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Nathan Hill, THE NIX (2016)



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DANIEL DERONDA and Modern Zionism

If you haven't finished the novel, HERE BE SPOILERS. Consider coming back when you're done.

This is an early picture of Jews returning to modern-day Israel. It was taken in 1947. It has nothing to do with DANIEL DERONDA.

True, as George Eliot's sweeping, final novel comes to a close, we do have an intimate vision of Deronda setting off for "the East" in search of his personal roots as well as the foundations of his new Jewish identity. By "the East," both the character and the author are probably talking, not about China or India, but about the Middle East, specifically what had been called the Levant, or perhaps modern-day Israel. But actually, it's not that simple, not that definite. It's vague. It had to be, as you'll see.

One of the first synagogues built in modern-day Israel, from about 1885.At the time the novel was written (the mid-1870s) and even the time when it was set (the late 1860s), Deronda's and Mirah's voyage would have been nothing short of pioneering--and dangerous at that. The first modern "colony" of Jews in what is now Israel was founded only in 1860, just a few years before the action of the novel. That colony was always a tenuous affair. It didn't even last. In fact, the first lasting resettlement occurred in the early 1880s, years after the events of the novel and in fact a few years after Eliot's death. So if Deronda's voyage would have actually taken place in the real world, it would have been an extremely early expression of what came to be known as Zionism, the political and cultural movement to relocate the Jews to a homeland.

A homeland, not "the." And which one? It's not easy to answer. After the Roman Empire brutally crushed the Jewish uprising in 70 CE, the Jews were scattered throughout the Mediterranean region, first settling in modern-day Turkey; around Alexandria, Egypt; and in modern-day Iran near Tehran--and then spreading farther and farther out across the Empire, the far East, and Africa. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, the bulk of European Jewish settlements were in the region of modern-day Poland, Hungary, and eastern Russia; but there were many more on the Iberian peninsula and even in northern Africa.

By the nineteenth century, a revival of both Hebrew and Rabbinic culture across Europe (see the previous post) led to the belief that the Jews would never be able to practice their religion properly without being in their own land. These were the halcyon days for the idea of what we now call the "nation-state," the nineteenth century absurdity that claimed each ethnicity should have its own place: the French, the British, the Germans, etc. Of course, you'd have to buy that the French, the British, the Germans, etc., are indeed ethnicities, apart from languages and, say, cooking techniques. However, such was the world they lived in--and that we inherited. So nations were supposed to equal races (another nineteenth-century absurdity).

The first Zionist conference in 1897Early Zionist leaders suggested many places as a homeland: yes, what's now modern Israel, then controlled by the Ottoman Empire; but also Uganda, Argentina, and even a few spots in India. These suggestions are what account for George Eliot's rather vague notion of "the East."

In truth, there wasn't a concerted call yet for modern Israel to be what it now is. After all, that region had been run over by the Crusaders, by various conquering armies, and finally by the Ottomans. It wasn't exactly Paradise.

Things would take a dramatic turn after the close of Eliot's novel--and indeed, after the end of her life--when Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian journalist, penned Der Judenstaat ("The Jewish State") in 1896, a plea for a modern Israel. Herzl helped convene the first Zionist conference in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. The road began to open for more and more Jews to immigrate to Israel. But all that took place decades after DANIEL DERONDA.

By the way, this mass immigration is known as the Aliyah (ah-lee-yah), a Hebrew word that means something like "the going up." If you're familiar with the language of the Bible, you know that Tanakh (what Christians call "the Old Testament") repeatedly refers to Jerusalem as "up." "Let us go up to Jerusalem." Thus, the Aliyah (or "going up") is the modern term for the mass migrations that began at the turn of the twentieth century and then picked up speed after World War II. That first permanent settlement in the 1880s is now referred to in retrospect as the first Aliyah. Still, Deronda in the 1860s would have been well ahead of this, even well ahead of Herzl.

Indeed, Eliot was well ahead of her time. Don't think that it was a common thing that Deronda should head to "the East." Eliot was sensing--even predicting--something that would happen in the decades after her death.

