Thursday, June 6, 2013

From Auteur to Author: A.B. Yehoshua's "The Retrospective"

A Rear Window View of The Retrospective

The Retrospective, by A.B. Yehoshua, Halban, 2013
Translated from the Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman

Auteur, Auteur!

Shouldn’t all of this lead us to suspect that Fritz Lang might be a true film auteur, and if his themes and stories come to us cloaked in the banal appearances of a thriller, war film, or western, shouldn’t we see this as a sign of great probity on the part of a cinema that feels no compulsion to adorn itself with labels? We should love Fritz Lang.
François Truffaut, “Loving Fritz Lang” [Aimer Fritz Lang], 1954

Yair Moses, the protagonist of A.B. Yehoshua’s The Retrospective, is an Israeli filmmaker at the culmination of a forty-year career. Is Moses an Auteur? The auteur theory raised the status of the film director to that of an author of literature, a definite upgrade in the land of the Académie Française. The auteur theory also created a mandate for the film critic and for the educated filmgoer. Film critics were exhorted, not only to revere the director as an author, but to be the director’s advocate. Pioneered by French filmmaker François Truffaut, the auteur theory thus demanded that criticism be kept in abeyance – an immunity never granted authors of literature. Truffaut biographers Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana list the criteria for advocacy of the Auteur: “Deliberate love and the desire to follow a body of work in the making. …This implies, first of all, closeness and intimacy with the author, all of whose films must be defended, even those that are flawed.” (Truffaut: A Biography, by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, Alfred Knopf, 1999) For Truffaut, the ideal director-auteur, the greatest “inventor of forms,” was Alfred Hirchcock.

So is Moses an Auteur? Moses, as film director, does seem to fulfill some of the expectations placed on the Auteur, and the director of the film archive where Moses’s retrospective is held certainly treats Moses like an Auteur in several respects. Yet contending with the Auteur paradigm is what might be called the atonement paradigm. Here Moses is a stand-in for Yehoshua – author rather than auteur, and therefore not only lacking in immunity, but burdened with the task of atonement. Accordingly, the aged filmmaker, Odysseus-like, must make a final journey, this one a journey of penance as well as self-discovery.

Aimer Yair Moses

Deliberate Love

Who loves filmmaker Yair Moses? Clearly, the enthusiasts in Santiago, Spain, who planned the retrospective, and Moses's audiences in Santiago. Who are these impassioned and devout advocates who planned the retrospective? Moses’s cadre of advocates seems to be centered upon the De Viola family, who combine roles in film (Doña Elvira, now ninety-four, was a silent film actress), historic knowledge (Juan manages the archive), patronage (Doña Elvira), orthodox religion (Juan is an ordained priest), and progressive Catholicism (Manuel, an unconventional monk, offers to hear Moses’s confession). For the audiences of Moses’s films in Santiago, the experience of viewing the films is intertwined with their faith. Thus Juan de Viola performs the mass between films in a beautiful old chapel; it is well-attended by the film festival audience.


Do we, the readers, feel a closeness and intimacy with this film author? According to Truffaut, we become intimate with the auteur because he allows his self to be known in his films, either, like Hitchcock, through a series of masks, or through complete openness and transparency (Truffaut, p. 100). Moses seems willing to become intimate with his audiences at the retrospective, talking freely about the films’ development; yet there doesn’t seem to be any indication that he has been able to infuse his films with his personality since his falling out with his screenwriter Trigano. If anything, his post-Trigano style has been characterized by a swerve towards naturalism, and a focus on mundane acts such as eating – not traits revelatory of the self.

The Title of Auteur

Indeed, in light of the contributions of his cameraman Toledano, and especially of his screenwriter Trigano, what claim has Moses to the title of Author?

Following a Body of Work

Films Seen through the Eyes of the Director

The conceit of the retrospective allows the reader to participate in a close reading of the early films of Moses and Trigano, as seen through the eyes of the intelligent but at times befuddled director, and his audience of Spanish filmgoers, including a small cadre of devout Catholic film aficionados.

