Israeli author Kenaz, published in English for the first time here, probes the perimeter and then the anguished center of helpless old age, to find within bitterness and fear, heroism and a kind of nobility. Unlovely, griping Mrs. Yolanda Moscowitz, a former French teacher, is recovering from a broken leg in a nursing institution. ``A big heavy woman, her face very raddled...with narrow slits of eyes pristine blue, clear and bright, like scraps of a lost distant sky.'' She takes great pains with her hair however, as if it ``had some magic power to protect her.'' Yolanda has no family; husband and kin have drained her life of freedom and promise. Yolanda is suspicious and puzzled by the friendly overtures of the painter Lazar, a fellow patient. ``Here is Inferno,'' declares Lazar, ``So what remains? A little solidarity, a little love, maybe?'' Lazar draws Yolanda's portraits; she is horrified by what he sees as ``ruins surviving a disaster.'' Throughout, dramas take place in the ward: a pale wraith of a pale life dies of a wasting disease; families warehouse their old and sick; nurses shield themselves, with anger or cold efficiency, from cries and demands that they cannot satisfy. Yolanda, given to heavy makeup and grotesque solo parades, fearing at one point that she has been invaded by ``someone else,'' begins to awaken, to see clearly ``the tragic inhuman beauty of the place.'' But at home in her small apartment again, she knows ``the world around her is emptying out.'' Then a mentally ill neighbor, who loves to see the cats in the courtyard, plunges to her death from her balcony. Yolanda and Lazar will have a final phoned dialogue of love, grief, and a poignant new self- knowledge, and Yolanda, above the courtyard, contemplates the glittering but unredeeming stars. This affecting entry from a new publisher (with send-off blurbs by Philip Roth and Amoz Oz.) plumbs with fevered intensity the ``bewilderment and frustration'' of old age's airless confinement.