Jacob Wallenstein Is the Greatest Science-Fiction Writer to Never Have Lived
The Israeli’s magnum opus, ‘Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,’ is so good, it should have existed
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is the undiscovered thousand-page 1955 sci-fi magnum opus of an obscure Düsseldorf-born writer named Jacob Wallenstein: Zionist, fan of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, longtime anonymous resident of the Ginosar Hotel on Rothschild Avenue in Tel Aviv—until his death, possibly of arson-suicide, on July 20, 1969. Wallenstein’s largely plotless novel, inspired by George Orwell and in which inhabitants of the futuristic developed world sit for hours in front of blinking screens, was originally titled A Blueprint for the World in the Year 2050. Among other prophetic ideas about technology and governance, it envisioned a “Telewriter,” part typewriter, part television screen, and part telephone that allows people to communicate and exchange written messages. Almost all copies of the work, published by an Israeli tailor turned bookseller in five cheap paperback volumes with detailed drawings and charts, were lost in a fire. Yet Wallenstein deserves a place of distinction in Israeli—if not world—literature as the author of the first and most ambitious work of science fiction ever written in Hebrew.
Except that Jacob Wallenstein doesn’t exist. His book and his life story are the creation of a young Israeli writer named Shay Azoulay, who tried to pass off fiction as fact—by attempting to sell the invention as a short literary biography to Tablet.
“I’d like to write a brief biography of the forgotten Israeli writer Jacob Wallenstein,” Azoulay’s proposal read, before adding this parenthetical: “(perhaps forgotten is the wrong term—you have to be known to be forgotten).” When in correspondence I asked what was timely about the subject—if a new biography had just come out, or a reprint, or a scholarly discovery—Azoulay wrote, “As far as I know no one in any literary community is even aware of [Wallenstein’s] existence. He is perhaps rightfully out-of-print and forgotten, but I think the story of his life is worth telling.”
We agreed, and three weeks later, a draft of the article arrived, titled “Jacob Wallenstein, Notes for a Future Biography.” We offered $250 for it. Azoulay replied, “I’m glad you liked the piece.” We decided to hold the essay to run it in time for the anniversary of the moon landing, shelved the edit, and returned to sitting in front of blinking screens.
Then, a few months ago, we set out to prepare the piece for publication. We did some Googling, but neither Wallenstein, nor his book, nor his tailor-publisher “Mier Mizrachi” returned any hits. We shrugged it off, initially: Israel is sometimes a magical place, and it was indeed a desert in the 1940s and a rough, disorganized, nearly extra-terrestrial-seeming outpost in the 1950s. Wasn’t it possible that a lost work of science fiction—a genre recently experiencing a revival in the Jewish state—had no paper or even Internet trail?
Azoulay, though, existed online. He had a Facebook profile and a website that identified him as a playwright, translator, and fiction writer, and the recipient of an award for a staged satire about the IDF. The essay he wrote described a cover by the editor’s regular illustrator, “Arieh Moscovitch,” that showed “a blonde woman sporting a ray gun and wearing a space suit that inexplicably reveals her cleavage, against a background of purple dunes,” which would have done nicely for our click rates. Did he have it? Could he put us in touch with the archivist at the National Library of Israel, where the only surviving copy of the book was stored?
“I’m actually with my wife at the hospital,” he wrote. “She’s about to give birth.”
“Mazel tov!” I replied. And enlisted the help of my Israeli colleague, Liel Leibovitz.
Leibovitz should have been overjoyed at the discovery of a great, obscure, early Israeli sci-fi tome: It was, he said, a dream for a boy like him, many of whose afternoons were spent reciting the three laws of robotics or contemplating the machinations of life on the moon. I asked Leibovitz to use the virtual Hebrew keyboard to look for Wallenstein. He tried every variation of spelling that came to mind. He Googled the name of the author and the title of his book and searched for both alongside such key terms as “Israeli science fiction.” Nothing came up. We had been told that a single copy was entombed in the national library, so Leibovitz spent another hour dialing archivists, trying to find the elusive master. But Wallenstein didn’t want to be found.
Eventually Leibovitz turned up a 242-page master’s thesis titled “Science Fiction in Israel”; Wallenstein was not there, even as a rumor. He called the thesis’s author, the talented translator Inbal Saggiv-Nakdimon.
It was dinner-time in Israel, he said, and he could hear that Saggiv was having supper in what sounded like a lively household. She listened politely as he told her about the Ginosar Hotel and the Telewriters and all of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow’s wonders. Then, he asked her about Wallenstein. She took her time responding. A moment or two later, in a confident voice, she said, “I have never come across that name.”
Finally, Azoulay—mistakenly, he said—sent us a picture of him with his newborn. We were confident now the whole thing was a fake (except for the baby), so I wrote to him: “The book Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow: it exists, right?”
Azoulay relented: “Your suspicions are right, there is no such book and no such writer.” After apologetic statements, he added, “I’m no Jonah Lehrer, this was not an attempt to scam anyone or commit fraud, simply what I thought would be a harmless literary hoax in the style of Wanda Tinasky”—the bag lady who ostensibly wrote erudite letters to Northern California local newspapers in the 1980s, and was rumored to be a pseudonym of Thomas Pynchon. “I really am sorry if all this has been a huge waste of your time and effort, it was just a desperate attempt to get noticed in an overcrowded field.”
So, it was a hoax—but what kind? At first, Azoulay had seemed to be working in the sordid vein of Stephen Glass, inventing details of a story he hadn’t actually bothered to properly report. But on further reflection, he seemed to be more Bolaño or Borges than Jayson Blair. For example, much of what we know about Wallenstein is conveyed in an interview with one Uriel Halperin, supposedly the tragic writer’s best and only friend. Halperin, as any literate Israeli may know, was the real name of Yonatan Ratosh, a celebrated 20th-century poet and a founder of the Canaanite movement, which was strongly influenced by the ancient, pre-biblical mythology of the land that would eventually become Israel. Ratosh’s literary creations—rich with flourishes like interpreting the story of the Garden of Eden as the lush coronation of an archaic rain god—often read like fantasy fiction. In 1952, he became the father of Israeli science fiction, translating a volume of American short stories and publishing them under the enticing name Once Upon a Time in the Future. None of this is mentioned in the Wallenstein piece, but Azoulay wasn’t making random choices. All he did was distill energies that were already there, urgent but incoherent, into the beautifully tragic figure of a man who ought to have existed but, almost inexplicably, didn’t.
Here, then, is Azoulay’s work of fiction.
A new authorized biography and collection of essays show why the literary figure has been so mythologized, reviled, and revered