Aharon Megged Essay - Critical Essays

Megged, Aharon

Megged, Aharon 1920–

An Israeli novelist and short story writer, Megged is among the generation of writers who began their literary careers after the establishment of the Israeli state. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

Jonas, the hero of Aharon Megged's novel, Living on the Dead, is a young writer in thrall to the Zionist past represented by Davidov, legendary pioneer and nation-builder whose biography he has been commissioned to write. He has signed a contract committing him to this task and he sets about it by methodically retracing the career of the dead man, at the same time compulsively reenacting some details of it in his own life. But the biography will never be written. Jonas's attitude to history is, to say the least, ambivalent. From time to time he seeks oblivion and escape from his responsibilities in the "Cellar," a place of convivial resort for the bohemia of Tel Aviv. And in the end he does succeed in losing the notes and documents which he has so laboriously collected. But history will not be mocked. As we see him at the end of the novel, Jonas is awaiting trial for breach of contract, and "so long as this trial hangs over my head, I cannot start anything new." (pp. 74-5)

Living on the Dead [is] a "Dybbuk" story, one calling to mind the archetypal theme of the figure of the living haunted by the spirit of the dead which occurs in so much Romantic and post-Romantic literature of the past century. From this point of view the novel can be said to be in the symbolic mode. But the symbolism, though clear, is far from wooden; Living on the Dead is an absorbing and vivid representation of Israeli life in the 60's, and its descriptive truth is never overthrown by the weight of an artificial symbolic structure. (p. 75)

Harold Fisch (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1972 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, August, 1972.

The teasing paradox common to such varied authors as Barth, Biely, Borges, Pirandello, and Unamuno is their consummate literary reminder that words are static and therefore fatal. Sticks and stones can merely break bones, but some of the most engaging works of recent decades read as if "Warning: texts can be hazardous to your health" had been printed on every page.

Among this international choir clamoring for silence, Aharon Megged's Living on the Dead (1965) deserves a prominent place. Its author's eighth book, it is a highly sophisticated yet gripping exploration of just what it means, in philosophical, social, and personal terms, to write a novel. As its title suggests, the work employs life and death as central metaphors for its thematic concerns. Furthermore, Living on the Dead is set against a contemporary Israeli background which provides unique variations for its familiar themes…. [Megged] casts his Janus gaze back at the earlier, European-born pioneers who came to the Land with nothing but faith and will, and ahead to a later, sabra generation sometimes pictured as having everything but faith and will. How to portray this flow of history without freezing the flow is the challenge faced both by Megged himself and his fictive author Jonas Rabinowitch.

Living on the Dead is Jonas' own first-person account of his inability to write a biographical novel. He has been commissioned to produce a work drawn loosely from the life of the late national hero Abrasha Davidov. Davidov, laborer, farmer, politician, and soldier, resembles one of those legendary dynamos, like David Ben-Gurion…. Though he continues receiving monthly payments from his publisher as specified in their agreement, Jonas nevertheless finds that he simply cannot write the book. In an effort to forget his literary obligations, Jonas attempts to lose himself in a life of sensual abandon. But a humiliating law suit for breach of contract with his publisher forces Jonas into an anguished scrutiny of his attitudes toward the burden he has assumed. The result is the book we read, the story of how he came not to write the book he intended. As in Samuel Beckett's trilogy, in which each speaker is most concerned simply to tell us how little he wants to speak, Living on the Dead erects the trope medieval rhetoricians called occupatio—refusal to sustain a description—into a basic structural principal of a sustained narrative.

Like his Biblical namesake, Jonas would gladly choose Tarshish over Nineveh, facile comfort over the austere duty of a prophet's life…. However, as much as he is drawn to spending his days sleeping and his nights in bacchanalian adventures which leave him oblivious to everything, Jonas is still haunted by a stern call. Megged's fiction is too modern and realistic to rely on such devices as the Muse or a burning bush, but the forces urging Jonas to return to his mission as writer are no less compelling. (pp. 232-33)

The courtroom episodes suggest elements of both Kafka and Lewis Carroll. An impersonal system of justice here confronts a frail individual and imperiously interrogates him about his own worthiness. Prosecutor and judge are vivid reminders to Jonas of the destiny he has tried to elude—both as an aspiring writer who has lapsed into silence and as a young Israeli who would avoid coming to terms with the ghost of a pioneer. At the same time, though, this very curious trial is conducted with an earnest disregard for its own manifest absurdities. A simple civil suit, the case occupies many months of the court's calendar, and by the end of the book there is still no prospect of conclusion…. Jonas remains unimpressed by the casuistry of either prosecution or defense. His painful ambivalence toward the Davidov project cannot be resolved judicially. (p. 233)

Jonas' title [for an uncompleted novel] Hero of Our Time of course recalls Lermontov, and, in its inquest into the nature of literary creation, Living on the Dead never allows us to forget that it is itself artifice. The reference to a nineteenth-century Russian writer, like the epigraphs from assorted poets beginning each chapter, foregrounds the work. It subverts mimetic illusions and calls our attention to the fact that we are, after all, reading a novel, one throughout confounded by the relationship between fiction and the experience it transmutes….

