Gnessin, Uri Nissan

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GNESSIN, URI NISSAN (1881–1913), Hebrew author who was the first to introduce the psychologically oriented prose style into Hebrew literature. Born in Starodub, Ukraine, Gnessin spent his childhood and youth in Pochep, a small town in the province of Orel. His father was head of a yeshivah and Gnessin studied in a ḥeder, later at his father's yeshivah where J.H. *Brenner was also a student. Besides his religious studies, Gnessin was interested in secular subjects, studying classical and modern languages and literatures. As a boy, he wrote poems and at 15 began publishing, together with Brenner, a literary monthly and a literary weekly for a small circle of friends and readers. These served as a forum for many of his early works. Nahum *Sokolow invited the young poet, then 18, to join the editorial staff of *Ha-Ẓefirah in Warsaw; this marks the beginning of a productive period in his literary career. Gnessin published poems, literary criticism, stories, and translations in Ha-Ẓefirah. A small collection of short stories and sketches, Ẓilelei ha-Ḥayyim ("The Shadows of Life"), appeared in 1904.

At this time Gnessin began wandering from city to city, unable or unwilling to strike permanent roots. After a year's stay in Warsaw he moved to Yekaterinoslav, then to Vilna, where he worked for a time for the periodical Ha-Zeman, and then went to Kiev. Gnessin tried to study abroad but was not accepted by various schools since he did not have a formal education. Financial distress, hunger, and an inner restlessness beset Gnessin during his stay in Kiev, yet it was the time of his greatest prolificacy. However, plans to found a Hebrew literary organ and a publishing house did not materialize. In 1907 Gnessin left Kiev and at Brenner's invitation went to London (via Warsaw and Berlin, where he stayed for a short time) to co-edit *Ha-Me'orer with Brenner. The periodical failed and there were violent disagreements between him and Brenner. London proved to be a severe disillusionment in other ways – the spiritual life of London Jewry was disappointing and his later fatal heart disease, probably contracted in Kiev, began to affect him. In the autumn he immigrated to Ereẓ Israel but was unable to adjust. The country was a bitter experience for the young writer; his painful impressions found expression only in his letters however. He ascribes his disappointment at times to himself, at times to his environment which he saw as "Jews who trade in their Judaism." In the summer of 1908 Gnessin returned to Russia. He died in Warsaw four years later.

Gnessin's work, one of the major landmarks in Hebrew prose, is characterized by modern literary techniques and devices which he introduced into Hebrew literature. The interior monologue through which the reader receives an unmediated impression of the hero's continuous flow of ideas, sensations, feelings, and memories as they come into his consciousness was one of the main literary vehicles used by Gnessin to convey the psychological anxieties of his characters. He was among the first Hebrew writers to probe the problems of alienation and uprootedness, particularly as they affected the Jew in the modern age. Among his works four stories of his middle period are most outstanding and their impact on Hebrew prose is felt to this day: "Haẓiddah" ("Aside," 1905); "Beinatayim" ("Meanwhile," 1906); "Be-Terem" ("Before," 1909); and "Eẓel" ("By," 1913). His early work, Ẓilelei ha-Ḥayyim, fails to reveal an individualistic literary character, while later stories, like "Ba-Gannim" ("In the Gardens," 1909) and "Ketatah" ("A Quarrel," 1912), mark the transition to a new psychological style. Brenner, G. *Shofman, and Gnessin were among the first to cast the problems of the Jew of the age in a literary context. Gnessin poignantly describes the dilemma of the Jew whose world outlook is rooted in the values and spirit of the Jewish East European town, but who, at the same time, adopted the characteristics of a "citizen of the world" sharing the achievements and the deterioration of 20th-century culture. Gnessin's treatment of the theme is close to that of *Berdyczewski.

The four stories are autobiographical and Gnessin, under the guise of different names, is the protagonist. The plots, variations of the same theme, are about a man who leaves home, travels to distant lands, and becomes a "citizen of the world" only to find himself uprooted. A cosmopolitan, he is now completely alienated and lonely. After traveling far and wide, he returns home only to be faced by the awful realization that he has become an alien in his own homeland. At times he may only go as far as the next town, a center somewhat larger than his own hamlet, but the experience uproots and alienates him. The past becomes irretrievable, the gap unbridgeable, and he is cast in a strange, complex, and confusing world. The theme, apparently peculiar to contemporaneous Jewish intellectuals who had rejected religious tradition, merges in Gnessin with the more universal theme of perplexity, cultural strangeness, loss of God, and loss of roots. Out of his anguish, the lost son, wishing to comfort himself, cries: "Father, there is a God in heaven, isn't there, and He is so good!" ("Be-Terem"). The very names of the stories imply the protagonist's detachment from time and place.

