Page 159 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 37

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MOSKOWITZ / SHOFFMAN: UNIVERSAL ARTIST
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quest for a religious surrogate, as they seek the elusive, the exotic,
and the forbidden. Shoffman’s uprooted, wandering aliens ulti­
mately arrive at the house of prostitution because it represents, as
the Israeli critic Gershon Shaked has pointed out, “that station
which all humanity arrives at regardless of religion and race.”
In his delineation of character Shoffman also reveals that his
psychological probings transcend time and place. Whether de­
scribing the cruelty of the Russian barracks during the Russo-
Japanese War, or an affair with a pre-pubescent girl in the Aust­
rian countryside soon after World War I, or the search for a thrill
in pre-Hitlerite Vienna, the emphasis is on the universal graces
and failures of the human character, rather than on history or
geography.
Thus, in the story “Eynayim u-Neharot” (Eyes and Rivers), for
instance, even so marked an historical event as the rise of Nazism
occurs as the background against which the necessary business of
flirtation and seduction goes on. This particular story, however,
also gives the reader a glimpse of the noted Shoffman “span,” as
the protagonist arrives in Vienna at a time when one can still enjoy
the provocative young blonde on the park bench. Though the
hero, now married, returns time and again to his beloved Vienna
to relish the forbidden, he finally notices that the beautiful blue
eyes have turned cold and hateful. In a surrealistic and ironic
conclusion, the protagonist is punished for his perversity by
blindness, and his seemingly innocent passion is destroyed by the
greater madness of Hitler.
With all of Shoffman’s universality, however, it is noteworthy
that he devoted his career to polishing, refining, and extracting
the essence of the Hebrew sentence. Discarding the elaborate
ornamentation of the Haskalah writers, and taking Hebrew prose
one step farther from the satirical style of his predecessor and
mentor, Mendele Mokher Seforim, Shoffman evolved a Hebrew
phrase which is lean as it is lyrical, soft-hued as it is stark.
Thematically, as well, there is a prominent Jewish element,
even in those stories written before Shoffman’s arrival in Pales­
tine. An examination of some of these stories reveals the inelucta­
ble stamp of the Jewish ethos. Such works as “Le-Yad ha-Derekh”
(At the Wayside), “Dubrovna,” and “Lefanim be-Yisrael” (Once
Upon a Time in Israel) contain as their nucleus the essential
Jewishness of Shoffman’s early life. One finds here the childhood
home, characters drawn from actual family, friends, and neigh­