Category Archives: Israeli Literature

David Grossman, More Than I Love My Life

I have to preface my words with an admission. I am a huge David Grossman fan. I love his writing style, I love his choice of material, his themes, the flow of his stories. I love the fact that his literary journey in many ways covers the history of the modern state of Israel. I love that I can read the arc of his work and see into him as an Israeli and as a Jew. I love that I often see flickers of myself in his prose. And I love the tenderness that always floats beneath the surface of his work. I will also confess that I read Grossman in English, although if I applied myself I could probably manage the Hebrew … on some level I’m worried that I would miss the music if I laboured through the original and that seems too tragic to bear.

I knew that Grossman was working on this book because I had the great pleasure of spending a few hours with the glorious Deborah Harris and Grossman called her while we were chatting. I won’t lie – it was one of the highlight’s of my life 馃檪 So I was waiting with anticipation for this book which Harris described as his magnum opus – literally the most epic book he had ever written.

Given what I have shared about my adoration of Grossman’s work, I’ll start with what I thought were the stellar parts of the book. Firstly, the back story which is about Eva Panic (pronounced Punitsch). Apparently Grossman and Panic were close friends for many years and this book pays homage to her story. The story itself is devastating and I highly recommend that any readers of this book also delve into Panic’s life … I started with this article in Ha’Aretz which I thought provided a good foundation and this documentary on YouTube (you’ll have to search for all the parts as it’s broken up into segments). What struck me about Panic’s story is that it sheds light on a Holocaust experience which I think is often forgotten or perhaps neglected – that of rural villagers and communist supporters. While Panic’s own parents were taken to Auschwitz and killed there, she and her husband saved 1500 people from the Nazis. The choice that Panic faces and the repercussions of that choice are unimaginable to me; but knowing this background helped me to empathise somewhat with her as she is depicted in Grossman’s book.

Two things that Grossman always does well are characterisation of people and depiction of place. This book is no exception. Grossman paints his characters so delicately that they appear to be real. They are immeasurably flawed, painfully broken and simultaneously rich and varied. They celebrate love and wallow in loss with ferocious confidence. They are selfish and self-obsessed to the extreme and at times this is painful to read and witness. But it is real. They all need therapy – much like most people I know. Grossman’s Eva (aka Vera in the novel) is exactly the kind of person I would have liked to know. She reeks of history, languages mashed together in her heavy accent (and yes, I could sense the accent even through the translation). She is strong and coarse and bold. She is a fighter, stubborn and resistant but also passionate and while abrasive, she warms gently at startling moments. Reading about Vera I was reminded of Meir Shalev’s beautiful My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner which also took place in a Kibbutz setting and similarly featured a grandmother, although of different extraction. In truth, Vera reminded me somewhat of my maternal grandmother who was both cold and warm in a way that I think only a survivor of some tragedy can be. I leaned in to Vera but I was simultaneously repulsed by her callousness. She is clearly the spine of this book and for me it was her voice that carried the narrative – both her spoken voice and the silences behind which she hid much truth.

There were some interesting moments in this book – the scene at the airport, at Vera’s birthday party, the storm on the island. But while these stand out as particularly strong, there was much about this book that seemed to be lacking. I’m not sure whether it was the weight of the story that overburdened the narrative or whether there was something else at play. What I do know is that this isn’t Grossman’s best book. It’s good. It’s interesting. And the story is certainly worth telling. But it’s not … I don’t have the word exactly. It’s like it’s trying to be something greater than it is… There are moments when Vera is lost in the story and her telling of it and I feel as though Grossman himself was lost in the same thing. As though holding Eva was somehow too great a task – and now that I’ve watched an interview with Eva I can see that this is true. She is larger than life, despite her small stature. She is unyielding and overflowing and glorious – impossible to capture and perhaps it is this that undoes Grossman’s novel.

Undoubtedly, Grossman’s steady brilliance sets a very high standard and it’s fair to say that this book is definitely worth reading because Eva/Vera’s voice should never be forgotten and because memory so easily melts and fades and because Grossman is just such a force in the world of literature. So read it. And read beyond it.

Dan Pagis Again

讻转讜讘 讘注驻专讜谉 讘拽专讜谉 讛讞转讜诐
讚谉 驻讙讬住

讻讗谉 讘诪砖诇讜讞 讛讝讛
讗谞讬 讞讜讛
注诐 讛讘诇 讘谞讬
讗诐 转专讗讜 讗转 讘谞讬 讛讙讚讜诇
拽讬谉 讘谉 讗讚诐
转讙讬讚讜 诇讜 砖讗谞讬

I’ve taken the liberty of posting the original Hebrew version of this poem, which, for some reason, is haunting me this week. I can’t get past the impossibility of translating the plural ‘you’ that is embedded in the Hebrew verbs ‘Tagidu‘ and ‘Tiru‘. How does one convey that in English? To simply say ‘you’ doesn’t imply nearly the same amount of weight as the pluralised Hebrew forms of the word. The native meaning is so central to the essence of this poem, to its heaviness, its warnings.