Theodor HerzlAs an interesting side note, Herzl's Zionism was motivated by the pogroms that regularly ran across Russia, murdering and disappearing Jews by the millions long before the Holocaust. By the time Herzl was writing, the notion that the Jews should return to their ancient homeland, what we now call Israel, was well versed--but not before. Many early Zionists believed that Jews simply needed a place, any place, of their own. In fact, because of the intense antisemitism inside Russia in the nineteenth century, many Jewish intellectuals supported Germany in World War I. It's easy--and deadly--to imagine that the devil you don't know is better than the devil you do.

Of course, much happened post-DERONDA. The Ottomans were defeated in World War I. They lost their empire. Great Britain picked up the pieces in a colonial move that proved tricky, if not absurd. The genocidal nightmares of the Nazis became a reality. The British gave up that land under a U. N. mandate. And the modern Aliyah (and state of Israel) began in 1948. But that's seventy-two years after DANIEL DERONDA's publication and sixty-eight years after Eliot's death. What she senses isn't a reality in the 1870s. It's not even a dream. She imagined it.


Reinventing Hebrew

A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls, written in a specific dialect of HebrewWhen Deronda learns Hebrew, it isn't quite the quiet, tame act it seems. Eliot is playing with Zionist fire. In the nineteenth century, the language itself was a charged subject--mostly because it had been long considered "dead," the province of rabbis, their students, and a few scholars. But in the mid-1800s, Hebrew began its quick resurrection.

Let's go back. Spoken Hebrew, the language of Torah (or the Old Testament) began falling out of favor sometime around 700 BCE, around the Assyrian captivity of the northern kingdom of Israel. By 400 BCE, no one spoke Hebrew; it was merely a liturgical language, the language of the sacred text. Jesus and his followers did not speak Hebrew (and certainly didn't speak Greek, the language of the New Testament). They spoke Aramaic, the formerly official language of the Assyrian Empire and a language well spread throughout the northwestern Middle East, a language related to Hebrew and Phoenecian. Parts of the Biblical books of Ezra and Daniel are written, not in Hebrew, but in Aramaic. And Aramaic, not Hebrew, became the important language of many of the commentaries on Torah. Even Hebrew itself, because it was not in use except for liturgical and rabbinic purposes, developed its own idiosyncracies unrelated to normal speech patterns. Medieval Hebrew is a language that was almost never spoken, only written, about the way Latin functioned in the Roman Catholic Church through parts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Eliezer ben-Yehuda (1858 - 1922)It probably would have stayed that way if it weren't for the rise of Zionism, the political movement that claimed the Jews were not Germans or Poles, but a unique people, subject to almost unprecedented levels of persecution, who could only find safety in a permanent homeland. Nothing aided that effort like the rise of a common language. Indeed, modern Hebrew, the language now spoken in Israel, is a nineteenth-century, Zionist creation. The Jewish intellectual Eliezer ben-Yehuda, a Lithuanian newspaper editor, undertook the almost Herculean task of bringing the language back to life.

Here was his problem: after the destruction of the Temple and the upstart Jewish rebellion against the Roman empire in 70 A.D., the Jews were brutally scattered throughout the Middle East, the Fertile Crescent, and even into modern Italy, Turkey, and Bulgaria. (This great movement of their civilization is now known as the "diaspora.") Over the centuries, often in response to official pogroms or local persecutions, Jews began to fan out across wider and wider areas. Most eventually settled in east-central Europe: eastern Germany, Poland, Ukraine, western Russia, and adjoining territories. This area has come to be known as the "pale of settlement." (That name was originally applied just to western Russia but soon began to include adjacent territories.)

While the bulk of the Jewish population settled here (and note that some of our novel takes place in Germany), many others settled far and wide. Over time, Aramaic--and even liturgical Hebrew--began fusing with the surrounding languages. By the nineteenth century, the bulk of Jews in central Europe spoke Yiddish, a fusion of Hebrew, German, Russian, and a smattering of other languages. Other Jews in Spain, Portugal, and northern Africa spoke Ladino, a fusion of liturgical Hebrew, the Sephardic dialect of Hebrew, Aramaic, Spanish, and Arabic. Jews in Lithuania spoke Litvak, a local dialect of Lithuanian. Still others, far out in central Asia, spoke Bukhori, a fusion of Aramaic, liturgical Hebrew, Tajik, and a smattering of Hindi and Chinese. Still others left in Palestine spoke Judeo-Arabic, a mostly Arabic-influenced dialect of Aramaic.

