Excerpt

Muck

Dror Burstein, trans. Gabriel Levin

November 13, 2018 
The following is from Dror Burstein's novel, Muck. A modern retelling of the book of Jeremiah, Muck is set in a Jerusalem both ancient and modern, where two young poets are about to have their lives turned upside down. Dror Burstein is a novelist, poet, and translator. His honors include the Jerusalem Prize for Literature, the Ministry of Science and Culture Prize for Poetry, the Bernstein Prize, and others.

Broch, the aging critic, scheduled all his appointments for twelve o’clock sharp, as he liked to say, and woe betide anyone who was late: at 12:01 he would secure his door with three bolts—the large, the very large, and the huge—lower his weighty drapes, and affect the expression of revulsion he reserved for just such moments of deep disappointment in our national poets and writers. The writers could pound on his door till midnight—to no avail; the poets could drum their fingertips all they liked on the stuccoed walls of this citadel of the beleaguered art of literary criticism in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hakerem. But: An author who fails to arrive precisely on time to an appointment is bound to be equally imprecise in writing a sentence, and I have nothing to offer or advise anyone who isn’t going to be precise in writing a sentence. You arranged to meet me at twelve o’clock sharp? So come at twelve o’clock sharp. Not at five past twelve, no, or at twenty to one, nor at four-forty-five! Come at twelve o’clock sharp or don’t come at all.

Broch: As for his first name, no one had a clue. All sorts of possibilities were flung into the empty air, but no one knew for sure, and in the end people started believing that he didn’t actually have one. There was a story going around that at the age of eighteen he went to the Ministry of the Interior, applied for a change of name, then blotted out his forename in the civil registry and made a break for it; the clerk, who’d been waiting for the applicant to enter in his new preference, was astonished to discover that the person who’d been sitting opposite him had vanished, and in this way Broch’s birth name was expunged and no new one ever took its place, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. His published articles all carried his handwritten signature, Broch, plain and simple: the B invariably emphasized and just as invariably followed by a brutal little o swinging from galley proofs like a hangman’s noose, the sort of noose that slips around your neck only when you’re already yearning for the sweet release of death, your head cocked and keen as—in your life’s final delirium—you regret ever having published that ridiculous book of yours . . . but no, no, by now it’s too late.

There was a story going around that at the age of eighteen he went to the Ministry of the Interior, applied for a change of name, then blotted out his forename in the civil registry and made a break for it

Broch the critic would dole out his critiques gratis to penniless writers by virtue of his own sense of prestige and public-spiritedness, nailing authors to their places once and for all on the map of Hebrew literature for generations to come, and with a perseverance arousing both admiration and sorrow. And Jeremiah, who’d written what he’d written, and published what he’d published (one book of poems, one novel), and had been forgotten as he’d been forgotten—conclusively, and at the age of twenty—approached the door hesitantly, rang the bell as he’d been instructed, precisely at noon—synchronized with the first warning notes of the twelve o’clock news—so as to avoid finding the gate locked, so as to avoid his own shamefaced expulsion, to say nothing of possibly provoking the dog, the critic’s legendary canine, Sargon, since not infrequently Broch would blow his top and set Sargon on tardy young poets and writers, or even on those who just couldn’t answer a few simple questions correctly. Have you visited the poetess Zelda’s grave this year? He liked to surprise his visitors with questions that were bound to trip them up. No, no one visited, they all forgot. And what are you reading of Gnessin’s these days? Nothing, no, they hadn’t read him. And that was the end of them. Jeremiah rang the bell, which was—it was no myth, he was seeing it now with his very own eyes—molded to resemble the face of an editor of a book series devoted to innovative nonfiction and much despised by the house’s occupant. On the critic’s door was plainly written: BROCH. The voice of the newscaster erupted from within the house, merging with Sargon’s barking: the dog had tensed up, sensing an intruder outside.

The door opened. Eyes in which flared just a trace of courteous loathing greeted Jeremiah. A white, dry hand limply clasped his own before Jeremiah found himself seated in a high wooden chair, a touch higher than usual, while Broch sank into the depths of his enormous armchair—all the tall tales about the critic’s furnishings being proved right before the poet’s eyes. It was said that even Broch’s furniture penned reviews, late at night; that Broch’s bookshelf had trashed more than one novel in the weekly literary supplement; that his rocking chair ran a regular poetry column. Take off your sandals, Broch suggested, I’ll wash your feet; I’ve already prepared a bowl of warm water and soap, and I bought a towel just for you. Jeremiah froze in fear but did as he was told. Broch’s colossal private library stood before him like the rampart of a fortress, its height and breadth greater than the National Library’s own collection, indeed containing several volumes that the National Library did not. National Library librarians and the king’s own librarians would arrive every now and then and abase themselves before the critic so that he might lend them a rare title, while he, they said, prepared them individual library cards, which he then stamped with a violet seal that included each book’s allotted lending time, measured not in days but in quarter hours. All my books are available for limited loan periods only, he ruled. People would sit in his backyard and thumb through book after book, leaning against the dumpster and the huge gas canisters, copying down in haste whatever they were looking for.

