BERNHARD by Yoel Hoffmann


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Emotional intensity and a powerful sense of the fragility and impermanence of both the physical body and the social fabric are the distinguishing features of this 1991 novel by the Israeli author (Katschen & The Book of Joseph, not reviewed). A collage of brief vignettes presents the experiences and ruminations of Bernhard Stein, a middle-aged German Jew who, in the 1930s, has fled Berlin for Palestine, where he mourns the death of his beloved wife Paula and endures visionary glimpses of the exterior world’s collapse as an objective correlative to the fragmentation of his own psyche (“When the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, the ships anchored in Bernhard’s head go up in flames”). The novel’s structure emphasizes the insistent onward momentum of Bernhard’s chaotically busy mind: the 172 brief —chapters— overlap, the ending of one becoming the start of the opening sentence of the next. Redundancy and monotony aren—t entirely avoided, but Hoffmann does assemble a vividly individual character in his solipsistic protagonist’s cleverly linked memories and fantasies. Bernhard’s keenly felt longing for his late wife stimulates not only an unresolved relationship with an attractive widow but contrary intimations of the aroused body’s imminent decay. News of Hitler’s devastation of Europe and the war’s “progress” on several fronts intensifies Bernhard’s increasingly frequent withdrawals into the life he imagines for his invented alter ego “D.S. Gregory,” a dermatologist whose Russian father was a casualty of the American Revolutionary War. And the dreamer’s hopeful recourse to the consolation implicit in poetry, biblical wisdom, and the philosophies of Descartes and Spinoza is rudely shaken by such implacable phenomena as the Palestinian government’s decision to disallow “ram’s horns, whose sound resembles the sound of an air-raid siren, to be blown in the synagogues,” and by the inability of his own arthritic fingers to form the sign “V-Day.” Not an easy read, but a further persuasive illustration of the genius of one of Israel’s finest contemporary writers.

Pub Date: Oct. 29th, 1998
ISBN: 0-8112-1389-7
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: New Directions
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1998


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