Shaked, Gershon

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

SHAKED, GERSHON

SHAKED, GERSHON (1929–2006), one of the most prominent scholars and the foremost historian of Modern Hebrew narrative fiction in the second half of the 20th century. His research and criticism have touched on nearly every author and literary phenomenon in modern Hebrew literature from the 1850s onward, in monographs on individual authors and studies of literary schools. Although he has devoted most of his work to Hebrew fiction, Shaked has also made significant contributions to the study of modern Hebrew drama and poetry and of Jewish literature by central European authors writing in German (Kafka, Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig) and by American-Jewish authors (such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth). Shaked's significant influence as a scholar of culture and literature can be discerned from concepts and terms he coined and which have become an integral part of Hebrew critical discourse, such as: "The New Wave" (the name he gave to the group of authors also known as "The State Generation": Amos *Oz, Aharon *Appelfeld, Yehuda *Amichai, A.B. *Yehoshua, Amalia *Kahana-Carmon); "Genre" and "Anti-Genre" (following Y.H. *Brenner's critical writing); the terms "naïve literature" and "ironic literature" (which he used to delineate two different directions in early 20th century literature, representing conflicting world views and poetics); "Homo-Economicus" (a characterization that marked Mendele's poetics); and "a literature against all odds" and "there is no other place" (phrases that stem from Brenner's oeuvre, reflecting Shaked's ideological stance which affirms Zionism despite its errors and flaws).

Shaked was born in Vienna as Gerhard Mandel. In 1939, following the "Anschluss" and the imprisonment and release of his father from Buchenwald, he was sent to Palestine, later to be joined by his parents. Shaked was educated at an Israeli boarding school and later graduated from the Herzliya Gymnasium. After his military service, he studied Hebrew literature, the Bible, and history at the Hebrew University. In 1964 he earned his Ph.D. with a thesis about Hebrew historical drama during the period of "Revival" (1880–1948).

He went on to study in Switzerland and in 1959 began teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he eventually became professor and chair of the department of Hebrew literature and taught until his retirement. Shaked was guest professor at various universities worldwide and was awarded the Bialik Prize (1986) and the Israel Prize (1993).

In the opening remarks to his early book Bein Ẓeḥok le-Dema (1965), Shaked questions the critical tradition that evaluated Mendele by the degree of accuracy of his description of reality. Shaked asks: "What has the account of reality got to do with the force of a creative literary heritage?" Later on, under the influence of the so-called "Reception Theory," he wrote social historical essays on Israeli culture. In Sifrut Az, Ka'an ve-Akhshav (1993), he focuses on the "relationships between the different social models and literature." In Gal Ḥadash ba-Sifrut ha-Ivrit he wrote: "The underlying assumption is that literature mirrors culture (note: culture – not reality!), and cultural self-awareness is one of the important contributions literary criticism can make." Shaked labored on the refinement of such self-awareness throughout his long career.

Shaked's early work was influenced by Anglo-American "New Criticism," but he never adopted its teachings completely. In his remarks to Omanut ha-Sippur shel Agnon (1976), Shaked admits: "I have tried to learn from different researchers; but I have not practiced theories and have not leaned on doctrines. The author and his work have stood at the center of my study (…). It is no secret that of all the various approaches the one closest to me is that which positions 'the craft of narrative fiction' itself at the center of the critical or interpretative discussion."

Shaked identified himself as a skeptical New Critic and structuralist, but in 1971 he moved in the opposite direction in his book Im Tishkaḥ Ei Pa'am. The book's title is a phrase borrowed from Bernard Malamud: "Nathan, she said, if you ever forgot you are a Jew, a Goy will remind you." In his study of Jewish American literature, Shaked's underlying assumption is that Jews writing in different languages and different literatures share a common ground. This inter-Jewish relation may be characterized through mentality, themes, and motifs.

