Between Realism and Modernism: Brenner's Poetics of Fragmentation

By Hasak-Lowy, Todd | Hebrew Studies Journal, Annual 2003 | Go to article overview
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Between Realism and Modernism: Brenner's Poetics of Fragmentation

Hasak-Lowy, Todd, Hebrew Studies Journal

This article first explains the fact that because of modern Hebrew literature's belated emergence as a national literature, numerous typically distinct periods or modes of fiction (in particular realism and modernism) were simultaneously available to Hebrew writers. After locating the ideological, nationalist underpinnings of realism's appeal for Hebrew writers from the Haskalah up through the turn of the twentieth century, the article turns its attention to Y. H. Brenner. Due to his fictional and non-fictional writings, Brenner is widely considered a central and foundational figure in early twentieth century Hebrew literature. His influential but elusive and often misunderstood narrative poetics are teased out of two texts which first appeared in 1911: the novel [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Mi-kan unri-kan, From here and there), and an essay, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (The land of Israel genre and its accouterments). Brenner's vision of Hebrew prose in Palestine points to a unique quality of this emerging national literature, as it. perhaps paradoxically, seems equally at home in realist and modernist modes of fiction. Moreover, throughout his forays into modernist modes of fiction, Brenner maintains the deep-seated beliefs that first pointed him toward realism, namely, that literature can play a role in rehabilitating Jewish society by addressing the problems that plague it.


In standard accounts of European national literatures such as German and French, realism and modernism are understood to be not only separate categories but distinct periods as well. According to such accounts, realism reaches its apex in the middle of the nineteenth century, while modernism appears near the end of the same century and finds its strongest expressions in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Yet modern Hebrew literature, and in particular Hebrew fiction, radically depart from this model, because of their belated emergence in comparison to normative European literatures. Modern Hebrew literature first surfaces in the late eighteenth century, the first Hebrew novel appears in 1853, and it only becomes a national literature in the modern sense in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Benjamin Harshav describes the compressed and hurried evolution of emerging modern Jewish literatures, of which Hebrew literature was a central component:

   Within a short time, Jewish literature attempted to catch up with
   the developments of the European literary tradition since the
   Renaissance (including its flashbacks toward classical literature)
   and to spread out over the whole range of genres, both in original
   works and in translation. And, at the same time, it endeavored to
   break through to the contemporary trends of Modernism which were
   turning that very tradition upside down. (1)

Harshav's account of this literature stresses a compression of literary development that saw Hebrew literature experiencing in perhaps only a few decades what European literature underwent over the course of a few centuries. Here, despite the break-neck pace of its development, Harshav still employs a diachronic model to explain this evolution. Later on, however, Harshav abandons this diachronic model, offering in its place an alternative spatial image, informed by a synchronic view of modern Jewish literature in which the very notion of "historical" development is no longer applicable:

   [IT]he history of European literature was discovered by Jewish
   writers at the end of its development, when it was challenged from
   within. For the exultant discoverers, that history appeared not as
   a history but as a synchronic 'imaginary museum' where all displays
   were placed in adjacent rooms, from which they could pick models
   and influences with no historical order. (2)

Harshav's synchronic model forces us to reconsider seriously what can be assumed when we invoke terms such as "realism" and "modernism" in the Hebrew context.

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