Yehuda Amichai Amichai, Yehuda (Vol. 9) - Essay

Amichai, Yehuda (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Amichai, Yehuda 1924–

A German-born Israeli poet and novelist, Amichai writes in Hebrew. He is best known for his novel Not of This Time, Not of This Place.

[Amihai's] second volume, Two Hopes Ahead, reveals him as a major poet and has consolidated the small revolution in Hebrew poetic diction he had carried out in his first: the immersion of Hebrew verse in spoken rhythms and turns of speech, its final release from the dead hand of Biblical rhetoric and wooden prosody. Combining a child's-view naivety with a soldier's bluntness, tenderness with an acute sense of the cost in life and values involved in state-building, he has perfected a poetic instrument capable of catching all the nuances and contradictions of the kaleidoscopic blur of Israeli life….

[Several critics have been concerned only with the political interpretation of one or two poems and] have ignored the extraordinary variety of mood and verse forms encompassed in this slim volume. (p. 207)

[The] remarkable nine-part tour de force, "The Visit of the Queen of Sheba," has been least discussed, probably because of its free erotic element, which is illuminated by daring verbal pyrotechnics…. Though he feels very much at home in modern English verse, and knows it well, Amihai's closest affinity is with a French poet he has never read: Guillaume Apollinaire. There is the same juxtaposition of disparate images, joined in an iron poetic logic.

Amihai creates a world of private values, opposed to the slogans and catchwords of collective virtue, stressing the intimacy and privacies of lovers, constantly transposing the public issue to the private context. He uses Biblical myth brilliantly in "Young David" and "King Saul and I," treating contrapuntally the demands of greatness (made by the state) and the price paid by the ordinary man ("I want to die in my own bed"). He can also use a traditional Jewish image with full ironic effect, contrasting the moral certainty of a superannuated orthodoxy with his own moral ambiguity ("Poem on My Birthday")…. (pp. 207-08)

M. Mindlin, (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1959 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, March, 1959.

In "Not of This Time, Not of This Place," Amichai's first novel, he seems to belie [a] familiar cliché about Israel: the supposed preoccupation of its "young" literature with hoe and Sten gun, its "un-Jewish," allegedly "healthy," non-marginal outlook. Amichai's novel is a profoundly "Jewish" novel, in the modern (American) sense of this word.

The book takes as its theme the problem of identity. Amichai has been brought up in Israel, but the question of his identity sits heavily on his mind as much as with his Jewish-American fellow writers. He attempts a synoptic view of modern Jewish existence; its keys are ambivalence and disintegration, rather than clarity, unity or nationalistic simplicities. Its protagonists, in Amichai's novel, are absurd non-heroes, men and women not of this time nor of this place, stammering mute protests against their ghostlike existence. (p. 4)

Amos Elon, "Israeli and Jewish," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 4, 1968, pp. 4, 22.

"Not of this Time, Not of this Place" … is a very moving and troubling novel…. [Amichai's] subject is the torment of being buried alive in the irrelevant past. His Israeli hero spends a summer living the two lives open to him, simultaneously going back in fantasy to the German town where he grew up and staying on in Jerusalem, where he tries to cleanse himself of his past by immersing himself in a love affair with an outsider who has had no part in it. The alternatives are both impossibilities. The past is still going on back in Germany, and it is inescapable in Israel: the knowledge of what men are and what they can do that was acquired in the years of Hitler's "final solution" cannot be discarded or ignored, and it is no easier to live with when one is in the country of the ex-butchers than it is in that of the ex-victims. Yehuda Amichai writes with great affective power, both of the glittering structure of self-exculpation that the Germans of the guilty generation have succeeded in erecting on the site of mass graves and desecrated temples and of the ghost-haunted, sun-drenched anti-Germany that the ex-victims have created for themselves. One tastes to the full in his pages the experience of being lost, and of loss that comes of the realization that the world cannot be remade in the image of one's desires. (pp. 146-47)

Anthony West, in The New Yorker (© 1969 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), May 3, 1969.

[In] 1963, the first important novel by an Israeli dealing with the Holocaust appeared, Yehuda Amichai's Not of This Time, Not of This Place. For the sake of accuracy, I should say that Amichai was born in Germany, from where he was brought to Palestine in 1936 at the age of twelve. The fact of his German childhood, his awareness of kin and earliest friends murdered by the Nazis, clearly determines the broad direction of the sections of his novel set in Germany, and yet the general attempt of the book to make moral contact with the destruction and its perpetrators is eminently that of an Israeli beyond the experience, not of a European Jew actually torn by it. Indeed, the peculiar structure of the novel—a brilliant but not fully worked out invention of Amichai's—provides a kind of diagrammatic illustration of the difficulties Israeli writers have in trying to imagine this ultimate catastrophe and how one can live with the knowledge of it.