Yehoshua’s readers, in the opening chapters of the book, resemble members of the audience sitting in a darkened room. Like the audience in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, we are presented with a metaphor for the moviegoer’s experience. In the case of the Hitchcock film, in which the protagonist views much of the action through his apartment’s rear window, the audience is surveilling other people’s lives in an intrusive way. Thus Hitchcock’s rear window stands for the movie screen. In the case of the fictional Moses viewing his early films, we both share the director’s limitations and are guided by his insight; his screen becomes our screen, his understanding our understanding.

Images without Words

Since films acquired sound, filmmakers have been intrigued by the interplay of imagery with dialogue. In The Rear Window, Hitchcock calls attention to these two elements by first introducing information visually. For example, in the opening scene we see, outside: a black cat run up some concrete stairs, an urban courtyard, various people on balconies or in back rooms, and a window. Through that window we see: a barometer showing close to 100 degrees F, a man in a wheelchair – his leg in a cast, a broken camera, framed photographs, the negative of a woman, and a picture of the same woman on a magazine cover. That information is then explained and confirmed in dialogue. A phone call to the man in the wheelchair confirms that  the man is a photographer with a broken leg; bored in the heat, he has nothing to do but watch his neighbors. He jokes with his boss about getting married.

In his imagining of Moses’s experience at the festival, Yehoshua sets up a more radical break between words and images. Yehoshua creates a kind of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt [Alienation Effect] by having the retrospective films be works that the director hasn’t seen for decades – in a sense stories of which Moses cannot read the words, since the films have been dubbed in Spanish. Paradoxically, this alienation from language places Moses closer to the heart of the film experience. For he is directly confronted with precisely that element of film that differentiates it from literature: the pictorial, the images.

At first Moses protests the deprivation of language. Told that the second film in the retrospective is also dubbed in Spanish, he complains, “Again you’re forcing me to watch films I’ve already forgotten, and now I can’t understand?” Archive Director Juan de Viola responds, “When it comes to a creative artist, this is not necessarily a liability.” (p. 61) Soon, however, Moses is able to concentrate on the images: “the storm of memory subsides and he…concentrates on the images…Now it’s clear to Moses why after this film he decided to leave teaching for good and exercise his talent through the screenplays of a brilliant and loyal student.” (p. 74) When the retrospective is over and Moses attempts to defend his loyalty to Trigano’s vision, he tells Trigano, “At the archive, where I didn’t understand a word of dialogue, I noticed other things, important things beyond words…” (p. 302) In effect, by attending the retrospective and watching films dubbed in Spanish, Moses has revisited, not only his own early body of work, but that of Auteur Trigano. Beyond that, he has reviewed the development of the body of work of Moses-Trigano.

Defending the Auteur, Defending the Author

Moses promises the audience that he will defend his films: “Even if the film, in your opinion and also mine, turns out to be amateurish and full of holes, I will try to defend it to the best of my ability” (P. 42). But he asks for indulgence: he will defend the films “on condition that you treat me with mercy.” Film Archive Director Juan de Viola is a more passionate advocate for Moses’s early films (“the marvelous ones”) than Moses himself, and defends the films in accord with the politique des Auteurs as mandated by Truffaut. He tells Moses, “If the film you made at the beginning of your career seems naïve or primitive to you now, it nevertheless contains religious truth.” (p. 43) Surprisingly for Moses, an agnostic, the words “religious truth” reassure him.

Does Yehoshua, then, defend his work purely by analogy with the career of his character Moses? Yehoshua’s defense – in the sense of explanation – takes place partly through the storyline surrounding Moses and Trigano, and partly through metaphor and symbolization regarding the so-called Roman Charity motif that underlies a long-ago scene written by Trigano.