Scandinavian literature and the stories of Chekhov, his favorite author, had a marked influence on Gnessin. His sense of time as a factor in the life of man and of society resembles that of Marcel Proust. Through the associative technique, Gnessin focused the past and future in the present, rendering the present less real than the past. He broke with the realistic trend then current in the Hebrew short story and became a "modern" author in the spirit of developments in world literature after World War i.

Gnessin's style involves a flow of lyrical patterns which approaches poetic rhythm. His lyricism, however, is neither ambiguous nor vague and his description of details, objects, characters, and scenery is vivid and precise. One of Gnessin's stylistic devices is to reflect the inner world of his characters in all that surrounds them. This demands a descriptive realism and an avoidance of rhetoric. His language, despite certain Russianisms, captured the rhythms of the spoken tongue. His critical essays, which he signed U. Esthersohn, show a close affinity to the 19th-century school of symbolism. Among the works he translated are prose poems by Baudelaire and works by Chekhov, Heinrich Heine, S. Obstfelder, M. Spektor, and J. Wassermann. An edition of his collected works (Kitvei) appeared in 1982. The story "Sideways" appeared in A. Lelchuk and G. Shaked (eds.), Eight Great Hebrew Novels (1983); "Uproar" is included in G. Abramson (ed.), The Oxford Book of Hebrew Short Stories (1996). For further translations into English, see Goell, Bibliography, 2102.


J.Ḥ. Brenner (ed.), Haẓiddah (memorial volume, 1917); B. Katz (Benshalom), Uri Nissan Gnessin (1935); S.Y. Penueli, Brenner u-Gnessin ba-Sippur ha-Ivri shel Reshit ha-Me'ah ha-Esrim (1965); Y. Zmora, Ha-Mesapper Kav le-Kav (1951); Z. Fishman, in: Ha-Toren, 10 (1923), 89–95; S. Nashkes, in: Kitvei U.N. Gnessin, 3 (1946), 221–35; Kressel, Leksikon (1965), 494–6. add. bibliography: G. Shaked, Lelo Moẓa: Al Brenner, Berdyczewski, Shoffman, Gnessin (1973); L. Rattok (ed.), U.N. Gnessin: Mivḥar Ma'amrei Bikkoret al Yeẓirato (1977); H. Bar-Yosef, Ha-Lashon ha-Figurativit bi-Yeẓirato ha-Sippurit shel U.N. Gnessin (1984); I. Even Zohar, "Gnessin's Dialogue and Its Russian Models," in: Slavica Hierosolymitana, 7 (1985), 17–36; D. Miron and D. Laor (eds.), U.N. Gnessin: Meḥkarim u-Te'udot (1986); Y. Bakon, Brenner u-Gnessin ke-Sofrim du Leshoniyim (1986); A. Balaban, "Gnessin Revisited," in: Prooftexts, 9:2 (1989), 177–84; D. Steinhart, "Is Anybody There? The Subjectivism of U.N. Gnessin Reconsidered," in: Prooftexts, 11:2 (1991), 131–51; H. Herzig, Ha-Sippur ha-Ivri bi-Reshit ha-Me'ah ha-Esrim (1992); D. Steinhart, "Shabtai and Gnessin: A Comparative Reading," in: Prooftexts, 14:3 (1994), 233–47; D. Miron, Ha-Ḥayyim be-Appo shel Neẓaḥ: Yeẓirato shel U.N. Gnessin (1997); A. Zemaḥ: Be-Emẓa: Keri'ah bi-Shenei Sippurim shel U.N. Gnessin (2000); A. Holtzman, Temunah le-neged Einai (2002); A. Petrov Ronell, "Reading Gnessin's 'Sideways' in Its Russian Context," in: Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, 3:2 (2004), 167–82; D. Aberbach, "Gnessin's Anguish," in Jewish Quarterly, 196 (2004–2005), 63–64.

[Lea Goldberg]