Talkin’ ’bout his generation

Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua on the waning art of the democratic novel

Ronni Shendar
A.B. Yehoshua

The name A.B. Yehoshua may not ring too many bells here in the States, but on the international scene, he ranks alongside Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gunter Grass and Salman Rushdie as one of the great contemporary novelists. He is to Israel what Garcia Marquez is to Colombia, Grass is to Germany and Rushdie is to India — a kind of literary spokesman for the entire country.

This might seem incomprehensible to an American reading public, obsessed with keeping art and politics separate, because even though we have Toni Morrison, who comes close, we generally don’t have much interest in writers who are engaged in national culture the way Yehoshua and company are. So when Yehoshua came to Minneapolis a few weeks ago, he meant to shake things up a bit, giving two electrifying lectures and talking some heavy politics in an interview arranged by the U’s chair of Hebrew Studies, Yehudit Shendar.

Open Heart
By A.B. Yehoshua
Harvest/Harcourt Brace,
489 pp., $14

A Francophile from birth, Yehoshua speaks English with a curious French accent, and his wild hair and ecstatic bearing give him a Nutty Professor type of aura. Lying beneath his disordered manner, however, is a mind as focused and organized as any in literature. He speaks frankly about the Palestinian question (he advocates full peace at any cost), and he stresses the importance of moral and political involvement on the part of writers. But the moral duty of the Israeli novelist, Yehoshua says, has a specific dimension that may seem foreign to other writers:

“The artist in Israel — and in Zionism in general — was very much involved in what you will call the national activity, the national spirit. They were involved not only because when there is a great problem that is happening to a people, generally writers are very much involved as social critics, as prophets or whatever they are doing as patriots. But in the Jewish Zionist movement it was especially important because the renaissance of the Jewish people of the Zionist movement, of the national Zionist movement, was done also through the renaissance of Hebrew. So they were not only participating in the big event as partners, but also it was very important because they were very active in the recreating of the Jewish language. Because in order to do a national movement, it was a necessity to bring back, to revive the Jewish language.”

But Yehoshua is finding himself to be one of the last of the Israeli writers engaged in this larger arena. It seems that Yehoshua and fellow novelist Amos Oz, who are both part of a leftist section of the Israeli Labor Party called the “Sane Left,” form the last of the old guard. Only novelist David Grossman, who is even further left, and whose book See Under: Love is one of the best novels of the last 10 years in any language, is as engaged.

“My feeling is that we are the last one,” Yehoshua says, “my generation — and perhaps David Grossman, who is younger, and perhaps he is the last one — who are very much involved in public affairs, that are still writing from time to time in articles, that are shouting, that are giving interviews and things like that. The younger generation doesn’t want to do it anymore. The younger writers are writing their Postmodern literature — they are doing it with great joy, with all the jokes, like your writers. There is a fine writer, a young writer, who is doing a very smart kind of short story pieces, and he was asked by a television station to have a dialogue with one of the former writers, with the more older writer. So he chose me as a partner, and when he was calling me and saying to me ‘I’m going to come to your house with the crew of television,’ there was some kind of terrorist attack, and I was saying to him, ‘Prepare yourself. We will have to talk about — we will be asked by the television about this and that.’ And he said, ‘Why? We have to talk about politics? No, no. I am not coming here. I don’t want it at all.'”

Writers want to write personal literature, which is important, but Yehoshua says that there has to be a balance between the inner and outer worlds of literature:

“A writer has his duty first of all to do a fine literature that will touch the individual, that will speak on the behalf on the individual. And so it’s very difficult how to find your way in between your duty as a writer to speak about the big issues — and especially about the moral issues — and to do your private literature with all the subtleties of psychological description, of human situations.”

Yehoshua’s history as a writer is a testament to how artists can integrate the needs of the individual and the needs of society. Starting out at age 21 — after his military service — Yehoshua worked as a short story writer, feeling out how to create a prose style, and then moved on much later to larger forms — and issues.

“I was starting writing abstract short stories in the mood of Kafka and some of the abstract writing of Agnon. And then, little by little, I was descending from the abstract writing to reality, and I was very much influenced in a certain time of my literary career by Faulkner. In my mind Faulkner is the best writer of the century in any language. … He was important in the way in which he was doing the multi-voices novel. This for me was important especially in the ’70s, when I felt that Israel was cracking, dismantling to many voices, and the way to recreate a novel that will express rightly the mood of Israel — the model was given to me by Faulkner.”

He’s been called “a kind of Israeli Faulkner” by critic Harold Bloom, and Yehoshua explained part of his fascination with Faulkner in his lecture, “Modern Democracy and the Novel.” Arguing that all the greatest works of literature from this century were written in its first fifty years, he says he would take the works of “Thomas Mann, Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Kafka, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, the less famous Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Bruno Schulz, Musil, Doblin, Agnon and Celine” over any of the great works written in the past 50 years.

It’s not just the mysticism of time that makes these writers seem better than more contemporary ones, Yehoshua says, but that the current political scene isn’t conducive to great writing. He points to modern democracy — democracy as practiced in countries like the United States, that is — as one of the key factors in literature’s decline. Many of the great novels of the past — from de Cervantes’ Don Quixote to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying— strove toward a democratic aesthetic, Yehoshua says, but with today’s capitalism-disguised-as-democracy, writers somehow think there’s no more work to be done.

Don Quixote was radical because it placed more emphasis on the voices of the poor than of the aristocracy, and writers as late as William Faulkner were still expanding this vocabulary. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying took the democratic mode in literature to its highest point, Yehoshua says, with each chapter narrated by a different character — none of which having any supremacy over any other. With this barrage of voices eliminating any kind of ersatz objectivity on the part of the narrator, Faulkner was able to create a world as seen by its inhabitants, not just by its creator.

It’s this kind of democratic agitation that Yehoshua sees as missing from modern novels. But he, at least, is still interested in progress. Taking his cue from Faulkner, Yehoshua uses the multi-voice technique in ways even more radical than the Mississippi master’s. His 1976 novel, The Lover, was his first foray into this style, but his 1989 novel, Mr. Mani, rivals even the astonishing See Under: Love as the great novel of modern Israel.

Mr. Mani tells the story of the Mani family through five long conversations, held over the course of 150 years. In each conversation, the reader hears only the voice of one of the speakers, which makes the whole thing both radically disjointed and almost infinitely suggestive. Each speaker is somehow connected with the Mani family, so the reader gets to see its progress through Israeli/Palestinian history not only from the outside, but through several unrelated and openly biased eyes. Each speaker has his or her own story, and watching all the various threads — of the Mani family and the speakers — come together is one of the most thrilling reading experiences in modern literature.

Yehoshua’s last book, Open Heart, is a bit of a retreat from this style, however. Following one narrator, Doctor Benjamin Rubin, on his impossible love affair with his boss’ wife, the book finds Yehoshua writing a more personal kind of fiction for a change. Although it’s amazingly rich, with uncanny characterization and an almost unfathomable spiritual depth, it’s just not as compelling as his other work. Part of this has to do with the translation. Yehoshua’s old translator, the brilliant Hillel Halkin, just recently retired, and Open Heart is clumsily translated by the South African Dalya Bilu.

But Yehoshua is returning to the larger arena with his next novel, A Journey to the End of the Millennium, which he just released in Hebrew. Exploring the relationship between the Sephardic Jews and the Ashkenazi Jews at the end of the first millennium, the book looks to be a vast parable extending its reach into modern Israeli questions — in short, another Yehoshua masterpiece. But we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, check out Mr. Mani.