Author’s Immunity, Reader’s Trust

According to book critic Liam Hoare, writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the final episode of A.B. Yehoshua’s The Retrospective “places too great a demand on the reader’s trust, and comes as an unwelcome and jarring conclusion to Yehoshua’s otherwise resolutely realistic, meditative, melancholic novel.” This is the first time I’ve heard the phrase: “the reader’s trust.” Whether the phrase represents the bias of one particular critic, or has a wider application, it is interesting that such a matter as trust is invoked in reference to a novel’s allegedly problematic ending. Among other things, this invocation of trust shows just how far distant we – readers and writers of today’s fiction – are from anything resembling the auteur theory (which in any case never applied to authors of literature). Far from being members of a protected class of artists, supplied with a cadre of advocates, today’s writers must win over their readers, must win their readers’ trust. The reader, according to this vision, is somewhat akin to a child, whose trust must not be violated. Or again, the reader is like a lover who has to be courted. What ever happened to Baudelaire’s hypocrite lecteur? [“hypocritical reader”]  

The above-mentioned reviewer further states that, “the conceit of The Retrospective is unsatisfactory mainly because of the purpose it serves for Yehoshua,” i.e., of retrospectively reviewing his own body of work. (Liam Hoare, Spanish Charity: A.B. Yehoshua’s “The Retrospective,” LARB, March 22, 2013). Evidence points to many allusions to Yehoshua’s own career in the novel. However, this is only one of the meanings that the retrospective takes on in the course of protagonist Moses’s adventure.

Picaro or Pilgrim?

The adventure begins  picaresque-style with the arrival in Spain of celebrated Israeli filmmaker Yair Moses for a retrospective of his early work. Here, in the pilgrimage city of  Santiago, Moses is repeatedly reminded of his fruitful collaboration with a former student, and of the incident that brought their partnership abruptly to an end. An early film screened at the retrospective, the first full-length collaborative effort between Moses and his former student and one-time partner, the screenwriter Trigano, is entitled “Circular Therapy,” and bears Trigano’s vision: that every recipient of care becomes a carer. It is a vision which Moses is now willing to reconsider.  [“Do you yourself believe in the idea of the film you created, in other words, is everyone who receives care also in fact a carer?” the director of the Spanish film archive, Juan de Viola, asks Moses in front of the film festival audience. Moses responds: “My screenwriter believed it…After we went our separate ways, this idea seemed unrealistic to me…But today, after watching this film of mine …I’m ready to give this vision another chance.”] (p. 57) The screening of one of the first films of Moses’s career thus sets in motion the protagonist’s – and the readers’ – reflections on the true meaning of charity.

That this notion of charity as circular therapy is not a transitory theme is made clear toward the end of the novel, when Moses visits Trigano and Uriel, Trigano’s mentally handicapped son, at an agricultural commune. Surprised by the young man’s solicitous concern for his well-being, Moses absorbs Trigano’s explanation: “Yes, from the care and love he gets from everyone, he has learned how to give to others.” (p. 322)


Charity, then, is not about the generosity of the giver, the humility of the recipient, for these are but temporary roles that each plays. Rather, charity is enacted and experienced in a mobile, circular pattern of give and take. “Circular Therapy” is also the title of Chapter Two of Yehoshua’s novel. (p. 41) Here the author gives a detailed description of the scenes in the film “Circular Therapy.” The author makes it clear that he is announcing one of the novel’s great themes as he opens the film festival, as it were, with a film that queries the nature of charity.

In the chapter entitled “Circular Therapy,” Moses struggles to recall many details of his first full-length film. His struggles are partly due to the passage of time, and partly due to the fact that the films in the archive have been given different titles and dubbed in Spanish. Not understanding the words, dependent on the images alone, Moses feels the impact of Trigano’s vision more directly. Despite resistance to Trigano’s significance to him, Moses has a brief moment of clarity when the powerful images of this early film prompt Moses’s recollection of the film’s original title. Yehoshua iterates Moses’s brief moment of re-awakening as the filmmaker dreamily recaps Trigano’s idea: “For this was Trigano’s vision – everyone who receives therapeutic care can and must become a carer. And as this simplistic, seemingly unfounded idea circles in scenic waves of black and white, crafted long ago by a young director, the original title of the film flashes in Moses’s memory…” (p. 46)

The original title of Yehoshua’s novel also points to the centrality of the theme of charity or caritas. The Hebrew title is Hesed Sefaradi, roughly translatable as “Spanish Charity.” Hesed, a word which translator Stuart Schoffman says “eludes precise translation and connotes compassion, kindness, love and charity [is] a fair equivalent to the Latin caritas.” (Translator’s Note) It is not only the word Hesed that eludes precise translation, however. The concept of charity-caritas itself is culturally strange for many English-speaking readers. And the idea of charity as depicted in the Roman Charity motif of 17th and 18th century painting is stranger still.