Examples of necrophagia, of living on the dead, are scattered throughout this novel, from poets who seem to cultivate experiences in order to convert them into inert stanzas to a nation fond of worshipping its heroes dead. (p. 234)

Jonas is consumed by the realization that he himself is the most voracious necrophage in the drama…. [Like] those scholars who bide their time until such lives as Stravinsky, Pound, or Picasso are completed before rushing out with the definitive study, Jonas, beneficiary of the publisher's monthly check, is in a real sense feeding himself from a dead man…. Furthermore, if creation is but imitation, Jonas, like Plato, arrives at the guilty awareness that all artists are liars. No matter how faithful he attempts to be to the spirit of a figure who can no longer speak for himself, to describe is to distort. As with Sartre's historian Roquentin, who amasses abundant data on the life of the Marquis de Rollebon but discovers there is no core to the personality, every version of Davidov that Jonas assembles is irreconcilable to every other. While schoolchildren idolize the Zionist hero, his widow provides a bitter account of neglect—"can a man love the whole Jewish people, the whole human race, and not love his own family?" (pp. 234-35)

Jonas' sense of unworthiness, both as an individual and as writer, to undertake the Davidov project is only part of a complex ambivalence he feels. Though he eagerly accepted the assignment, he loathes it as an oppressive burden. He admires and detests Davidov and sees himself as both parasite and victim. "I had meant to write about a dead man, and he was stifling the life out of me."… Some of the tensions here can be attributed to the artist's love-bout with his raw material, the Romantic sculptor's delight in and impatience with the intractable marble. But the figure of Davidov also has a special hold on Israelis in general and on Jonas in particular.

As artist and as citizen, Jonas is an extension of an intimidating tradition he feels helpless to elude…. The spoken Hebrew language lay dormant for hundreds of years, from the onset of the Diaspora until revived at the beginning of the modern Zionist movement. Because of its extraordinary history, Hebrew lacks the accretions of centuries of usage found in other languages. As a result, it is difficult to write a paragraph in Hebrew which does not link its author directly to ancient texts, to what is The Tradition…. [Allusion] of some sort [is] unavoidable, and allusion affirms complicity in a tradition. For a modern Hebrew writer like Jonas, whose very name destines him to a prophetic mission, silence would be the only desertion.

Like the Hebrew words which are the writer's self-betraying tools, Davidov embodies the nightmare from which Jonas dreams of awakening. He is also the patriarch who must be buried before the sons can feel free. (pp. 235-36)

Davidov is buried, but Jonas survives. Indeed, he survives by recounting it, by living on the dead. Yet the very fact that he continues to write about this figure he both loves and hates as violently as if Davidov were his father only demonstrates the stranglehold the old man continues to exert on the young one. Every word he pens, even guilty explanations of why he cannot produce the book he was commissioned to do, only implicates him further in a relationship to history he seeks to deny. The only way he can finally exorcise this dybbuk of tradition is by completely ceasing to write.

Yet as long as the noisy trial, confronting his artistic and civic conscience, goes on, Jonas cannot rest in silence. Prosecution and defense continue parading obscure legal precedents, and Jonas' lawyer gleefully assures him that it could last for years. Jonas' weary reaction, the final sentence of the novel, is: "The fool does not understand that, so long as this trial hangs over my head, I cannot start anything new."… Jonas never does emancipate himself from his burden and never does resolve his ambivalence toward his literary mission and toward his nation's history. Aharon Megged's Living on the Dead thus remains open-ended, continuing to haunt readers throughout the world whose lives it has entered. (pp. 236-37)

Steven G. Kellman, "Portrait of the Artist as Necrophage: Aharon Megged's 'Living on the Dead'," in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1976, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Summer, 1976, pp. 231-37.

As one of the leading short story writers and novelists of the generation of Israel's War of Independence, Megged has depicted the varied aspects of life in the new state, from war themes to the kibbutz and urban life.

In his more recent novels Megged has gone a step further and has dealt in depth with the value system of Israeli life. Two of these novels, Living on the Dead (1970) and Fortunes of a Fool (1962), which are available in English translation, are among those in which he has raised searching questions about Israeli society. Megged has experimented with new techniques and has absorbed the influences of writers such as Kafka and Agnon.

In an apparent effort to venture outside familiar territory, Megged has endeavored in [Ha-atalef] to deal with a worldly theme. However, in so doing he has strained the credulity of the reader. The novel's protagonist Gershon Rieger … grows up in a small settlement during the Mandate period in Palestine. He is obsessed with the idea of achieving complete Jewish sovereignty over the land and is led to extreme acts. (p. 328)

The novel is written in the form of letters from Rieger to a former teacher, Yardena, for whom he had developed a crush as a teen-ager. The flow of the narrative is interrupted by several shifts in time, resulting in a montage effect. Perhaps Megged would have us believe that Rieger was led to his extreme acts of fanaticism because of his early frustration in love. If so, his purpose is beclouded by the mass of extraneous detail in his novel. (pp. 328-29)

Jacob Kabakoff, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 2, Spring, 1977.