My friend Atar Hadari’s translation of Hanoch Levin’s anti-epic poem “Lives of the Dead” provides a fine opportunity for English readers to make an acquaintance with an important but very frustrating member of the modern Israeli literary pantheon.
Levin, who died ten years ago in middle age, made his major impact as a playwright and director, but was an accomplished poet as well. Like a number of other poets, critics, and writers of his generation—Meir Wieseltier and Yitzhak Laor come to mind—he was a rebel who began his career storming the castles of canon and tradition. But the edge of his sword was blunted because he came into his artistic prime in an era when flouting convention and toppling literary idols was fashionable and, in fact, the best road to success. So, paradoxically, he soon became part of the canon himself and found that the castles had turned into windmills.
He kept tilting at them anyway, displaying a great deal of flair in the process. But when I see a Levin play or read a Levin poem, I generally find myself much more impressed with the craft than the message. Levin’s major concern is the absurdity and depravity of life lived in the presence of death, and the futility of the beliefs, euphemisms, and obfuscations we use to avoid accepting death’s inevitability and its nullification of our selves. But having said that, he never found anything else to say. The point got belabored, and all the while a good chunk of his sense of humor remained in junior high school. Even though he died far too young, his death came after the dawn of a new era, one in which it became more radical and non-conventional (at least in literary circles) to talk about God and the spirit than to trash them.