Guilt and friendship meet tragedy in Foiglman

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“I must explain,” says Zvi Arbel, the narrator of “Foiglman,” a novel by the highly respected Israeli writer Aharon Megged, “how a strange man entered my life and destroyed it.” However, we can read a different story between the lines: that Arbel’s vision is clouded by suffering, that his disaster was not inevitable and that Foiglman is not to blame.

The memoir begins in the present, five months after the funeral of Foiglman and nine months after that of Arbel’s wife, Nora. Four years earlier, Arbel, 60-year-old head of the Jewish History Department at an Israeli university, received in the mail a book of Yiddish poetry, titled “The Crooked Bough.” It was written by Shmuel Foiglman, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor living in Paris. Drawn from the author’s concentration-camp experiences, the poems are dedicated to Arbel, “the very important author of ‘The Great Betrayal.'” That book is a history of Eastern European pogroms, the field to which Arbel devotes his research.

The two writers correspond and develop an ambivalent friendship. Foiglman is a noble and tragic figure, loyal to his heritage despite all his suffering, but his “cloying, excessive sentimentality” makes the historian uncomfortable.

The poet blames Israel’s literary community (though not Arbel himself) for rejecting the work of the dwindling ranks of Yiddish writers. Arbel, assuming guilt as a member of that establishment, determines to help him.

In trying to exorcise that guilt, Arbel incurs further guilt toward his wife, who has developed ominous symptoms of depression. Foiglman — whom Nora calls “that Yid” — becomes a battleground between them. Without consulting her, Arbel invites him to their house, finds a translator and publisher for “The Crooked Bough,” and advances their fees from the Arbels’ bank account. That debt is repaid, but the stage is set for the end of a marriage.

Perhaps the real tragedy, however, lies in the disparate natures of husband and wife. Nora, a biologist, is originally a lively, fun-loving woman, married to a dull bookworm immersed in the horrors of Jewish history.

Both come from households fraught with silent tension relieved by outbursts of anger, and their marriage follows that pattern to an extreme. Toward the end their daughter-in-law, Shula, urges Arbel to talk to Nora more, but that suggestion comes to nothing. And Nora is too stubbornly self-contained to have a heart-to-heart talk with her husband.

Later, Arbel alienates their son, Yoav, by refusing to answer his questions about Nora’s death. Yoav moves his family to another continent. Much of Arbel’s narrative is a silent plea of innocence addressed to his absent son.

This novel is one that uses the “doubles” theme: Foiglman has a healthy identical twin, and the two main characters personify opposing ideas — Yiddish and Hebrew, Israel and the Diaspora, poetry and history.

The book also provides intimations of a possible Yiddish renaissance. At a literary gathering of Yiddish writers, the guest of honor points out to his angry hecklers that their language has gained legitimacy and even popularity in Israel, where it’s taught in many schools and a few universities. “I shall not die, but live!” he cries, and receives a standing ovation.

Whatever Arbel’s unconscious motives, in helping to publish “The Crooked Bough,” he may further that cause.

“Foiglman” is the 35th book by the 82-year-old Polish-born Megged, who has lived in Tel Aviv since age 6. His works have been translated into many languages and have won several awards, including the coveted Israel Prize. Though at times it reads like a textbook, the novel is valuable both as a personal tragedy and as a study of the relationship between two languages in the modern world. Its style, even in translation, is eloquent in its descriptions, drama, characterization and emotional range.

“Foiglman,” by Aharon Megged, translated by Marganit Weinberger-Rotman (250 pages, The Toby Press LLC, $19.95).