Secular Charity

As if to reprise, in another key, the resurgent charity theme, Yehoshua introduces it in painterly form. In the hotel room where Moses is staying with his sometime muse and leading lady, Ruth, there hangs above the bed an obscure 17th century painting depicting a secular act of love, or Roman Charity. The Caritas Romana shows a young woman breastfeeding an older man whose hands are bound. The motif depicted by painters such as Rubens and Caravaggio is based on an exemplary tale from the Nine Books of Memorable Acts and Sayings of Ancient Romans of Valerius Maximus. It is the tale of a daughter, Pero, whose father, Cimon, is incarcerated and sentenced to death by starvation. Pero secretly breastfeeds her father, saving his life. She is found out, but her act of selfless love wins her father's release. In contradistinction to the Christian iconography surrounding Moses at Santiago, the story of Pero and Cimon exemplifies secular virtues such as filial piety and Roman honor.
Recognizing the theme as that of the final scene of a film he made with Trigano – The Refusal – Moses becomes mesmerized by the painting. After all, the painting depicts a classic version of the little drama which Ruth refused to perform, and which Moses cancelled, taking pity on her apparent revulsion at the idea of offering her breast to a beggar. By cancelling the scene, however, Moses incurred Trigano’s lifelong enmity. On discovering the painting, Moses wonders if Trigano had been aware of the classical roots of the scene he wrote. His curiosity piqued by more questions, Moses soon finds himself in conversation with an art historian summoned to the hotel room.  

Secular Confession

Moses’s journey, or journeys, between Israel and Spain, between past and present, initially suggest the schema of a series of adventures, picaresque in style, befitting the literary tradition of his host country. Ultimately, though, the journey conforms to the pattern of a pilgrimage. On first arriving in Santiago, the filmmaker, healthy in body if not in spirit, finds he is booked into a historic hotel of which, “every nook bespeaks an aesthetic effort to convert its medical past.” (p. 3) Back in Israel, absent the Christian context, Moses journeys to a danger zone in search of Trigano, whom he informs: “An old teacher has come to you with good intentions. A penitent pilgrim.” (p. 333) Because Moses’s quest is avowedly secular, his viewpoint agnostic, the reader has to wonder whether Catholic faith and iconography are being used analogously to what Moses experiences, or whether Spanish Catholicism and its evident charity inform Moses’s actions in a deeper way.

In The Retrospective, the filmmaker’s journey and the re-awakening of his spirit are guided at times by characters imbued with an almost evangelical Catholicism. Moses travels to the Spanish pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela only to find upon arriving that the retrospective of his films is in effect being underwritten by the Catholic Church. Moses’s host, the director of the local film archive, is also a priest. Indeed, Moses first sees Juan de Viola emerging from a confessional booth. Guided, along with his actress companion, on a tour of the cathedral by animation teacher Pilar, Moses notes at the front of the building, “one last confessional, isolated and closed, apparently in use. Pilar asks the two to wait silently until the curtain is opened, and after a huge, red-faced man emerges, wiping away tears, she …pulls from the dark a short priest in a big robe.” (p. 24)

The conversation preceding the emergence of Juan de Viola, which begins as lighthearted banter with the tour guide about the willingness of Moses and actress Ruth to undergo confession or not – both are Israelis – reveals, nevertheless, Moses’s keen interest in what is going on in the confessional booths lining the walls of the cathedral. Telling Pilar that he won’t rule out making confession some day, Moses insists that he would first have to put his house in order, “Separating personal from professional sins, for which I would need a priest who is also an expert in film.” (p. 22) (He is about to meet one.) Moses has just one other condition: “But is it possible to take confession from someone who is neither a Christian nor a believer in God?” Moses’s secular ideal of confession, modeled after the church’s sacrament, requires above all that the soul of the sinner be prepared, in effect sanctified, and that the sinner speak to a confessor who is suitably agnostic.

