European Modernism, in Hebrew
With a rediscovered 1930s novel, Viennese Romance, Austrian writer David Vogel becomes a key figure in the creation of Modern Hebrew literature
Vogel’s newly discovered manuscript is also marked by suicide and death. Yet, unlike Married Life, the protagonist, Michael Rost, is a writer with a wealthy patron; he frequents Yiddish-speaking restaurants, and the objects of his desire, a mother and daughter, live with financial uncertainty. Focusing on the sexual, the book explores Rost’s passions in a shockingly blunt way. “Vogel made Rost completely unreflective,” Nethanel recently told Haaretz. “He cast him as a hedonistic type, which he himself wanted to be.” She believes that the manuscript was an early autobiographical work—Vogel was himself involved in a mother-daughter romance—that was likely shelved in the mid-1920s.
For Vogel—the Jew in Europe, the non-Zionist in Tel Aviv, the Russian in Vienna, the Austrian in Paris—tortuous relationships are a literary device to explore his existence as an outsider. Taken together, Married Life and Viennese Romance demonstrate Vogel’s perspective on otherness. In Married Life, the alienated Vogel is content with an abusive relationship because of his ability to conceal himself in the enormity of 1920s Vienna and his writing. In Viennese Romance, Vogel casts himself in a comfortable financial position and in control of not one but two relationships.
His books lack strong Jewish markers, but, given their obsession with the outsider, they are incredibly Jewish novels. In Viennese Romance, the protagonist notes an encounter with a group of Eastern European Jewish immigrants on their way to Palestine. Vogel described their destination as a “barren wasteland in the Near East” and apparently made an attempt to erase the passage in his manuscript. This passage is clearly legible and made it to the final edited version of the book sold in Israel.
While Vogel’s work remains in print, it has always been one step removed from the larger trends in the development of Hebrew literature. In the late 1990s, a group of Israeli scholars at Berkeley and the Hebrew University re-engaged with Vogel’s work. This act of revisionism, as Pinkser put it, has led to a fuller debate about the existence of a Modern Hebrew literature free of nationalist connotations.
“He refused to be read in the context of nationalist Hebrew,” Nethanel told me. “He was always in a position of withdrawal. He lived in various cities—Vienna, Tel Aviv, Paris—but was always one step removed, never a full participant in the life of his given context. But more importantly, he understood how Hebrew would develop and he wrote for the future.”
Above all else, David Vogel was a writer whose work gave him the ability to transcend the nationalist passions consuming Europe and the Middle East at the time that he died. The discovery of an unknown Vogel manuscript serves as an eerie reminder that the regeneration of the Hebrew language was rooted in the life of the Diaspora.
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