Before embarking on his monumental five-volume history of Hebrew narrative prose, Shaked had already formed the conviction that sociology, ethnicity, and personal biography or identity must be an integral part of literary debate. Shaked's Gal Ḥadash ba-Sipporet ha-Ivrit (1970) turned out to be the book which canonized Yehoshua, Oz, Applefeld, and Kahana-Carmon. Years later, Shaked re-formulated his observation, as the assumptions which underlined his early study of Gal Ḥadash now seemed inaccurate to him: "The premises that the literature of the New Wave distanced itself from collective social questions and focused on individual issues was wrong. This generation was involved from the outset in collective questions, but expressed its concern for the collective in ways different from those of the previous generation."

Early in his brilliant career Shaked began to think about a monumental history of modern Hebrew narrative fiction. A retrospective scrutiny of his writings reveals the seeds Shaked had sown in preparation for this project and the ways in which he prepared himself for it.

The preliminary process included two slim volumes: Al Arba'a Sippurim (1963) and Al Sheloshah Maḥazot (1968). In these textbooks, Shaked introduced the tools of close readings of drama and fiction. These tools allowed Shaked to practice one of the convictions he adopted from his teacher Emile Stieger, a conviction he later tried to pass on to his own students: "you must grasp that which grabs us" about a literary text. Shaked established the historiosophical grounds for his work in two other early works: Bein Ẓeḥok le-Dema and Ha-Maḥazeh ha-Ivri bi-Tekufat ha-Teḥiyyah. With regard to the first, the question may arise, why did Shaked choose to focus on Mendele in his early scholarly work? One of the answers, according to Shaked's own testimony, is Mendele's central position in the Hebrew canon that compelled the young scholar to stage a "new internal debate" between previous generations of scholars and himself. That new internal debate, with Mendele acting as mediator, is a fundamental aspect of Shaked's historio-literary research. Shaked crowned Mendele (that is, Sholem Yankev *Abramovitsh, or "Mendele Mokher Seforim") the founder of modern Hebrew literature. His late book, Mendele, Lefanav ve-Aḥarav (2005), goes back to Mendele, recapitulating Mendele's revolutionary influence on Hebrew literature in a re-reading of Sefer ha-Kabẓanim and in relation to Smolenskin, Charles Dickens, Agnon, Bashevis Singer, and others.

According to Shaked, Mendele is the leading figure of a new position marked by the disillusionment and disappointment with the universalist premises of the Haskalah on the one hand and a recognition of the dramatic rise of a nationalist Jewish movement on the other hand.

In the first volume of Ha-Sipporet ha-Ivrit, Shaked notes that there are some who consider the pogroms of 1881 as the turning point in Hebrew literature. According to him, the social, thematic, and artistic changes in the "book and bookmakers market" took place only in the 1890s, with Mendele focusing primarily on Hebrew, instead of mostly Yiddish writing. This tradition paved the way for the dominance of the "literature of revival," or – in Shaked's terminology – "the Zionist master-plot" (also: "the Zionist master narrative").

The second principle emerging from Shaked's internal debate with previous scholars concerns the innovation he recognized in Mendele's conception of humankind. Prior to Mendele, Haskalah authors saw people first and foremost as idea-centered beings. A person was homo sapiens, or rather homo ideologicus. Other characteristics including primal needs such as sex, food, physical security, and emotional connection were ignored. Mendele reversed the order, as did Shaked. The conceptual human was of little interest to him. Instead, he considered the economical being, homo economicus, and the sexual being in their corporeal physical as well as psychological aspects.

The reciprocal ties between ideological, biological, physical, sociological, and psychological components in the balance that Mendele created are valuable to Shaked for mainly two reasons. First, because he is unwilling to ignore the ideological level yet prefers works which challenge it, armed with irony. Shaked has always praised authors who burst hot ideological balloons and ridicule ideological characters. Correspondingly, Shaked has been critical of authors who "conform," those who serve as a voice for dominant ideological stands. Second, Shaked has a distinct preference for the comical mode, according to Northrop Frye: the comical in its various shadings is consistently based – especially in Mendele's writing – on a "lowering" depiction and on observing people from their stomachs and below.