The secular confession, then, is not just a matter of unloading intimacies and secrets; it depends upon finding an appropriate confessor. Minutes later, when asked to expand on his CV, Moses finds himself spilling the story of his life to the Mayor of Santiago de Compostela, whose listening demeanor is calm and patient, “like a therapist.” (p. 28) Atypically for this novel, Yehoshua satirizes his protagonist’s readiness to tell all: “Moses decides to expand a good deal, and looking over the great square of pilgrimage on this dazzling morning, he unspools his life story, the full director’s cut, outtakes and all.” (p. 26) Is it the Mayor’s demeanor that unlocks Moses’s disclosures? In fact, facing successive audiences at Q & A sessions following the screening of his early films, Moses turns out to be on a roll, and divulges a great deal about himself both as a professional and private person.

Confession in The Retrospective, with its procedural rule: prior to confessing, put your house in order and find the right confessor, is an orderly if unorthodox affair. Accordingly in Chapter Five, “Confession,” Moses seeks out Manuel – son of nonagenarian festival patron Doña Elvira, as his confessor, and in Chapter Six, “Putting the Old House in Order,” Moses retroactively visits the homes of his deceased parents and ex-wife, to put these houses in order. Moses visits his parents’ house to ‘put it in order’ in relation to his work, by resolving the question of how he and Trigano used it to create three different houses in a film. In the case of the apartment where he lived with his wife, Moses puts his house in order emotionally, by communicating openly with the woman who left him, and literally – by helping her to organize the clutter. Moses’s confession to Manuel specifically relates to his ‘professional sins,’ and by making this confession he is, if not absolved, better able to proceed with his intention of making reparation to the injured Trigano.

Symbol and Detail

Moses’s confession, so near in its secular expression to the religious rite, and the Catholic, indeed pilgrimage-rich setting of Santiago de Compostela, represent the Catholic strand of the novel’s revelation. There is, of course, an Israeli strand – bifurcated between ‘salt-of-the-earth’ Jerusalemite Moses, and the socially marginal – and angry – Trigano. Since Moses encounters a variety of individuals and types along the way, he, and the reader, are presented with multiple perspectives. The detailing of these various perspectives and cultural contexts determines that the manifestations and meanings of the Caritas Romana will be revealed at different times to different characters, and on different levels of apprehension: psychological, symbolic, and transcendent.

The linking of Moses’s artistic quest to questions of theological interest to the audience at the Church-sponsored film archive can be seen in discussions in the book with the priest, Juan de Viola, regarding theology, and is specifically illuminated by the priest’s comment that there are secular people with a religious temperament. The priest remarks, “There are many people with a religious temperament who are afraid to admit it. Don’t forget when you made the film. In the sixties a strong secular outlook prevailed in the world and religious faith was completely out of style. People like you camouflaged their longing for the absolute in foggy allegorical parables.” (p. 61)

For his part, Moses reminds himself that “in this pilgrimage city people tend to seek a symbol behind every detail” (p. 55), and resolves to be tolerant of religious speculation from members of his audience. Yehoshua uses both the history of Santiago as a pilgrimage city, and the present concerns of its religious leaders, to drive home a topical message regarding the abyss between symbolic thinking and rationalism as modes of understanding reality. In his opening remarks to the audience at the retrospective, Juan de Viola links the fantasy and surrealism of Moses’s early films made in collaboration with Trigano to “…a world of transcendence…what is hidden, invisible, fantastical…” (p. 36) The priest challenges Moses to defend his ‘sharp stylistic shift’ of the past two decades away from symbolism, and towards the naturalistic aesthetic that resulted in the aberration of a film featuring an eighteen-minute eating sequence. As we overhear Moses’s thoughts regarding the early films made in partnership with Trigano, we become aware that, while the director gave form to his screenwriter’s imaginative ideas, his own artistic intentions, essentially grounded in realism, were placed on hold while working with a more visionary partner.