Most of these languages have died off, thanks to the rise of modern Hebrew. But they do still survive in songs. (I once sang an entire Ladino concert with a group in New York City.) Here's a clip of fantastic singer doing a Ladino number:


And of course, Yiddish was kept alive for many years in New York City with its Yiddish theaters on the Lower East Side and through many folk songs. Even if you don't know Yiddish, you know it as a line in a famous song (I think you have to get through a wretched ad first):

Modern Hebrew's problem was ancient Hebrew. Like all Semitic languages, Hebrew is built off roots. In Hebrew, three consonants in a set succession always represent some sort of general concept: water, life, meat, love, loyalty. For example, these three consonants, כתב, "ktb" (remember: Hebrew is read right to left), form the basis of the concept of "writing." Note that there are no vowels here. Hebrew is technically a language that only writes the consonants (the vowels are often added as dots and lines under or next to the consonants, dots and lines called "points," to help those not yet proficient in the language). For now, let's add a flat "a" between each consonant: katab. Now the word means "he writes." But we can start playing with, altering, and morphing that root, keeping those three consonants intact to create other words: katabnu ("we wrote"), yiktob ("he will write"), katib ("a writer"), hiktib ("he dictated"), hikatteb ("he wrote a letter"), miktab ("mail"). See: by altering the sounds around the root while keeping that root intact, we keep creating new meanings, all about writing. We can do this with hundreds of thousands of three-letter roots.

But that doesn't do much good for modern Hebrew. After all, the world is quite different from the time of King Solomon. What's the three-letter root that would offer us "democracy" or "cannon" or "tomato"? So Eliezer ben-Yehuda began fusing ancient Hebraic roots onto mostly Russian and German words. He was re-inventing a language to deal with concepts like "cotton gin" or "whiskey" or "czar." He was creating words. He also began to change the language itself, using the grammar of German and Russian to "modernize" Hebrew. For example, Biblical Hebrew isn't very big on verb tenses: past, present, future. They're there but slippery. Ben-Yehuda began introducing mode modern verb tenses into his version of Hebrew, standardizing the language to make it more "European."

In so doing, he was creating controversies. Most Rabbis considered his efforts heretical. Hebrew was liturgical, sacred. Furthermore, ben-Yehuda adopted a pronunciation system that was Sephardic--that is, mostly from Spain and northern Africa--not the Ashkenazi system favored by most Jews in central Europe.

But how else will you form a nation out of whole cloth without a unified language? Ben-Yehuda was one of the very earliest immigrants to Palestine in the early 1880s. But his ridiculously complicated efforts soon paid off. Zionism soon breathed life into the hope for a homeland. (It came too late for six million.) At the turn of the century, Jews began arriving more and more in the "Holy Land." They came from all over; they needed a common language, especially since they faced so much resistance among the local populations. Ben-Yehuda had crafted a ready answer. His work produced the Hebrew that is now the language of Israel.

And one more thing, closely related. If you don't know about klezmer, the Yiddish-focused music style popular with Jews across Europe (and of course, the namesake of a certain musician in our novel), here's one of my favorite groups, The Isle of Klezbos, a lesbian klezmer band, giving a rousing live performance:


The Hottest Narrators, Tartar Or Not

Since this book has such a mouthy narrator, I thought it might be a good opportunity just to remind you of the five sorts of narrators that exist in the European/American literary tradition:

1. First-person limited perspective narrator. This big talker, of course, tells the story as an "I" (that is, using the grammatical first person pronoun). Almost all "I" narrators are first-person limited perspective ones, meaning that the "I" of the story sees things only through his or her own eyes (and thus doesn't know everything that's going on). Think Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield. Think of the first three chapters of THE SOUND AND THE FURY (we are going to read that book some day). Think of almost any memoir or autobiography you could read. However, this stance doesn't have to be an "I" narrator. The first-person limited perspective can be a "we." Think of that glorious book about Japanese brides in America we read last year, Julie Otsuka's THE BUDDHA IN THE ATTIC.