The hero of Amichai's novel is a young archaeologist at the Hebrew University—quite obviously, a man dedicated to digging up buried layers of the past. Like the protagonist of virtually every Hebrew novel of consequence over the last ten years, he has gradually fallen into an unsettling sense of aimless drift after the challenging years immediately before and after Israel's independence. At the beginning of the book, we find him wondering whether he ought to stay in Jerusalem for the vacation and perhaps find some great, intoxicating love (he is married and vaguely loyal to his wife), or spend the summer in Germany confronting the murderers of his childhood companion, Ruth. The wife of a friend—we afterward discover that she is about to be committed to an asylum—tells him that he must do both these things at once. And so he does. That is, the novel splits into two alternating narratives, one continuing in the third person to report a summer of sensual abandon in Jerusalem with an American woman named Patricia, the other switching to the first person to tell the story of the same character's return to his native city of Weinberg for the purpose of "wreaking vengeance," as he dimly and grandiosely puts it, on the Nazi murderers. The hero of the novel, to cite a mythic parallel that Amichai alludes to obliquely, is a kind of bifurcated Odysseus: he descends into the underworld in hope of encountering the spirits of the dead and learning from them his own future, and, simultaneously, he lolls in the paradisiac bed of Calypso, the alien goddess who keeps him from the responsibilities of home and people.

Amichai clearly means to suggest that both experiences—eros in the city of Jerusalem, thanatos in the town of Weinberg—must be exhausted to enable his hero to find some new point of anchorage for his life. But what actually happens in the novel is that the Jerusalem sequence is vividly and convincingly realized, while the German episodes, despite many arresting moments, occur in a hazy twilight region between memory and fantasy, history and self-dramatization. This attempt of the novelistic imagination to immerse itself in the aftermath of the horror ends up being a kind of earnest exercise in synthesizing the literature of nightmare—dramatic situations from Kafka; motifs from Rilke; and from Agnon, style (the aphorisms of the abyss), narrative technique (the expressionism of Agnon's Book of Deeds), and even symbolic plot outline (Agnon's A Guest for the Night, also about a man from Jersualem who returns to a destroyed European hometown in a futile search for the world of his childhood). Amichai intends his protagonist to discover both the old and the new Germany, but in fact his archaeologist of the self wanders about in a Germany compounded of symbols through which historical actualities are only intermittently glimpsed. (pp. 165-67)

The Jerusalem sections of the novel also reflect Amichai's fondness for symbols, but in this case the unique city he knows so intimately affords him a very natural symbolic landscape. No one else has caught with such sharpness the bizarre, slightly mad life of the intelligentsia in Jerusalem, with its serious academic types, its bohemian poets and artists, its drifting cultists from home and abroad, sundry amateurs of Yoga, Zen, vegetarianism, and the Kabbalah. No one else has been so imaginatively alive to the uncanny suggestiveness of Jerusalem's stark location at the borders of the desert, the sky, and the enemy. (pp. 167-68)

Amichai does not have to "work up" his symbols because they are already there in his city: the freight of meaning in landscape and objects is as immediately felt as the palpable burden of clothing imbued with Patricia's physical presence. But it is significant that the sense of reality radiates out from an object associated with sensuality; this explains much of the disparity between the two halves of the novel and, as I shall try to show, is an orientation explicitly shared by other Israeli writers in attempting to create a credible world against the unthinkable background of the Holocaust. Where horror has deadened the nerve of response to reality, made it difficult to believe in the real world, it seems as though there is a natural movement to ward the primal act through which the body affirms life, in an effort to recapture the sheer sense of being alive. "They wanted to stretch out over reality," Amichai writes of his lovers, fusing the act of love with Elisha's miraculous resuscitation of the dead child in the biblical story, "eye to eye, mouth to mouth, and to give it life again with their own breath." But the miracle is not achieved, and Amichai's hero comes at some points to feel that the only fully credible reality is a purely sexual one…. (pp. 168-69)

This sexual submergence, however, means forgetting both personal and collective history. Early in the novel, we are introduced to one of the protagonist's friends, a survivor of the death camps who has had the tattoo of a mermaid superimposed upon the tattooed number on his arm—not in order to obliterate the grim blue figures but to leave them just barely perceptible through the lines of the mythological female form. As the image of the ambiguous tattoo floats in and out like an apparition through both halves of the narrative, Patricia is associated with the mermaid and the sea: she is seen as a bowsprit figure on an old ship, her favorite skirt is made of sailcloth, the pitch of ecstatic fulfillment to which she brings her lover makes him think of "waves, waves" Amichai finally turns her into a mythic embodiment of all the allurements of otherness for his protagonist…. (p. 169)