Nevertheless, Moses’s overtly secular, realist intentions – conjoined with Trigano’s symbolism – resulted in theologically relevant films steeped in metaphor. But the changeover from one mode of apprehension to another also occurs in the reverse direction. Thus metaphorical language that Trigano put in his films becomes translated, over time, into a jarringly graphic realization of itself in the here-and-now of Israeli society. When, back in Israel, Moses revisits the location where Slumbering Soldiers was filmed, he sees the graphic realization of one of the images the screenwriter imagined thirty years ago: near the wadi is a military base.

From Metaphor to Reality

In Yehoshua’s novel, the exploration of the transformation of metaphor into reality begins with Moses’s investigation of the legacy of his early films, and continues until its culmination in the dialogue between Moses and Trigano that takes place, first at the gathering at the home of David Toledano, son of Moses’s deceased cameraman, and then at Netiviot and Netiv Ha’ asarah, at a moshav (agricultural commune) near the Gaza border. Thus Trigano responds to Moses’s announcement that, as life imitates art, there is now an actual military base where The Slumbering Soldiers imagined it: “It’s not my first metaphor to have turned into reality.” (p. 300)

In the paradigm shift of the novel’s final scene, the author relies upon the resonance of literary expression, and on the rich symbols of Spanish literary tradition, to authenticate the secular miracle he posits. One way the author prepares the reader for this paradigm shift is through an exploration of the changeover from metaphor to reality. The changeover from metaphor to reality is a byproduct of the process of Trigano’s vision being dispersed in the world, and is in effect the reverse of the transition seen at novel’s end, from realism to symbolism. The changeover from metaphor to reality– realization – is a process that the characters of The Retrospective variously understand as prophecy (Moses, Ruth, p. 247) validation of the creative vision (Moses, p. 300), and self-vindication (Trigano, p. 300).

From Reality to Metaphor

The scene that Moses must film to atone for his treatment of Trigano is to be a substitute for the scene Moses cancelled thirty years earlier. Trigano demands that Moses film the Caritas Romana, styled according to a painting of Moses’s choice. Trigano makes one further demand: the part of the starving man shall be performed by the director himself.

In understanding the ending of The Retrospective, it is important to remember that the Caritas Romana motif signifies intermittently in the novel, and on different levels of reality at different times. The reason Moses’s first two attempts to capture the scene of atonement don’t work is because these attempts are mired in reality; in stylistic terms, the attempted scenes become frozen in an almost naturalistic realism. The first candidate for Caritas is a young Muslim mother, impoverished and devout, who is willing to nurse an old man, but unwilling to remove the veil. Witnessing her distress at the prospect, Moses cancels the shoot. The second candidate, a junkie, prompts Moses to abort the filming in response to his own revulsion. Yet the obstacles to the filmmaker’s atonement are not just practical.

Secular Miracle

There is a problem that the filmmaker, as a character in the story, must solve or be helped to solve. It is the same problem that the author of the novel – having created the paradox of this quintessential image of self-transcending love that is yet troublesome – had to solve to successfully complete the novel. There is a problem with the image itself. Film festival patron Doña Elvira de Viola, who hosts Moses on his return to Spain to shoot the atonement scene for Trigano, and who buys three ceramic plates depicting the Roman Charity motif to inspire him, says the problem is that the image is itself ‘perverse’. Perhaps. But the difficulty might best be described as the problem of interpreting or depicting this motif in a rational way: as realism, when it requires interpretation at a symbolic, metaphysical, or even mystical level.

That the final scene will not transpire as a ‘humiliation’ for the filmmaker, but as a wholly integrated experience, is foreshadowed in Moses’s visit of conciliation to Trigano. [Humiliation is something Moses fears, but perhaps not as much as he fears missing his date with destiny. For this penance is in fact a quid pro quo: in exchange for the scene, Moses gets Trigano’s help in convincing Ruth to get her blood tests, and the hope, almost promise, of a renewed partnership with Trigano.]

