Entries from the Diaries of Lea Goldberg

Monday, August 3, 1927

I haven’t despaired yet. For many years to come I’ll probably avoid saying this word. And, who knows, I may never have to say it. I’m still hopeful that it is possible to find a common language with people, that it is possible to confide in them, that it is possible to find in their sensibilities an echo to all that is happening in my inner world. But these days I feel more alone than ever before. I no longer feel any connection with my girlfriends. I can’t confide in them anymore. We never had a common language, but I didn’t understand this before. I only love Tania very much. I also think that her attitude toward me is very good. But I was never really intimate with her, and I won’t be: in a few days she is going abroad. And even if she weren’t leaving, we wouldn’t be confiding in one another. And maybe it’s better this way. I’m beginning to covet silence. And I have no need to discuss my emotions. I write and think about them. But what I write—my small poems, my few stories—I would have liked to read them to someone once in a while. Seek their advice, or simply observe the impression they make on others. But I don’t have this option. My girlfriends are not interested. Maybe they are right.

He is far. My sufferings, my longings, are great. Outside it is autumn. Autumn leaves. I love the falling leaves, their muted sorrow. But rainy days, the cold, I don’t like. Such days clearly tell me that he is far away. And I believe them. They’re always right. But I love more the autumn sun that lies and says that everything in our world is only “for the time being,” and that he, too, is far away “only for the time being.” But it’s a lie, of course. Ah, well.

There’s a silly word in our world, “courtship.” Were it only a word, it wouldn’t affect me much. But it denotes an even sillier convention. But right now I have no desire to write about it. I’ll leave it for another time.

Saturday, October 9, 1927

Lately I’ve been thinking I want to write a lot, create a lot, but I don’t know anymore if I can, if I have the stamina. After all, I’m still so very young, and I don’t know yet what I’ll become. The notion that I have yet many years to live, that a great and wide life is still before me, is, for some reason, new and strange to me. I’ve always perceived myself as someone who’s already grown, and that I must do now whatever it is I am to do, and that if it doesn’t happen presently, it never will. Only now do I begin to realize how young I am, and how much I will change with time. For, even if I double the years of my life, I’ll be only thirty-two. A young woman still and there’s so much one can accomplish in sixteen years! Good Lord!

Today I’m in the mood to write, and, were it possible, I’d sit like this a few more hours and write, write without pause. Not because the heart is overflowing, but simply because today, for some reason, the process of writing gives me pleasure, and the words write themselves, without labor pains.

In the evenings, in my bed, I dream a lot. At times my dreams are so dreadful, they only intensify the anguish of reality. But I can’t live without them, just as I can’t live without the glorious fantasies.

I’ve long been accustomed to the dreamer in me, and I’ve long since stopped fighting her. Ah, well, let her do as she pleases. Maybe it’s better this way. She is the one who gives me material for my work, who paints for me living beings, and also calms me a bit. Anyhow, fighting her is like Don Quixote fighting his windmills.

It seems to me now that if I were among people, I would know how to say to them many good words, words of affection and tenderness, I would know how to understand and forgive them everything—just as I’m forgiving myself right now—forgive all the sins I’ve sinned against them, all my many mistakes. But this is not true. It is just my sentimental mood that’s deceiving me now. I don’t know how to comport myself with people. I don’t know what ails them most. I always try to tread cautiously, but always stumble and fall precisely on the vulnerable spot. Then I reproach and berate myself, and attempt to start anew. But since I’ve already fallen once, it is hard for me to rise. And if I do rise, I fall again. And so on endlessly, and the people around me suffer for it endlessly.

And I, too, suffer. And yet, I’ve learned very little from all these scruples. I’ve learned to keep quiet. I’ve learned that it is not my place to forgive anything, because no one has reason to ask my forgiveness. It is I who must ask their forgiveness. But there is one thing I’ll never forgive, even when it is my place to forgive, and which I’ll always remember with rancor: the barbs Mina [1] hurled at me, deliberately, and it is not the barbs or the pain, but her ill-concealed glee when she saw the great pain she was causing me. Nevertheless, I can’t talk about this today. I don’t even know why I started. And anyhow, I don’t understand why I began to trill arias from this opera. I shouldn’t have allowed myself to babble so much. But the pen is drawn to the page. And I write. Aimlessly. Purposelessly. Just to satisfy a silly whim of my mood.

I think that if I wrote a little every day, it would be more beneficial than writing so much at a stretch. But I can’t do it. I’ve tried it many times, but to no avail.

Cold are the days of autumn. And the evenings even more so. The leaves have yellowed. They have fallen. I love the fallen leaves. I tried to sing a little Song of Songs to them in my “Letters Not Sent.” Not a Song of Songs, but a muted sorrowful song that is like the whispery rustle of fallen leaves, and where the letter “s” [2] is repeated forty-four times.

