily.

This is an important and interesting book, and Halperin does a good job of describing Shlonsky's life story and his work. But "The Maestro" is unlikely to appeal to a general readership. The book would have been better off had the many chapters devoted to Shlonsky's relationships with other poets and to the analyses of his work been shortened. The poetry criticism reads like essays mistakenly inserted into a biography and is overly didactic.

That doesn't mean literary scholars are incapable of writing fascinating biographies for the general public. One has only to glance at the biography of Federico Garcia Lorca by Ian Gibson (a professor of Spanish literature ); the biographies of W.B. Yeats, James Joyce and Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann (a professor of English literature ); the biographies of Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather and Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee (a professor of English literature ) and others.

An important test of a good literary biography is that it can be read as a life story in itself, even if the readers are not familiar with the writings of its subject. Perhaps here the advantage of a writer who is not a literary scholar comes to the fore, and a clear example of that is the excellent "Yona Wallach" by journalist and author Igal Sarna. Professional biographers have an advantage in that they know how to distinguish between the essential and the trivial, and to weave the plot artistically and in an intriguing manner. Another factor that should come into play is the publishers, who should encourage the writing of biographies targeted at lovers of literature, not necessarily at researchers of the subject.

Eilat Negev is a biographer and the author, with her partner Yehuda Koren, of "Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath's Rival and Ted Hughes's Doomed Love," and "First Lady of Fleet Street: The Life, Fortune and Tragedy of Rachel Beer," published last month in the U.K. by JR Books.