Moses courts danger in his trip to a city near the Gaza border to meet with Trigano at the foster home of Trigano’s handicapped son, Uriel. Despite several sharp rebuffs, Moses regains Trigano’s trust step by painful step, including by taking a sincere interest in the care of the screenwriter’s son – indeed, the boy calls Moses a grandfather. In the world of mundane reality, then, in the tentatively reviving relationship between Moses and Trigano, care is established as a core value, at the center of any relationship the two men may have in the future.

By failing to take adequate account of the symbolic meaning of the act embodied in the Caritas Romana archetype, book critic Liam Hoare misreads the ending of Yehoshua’s novel, and misinterprets the meaning of the main character’s quest.

The whiplash ending of The Retrospective, as compelling as it is effective, is an instance of ‘Enormous Changes at the Last Minute’ (to quote the title of a Grace Paley book of short stories).

The Roman Charity in this novel acts symbolically as a representation of the artist and his muse. For the purposes of the story of Moses’s re-awakening, the relationship between the artist and his muse must be experienced, understood, and reenacted symbolically.

The way in which Yehoshua invites Moses – and his readers – to venture, to transition from partaking of a world reflected in realism’s mirror, to intuiting a world known through signs and symbols, happens in a breathtakingly quick and abbreviated lead-up to the final scene. The reality in which Moses’s life has been lived for the past thirty years belongs to the level of consciousness at which Moses’s films from the same time period exist both as celebrated works and as entertainment; these are the films he made after his break-up with Trigano – and therefore, his less inspired films. And it is to the disappointments of this mundane reality, as acknowledged by Moses and Ruth, that Moses has become habituated.

Doña Elvira de Viola, former silent film actress, film patron, and mother of priest Juan de Viola and monk Manuel de Viola, has promised Moses an answer to the conundrum of basing art on the Roman Charity motif. Following the failure of the first two attempts, she tells Moses: “The scene, the picture, must be revived and immortalized, and I know exactly where this can be done without frightening you…Don’t hurry to leave Spain. Let me surprise you with something worthy of your talent.” (p. 373)

Yehoshua’s novel may be “resolutely realistic,” as critic Liam Hoare would have it, but from the beginning of The Retrospective, the value of art that is experimental, symbolic, metaphysical, and surreal – as represented by the early films – is a central focus of artistic debate. The aesthetic success of Yehoshua’s tour de force ending is in a sense the fulfillment of the promise implicit in the fictitious early films of the novel – fictitious works of art that nevertheless allude to specific literary works by A. B. Yehoshua. [See Avraham Balaban in Ha’aretz]

Artist and Muse

How does Yehoshua prepare us, then, for the secular miracle of the book’s final scene?

The transition to Moses’s lost domain begins with a long drive through the countryside. In a rear building near the farmhouse that is to become a stage set, Moses espies “the scorched remnants of books in leather bindings.” Of this evidence of a centuries-past auto da fé, he reflects: “It seems I have reached a very important place.” (p. 376) The visage he sees next brings tears to his eyes: “It’s really him.” His books were burned, but he survived, Moses recalls. The chivalrous man introduces Moses to a plain countrywoman, his wife. “This is the place, the source,” Moses declares, and prepares to film the atonement scene.   

This is Spain after all, and Moses has been delivered directly to the heart of Spanish greatness: he is in the abode of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance. Not only that, but the Knight has found and married his muse: the countrywoman who nurses Moses is none other than Dulcinea. Yehoshua prepares us for this secular miracle – a transformative image of the artist receiving inspiration from the muse – by a wonder-inducing sequence of literary-symbolic images. Far from embodying an image of humiliation, this scene of charity, as experienced by the director, is a powerful representation of the artist taking in inspiration directly from the source. The artist drinks, not from the real breast of a Spanish countrywoman, but from the font of inspiration so enchantingly portrayed in the timeless tale of Don Quixote. As for Dulcinea – the Knight’s muse, as we know, inhabited both a mundane, terrestrial incarnation and a spiritual aspect.