2. First-person omniscient narrator.  
This is far rarer, an "I" narrator who sees, hears, and knows everything. Imagine writing a book from God's perspective with God telling the story. Or imagine some of those horrid political autobiographies or memoirs that come out every election season. This storytelling stance is far harder to pull off since it frequently becomes turgid, overblown, or downright insufferable. However, this stance is frequently used in religious texts in which the diety speaks directly. One of the most amazing things about the Jewish narrative tradition (from which the Christian one springs) is that God is never the title character. God is a character in a narrative which claims to report his speech.

3. Third-person limited perspective narrator. Henry James is said to have perfected this art: a story told in the third person grammatically (he or she did this or that) with the perspective strictly limited to that character's eyes and ears. In other words, nothing happens that he or she wouldn't see or experience. THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY is one example. But an imperfect one because there are chapters throughout that happen without Isabel's presence (Gilbert and Madame Merle have a talk fireside, for example). A whole novel in third person strictly from the main character's perspective is a tough act to pull off. Once you start writing about a character in the third person, it's hard to control it to just his or her eyes. Some modern novelists, however, do it quite well--like Ian McEwan in ENDURING LOVE or Richard Ford in CANADA (wow, I loved that book). Colum McCann works at it in LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, except every chapter is a new perspective from a different character's point of view.

4. Third-person omniscient narrator. This is the most common narrative stance in the Western tradition. For example, with the exception of a couple of Chaucer's characters, almost every pilgrim in THE CANTERBURY TALES tells a tale from an omniscient stance: in other words, the narrative is about a "he" or a "she" (not an "I") but the narrator behind the scenes knows everything, even what the character doesn't or can't know. George Eliot is often caught on this dilemma: she wants to write a third-person limited perspective story (only from her character's eyes) but she also often feels compelled to step back and offer a wider perspective. (Wait until DANIEL DERONDA this winter!) Most films are told from this omniscient perspective with the camera taking up "God's eye" so that it sees beyond what the characters could see. (Watch out--the bad guy is right behind that door!) One of the things that makes THE CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS OVER AN ELEVATOR IN PIAZZA VITTORIO such a bad film is the way the camera has to collapse all those first-person limited narrators into a third-person omniscient narrator--and then it just becomes a sad murder mystery.

5. Second-person narrator. Rare. Very. Basically, the whole thing is told as "you." You do this and you do that. There are some postmodern narratives written this way. David Eagleman's SUM: FORTY TALES OF THE AFTERLIVES pulls it off: after death, you go here or you go there. (Remember that book?) It's an odd stance but becoming increasingly popular with experimental writers--as if the reader is a character in the tale being told. I know an experimental writer in New York who wrote a 1200-page (!) memoir entirely in the second-person: it's his life but told it as it were about me, the reader. On this day, you have lunch with your grandmother who tells you. . . . Almost by definition, the second-person technique is a limited perspective stance: since you, the writer, are writing me into your story and telling me what I'm doing, you can only see it from my (that is, your) perspective.

So that's the run-down. There are finesses, of course. One could write a third-person plural narrative: "they." I don't know any that are successful but it's theoretically possible. And one can combine techniques, a frequent move in Victorian and post-Victorian novels. For example, Dickens' BLEAK HOUSE uses both third-person omniscient and first-person limited perspective narratives in alternating chapters: first a chapter in Esther's "I" voice, then one in the narrator's voice, then back to Esther's "I" voice, and so on. We really should read that one, too.


True Taisho

A Taisho printOn page 675, the three sisters are discussing how and why Peter Jansen would have bought the properties and allowed the families to live on the land for so long. Fuyue claims it all makes no sense. "A company's main motive is profit making, isn't it?"

Harue and Natsue respond with a bit about Taisho Romanticism:

"You can't imagine what it was like," [Natsue says,] "when there was some Taisho romanticism in the air, before the country became so militaristic." 

"Taisho romanticism would mean nothing to a Westerner," [Fuyue responds.] "They wouldn't even know what the Taisho period is."

"Oh, you just don't know. Westerners too were much more romantic back then."

It's a complicated point that takes into account Japan's history in the early part of the twentieth century.

Emperor TaishoThe Taisho period is named for Emporer Taisho, a sickly, weak man who held the imperial seat from 1912 until his death at the end of 1926. Because he was physically unable to handle much work, the reins of power slowly slipped out of his and the oligarchs' hands, coming more and more to rest in the Diet, the Japanese legislature. The preceding period (the Meiji Period) and the following period (the Showa Period) were marked by an aggressive militarism. By contrast, the Taisho period was one of relative calm.