Outside the city, the scenery is beautiful. Already the leaves of the chestnut trees have yellowed and the elms have reddened. Already the grass has darkened, already the sun is no longer a frequent guest in our skies. It will peek out for a moment and then hide, and already the heart dreads the cold gray days. It contracts and begs for a little more sun, just a little more . . . In a few days, the heart will despair, will acquiesce, knowing that in autumn it’s always cold. As it should be. As it always is.

Thursday, November 3, 1927 

Yesterday I stopped writing in mid-sentence because Nadia arrived. I could continue now the idea I wanted to express yesterday, but for some reason it seems pointless, so let it remain as is.

I just came back from the university. More than once, I’ve been to Banivich’s lectures on Turgenev. They always make an impression on me. He has a special talent to stimulate thought. It feels as though he is telling you everything, but he always leaves something unsaid, rousing those who know how to think a little to wonder: “What if? . . .”  a question that will always remain open. And this is so much better than anything that can be articulated.

Most interesting to me are the lectures about Russian literature, a literature I’m bound to more than any other, more so than I myself wish. And even though I’ve strayed a bit lately, away from Russian literature, it is still the one I know and understand best. I’m bound to it by language and life circumstances much more than Hebrew literature. But the great love I have for Hebrew literature, I don’t feel for the Russian (I’m not talking about a few specific authors, I’m talking about literature in general, even if the term “general” is not very apt here). I don’t care if the works of Russian authors are not read or translated, but it does hurt me a lot if this is the fate of Hebrew authors. But this is marginal. There’s something far more important than national pride that connects me to Hebrew literature. When, for instance, I read Chekhov’s Дом с мезонином [3], I very much love the small and sorrowful Missyuss as Chekhov depicts her. But Gnessin’s [4] Ruchama, Ida, or Rosa, are far dearer and more accessible to me. Because, for all the love I feel for the protagonists of Russian literature, I am not them. The special air that Judaism has created around itself is a magical sphere I cannot, and absolutely do not, wish to leave. It affects my thoughts and emotions and makes me and the daughters of my people completely different from women born and raised in a different environment. Therefore I can feel a likeness with Missyuss or any other Russian girl, whoever she may be, however humane and “nation-less.” I can think and dream like she does (so much so, in fact, that the inexperienced eye will interpret “like” to mean “the same”!). But to feel what she feels, to think and dream what she does—this I can never do. My full and complete self, just as it is, I can only find in Hebrew works.

And if I knew Hebrew better, if I could feel its subtlest nuances, I would feel Hebrew literature still better, and it would affect me more powerfully than the Russian (I do not lack words in Russian). But, the day will come and I will know Hebrew. I will learn and know it. Of this I am certain.

Saturday, November 5, 1927

It is not good that one must (must one?) spend an hour with a fellow who is not very smart and is very provincial and who looks at you as upon the girl he is “courting,” and maybe even more than that. It is not good to look straight into someone’s face and think: “A simpleton! Why doesn’t another, a loved one, look at me like this, or take me out on a walk sometimes? But this is not to be. So, why aren’t you a bit different? A bit smarter! Is it that difficult?” This is silly. I must have the fortitude to disengage from such relationships. And today I don’t want to write just idle words. I want every word I write now to be truthful and warm just like the feeling itself. But what can I write about in this way? One can write about anything. About the soft light of my lamp under its red shade. About the yellow dry flowers that stand before me in a glass. About the blue windowpane, cold as thin ice, with the silvery moonbeams reflected in it. I don’t see the moon. I only feel it—pale and enchanting. Maybe I can also write about my love for him. About my love that now, at this moment, does not induce suffering, only sadness; my yearning for him, for the shadow of the distant one. But, possibly, this is precisely what I needn’t write about. This love is so soft and fine, the most discerning word won’t do it justice. Therefore, why falsify, why lie?

Monday, December 5, 1927

The evening before yesterday I had a long conversation with Mina. For a few hours, we had a heart-to-heart talk, not only from my side, but from hers as well. For the first time, we talked in complete seriousness, saying everything we had to say to one another. I was very mistaken about her. I was wrong to blame her, and I’m glad I was wrong. But it had to happen the way it did. She herself said so. She told me about an odd feeling she felt toward me at some point last year—hatred. “I don’t know why and what it was about,” she said, “but I suffered for it. Like others suffer for love. I’m still unable to understand it.” She felt very bad about it. “I know: I offended you more than once. But at the time I couldn’t do otherwise,” she said. I know she spoke the truth. At such moments one only speaks the truth. We, who as yet don’t have a cynical attitude toward life, could never lie at such a moment. It was one of those conversations that result in something, that change something. After such a conversation (or so I believed), you either break up or reunite again. And since our conversation ended in mutual understanding, I thought that I had regained a wise and sensible friend. But now I think I was wrong. Not much has changed in our relationship. The antipathy has dissolved, but to reunite again is no longer possible. Something still stands between us, and we can’t put it aside. And once again I believe that my fate is solitude.

