If you were to organize a graduate seminar around a single text what would it be?

Barbara Mann

The Jewish Theological Seminary

I've taught A. B. Yehoshua's epic novel, Mr. Mani (Mar Mani, 1989) as part of a graduate seminar called Critical Theory and Jewish Studies. In the course we read "primary" theoretical texts from Saussure to Butler, "secondary" texts by Jewish Studies practitioners of these approaches, and a single canonical text, which serves both to anchor the course and acts as a kind of laboratory in which students may perform their own symptomatic readings.

Mar Mani's compositional style makes it both a pleasure and a challenge to teach. The novel opens in the present and unfolds as a counternarrative. As readers move forward in the book, the narrative itself moves back in time, through Palestine and eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth-century to early nineteenth-century Greece. The novel is constructed as a series of one-sided conversations: each long chapter presents what is essentially a monologue, spoken in a particular character's voice and providing in often elliptical fashion crucial details about the Mani family and their fortunes. Finally, each chapter's linguistic style is distinctive to the period in which it is set; thus what begins as broadly vernacular Israeli Hebrew devolves into a pastiche of nineteenth-century nusakh, maskilic fanciful phrasing, and liturgical references.

Mar Mani is absorbing and dizzying in its own right and demands close attention to detail on the level of the individual sentence, as well as the novel's superstructure. At the same time, when systematically examined under the microscope of theory, the novel repeatedly yields new connective fibers. Students finish the course with knowledge of the nuts-and-bolts of theory, but also with a more critical sense of what kind of readers they are, and how this sensibility may be translated into their own scholarship.