The Rear Window Viewpoint

L.B. Jefferies, the main character of Hitchcock’s The Rear Window, is confined to a wheelchair –  but only temporarily, until his broken leg heals. Stella, Jeff’s therapist, is paid to take care of this injured but otherwise robust and athletic young man. The woman whose murder Jeff so conscientiously uncovers – her life visible through his rear window – is an invalid. Her husband, the murderer, has grown weary of caring for her. Hitchcock’s realistic, or cynical, view of humankind contrasts with the vision of Moses-Trigano’s first film, “Circular Therapy,” as well as with Trigano’s surreal images: empowered by a Hebrew marching song, an invalid vigorously drives her wheelchair to care for another; catalyzed by caritas, a dying man wheels his IV to a bus station to comfort a young girl. The (fictitious) Israeli film, preserved in the archive of a European city, describes, albeit unrealistically, a dynamic circle of caring in which illness and disability are always transformable into the capacity for nurturance. In the (actual) American film by a British director, morbidity can place the human in peril. Hitchcock’s protagonist is protected from intolerance of his temporary dependence: the facts that he lives alone, travels the globe, and engages in risky work, all argue that he is an independent individual. However we see through his eyes the danger in which his neighbor is placed as a result of her chronic invalidism. Two cultures: two points of view.

Two reviewers of The Retrospective have expressed unease with Yehoshua’s central image. Writer Robert Pinsky refers to Caritas Romana as “a bizarre cultural choice” (“Screening History,” by Robert Pinsky, The New York Times, March 29, 2013). A bizarre choice from what cultural viewpoint? one might ask. Certainly not from the perspective of the European culture that gave birth to the image. In Europe the iconography of the Roman Charity has featured in high art from the time of the Etruscans to the 18th century. Liam Hoare finds the Caritas Romana not merely bizarre, but repugnant. Speaking of Trigano’s demand that Moses play the part of the starving man, he describes the proposed scene thus: “This is the ultimate act of degradation…the return to the pathetic helplessness of infancy.” (Hoare, LARB, March 2013). The Puritanism of Anglo culture, which has often rendered breastfeeding itself as suspect or taboo, finds such raw evidence of human dependency, however temporary, however biologically determined, to be pathetic. (An unfortunate reaction, since this is how humans get their big brains – by prolonging dependence in infancy.)

In at least two of Yehoshua’s novels, the main character, an Israeli, journeys abroad and performs an act of atonement. The journey – whether of the human resources manager in A Woman in Jerusalem or of the filmmaker in The Retrospective – offers the possibility to the sojourner of spiritual rebirth.

In his Translator’s Note, Stuart Schoffman points out that the second word of the original Hebrew title, Hesed Sefaradi, “means “Spanish” but also “Sephardi,” referring specifically to Jews whose ancestors were expelled from Spain in 1492” and to Jews from Arabic-speaking countries in North Africa and the Middle East. In his review of The Retrospective, Adam Kirsch explicates the novel as a “surreal study of the contested sources of Israeli identity” (“A.B. Yehoshua’s Many Ghosts,” Tablet, March 21, 2013). The Kirsch article explores the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities in Israel as seen in the characters Moses and Trigano.

Also relevant to an informed reading of The Retrospective is the interplay of the relationship between the Israelis and the Europeans whose countries, like Spain, played a major role in the history of the Jewish diaspora. Israeli culture has among its diverse influences the cultures its people left behind. Prominent among those cultures is that of Europe and, within Europe, Spain. Through the literature and art of Rome, Spain, the Netherlands, Europe as a whole, and now Israel, there evolved an archetype: the story of Roman Charity. But we Americans, we who look at Europe and Israel through the rear window of our vaunted, dysfunctional independence – we find this story very difficult to understand. Still, it is a beautiful story, and we have been helped to understand it by the bold creativity and visionary insight of Yehoshua’s storytelling.

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