By JON PAPERNICK
THE PURE ELEMENT OF TIME
By Haim Be'er
Translated by Barbara Harshav.
282 pages. Brandeis University Press. $26.
Towards the end of Haim Be'er's lyrical autobiographical
novel, The Pure Element of Time, Be'er's ailing mother offers advice to her
son, a burgeoning poet who is upset that an editor has desecrated a line about
his late father. "Words," she says, "unlike human beings, can
always be brought back to life." His mother's deathbed aphorism, more than
any other line in Be'er's elegiac memoir, crystallizes the writer's eternal
struggle to capture the past, revivify it, even as it slips away into the vault
of memory. In Be'er's own version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,
Jerusalem of the late 1940s and early '50s is brought back to life with such
loving detail that the divided city, groaning under strain of rationing, rife
with landmines, barbed wire, haunted Holocaust survivors, and holy men, comes
to life again, having escaped the thousand eyes of the Angel of Death to exist
forever on the page.
Be'er, who is an acclaimed novelist and poet, grew up during
the siege of Jerusalem in the ultraorthodox neighborhood of Geula, along the
main route of local funeral processions. In the novel, he describes his
upbringing as the only living child of his rational iconoclastic mother and his
embittered religious father. He finds early solace in the magical tales of his
ancient grandmother, who weaves stories of the "Old Yishuv," of the
genesis of Mea Shearim where the inhabitants "wanted time to stand
still," and of great rabbis from Mainz, and Shklov and Berdichev, one of
whom was said to have saved the life of the hunted Napoleon by hiding him and
exchanging greatcoats. These stories provide the first spark for the young writer
Be'er, though many of the endless tales of lineage are little more than
tangential stories, third-hand accounts of people who are never mentioned
The second section of the book retells the history of
Be'er's parents, both of whom had tragic first marriages, and how the fallout
carried over into their second marriages. Again, the dizzying relay of names
and tales threatens to bog the reader down as the story spins off down the
backroads of memory. The book works better when Be'er focuses on his own
memories. His eye for detail is stunning, bending similitudes over the convex
surface of his mind's eye. Whitewash and plaster raining from the ceiling as an
Arab shell hits his apartment is described as a scattering of "white ants."
His bar mitzvah—a comic romp echoing Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav's tale,
"The Seven Beggars"—is marred by a brawl over chicken quarters, that
ends with young Be'er shouting at his father, "Don't touch me, you crazy
man! I hate you!" A touching Shabbat trip to the biblical zoo shows his
father's tender side, as he breaks the Sabbath, paying for entry so as not to
disappoint his son.
But even as his father lays on his deathbed, Be'er is unable
to reconcile with the man he despised for his humble immigrant background
selling eggs at the local Tnuva branch, for his religious hypocrisy, for his
passion spent supporting amateur cantorial music, and perhaps worst of all, for
bringing up his son in a house with no books.
Be'er's mother serves as the nascent writer's shining light,
neglecting housework to devour Mann, Tolstoy, and Babel. She advises her son,
"Go out among the people," echoing Gorky, "If you run away from
life... you'll never write anything worthwhile." And then, offering her
own advice, she says, "Don't finish high school, don't matriculate, you
don't have to go to university either. The main thing is to read books." The
young Be'er haunts the dusty bookstores and chilled libraries of Jerusalem and
discovers "the tremor of the breath of culture" rising from pages
like a spirit. And just as his mother protects him from the school authorities
during the week, as he wanders from Bamberger and Wahrman's bookstore to the
"The Light" to Sheinberger's, she intercedes on Shabbat to protect
him from his father's anger, who could never accept that his son would abandon
him on the Sabbath leaving him to "go childless" to synagogue.
Finally, after his father's death, Be'er is able to forgive
the man with a poem that he writes, significantly, on the Sabbath.
Be'er deftly navigates the rich landscape of the past in The Pure Element of Time, dusting off
old memories, coaxing them to speak and take their place among us in the world
of the living. It is a worthwhile journey, allowing the reader rare insight
into the formation of a young writer.