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I must say, the critic began, as he rubbed Jeremiah’s feet dry with the towel, I was very impressed by your last collection of poems, and even more so . . . by the novel. What a novel. It’s a magnum opus. You’ve written the book of Job for our times, he told Jeremiah, who strapped his sandals back on, aghast, while Broch set a pot of coffee on to boil, which he scrupulously served with sweet pastries. Jeremiah stared suspiciously at Broch’s rocking chair, took a sip from his cup, and nearly seared his tongue. The thick layer of foam topping the coffee had been whipped to perfection, clotted and rich, and what it lacked in sweetness was made up for by the delicious sweet pastry, a recipe bequeathed to the critic by the late Mrs. Broch (1899–1969, also the author of a doctoral dissertation on the poetess Bat-Miriam). Allow me to clip your toenails, said Broch; a poet must be careful to clip his nails evenly. I fear black lint from your socks has wedged itself under your nails; permit me to poke around in there with a toothpick, and then I’ll begin our talk with a few fundamental principles concerning the masterful formation of the character of Frederick in your first novel, Spite, Broch said. And Jeremiah—blood drained from his face, and he started to sweat profusely, and his toenails shook like false teeth in the cold, since he’d never written a novel called Spite, nor had he ever dreamed of conjuring up a character like Frederick. Death had blown in and gotten all tangled up in his hair like a raven, and it—the raven, that is—was struggling in vain to free itself. His heart stopped beating. He stood up shakily and set his bitter coffee and the crumbs of his pastry aside. Sir, will you forgive me, he stuttered, there must have been a mistake. I didn’t write . . . and Frederick? But no . . . The critic rose to his feet and stood there at his full, enormous height, leaning against his similarly enormous armchair, his head striking the ceiling, his arms spreading out and nearly reaching the huge windows. No? How so? Are you not the author Ernesto Bograshov, born in Buenos Aires, 1940? Jeremiah, who’d never heard of said Bograshov and was fifty years younger than the señor, muttered that, no, he feared not, that it didn’t seem to him that—that no. The critic was stunned for a moment. I don’t understand; surely you’re pulling my leg, my dear Ernesto, making fun of an old critic of Hebrew literature in his dotage, but why . . . ? Why the mockery? Stand and unfold yourself! Nu, Buenos Aires . . . After all, we walked arm in arm on the promenade running the length of the Assado . . . And then Broch stopped, convulsed with laughter. Certainly, certainly not Ernesto Bograshov, rest assured, there is no such author, ha-ha. Ernesto Bograshov—what a fine name he’d concocted. He was only jerking Jeremiah’s chain, putting him to the test, just a bit of drollery, he chortled, as he wiped his tears and wept from laughter. Sit down, Jeremiah, sit down, the old man gurgled out of his only lung, you needn’t be so upset. We have ahead of us a lecture of four to five hours. I’ve been applying myself to your writing for a month and a half, but there’s no harm in opening with a bit of banter; we’ll have plenty of time to be serious. Forgive me my little flight of fancy . . . It can be dry as dust in here, with all the boring literature that your friends produce . . . A bit of humor now and then . . . And Broch sank back into the armchair and gathered the last shreds of his belly laugh like a heap of quivering petals. But before we start with your book of poems, did you bring what I asked you? For an instant Jeremiah didn’t understand, but soon remembered, of course, and bent over, removed the keyboard of his home computer from his shoulder bag, wrapped in a wrinkled plastic bag from the supermarket, and handed it over. The 12:30 p.m. Breaking News announced Egypt’s unconditional surrender to Babylon, and Broch aimed his house slipper at the radio and silenced the newscaster. Sargon barked at the radio, and Broch removed his other slipper and cut the dog short as well.

Not infrequently Broch would blow his top and set Sargon on tardy young poets and writers, or even on those who just couldn’t answer a few simple questions correctly. . . He liked to surprise his visitors with questions that were bound to trip them up

The critic gripped the black keyboard, out of whose side dangled a black cord like a rodent’s long tail, got to his feet, and strode up to the north window, where he inspected the letters in the soft light. Jeremiah began to munch noisily at another crumbly pastry. How interesting, the letter H and the letter P are completely worn down on the keyboard. Also, the S is beginning to fade, like a decaying milk tooth. Excuse me, yes? But your H is completely erased, and the R looks like a sickly P. Haven’t you thought of having the poor letters retouched? Eh? Jeremiah didn’t answer—he kept on munching as he thumbed through some early reviews by Broch in an old issue of Horologe in which the old man had sentenced to death an entire pléiade—and Broch waited in vain for an answer and continued: Or is it that the letters H and P are maybe—how shall I put it?—are so insignificant in your eyes that you feel you needn’t bother taking your keyboard in for repairs? Eh? Please, can you speak up! Stop mumbling as though you’re standing at the door of a house of ill repute, Mr. Righteous, he said in a friendly tone. Jeremiah raised his eyes from the issue he was perusing and said: Uh, what’s that? To tell you the truth, I type blindly, I don’t look at the keyboard, so it doesn’t really matter; in my view, all the letters might as well be rubbed out.