The sisters' claim that the West was somehow "more romantic back then" is patently absurd. The West was in the middle of World War I. True, Japan sided with the allies and so won some unprecedented peace on the international front during those years. But the Russian and Chinese revolutions roiled Japan and its foreign policy, leading directly to the warmongering that culiminated in World War II.

And yes, Japan was sliding more toward a modern democracy as control fell away to the Diet.

A Western woman in a Taisho kimono and obi (sash)But the famed romanticism of that period is mostly seen as a constructed ruse, a palliative, a flimsy illusion. Inflation was at run-away levels. Westerners were moving into Japan, even buying up vast tracks of land in unforeseen numbers. The national debt soared. Student unrest--particularly communists, seen as another "Western" influence--was at an all-time high.

A Taisho schoolgirlNevertheless, the Japanese even today have a hankering for the period. Entire festivals still feature young women parading down the street in Taisho fabrics. They look back in fondness on Taisho schoolgirls, so innocent and young. On Taisho geishas, the height of their craft. On Taisho architecture, so delicate and spare.

Those buildings weren't made to last. And they didn't. In 1923, the 7.9 Kando earthquake, centered just off the coast near Tokyo, devastated the countryside, destorying ports and entire towns, killing over 140,000, and causing unsanitary conditions that allowed a typhoid epidemic to kill tens of thousands more. Japan could be said to have never recovered from the earthquake--until late in the 1930s.

And by then, of course, it was too late. That vaunted Taisho romanticism is partly what allowed Hirohito to rise to new heights of power. 


True Karuizawa

As you know by now, much of the action of A TRUE NOVEL takes place in and around Karuizawa, a popular weekend destination for those wishing to escape the excessive summer heat and humidity in Tokyo, much like Litchfield county is for those in New York City. Karuizawa lies in the Nagano prefecture, a little over 100 miles west-northwest from Tokyo. Karuizawa also lies near the very center of the main island of Japan. The town is dominated by its views of Mount Asama, a fairly active volcano that has erupted often in modern history, as recently as 2009. Asama is still categorized by the Japanese Meteorological Agency as a Rank A volcano--that is, more eruptions are imminent.

Mount AsamaThe central shopping district of Karuizawa--its "ginza"--is lined with old-school shops, many of them fostering nostalgia for a "lost" Japan. Fine ceramic tea cups, bits of antique lace, and even rice paddy shoes can be found among the stalls. In fact, many Japanese still consider Karuizawa to be an oasis from modernism, as opposed to other locales nearby in Nagano which include many industrial towns and some collapsed agrarian enclaves, no longer viable.

Karuizawa's ginza.

That said, Karuizawa has been repeatedly rebuilt until much of it looks about like a tourist town in the United States--say, Estes Park, Colorado, or Woodstock, Vermont. As you can see by this photo, there's been a concerted effort over the years to "Westernize" the town, adding architectural features that look distinctly disjunctive in a place that celebrates its connection of an older, lost Japan.

Karuizawa was "discovered" in the nineteenth-century by Christian missionaries, as they moved out from Tokyo into the countryside. They themselves set up small chapels and homes here to seek a cooling climate from the beastly summer weather of Tokyo. Soon, Western bankers and merchants followed, building more lavish homes, many of them in the style of Swiss chalets or American Western "cabins." The grandeur of these residences contrasted sharply with the poorer, more downscale surrounding towns.

 After World War II, any Western ownership (but perhaps not its influence) waned considerably. Today, the area has been revitalized as wealthy Japanese families purchase land to build newer, even grander homes or as development groups buy up sets of home to tear them down for upscale condominium developments.

Here's a vacation home for sale today in Karuizawa.

Even the Prince Hotel has undergone a renaissance. It has now sprawled out into several, large, luxury hotels. They cater to the the winter sports crowd who come for the new ski runs in the area. In fact, Karuizawa has morphed into an all-year resort.

One of the Prince Hotels

And yet it remains what it has been for over a century: an odd amalgam of West and East, a representative of the way Japanese culture can assimilate foreign ideas and concepts. Take, for example, this shot from the edge of town.