Wednesday, February 6, 1929

And nothing has changed. Everything, everything is as it was. At the university, classes and exams. At home, boredom and dreams.  In the head, plans for great works that will never be written. In the heart, longing for the one, the desired, the needed, who will not come. And sorrow and suffering and tears. Especially tears. I’ve never cried so much.

Mina is in Berlin and she writes letters that tell about concerts, museums, theaters, people, and the university. She will probably come home this weekend and recount it all face to face. And I sit here, sorrowing, day after day. Sitting near the stove, I travel by car, train, and on foot all across Italy, Germany, Scandinavia, and Holland. I wander through the monasteries in Spain and pore over their archives, writing a book about Shlomo ibn Gabirol, [5] dedicating the book to . . .

And really, no desire to write anything of substance in the diary. If only I could write stories! Write decent prose! But I can’t, even when I sit down to write, the prose, as if to spite, is poor, better left unwritten. Indeed, in every failed story a dream withers, people die, people who were alive before the pen touched them. And I want so much to write!

This year began for me with great unpleasantness, with great sorrow, but I won’t write about it. Still, since that first day I’m better. Day after day, a feeling of unease, and even if there’s no actual reason, a bad feeling persists. A feeling I can’t rid myself of. I’ve lost the aptitude to appreciate the necessity to live, the necessity to act. Only when I write I understand that, for some reason, it is necessary to live, to work, and to be merry, but I hardly write anymore. And without writing, I have nothing to ground me. And in truth, I desire nothing. Nothing, in any case, that is tangible, that is more or less accessible.

I’m over seventeen, and some say (and he among them) that this is the best time in one’s life. Woe to me.

Monday, February 25, 1929

After drifting and straying I return at last to the road I’ve mapped out long ago. More precisely, the road I’ve mapped out more than once: working, appreciating the small things, [6] focusing on the present, and chasing away poisonous dreams. Lately, I’ve been building too much on a shaky foundation: I hung my entire future upon a study fellowship I’ll probably never get, and going abroad, which, without the fellowship, is impossible. I wept every day, embittering my life and the life of others. More importantly, and I’ve already written about this—I couldn’t write.

Now I’m calm. I’m waiting for a miracle without thinking about it. I forbid myself to engage in dreams about my future, dependent as they are on that miracle I can’t even name, even as I believe that it will arrive, however tardily. Still, during this month there have been a number of despairs, and so on. I’ll briefly recount them, even though they’re insubstantial, just as my life and my endeavors are insubstantial. We had a literary event, organized by the young authors. I recited a tale that went very well and was liked by all without exception. He wasn’t there even though he knew that I’d be reading. This vexed me. I did think that, after all, he does have some interest in me. But this, of course, means nothing.

And then disappointment number two, a bit more substantial, if minor: last year, I was not acquainted with any of the young authors and I felt bad for being so alone, while here, in Lithuania, there are other young people who write. This year, gradually, I’ve come to know most of them (now I know all those who live in town) and I thought I’d draw moral support from them. But during the party they gave after the event, it became clear to me that they and I are two different worlds, that I could never be close with these so-called “bohemians.” Ah well, [7] ניט געפידעלט. Tonight I’m going to the theater to hear a concert. Russian music. I’m very happy for it.

Thursday, April 25, 1929

I hate the holidays. I hate Passover, the Seder, I hate everything and everybody. We had our Seder yesterday. Even on Yom Kippur they’re merrier in our house, or, at least, calmer. My mother and uncle wept during the reading of the Haggadah because they recalled the Seder in their home while grandfather was still alive (he died this year). I watched them and remembered that a few years ago, when my father was still with us, he, too, wept during the Seder. And I, too, wanted to let the well of my tears flow, but I held back, and therefore today, no longer able to contain my tears, I’ve been crying all day. My mother asks what happened, but what can I tell her? How can I tell her that I’m crying precisely because nothing has happened and nothing will ever happen?

There’s hatred and anger in my heart. I hate all those I love and today I even hate him. And also Lisa, and . . . But what can I add? Why do I even continue to write this year? If I stay here next year as well, I don’t know what will become of me. But for now I’m here. I do well in my university studies. As to the young authors, I was wrong. They’re decent young men, and I love them. They’re all better than I am.