I find myself stuck on the solitary image of Eve, in Hebrew ‘Em Kol Chai’ (the mother of all of life), in the midst of a world populated by men. It is her voice that we are hearing in this poem, but it is confounded by the reverberations implicit in her dual status as Mother聽of all聽and specifically as Mother to Cain and Abel. The simplicity of the statement ‘I am Eve’ is central to this image that Pagis creates of Eve alone. She is anchored in this place, perhaps the anchor itself, and although she has clearly lost control of her fate, she is, nonetheless, wielding a conviction or faith (emunah) that sees her tone remain calm and focused. I am Eve. It is as though she is reinforcing her identity, her belief in herself and in her G-d, her awareness that while her physical self may die, her essence is eternal. I am Eve聽– here, there, everywhere.

Eve.

It is enough to just say her name. It needs no adjectives, nothing to enhance its meaning. I am Eve.

The others in this poem exist only in terms of their relationship to this universal mother. Abel is known only as ‘bni‘, my son. Without her he does not have a self, he is metaphorically lost. Cain (whose name sounds ironically like the ‘kan’聽– here – which starts the poem) is absent, divorced from the fate of his mother and brother, perhaps in part responsible for that collective fate. Nonetheless, he is still considered as Eve’s son, differentiated by the adjective ‘hagadol‘ – the eldest – and by his connection to Adam. Cain is ‘ben adam‘, literally, the son of Adam and also a man (the Hebrew has two meanings). What does this mean? How does this relate to the function of this poem as a warning to Cain or to all that he represents?

If the poem is Eve’s message from the grave that even the sinners should never forget that she is their mother, how do we reconcile Eve’s own sin in the Garden of Eden?

What do you read in this poem?

And, what do you make of the fact that the only connection that this poem holds linguistically to the Holocaust is its title?

Eden, Yael Hedaya

This book is on my imagined ‘must-read’ pile. I can’t recall where I stumbled upon it but I have just read an excerpt and am suitably intrigued – by both the book and the online magazine which provided it! Needless to say, I am now a subscriber to Zeek, said online magazine and am looking forward to reading some new and different things!!

Almost Dead

What does one say about Assaf Gavron’s book ‘Almost Dead’? I’ve been pondering this review for a few days now. It is such a complex and disturbing text that it is difficult to know where to begin and whether, indeed, the author has achieved any sort of textual integrity in this text.

To start with, the book’s premise itself is complex – half the text is devoted to the narrative of an Israeli who narrowly escapes from three terrorist attacks in one week in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The other half of the book tells the story of the brother of the mastermind behind these attacks who has been coaxed into joining the struggle and enlisted to perform the final attack much against his will and his conscience. If this isn’t a challenging enough structure, Gavron complicates things further by narrating the Arab protagonist in a series of stream of consciousness recollections for, as readers discover through the telling, he is in a coma following his failed final attack.

Behind this complex dialogue between Arab and Israeli, thrown in the mix are a romance, friendship and a bit of detective work.

It is a lot to cover and for the first part of the book I was unsure if the author was going to meet this challenge. I actually found myself wondering if I had missed something central, feeling lost in the confusion of the various strands of narratives and the way they were woven together.

However, by the end of this tale, I was hooked. Gavron has achieved something monumental here and I was enthralled to read the internal thoughts of these characters. Interestingly, I think that he captured the Arab protagonist with more clarity than he did the Israeli who seemed far more self absorbed and concerned with his emotions than his counterpart. In itself this is an interesting comment to make about Israeli society which perhaps has the freedom to be self absorbed.

Strangely enough I found these characters to be very believable and this story itself not too far fetched. But, it is a weighty subject and although captivating, quite disturbing. Readers would have to be in the right frame of mind to tackle this one, but well worth it I would say!

Click here to buy from Amazon: Almost Dead: A Novel

Almost Dead

I stumbled across the most wonderful story by an Israeli writer, Assaf Gavron. I have never heard of him before and I have the website “Words Without Borders” to thank for the introduction.

Apparently he is well published in Hebrew and is translator to the works of Jonathan Safran Foer (a favourite of mine), amongst others.

http://www.wordswithoutborders.org features an interesting piece by Gavron entitled “Almost Dead“. I’ve just read it and am still digesting. It’s incredibly confronting and gives a real indication of what life is like for ordinary people (in this case, Israelis), living in a state of terror. The fear in this piece is staggering and the questioning that goes along with that fear is incomprehensible to anyone living outside this state of existence:

“Why is everyone so paranoid in this country? Can鈥檛 dark guys get on buses with suit bags any more?” says the protagonist in this story. As the story unfolds, the answers to these rhetorical questions are clear.

I am in awe of the subtleness of this author and the delicate way that he has dealt with this complex issue.

According to Geraldine Brooks:

Assaf Gavron has done the impossible: written a darkly funny novel about suicide bombing. In a dazzling display of empathy, Gavron creates two equally compelling narrators, the bomber and his victim. This is a virtuoso work; a pitch-perfect rendering of real Israeli life in all its chaos, energy, humour and terror. I couldn’t put it down.”

This is just an extract from the novel and I cannot recommend it enough. Looking forward to hearing your views!

If you like this author as much as I do then you might be interested in his website.