Shabtai, Yaakov

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SHABTAI, YAAKOV (1934–1981), Israeli writer. Despite his untimely demise, Shabtai had established himself as a master of several genres: sketches, plays, poems, stories, and novels. Even though only one of his novels was completed, with another not finally edited, it is in the field of the Hebrew novel that Shabtai made his most significant contribution to Israeli literature. He combined a bleak, realistic outlook with a humor unusual on the Israeli literary landscape, bringing a touch of Yiddish irony and fluency to the archetypically local scene. From the outset, in his first volume of short stories, Ha-Dod Peretz Mamri (1972), he imprinted this scene with an elegiac tone, mourning the loss of a vanishing world embodied in the death of the narrator's grandmother. It is not just an individual who is passing, but a generation, and, with that generation, a way of life and an earlier, now departed civilization.

His most remarkable and permanent work is the completed novel, Zikhron Devarim (1977; Past Continuous, 1985). It is primarily a portrait of three individuals, three middle-aged Israeli men whose lives in Tel Aviv over a nine-month period, are presented in the context of two events in the "life" of one of them. The two events which frame the narrative are the death of Goldman's father, which sets the scene, with the tragic and hilarious funeral, and then Goldman's own demise, precisely nine months later. This time frame, as noted by one of the other characters, Caesar, precisely fits the period of gestation. And it remains as an ironic comment that the time required for the creation of a life is signaled here by two points of life's closure. The innovation, for the Hebrew novel, lies in the manner of its telling. The whole is presented as a single paragraph. Although the narrative is broken up into separate sentences, there is no separation into chapters. Its is a single sequence, as it were, to be read in one breath, clearly an impossible demand made upon the reader by a work of 280 pages. The English translation dispenses with this typological requirement.

This work is a roman fleuve, although in this particular rendering of the genre, all is compressed in one volume. Here the consciousness of the three heroes, presented through the objective, omniscient eye of a third person narrator, is passed from one to the other over the period described. But there is a seemingly seamless shift in place, time, and person that allows the reorientation of the narrative. Although we are presented with an ongoing narrative, that sequence also comprises flashbacks and memories, as well as projections forward. Thus there is a comprehensive portrait here of the human frame, albeit offered through a specific lens. The three characters also constitute a microcosm of attitudes, as well as a society in miniature. Goldman, through his father's and his own death, acts as an anchor. Clearly, he cannot comment on the latter event, so Caesar, who cannot believe that good things can come to an end, acts as a necessary foil. The third character, Yisrael, the youngest of the three, is a rather undefined figure, living in the shadow of the other two, and taking his posture from them. Caesar charges around, blustering, protesting, womanizing, gourmandizing. Goldman experiments with philosophies and interpretations of life. Yisrael, quietly and rather ill-naturedly, observes from the sidelines.

Here, there is no single hero. But there is a force that shapes their lives, as well as the pulse of the society that encases it. That force is the movement of time. In the second novel, which was later edited by the author's widow together with the critic Dan Miron and published posthumously under the title Sof Davar (1984; Past Perfect, 1987), a different stance and literary technique are adopted. The single paragraph technique is abandoned, and instead we have a narrative in four parts with a single hero. But each section adopts a different standpoint, culminating in the finale which explicitly surrenders any presumption of naturalism. An omniscient narrator comments on the central character, Meir, who is on the way to death, and beyond ("sof davar," a quotation from Ecclesiastes, means "the end of the matter").

The prominent element in Shabtai's work is the tragic sense of life, and its impending end. However, this is presented with a vibrant and original brio. Shabtai's plays include: The Life of Caligula (1975); The Chosen (1976); Don Juan and His Friend Shipel (1978); The Spotted Tiger (1985); Crowned Head and Other Plays (1995); and Eating (1999).


H. Herzig, Ha-Shem ha-Perati (1994); D. Miron: Pinkas Patu'aḥ (1979); L. Yudkin, 1948 and After: Aspects of Israeli Fiction (1984); idem, Beyond Sequence: Current Israeli Fiction and its Context (1992).

[Leon I. Yudkin (2nd ed.)]