Saturday, June 8, 1929

The diary was probably invented to record the most remarkable events in our lives. But, as it happens, we remember the diary precisely on those days when nothing interesting is happening to us, days when the tedium is great, and we reach for the pen and write whatever comes to mind, if only to appease somewhat the agitated heart that longs and demands all that has been denied it. On eventful days, when every moment offers some new feeling, some new experience, one doesn’t sit down to write in the diary—there’s no time, and it’s also difficult to organize one’s thoughts. And why deny it? On such days, the mere fact of writing—I’m referring to diary-writing and not the act of creating—does, for the most part, seem superfluous.

My heart is heavy today. So much so, it’s hard to bear it in my chest. Every so often I heave a sigh, and I’m not even aware of it. But others are aware and they ask: What’s the matter? And I reply that nothing is the matter, and continue to sigh.

I’m not thinking about any one particular thing. I know very well what I miss, and this burden is hard on me. And I don’t ask whether life is worth living or not—I just live and feel that it’s very hard. Nothing more.

Today I read Fichman’s [8] introduction to Jacobsen’s [9] stories. It’s a beautiful introduction, just like all of Fichman’s essays, but this one delights me more than all the others (except his Ecclesiastes essay which I love very much), because I feel a great kinship with the author of Niels Lyhne, he who knew so well to love mankind and grieve its fate; a kinship I feel not so much with love, as with sorrow. And Fichman, so gentle, subtle, quiet, and melancholy knows just how to portray the spiritual profile of the Danish author. Two beloved authors bound here together. This is what delights me no end.

I’m now keenly aware of the pettiness and narrow-mindedness that prevail in our small town. If only they left me alone, the women who visit my mother on their gossip circuit. What are to me the affairs of their acquaintances! And my friends, too: if only they offered something new and interesting rather than empty chatter. This is not good, not good at all. And I’m one of them. I, too, have a very narrow mind. I know so little, and worse, I lack the willpower to sit down and study, learn all that I need to know.

*


Notes

[1] Mina Goldberg Landau (1911-1998) will remain a constant presence in the Diaries as Goldberg’s most enduring friend, from childhood until Goldberg’s death in 1970. The two will study in Berlin in the early 1930s, and both will emigrate to Palestine. Hebrew Youth, Lea Goldberg’s letters to Mina Goldberg, was published by Sifriat Poalim in 2009.

[2] The Hebrew letter “shin.”

[3] “The House with the Mezzanine” [“An Artist’s Story”] (1896).

[4] Uri Nissan Gnessin (1879-1913). Pioneer of modern Hebrew literature and Yosef Haim Brenner’s (1881-1921) close friend. His Beside and Other Stories was published in the U.S. in 2005.

[5] Shlomo ben Yehuda ibn Gabirol (c. 1021- c. 1058). Andalusian Hebrew poet and philosopher.

[6] This sentiment will be expressed years later in Goldberg’s poem “Antigone”: “Now try to exist free of storms” and in her book of essays The Courage to Face the Mundane.

[7] Yiddish: it didn’t work out.

[8] Jacob Fichman (1881-1958). Hebrew poet who wrote dramatic poems based on biblical characters.

[9] Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-1885). Author of Niels Lyhne (1880).

Bios

Lea Goldberg

Lea Goldberg (1911-1970) was born in Königsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia), and began writing Russian and Hebrew verse as a schoolgirl in Kovno, Lithuania. She studied philology at Friedrich Wilhelm University (now Humboldt University, Berlin) and completed her PhD in Semitic Languages at Bonn University, before immigrating to Palestine in 1935. Poet, novelist, playwright, translator, scholar, and critic, Goldberg published nine books of poetry, three novels, a collection of short stories, three plays, ten nonfiction books, numerous children’s books (stories and poems), as well as literary translations from the Russian, German, Italian, and English. The eighteenth edition of her Collected Poems (three volumes) was published in 2011. In 1955, she helped establish the Department of Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which she headed until her death. Goldberg was awarded many literary prizes, including the Israel Prize for Literature in 1970 (posthumously), and her work has been published in fourteen languages, including English, French, German, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic.  For a complete publication list, please consult: http://www.ithl.org.il/page_13234.

Tsipi Keller

Novelist and translator Tsipi Keller is the author of eleven books. Forthcoming in 2018 are her novel Nadja on Nadja (Underground Voices) and a volume of selected poems by Hebrew poet Mordechai Geldman, Years I Walked at Your Side (SUNY Press).

Copyright (c) Sifriat Poalim-Hakkibutz Hameuchad Publishing House Ltd., 2005. English translation copyright (c) Tsipi Keller, 2018.