The thematic complement to this absorption of life by erotic experience in Jerusalem is the fantasy of sexlessness in the German half of the novel. The narrator dreams of becoming an "angel" (the Hebrew malakh also suggests "messenger," a being with a single, appointed purpose) in order to carry out unswervingly his schemes of revenge. He looks at the display in a toy-shop window and compares the hesitancy of flesh and blood with the implacable fixity of the manufactured object: "All dolls, even the most perfect ones, have no sexual organs; they are angels." The opposition between this fantasy in the town of Weinberg and the sexual actuality in Jerusalem sets up a dilemma that the resolution of the novel cannot cope with. Amichai's attempt at a denouement is to arrange for the destruction of the Jerusalem-Joel while the Weinberg-Joel comes home, having undergone some undefined catharsis, ready to resume his life, though tentative about himself and unsure of the future. The thematic development of the novel, however, suggests that there is no way out for this self divided by love and death. The only means by which Amichai's protagonist can enter into active relation with the European past, that grisly realm of mass-produced death, is to divest himself of his humanity, and this is no more possible for him than it is really desirable. But the other self, the one that revives its humanity by obliterating past and future in the sweet intensity of the sexual present, is also living a lie. The dark revelations of history from 1933 to 1945 are too radical in implication to be forgotten with impunity. This, in any case, would seem to be what is suggested by the incident with which the Jerusalem plot concludes: the dangerous buried residue of the past—an unmarked mine from another war—explodes beneath the neglectful archaeologist as he tries to untangle the knot of conflicts in his love for his mistress and his love for his wife. (p. 170)

Robert Alter, in his After the Tradition: Essays on Modern Jewish Writing (copyright © 1969, 1968, 1967, 1966, 1965, 1964, 1962, 1961 by Robert Alter; reprinted by permission of the publishers, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.) Dutton, 1969.

At a turning-point in his life, Joel, a middle-aged and self-contained Jewish archaeologist in Jerusalem, is seized by a longing to return to Weinburg, Germany, the city of his birth….

Yehuda Amichai divides Joel's life in two, and divides Not of This Time, Not of This Place into a double narrative: in the third person, Joel remains in Jerusalem and begins an obsessive love affair …; in the first person, Joel returns to Weinburg on a mission of hate, searching for signs and relics of his own past. Both versions of Joel's life and person—failed agent of revenge and absorbed lover—are centrally concerned with escape into illusory forms of self-definition….

The two versions of Joel's life ring off one another skilfully; with good sense as well as good taste, Mr Amichai refuses to theorize about his novel's structure, but merely allows it to unroll, every event in one present echoing in the other and each episode of the past answered by an image in the present. The novel's alternation between Joel's two lives establishes a reluctant, hesitating but ongoing rhythm and a mood of great and urgent seriousness of mind. The shifting from one present to another is, of course, a game—a writer's game—and the unsettling rightness and profundity of the novel comes from its density of exploration and from the author's delight in making it work.

"Home and Away," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), December 7, 1973, p. 1512.

Amichai's poems must compel the attention not only of devotees of modern Hebrew literature, but of anyone concerned with the state of contemporary poetry in general.

Amichai's poems are rooted in the omnipresent landscape of Israel; the topography of his shifting emotional life is very much the shifting topography of the land for which he fought: the ruggedness of the hills, the straining intransigence of the desert, the sweating sun and bitter salt and in-different winds of the beach, the confusions of the Old City of Jerusalem made new—all are causes, settings, personifications of his feelings. These are poems of place, and their almost tangible evocations of the violent contrasts and mysterious beauty of the Israeli landscape infuse them with a materiality no less worn and vital than the poet's own.

Amichai's is a poetry without a poetics, invoking nothing but the poet's own rich, painful, and sometimes epiphanous experience; and it is an indication of his stature, at a time when "honesty" in writing has become trite to the point of cliché, that he is able to make the confessional mode seem once again an apt vehicle for conveying truths about the world. As a poet Amichai demands of himself an unrelenting transparency, a self-consciousness which is a form of sustained vulnerability in the face of experience. His poems are soundings of himself, readings of his strength to absorb experience without sacrificing this necessary vulnerability. They are also carefully wrought expressions of a life which is itself not carefully wrought, which is constantly at the mercy of time and its own frailties:

        I sign the guest book
        of God: I was here, I stayed on,
        I loved it, it was great, I was guilty, I betrayed.
        I was much impressed by the warm welcome
        in this world.

The poet discovers that his loneliness is not a wall, but a gate: he takes his finitude and forges from it a poetic testimony that depends … for its integrity on nothing but what he is trying to convey—that he is a man, that he is just Yehuda Amichai, but that that is fine. (pp. 68, 70)

He is always dating things: himself, his father, his loves, the land, Jerusalem. All these moments, Wordsworth's "spots of time," are evoked but never frozen. And the poet lives a very full life; he is poet, lover, father, son, soldier, traveler, Jew. But since he looks nowhere outside his existence to find its meaning, his roles serve to elucidate one another, one experience becoming the metaphor for another. Amichai constructs his poems by balancing one moment against the next, by forcing the many dimensions of his life upon one another in the hope that the life itself will emerge whole.

