Past Continuous is a 1977 novel originally written in Hebrew by Israeli novelist Yaakov Shabtai. The original title, Zikhron Devarim (זכרון דברים) is a form of contract or letter of agreement, but could also be translated literally as Remembrance of Things.
Past Continuous is Shabtai’s first, and only completed, novel. It was written as one continuous 280-page paragraph (broken up in the English translation), with some sentences spanning several pages.
The Novel focuses on three friends, Goldman, Caesar, and Israel, in 1960's Tel Aviv, as well as their acquaintances, love interests, and relatives. The story begins with the death of Goldman's father on April 1 and ends a little after Goldman's death on January 1. The past is weaved into this short "present" period, through a complex stream of associations.
The three men, lurching from guilt to depression, lose themselves in sexual adventures or compare their lives unfavorably to those of their sometimes heroic, sometime pitiful elders. The older characters can always hold firm to something or other, whether socialism and hatred of religious Jews, insights gained in Siberia, or refusal to admit that Israel is not Poland. The younger characters seethe instead in doubt and sweat.
From one day to the next, over the space of a few years, the city was rapidly and relentlessly changing its face…and Goldman, who was attached to these streets and houses because they, together with the sand dunes and virgin fields, were the landscape in which he had been born and grown up, knew that this process of destruction was inevitable, and perhaps even necessary, as inevitable as the change in the population of the town, which in the course of a few years had been filled with tens of thousands of new people, who in Goldman’s eyes were invading outsiders who had turned him into a stranger in his own city, but this awareness was powerless to soften the hatred he felt for the new people or the helpless rage which engulfed him at the sight of the destructive plague changing his childhood world and breaking it up…This forced recollection of events through objects and landmarks underlines the obsession with the past, not as a source of inspiration or hopefulness, but rather as a dark shadow and constant reminder to the younger generations that they could never live up to the achievements of their elders. This theme is echoed in the occupations of the three main characters: Israel’s piano playing, Goldman’s translations and Caesar’s photography are all secondary to actual creation, they are only able to reflect reality, not form it.
The prolonged paragraph replicates the exceptional intimacy of a society whose members are bound together by stronger-than-family ties and can hardly visit their parents or walk along the beach or drive to a funeral or an assignation without recalling who lived where and when or who had done what, where, and how.The stream of collective consciousness Shabtai employs throughout the book creates significant juxtapositions between disparate events and produces a heightened sense of irony, as well as a fundamental doubt in all meanings and assertions. For example, when Shabtai presents the death of Aryeh, one of Caesar’s relatives, the minor details that intrude into the narrative deflate the melodrama of the event:
[Aryeh] shot himself in the mouth with a pistol and was found two days later in his car on a dirt road between orange groves not far from the sea dressed in a leather suit and a floral shirt and a yellow tie, and Erwin and Caesar, who took the wooden mask of the African god from his mother and placed it on one of the shelves in the bookcase, went to identify the body in the morgue, because Yaffa and Tikva and also Zina, who looked at the mask absentmindedly and said, “Very nice,” couldn’t face it, and the two of them, together with Besh, told Yaffa, who fainted in the living room before they even told her, just as she had fainted when she heard that Tikva’s Hungarian engineer wasn’t an engineer, knocking over her cup and spilling the coffee, and Caesar made haste to pour cold water over her and the drops splashed onto Besh and Zina, who was trying to comfort her sister with a pale and frightened face but at the same time was filled with anger against her because of the whole business and because of the coffee stains spreading over the carpet and the wall, which Zina tried to clean with a wet cloth as soon as Yaffa had recovered a little, but without any success, and the stains continued to annoy her – until they repainted the whole room, which was already after Aryeh’s funeral…The digressive structure of the narrative stresses the seemingly insignificant occurrences around the central event, which is not as important as the distorted values of modern society it conceals. In this case, Yaffa’s identical reactions to all tragedies, both great and small, and Zina’s greater concern for the coffee stains tell us as much about Israeli society of the time as does Aryeh’s suicide.
Shabbtai places his three protagonists in the classical position of the absurdist hero – a fundamental nausea towards the world they live in, history that has passed them over, and the old familiar streets, in which they can no longer see themselves. They have no choice but to denounce the world that betrayed their youthful ideals and turned them into exiles in their own land. This collapse of ideals, along with the Zionist meta-narrative they upheld, does not stem from either nihilism or vindictiveness. According to Gershon Shaked, Shabtai is probably the only Israeli novelist who has “reached a deep understanding of the double meaning of the [Zionist] meta-narrative and the double meaning of the positive heroes.” Past continuous could thus be seen as an elegy for the decline of the noble working class, brought about by a decadent denunciation of values. This decadence infects the younger generation as well, as both are equally doomed from the first sentence of the novel:
Goldman’s father died on the first of April, whereas Goldman himself committed suicide on the first of January – just when it seemed to him that finally, thanks to the cultivation of detachment and withdrawal, he was about to enter a new era and rehabilitate himself by means of the “Bullworker” and a disciplined way of life, and especially by means of astronomy and the translation of the Somnium.
The attempts to replace the ideals of the past with solipsism, physical activity, discipline, or esoteric preoccupations all fail. The only hope that exists in the novel is expressed through the skillful use of the Hebrew language. The death of the pioneering ideals of Zionism heralds a rebirth of the pioneering spirit on the elevated plane of art – in language. Shabtai has not yet despaired of language: “Though words betray Shabtai’s hero, the storyteller believes these treacherous words. He believes in their symbolic power to describe his crumbling existence.”
Similarly to James Joyce’s Ulysses, Past Continuous presents a funeral at the beginning and a birth at the end (the 'present' of the story spans a period of nine months, from April 1 to January 1). In this case, however, there is no implication of a movement from despair to hope or a triumph of life over death. The only victory attained at the end is bitter and self-defeating – the protagonist exerts vengeance on the world that betrayed him, turning it into a grotesque caricature, populated by people who are dead while still alive:
…but Ella ignored her baby, whose head was covered with a fine black down, and the nurse held him helplessly in her hands and pleaded with Ella gently to take him, and then she asked her again, this time impatiently, to take him and feed him like all the other mothers, but Ella went on ignoring her baby, just as she went on ignoring Israel, who remained standing stubbornly by the bed and did not take his eyes off her as they slowly filled with tears and her face grew more and more blurred until it dissolved into the whiteness of the pillows, and behind him he heard the head nurse clapping her hands again, and finally she turned to him and asked him to leave – all the other visitors had already gone – and Israel took two or three steps backward and then he turned around and walked out of the room.