now reading: Jacob Wallenstein, Notes for a Future Biography | Shay Azoulay

Jacob Wallenstein, Notes for a Future Biography

Shay Azoulay | from: Hebrew

Translated by : Shay Azoulay

Introduction by Our Editors

Shay Azulai’s Jacob Wallenstein is a Jew of German origin, a pyromaniac and lover of speculative literature, residing in Tel Aviv of the forties and fifties; when he is not busy smoking himself to death or burning manuscripts and houses, he writes about the future: “Most inhabitants of the developed world go to work every morning, where they sit for several hours in front of blinking screens, and then return home to sit in front of other, bigger screens.” It is Wallenstein’s true prophecy, which appears in his lengthy novel “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.” In fact, all the prophecies in his book are true, but there is no need to read Wallenstein’s magnum opus, since the author, Shay Azulai, summarizes the thousand-page fictional sci-fi novel (as fictional as Wallenstein) for us: “…This example, which might seem humorous in summary, takes up 217 pages of Wallenstein’s novel. Reading it is an exhausting and frustrating struggle that can leave the reader utterly hopeless and certain that the issue can never be resolved, and that perhaps all other human endeavors are equally futile.” Azulai’s story is a feat as impossible as threading an elephant through the eye of a needle: Jacob Wallenstein’s magnum opus turns into an amusing anecdote, the years go by, people die and new ones are born, and every now and then emerges some Wallenstein who attempts to say something ambitious about the future—but the future washes everyone away, even the Wallensteins. It is a seemingly realistic story about a sci-fi novel that was never written, winking at genre stereotypes, and asking what is speculative literature, and whether there is literature that is not speculative?   

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Faster than light space travel to distant galaxies has been proven impossible. The existence of other planets or alien races, therefore, remains mere conjecture as these cannot be reached or contacted. Miraculous machines that let you travel backward or forward in time are impossible – an unsolvable paradox. Teleportation, precognition, telekinesis, and all versions of extrasensory perception have all been scientifically disproven. Technological and medical advancements have allowed people to live longer and better but there is no sufficiently advanced technology that has freed mankind from tedious labor, eventual suffering, or death. Most inhabitants of the developed world go to work every morning, where they sit for several hours in front of blinking screens, and then return home to sit in front of other, bigger screens.

This is the future as depicted in Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1955), Jacob Wallenstein’s professed Magnum Opus – a vast, intricate, and largely overlooked novel written in Tel Aviv over a five-year period – spanning over one thousand pages, including meticulous lists, tables, charts, maps, and elaborate blueprints of buildings and machines. The novel is Wallenstein’s only completed work, as well as his only published work excluding various letters to the editor and brief comments published in newspapers.  This work, in spite of its difficult content and technical shortcomings, deserves a place of distinction in Israeli literature as the first and most ambitious work of science fiction ever written in Hebrew.

The only child of Jewish educators, Jacob Wallenstein was born in Düsseldorf in 1909. The family emigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1920, where his father Joseph, an ardent Zionist, translated the family name Wallenstein (a derivative of Waldenstein – “Forest Rock”) into the Hebraic Even-Horesh (“Rock-Grove”). Young Jacob Even Horesh studied at the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium – an unremarkable student with few friends by most accounts – and preferred to spend most of his time reading German translations of classic science fiction novels by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. He attempted to write a few imitations of these works in Hebrew – adventure stories of travels to distant planets or beneath the earth – but was dissatisfied with them and none survived.

He signed all of his works with the name Wallenstein, believing it had a more respectable sound and international appeal, since from his earliest attempts he had always wished his writing to be translated into German – the language of literature in his eyes – though there is no indication that he had ever read Goethe, Thomas Mann, or any other German writer. Wallenstein continued reading and rereading German translations, but never attempted to write in the language, as he felt that he could never master German grammar, particularly proper word order.

After completing his studies Wallenstein attempted to join the ranks of the Haganah, which was in need of new recruits following the 1929 riots. He was discharged from the organization within a few weeks, following several incidents of insubordination, or as he later termed them, “ideological disagreements with his superiors.”

His father’s wealth allowed Wallenstein to avoid work and he spent most of his days among his father’s many books, or sitting in coffee shops reading the papers.  He smoked incessantly, through a long cigarette holder that once belonged to his mother, holding it with three fingers as if it were a pen. He was not considered a member of Tel Aviv’s bohemian circle of poets and writers, and in fact had only one friend associated with that circle, Uriel Halperin, a poet and translator who shared his affection for science fiction. According to Halperin, it was fairly early in their acquaintance when Wallenstein declared, out of the blue, that he had finally understood that he could do nothing but become a writer. “The way he said it,” Halperin recalled, “was as if he had just said something utterly reckless like I’m going to kill myself tonight.” Though they had often talked about literature, with Wallenstein expressing a disapproving view of the realist and autobiographical literature of the time, prior to that admission Wallenstein had never talked of his own writing, or shown Halperin anything he had written. “Before that I did not even know for sure that he was writing,” Halperin admitted.