Bein Ẓeḥok le-Dema marks the point of departure for a great historical research. Ha-Maḥazeh ha-Ivri ha-Histori bi-Tekufat ha-Teḥiyyah heralds some of the compositional characteristics of Shaked's monumental project of Hebrew narrative prose. Like the five-volume Ha-Sipporet ha-Ivrit (1880–1980), this book focuses on a genre or a master-genre. In the drama project the time frame is explicit: the period of "revival." In the book on narrative fiction the limits are not as clear cut, but rather implied. The fiction studied here frames one hundred years of Zionism. The most essential common denominator of these two projects is their teleological goal. In both, the author views the past in order to better understand it but also in order to understand the present. In his introduction to Ha-Maḥazeh ha-Ivri, Shaked distinguishes between an "archeological" method that does not import the past into the present and a "current events" method that touches the past as "material the playwright-interpreter interprets without reviving the material itself." It seems that already in this early work Shaked found his golden mean between the historical and the historiosophical. This path served him in many of his research projects and reached its peak in the history of modern Hebrew narrative fiction. The closer Shaked comes to his own time, the more he takes on the role of historical interpreter alongside that of a literary historian. His discussions of the Sinai war, the Lavon affair, and the Eichmann trial in the fifth volume illustrate this. Shaked's biography has developed into a crucial interpretative tool as well, as can be seen in the chapter on Ruth *Almog in the fifth volume.

There are distinct differences between the early Ha-Maḥazeh ha-Ivri and the late Ha-Sipporet ha-Ivrit which need to be mentioned. In the early book, Shaked studies the work of several dramatists without attempting to group his portraits into a comprehensive dramatic story. As he says in the introduction to the book, it "follows the history of topics, structures, characterization and dialogue, and attempts to paint a synoptic picture of different angles" – not an evolving developmental structure that would proceed as a plot of a story or a play might. In his comprehensive history of modern Hebrew narrative fiction on the other hand, Shaked created a compositional structure that is committed to analytical "objective" categories; at the same time it adheres to an internal plot and rationale. In other words, in this book Shaked appears as researcher and dramatist. Indeed, this monumental study is a vast performance that includes dozens of main characters and hundreds of marginal ones, attempting not only to delineate them as they were, but also as who they might have been. For this purpose Shaked constructs plots and counter-plots which are motivated by ideological, socio-historical, and psychological tensions, and by purely artistic tensions as well.

Literary research is the heart of Shaked's work, but he has not detached himself from contemporary literature. He has closely followed the literature written in the last fifty years, reviewing individual works and tracing wider literary trends and directions which he marked, named, characterized in great detail, and evaluated according to clear aesthetic and thematic criteria. In the 1950s he was a part of the "Likrat" group (together with Nathan *Zach, Benjamin *Harshav, Aryeh *Sivan, Moshe *Dor, and others), that introduced a poetics and cultural agenda.

Shaked stood by the cradle of the "New Wave" authors, read some of their works in manuscript, and encouraged the poetic direction their works took. In his numerous literary reviews he repeatedly demanded "literary realization" of the authors, that is, a full and detailed depiction of social and human situations.

In 2001 Shaked published his first novel, Mehagerim, a story of immigration based on his own experience. The book was translated into German (2006). His influence on Israeli fiction made its way into various fictionalized portraits that authors such as R. Almog and A.B. Yehoshua painted of him in their prose.

bibliography:

A. Band, "A History of Modern Hebrew Fiction," in: Prooftexts, 1:1 (1981), 115–8; E. Fiedler, "Gershon Shaked y el facsinate mundo de la ficcion hebrea," in: Coloquio, 11 (1983), 51–55; A Mintz, "On Gershon Shaked's S.Y. Agnon: A Revolutionary Traditionalist," in: Hebrew Studies, 32 (1991), 61–6; W. Iser, "German Jewish Writers during the Decline of the Hapsburg Monarchy. Assessing the Assessment of G. Shaked," in: Ideology and Jewish Identity in Israeli and American Literature (2001), 259–73; Y. Pelleg, "The Critic as a Dialectical Zionist," in: Prooftexts, 23:3 (2003), 296–382;

[Yigal Schwartz (2nd ed.)]