Who Bialik might have been

Author Sara Feinstein attempts to fill a void in contemporary Jewish history with her biography of Haim Nahman Bialik.

bialik book 88 (photo credit: )
bialik book 88
(photo credit: )
Sunshines, Blossoms, and Blood H.N. Bialik In His Time: A Literary Biography By Sara Feinstein University Press of America 308pp., $39 As the father of modern Hebrew verse, Haim Nahman Bialik's life story is tied to both the revival of the language and the birth of Israel. Yet scholars have been complaining for decades that no authoritative, well-written biography of this legendary Hebrew poet exists. Early efforts to tell his story were hampered by the usual problem of chronicling a contemporary giant - the desire to avoid hurting associates who were still alive. And the major multi-volume biography, Bialik, by scholar Fischel Lachower, ended with the biographer's death in the middle of the third volume. The unfinished biography had other problems. Some of the less-sunny aspects of Bialik's history, like possible physical and even sexual abuse during his childhood, simply did not mesh with the heroic image of a national poet, and so that story was not emphasized. And privately, some scholars grumble that the Fischlin biography simply isn't well-written. They say clunkiness, above all, doomed it. Into this void comes Sara Feinstein's book Sunshine, Blossoms, and Blood: H.N. Bialik in His Time: A Literary Biography. It has an ambitious, slightly overstuffed title, and a cover that reproduces Pinhas Litvinowsky's 1935 painting of a pensive, pained Bialik, his hand pushing into his eye and forehead. The multi-line title is a clue; the book is chock-full of details... sometimes too full of details. Its biggest advantage is that it exists at all, and that Feinstein managed to complete it. It's high time for a biography, and this one reflects a huge amount of research. The 409-page volume is full of excerpts fom original sources: historical documents, maps and quotes. The appendix, notes, bibliography and index alone total over 100 pages. Feinstein clearly scoured the world for any scrap of relevant information. Unfortunately, though this book is the result of years of passionate work, it is often difficult to read. The desire to include every possible quote makes it akin a college research paper at times. At other points, Feinstein tries an opposite strategy: she "imagines" what Bialik felt. This often comes across as clumsy, which is unfortunate, because I desperately wanted Feinstein to triumph. I wanted to read a magnificent biography of a magnificent poet, and in some spots, I knew Feinstein felt the same way. Her passion for the subject may have made it difficult for her to edit with a critical eye. Sometimes it seems that Feinstein could not decide whether to write a fully academic book or a more personal one, and so ended up with the weaknesses of both. The problem starts at the beginning. After 22 pages of introduction, Feinstein starts envisioning what Bialik might have imagined shortly after the horrible pogrom at Kishinev: As Bialik walked the neatly planted boulevards of Kishinev, he imagined the pale-green acacia petals wafting about him as feathers stained with the blood of the recent atrocities. He was aghast: how could nature's exquisite beauty coexist with the brutalities that had taken place here? How could this pleasant and cultured bourgeois city have been the setting for pillage, carnage and rape? The detail distracts from the emotion. It happens again just a few paragraphs later, when she discusses how Dr. Joseph Klausner asked Bialik for a biographical sketch. She writes that "it struck him as absurd and frivolous to respond." Still later, she quotes how Bialik actually responded to the request - and his words are far more telling. Here is what he actually says: "You asked me to jot down some biographical highlights and I feel, in all honesty, that in my life there are no significant events worth sharing." How fascinating. I wondered why Feinstein didn't simply let Bialik speak for himself. It's an intriguing passage, because Bialik also writes that in his view, there is no place in literature for biography. This view haunted me as I read Feinstein on Bialik. Maybe Bialik's uneasiness about biography is what made Feinstein choose to both imagine and chronicle - and maybe some of the resulting awkwardness reinforces Bialik's point. Perhaps Bialik's personal problem with the idea of biography, and with his own biography, should be at the heart of any attempt to write his life. This inherent difficulty could have become the soul of the book if it were handled well. Still, if you need information on Bialik, Feinstein can tell you nearly everything that's available, and her research should help students and teachers. She does a nice job of capturing what the poet meant to the Hebrew language, culminating in her final chapter. "Bialik stood on the very threshold of the transition between text and speech," she writes toward the end. But despite the mountains of material she presents, she does not always capture what his life story - and his constant efforts to obscure it, forget it, write it, and ignore it - really meant to his work. That, I suspect, is what many scholars and Bialik lovers were hoping for. Maybe the problem with this biography is that in poem after poem, Bialik, in his veiled but heartbreaking way, has already shaped his own story and imagined his life for us. The writer is a poet whose work has recently appeared in Partisan Review, Harvard Review and Poets & Writers magazine.