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Wallenstein wrote throughout the 1930’s – in all probability further attempts at various science fiction formulas  – but failed to complete even a single short piece which he deemed worthy of publication. His father died in 1936 of a sudden heart attack, and his mother died a few months later of some unspecified illness.

In 1939 Wallenstein received a copy of Franz Kafka’s The Castle as a birthday present from Halperin. A week later he met with Halperin at a coffee shop and thanked him profusely, claiming that the book had changed his life. Wallenstein told him that after reading the book he had set fire to everything he had ever written and started work on something entirely new and different. After that meeting Halperin did not see Wallenstein for several months; when they finally met and Halperin brought up the book Wallenstein looked at him suspiciously and gave only vague answers. Their meetings became fewer and more intermittent, until one day in 1942, when Wallenstein invited Halperin to celebrate the completion of his masterpiece. Halperin arrived with a gift – a German translation of Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe.

“I told him that it reminded me of The Castle,” Halperin recalled, “and that it might give him an idea for his next masterpiece. I said a few words about the plot, a young officer guarding an old fortress, waiting for a war. He stared at me, grabbed the book from my hands, and started leafing through it. He then looked at the book from all sides, as if it was some mysterious object, and turned to the first page and started reading it right then, standing in the middle of the room. I went to pour myself a drink and when I returned he was still there. I sat and waited and he kept reading the book, not moving except to turn a page. After almost an hour of waiting I left. The next day I heard that his house burned down. He told the police that he was burning some papers and the fire got out of hand. He suffered from smoke inhalation and was sent to the hospital for a few days. I visited him there but he refused to talk to me. After that I never saw him again.”

After the fire Wallenstein sold the empty lot and moved into a room in the Ginosar Hotel on Rothschild Avenue. He spent most of his days downstairs at the Atara Coffee shop, reading newspapers and smoking, and probably wasn’t writing anything. During this period he had a short affair with the wife of a bank teller, and was hospitalized twice for symptoms attributed to “nicotine poisoning.” He attended the meetings of parties and organizations from all sides of the political spectrum – Communist, Progressive, Socialist, Revisionist, and even Canaanite – but usually departed after only a few minutes, following heated debates with the members.

In 1950 Wallenstein read a German translation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and was inspired once again. He began compiling copious notes analyzing the world presented in Orwell’s text, some of which have survived. He copied out passages that he approved of, and reworked what he believed Orwell had gotten wrong. In one of his notes Wallenstein writes: “Totalitarian regimes where freedom is blatantly absent cannot last, not for more than a hundred years. The only systems that last are bureaucratic capitalist pseudo-democracies where the individual thinks he has complete freedom but is actually limited by his access to money.”

Wallenstein wished to contact George Orwell to share his thoughts and misgivings. He approached an English-speaking acquaintance to help him draft a letter, but found out from him that the author had died earlier that year. After a few weeks of hesitation Wallenstein decided to write a novel and closed himself up in his hotel room. When the Ginosar hotel went out of business a few months later Wallenstein moved into a one-room apartment above the noisy Carmel Market. The original title he gave the work in progress was 2050, and later A Blueprint for the World in the Year 2050. According to his notes, he viewed the project as the culmination of all his years of reading, the definitive work of speculative fiction. “After this,” he wrote in his notes, “no reputable writer could offer a different vision of the future. Faced with this mountain of evidence, any attempt could only be met with laughter and scorn.”

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He began by examining every popular convention of science fiction for feasibility and probability, discarding nearly all of them. By the year 2050, according to the novel, men had reached the moon, found nothing there, and returned to earth. Other men were sent on a mission to mars, found nothing there, and died on their way back to earth due to exposure to cosmic radiation. Further space exploration was out of the question. Expeditions reached the bottom of every ocean, crisscrossed Antarctica, explored every underground cavern and the depths of every jungle and found no super-advanced beings, or signs of intelligent non-human life. The human race spoke one language (German), shared a single religion (vaguely Judeo-Christian), and lived in peace.

The central technological advancement in the novel is the Telewriter, a combination typewriter, television screen, and telephone, which allows people to communicate and exchange written messages. At home people watched color televisions which had grown so large that “the screen took up an entire wall of the living room and the cathode ray tube behind it filled up another room.” The book includes detailed technical drawings of the telewriter, a blueprint for a residential building where each apartment had an interior room housing a television, along with a dozen other drawings and maps. The book also contains a long series of seemingly random lists and tables, including among others, the populations of thirty major cities from 2020 to 2050, a list of all 327 districts that the world had been divided into, a list of most common first names, and an impossibly complex diagram of the relationships between the 19 major branches of government.

