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In the summer of 1996, a struggling graduate student of Hebrew literature found Yaakov Shabtai. More specifically, he found the Israeli writer’s 1977 novel, Past Continuous, a challenging work written, quite literally, as a single paragraph. The complex, non-linear novel weaves through a series of intersecting moments with exhaustively detailed description. According to Todd Hasak-Lowy, who credits the book with the discovery of his own voice as a writer, Shabtai teaches the reader how to understand Past Continuous while in the midst of it. Its experimental form and its approach to time and space, Hasak-Lowy posited, reflect the political climate in Israel and voice a “post-Zionist view of Israeli society” while not dealing explicitly with politics.
Writing in 2008, the great Israeli novelist David Grossman echoed Hasak-Lowy’s praise of this remarkable paragraph. “I remember what I experienced when I felt I was under the rays of a vast and inspiring literary power—when I read Kafka’s Metamorphosis, for example, or Yaakov Shabtai’s Past Continuous, or Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers,” he wrote. “I have no doubt that some part of me, perhaps my innermost core, seemed to be in the realm of a dream. There was a similar intrinsic logic, and a direct dialogue conducted with the deepest and most veiled contents of my soul, almost without the mediation of consciousness.”
Shabtai, born in Tel Aviv in 1934, began writing late in his life. He is perhaps best known for Uncle Peretz Takes Off, a collection of short stories that included “Zikhron Devarim,” then translated more literally as “Memory of Things,” which would become the novel Past Continuous. Shabtai died of a heart attack in 1981, at the age of 47, and the posthumously published Past Perfect was his second, and final, novel.
Read The Paragraph That Changed My Life, by Todd Hasak-Lowy
Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.