Asaf Bartov (ijon) wrote,
Asaf Bartov

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N.'s Legacy

About five years ago, I was about to finish my (mandatory) service in the Israeli Defense Force. My role at that time was chiefly to train soldiers freshly arrived at our base in the material we dealt with. Since I found the quality of the extant written material atrocious, and often factually wrong, I rewrote many papers and lesson plans.

During those final two months of my service, then, I was asked to train A., a younger soldier as my successor in this role. Since the base was terribly short of office space, and since we didn't actually need to be in the facility for the work we had before us, A. and I decided to work at our homes, alternating between my parents' place and her parents' place. At her place I was introduced to her mother, who worked night shifts and was home most days, as a matter of courtesy.

One day, A. retired to powder her nose, and I, prudent as ever, pulled out the book I had with me, just in case, and began to read. N., A.'s mother, entered the living room (where we were working) to read a newspaper. After sitting down, she noticed I was reading a book (I'm no longer sure what book it was; perhaps Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray), and said "Oh, how nice to see a young man reading, in this day and age..."

I smiled politely and confessed my having been a bookworm since the tender age of four. She asked what I was reading, and when I showed her the book, she was again impressed: "Oh, you're reading fine literature!"

I then understood that her initial surprise was at my reading books at all. Then she regarded me with an intrigued expression, and asked who my favorite authors were. I named a few, and she nodded. Then she said "What about Nabokov?" I replied that I haven't read anything of his yet, but, sure, he's on the list (I have since read Lolita and The Defense, aka Luzhin's Defense). She nodded slowly. I was curious to hear about her literary taste, as she obviously had one, and asked what books she would recommend. Her face lit, and she began listing titles and authors with gusto. I asked her to repeat the list, slowly, so I could write it down, and she was delighted to see me take her recommendations so seriously. I wrote it down, and then A. returned and we resumed our work, her mother retiring.

I still have the list. I'm yet to read all of the books she's recommended. One of the books she recommended quite passionately was 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff. I've written about this book early in my journal, and have been throwing it at people this last couple of years, to general gratitude. My own gratitude for introducing me to the wondrous little book is given to N.

Another book on that list was E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. When Ran HaCohen, my lecturer on von Kleist last year, mentioned that there exists an intertextual link between Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas and Doctorow's Ragtime, I was immediately reminded of N.'s recommendation of the book, which I had not yet read. Happily, I chose to write a paper on that link, which required me to actually read Ragtime, at long last. N. was right... :)

There are a few other books in the list that I still haven't gotten around to, such as Oblomov by Ivan Goncharev and Jerusalem by Selma Lagerlöf. Their time will come, too, and I'm sure N.'s choice would be as delightful to my palate as the first two were.

The crowning memory of N., though, is my last visit to their house (just before discharge vacation), during some point of which N. showed up and said "Excuse me a moment, A., there's something I want to give Asaf (that's me). She was holding a thick hardcover book with a faded green cover. It turned out to be the collected Pushkin translations, by Avraham Shlonsky, including Eugene Onegin. I looked at her, surprised, and began to protest politely, but she just sighed and said "No, listen: I've done all the reading I want in this volume, and my children don't and won't read it, ever, and I would rather it find a good loving home than collect dust on my shelf." I was moved almost beyond words. I deeply thanked her, and to this day, that book is one of the most prized possessions in my library.

I'll never forget N.

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