This is most dramatically apparent in the wistful way he writes about the Jewish religious tradition. His is hardly a religious sensibility, and yet religious symbols still have meaning for him of a surprising kind. The sacred in his poems is a metaphor for the profane, the appreciation of the modest purpose and order implicit in the vagaries of the everyday:

          God's hand in the world
          like my mother's
          in the guts of the slaughtered hen
          on Friday.
          What does God see beyond the window
          as he puts his hand into the world?
          What does my mother see?

The intense sexuality of Amichai's lyrics must also be taken in the context of this insistence that … life as a whole is to be found immanent in each of his experiences. For the sexual realm offers the most charged initiation into the experience of limit, as consummate pleasure passes inevitably into consummate pain. The account of sexual pain in The Achziv Poems is probably the most haunting rendering of the erotic ever undertaken in Hebrew verse.

Amichai's experience of the world is above all an experience of its intractability, of the strenuous resistance of his situation to his will. There is thus a powerful tactile element in his poems' imagery: he writes often of hardness, of rock and stone. But the poet's sense of his own self is likewise of something hard, weighty, virile, perdurable. It is, in other words, a self well suited to the world in which it finds itself—a self for which the center must hold. Amichai's muse is resiliency, and personal courage; his campaign in his poetry is to turn the richness of circumstance to the advantage of a self that will remain intact despite pain and pleasure; he sees the punishing world much as Keats did, not as a vale of tears but as "a vale of Soul-making."

Amichai has achieved a kind of precarious peace with the oscillations of happiness and sadness that constitute his life, and out of this peace rises the elemental lyricism of his poetry. The love poems in particular are written with a grave gentleness, a sense of wonderment at the ephemeral nature of it all. His poems offer seasoned comfort, the humble contentment that comes of resignation without surrender. (p. 70)

Leon Wieseltier, "A Hebrew Poet" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1974 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, May, 1974, pp. 68, 70.

[Yehuda Amichai's] work is so volatile—heart-burdened, ironic, sometimes terribly funny, sometimes very gentle and tender—that I was about to call it archetypally Jewish. It isn't; it's archetypally poetic. In "Amen," his third book to appear in English, Amichai reaches pure states of intimate, aroused awareness unusually often. As in, say, Plath or Esenin or Vallejo, the best poems present themselves with simple immediacy even when their sense is elusive or complex:

  Oh, touch me, touch me, you good woman!
  This is not a scar you feel under my shirt.
  It's a letter of recommendation, folded, from my father:
  "He is still a good boy and full of love."

But Amichai is certainly deeply Jewish—an "'ebrew Jew," as Falstaff would have put it. That side of him is rooted in specifics of place and of memory. His "Letter of Recommendation," from which I have just quoted, begins as a sort of Jewish joke about the permanent imminence of disaster:

            On summer nights I sleep naked
            in Jerusalem on my bed,
            which stands on the brink
            of a deep valley
            without rolling into it.

Another poem, the first one in the sequence "Seven Laments for the Fallen in the War," closes in on one figure, the father of a dead soldier whom the poet recognizes amid the swirling city crowds—

            He has become very thin; has lost
            his son's weight.
            Therefore he is floating lightly
            through the alleys …

The pathos here is an all too faithful echo of daily life in Israel; Amichai's poetry breathes a people's worst experiences. Yet it is always intensely private, driven by a wildly associative imagination that attaches itself to quickly changing emotional states. It is political because human reality is political, but Amichai's politics are wryness and candor. "A flag loses contact with reality and flies off," he writes in his Memorial Day "lament," whose disgusted refrain is the great theologico-political Pollyannism that "Behind all this some great happiness is hiding." The proper languages for Memorial Day in Israel, the same poem tells us, are "Hebrew, Arabic and Death."

Many of the best poems in "Amen" have to do with the joys and disasters of love. The themes of sexual power gone awry and of lost relationships and broken marriage darken the book with a bitterness matching its pain at all the death and suffering in Israel's wars, so much so that the two sets of feeling merge inseparably. (p. 6)

I have by no means touched on the whole range of tones and preoccupations, and particularly the subtler modulations and musics, in "Amen." One sees everywhere in the book an absorbed spirit that contemplates the world not to explain things but to get into focus the subjective and emotional ambiance of whatever is remembered or experienced….

This is a harshly lovely, exhilarating, depressing book. It proves once more that when the real thing comes along the chic critical passwords—"post-modernism," "anti-poetic," etc.—are useless. (p. 16)

M. L. Rosenthal, "Hebrew, Arabic and Death," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 3, 1977, pp. 6, 16.