The book, which by 1952 he had already named Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (borrowed from Shakespeare’s Macbeth), has no plot to speak of. The central theme, and perhaps the central character, is the bureaucracy that controls nearly every aspect of the inhabitants’ daily lives. Wallenstein’s main critique of Nineteen Eighty-Four was that it presented a government that was too organized and efficient, and thus unrealistic, so in his book he constructed a complex and inefficient system of government which operated out of the best intentions, but whose unbending rules and rituals made the simplest processes impossibly difficult.

Thus, for example, Wallenstein presents the story of a secretary who receives a certain form whose intent is quite clear, but which in her view is not filled out according to her department’s precise demands. Rather than process the form, the secretary returns it to the sender with a note demanding that it be resubmitted in the appropriate manner. The sender does not comply, and instead registers a complaint against the secretary’s claim, along with written proof from his departmental protocol that the form was indeed filled out properly. A supervisor from the interdepartmental coordination office is brought in to resolve the issue and decides that the problem actually lies in the inconsistent methods of classification employed by the different departments. An inspector from the Standards department disagrees and claims that certain terms that appear in the form are inadequately defined. A lexicology department assessor is summoned and…. on and on it goes, ad infinitum, and nothing gets done.

By the end, representatives of all 19 branches of government are involved and no consensus has been reached regarding the debated form. In fact, no two people in the story seem to agree about any single fact relating to the form. This example, which might seem humorous in summary, takes up 217 pages of Wallenstein’s novel. Reading it is an exhausting and frustrating struggle that can leave the reader utterly hopeless and certain that the issue can never be resolved, and that perhaps all other human endeavors are equally futile.

In late 1954, when Wallenstein felt that his book would soon be completed, he began contacting publishing houses with the hopes that they would publish his book. Most of them rejected him immediately, whether based on the premise of his book or the complicated process of printing and binding a thousand page book with multiple drawings and charts, which both virtually guaranteed that the book would not make a profit. He also sent letters to several German publishers, writing in German for the first time in 35 years, suggesting they hire a translator and publish his book, but received no response.

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In 1955 Meir Mizrachi, a pleasant uneducated tailor turned bookseller,  bought two bankrupt publishing houses and was looking for editors and translators to help him put out cheap paperback translations of mystery and romance novels. Wallenstein met with Mizrachi and tried to convince him to publish his book. Mizrachi didn’t think there was much of a market for science fiction, but agreed to publish the book since it did not require a translator. When Wallenstein told him the book was over a thousand pages long he had second thoughts, explaining that a paperback volume simply couldn’t hold so many pages, but in the end they reached a compromise wherein the book would be printed in 5 volumes, to make the novel more manageable, and to increase the estimated profit since each volume would be sold for the price of a standard book.

The five volumes of the book were published between October and December 1955 with covers by Mizrachi’s regular illustrator Arieh Moscovitch. It is safe to assume that neither Moscowitz nor Mizrachi read the book itself, since the covers had little to do with the book. The cover of the first volume, for example, portrayed a blonde woman sporting a ray gun and wearing a space suit that inexplicably reveals her cleavage, against a background of purple dunes.

After the books were printed Wallenstein spent two days in Mizrachi’s warehouse gluing the volumes together, back to front, to form a single massive volume. He assured the workers that he had the publisher’s permission to do so, but when Mizrachi came in and saw what Wallenstein was doing he became furious and kicked him out, cursing him in Turkish. The glued books could not be separated without ruining their covers, so Mizrachi was forced to sell them as they were, and very few copies sold. The separate volumes sold only slightly better, mostly to teenage boys who had bought them for the lurid covers.

Wallenstein sent two copies of his book, along with his heavily annotated copy of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and all of his notes and original drawings, to Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem. In the enclosed letter he stipulated that his notes are not to be read until “I have been dead for forty years, or my vision has come true, whichever comes first.” Wallenstein sent copies of his novel to every reputable book critic and scanned the reviews assiduously to see if anyone mentioned his work, but found nothing. He began smoking even more than before, his voice became a rasp, his skin turned grey. In 1968 Wallenstein was diagnosed with lung cancer.

In May 1969 Amos Geffen, who would go on to translate several classic works of science fiction, wrote a piece for the semi-pornographic scandal magazine Bul, where he bemoaned the marginalized status of science fiction in Israel, and briefly mentioned Wallenstein’s book as “an unequivocal failure.” Geffen presents a brief summary of the book and explains that “In clinging only to what is reasonable and likely the writer neglects the most important aspect of science fiction, which is to present a new idea which will illuminate our own reality.” It is unknown whether Wallenstein ever saw this review.

On the 20th of July 1969 the fire department was called to put out a blaze in a room overlooking the Carmel Market. After extinguishing the fire they discovered the charred remains of a human body. A police report concluded that Jacob Wallenstein had fallen asleep with a lit cigarette. He was buried the next day, as man took his first steps on the lifeless moon.

*Image: David Stewart

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