A dead silence hung over the room, as though an enormous plague-blanket had been flung over a city already under siege and numb with cold. Sargon sneaked under the round tabletop. It doesn’t really matter, the critic repeated in a tone flat as an echo, and for the first time Jeremiah thought he detected a certain frostiness in Broch’s voice. It doesn’t matter, he said to himself again. It doesn’t matter, he said, and turned to Sargon. We wash his feet and risk catching who knows what, but it doesn’t matter to him. Broch turned over the black rat and tapped its back, and all sorts of tiny bits of grit and orphaned staples fell from the interstices between the keys. You know, Broch pondered as he looked from the fallout to the table, what the problem is with your generation? Come to think of it, with the entire new wave of Hebrew literature, not counting a few well-known exceptions? Let me tell you. Come on and learn a thing or two. Up to now you’ve been gushing on like an unstoppable sprinkler; up to now you’ve hosed me down both inside and out, like at a car wash. You’ve flushed down the engine for me and waxed the body against my will. Thanks a lot, but now let the old man get in a word edgewise. May I? And all of a sudden he roared, Will you put down that miserable Horologe? Glued to Horologe like a starving woodworm, enough is enough!

Jeremiah shut the literary journal and pushed it aside, and Broch whispered, Thank you, and sat down. So, as to your question, here’s the problem: You all—how did you put it?—type blindly. You said it, to me. Blindly. The letters of the alphabet merely provide a service, as far as you’re concerned. Have you heard of the Book of Creation? In thirty-two wondrous paths of wisdom YH YHWH of the Hosts carved His world—does that sentence mean anything to you? And Jeremiah said, Of course, it . . . But the critic cut in: If so, then why—well, go ahead, explain to the senile Terah who brought upon himself this catastrophe called literary criticism—why won’t you show some mercy toward your faded letters, to the erased H, to R? Don’t you realize what you’re doing? No, you don’t have a clue. And why? Because, in your view, if you know what letter is there, everything is okay; you, after all—how did you put it?—type blindly! But the letters, who’s going to defend the letters that you’re wearing down and erasing and destroying with your sweaty fingertips day after day? Who will defend their integrity? And Jeremiah assumed that Broch was kidding again, and at once relaxed, and started to chuckle. Broch, astounded by the poet-writer’s crass laughter, stood up, the black keyboard clasped in both hands. He approached Jeremiah in measured strides and in one fell stroke struck Jeremiah’s head with the peripheral. Jeremiah was transfixed from the shock. Blood gushed and trickled down toward his right eyebrow. Broch then pounded the stricken keyboard against the edge of the table, again and again. Keys flew out, and Broch made sure to smash the remaining ones to bits before proceeding to place the keyboard on the floor and setting the heel of his shoe down on the numeric pad at one end—whatever was left of it—while reaching down to twist the other end out of shape with his bare hands. The bowl of soapy foot-water spilled on the carpet, and Sargon barked angrily at its incontinence. Jeremiah tried to staunch his bleeding with one hand while using the other to rummage for something, a piece of paper, with which he could improvise a bandage, but Broch, perceiving this, flung the crooked keyboard in the direction of the poet and again struck him in the face; Jeremiah slumped over and fell from the wooden chair, and Broch stooped over him and fixed a nifty-looking noose out of the keyboard cord and started to strangle him. Don’t think you can debase the alphabet in my home, he whispered into his ear. You’ll write literature only after honoring each and every letter. I won’t let you fuck over the S like you fucked over the H and the R. There’s an R in my name; I’m extra sensitive about honoring the R. You want my advice, here’s my advice: a novel is made of sentences, and sentences of words, and words—of letters. But maybe words aren’t made out of letters now?! he screamed into Jeremiah’s ears—Jeremiah, who couldn’t breathe because of the keyboard cord. Perhaps books are made out of Google, perhaps words are made out of the Internet, out of Facebook, out of all those screens of yours, all you writers inundating me in this inferno of pulp fiction? Why aren’t you writing with a pencil in a notebook? Why type all the time? And why keep dashing every day to be published? Reams dispatched to the printers, but none of it deserves to be printed, Broch screamed into Jeremiah’s bleeding face as the poet struggled to thrust his fingers between the electrical cord and his skin, turning blue, none of it deserves to be printed; that’s why you really, really, really don’t need your keyboard, which I’ve shattered; you’ll thank me yet for having destroyed your keyboard, because this keyboard is your delusion, the delusion that what you write is ready to see print—and it isn’t, it doesn’t deserve to be printed, those printed letters are blinding you, you’re blind, you’re typing blindly, as you yourself told me, you confessed to your own guilt and handed over to me the contemning word, you and your entire generation, blind writers typing blindly. Agnon stood upright day after day and wrote by hand until he lost all feeling in his lower back; Gnessin toiled in a printer’s workshop, the lead gnawed under his nails and into his heart, with his ailing heart he breathed in the lead of the letters, and the lead smothered his heart, but he didn’t think for a moment to type blindly, no. Letter after letter, he arranged! Letter after letter! Letter after letter!

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From Muck. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2018 by Dror Burstein. English translation copyright © 2018 by Gabriel Levin.




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