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from the November 2011 issue

No Way Out: Talking to Orly Castel-Bloom, Agur Schiff, and Moshe Ron

Orly Castel-Bloom is getting ready to leave. “I’ll buy an apartment in Montpelier,” she said. “I’ll write policiers. I’ll tell the French about themselves. They love hearing about themselves. I’ll be a sort of Trojan horse.”

The landscape she’ll be leaving behind, if she ever does leave, is like a small snow globe that perfectly captures the thrills and tumults of the society it represents. Being a small country in perpetual existential crisis, Israel has produced a small and passionate literary community devoted largely to parsing every aspect of the nation’s imperiled existence. Sometime in the late 1980s, however, with the Jewish state no longer a nascent enterprise, a new generation of writers, Castel-Bloom prominent among them, began seeking new styles and new themes. They wanted to write about life not as a metaphor for a mythical national struggle, but as a more-or-less ordinary exercise, even if it was taking place against the extraordinary backdrop of conflict and war. They wanted to write in a language that was free of fillips and metaphors, to write the way actual Israelis spoke. And they soon found themselves butting heads with readers, critics, and colleagues.

“The cultural arena in Israel is rather conservative,” said Moshe Ron, an author as well as a prominent editor and translator. “Everyone in Israel still asks ‘who are we?’, still says that we have enemies and that we have to be united, still thinks about the religious versus the secular or Arabs versus Jews. Literature that only marginally deals with these questions gathers less support, engages fewer people.”

It’s as much, perhaps, a personal statement as it is a detached analysis. Ron’s own work falls squarely under the category of literature that strives to escape the stifling confines of neverending crisis. Here, for example, is how his story “Spider” begins:

“Your long years of service in this institution entitle you to at least this one privilege. You get your double espresso in a real cup over the heads of the students crowded around the counter, and you go find a seat at one of the tables. To say your spirits are low would be a wild understatement. You try to withdraw into yourself, but all you find there are fathomless recesses of blackness, gloom, and self-loathing.”

At first glance, this can be any middle-aged academic in any university cafeteria anywhere in the world, slowly crushed by tedium. But as the story progresses, the protagonist holes up in his subterranean office, choosing, for largely inexplicable reasons, to cut himself off from the outside world. Suddenly, all that talk of blackness and gloom seems to refer not just to one downtrodden professor, but to the entire country itself, perhaps, held captive by its own irrational fears and loathing.

Most Israeli writers, however, don’t sound like that. They sound more like David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, and Meir Shalev, the four prominent writers whose dominance of the literary scene is near-absolute. And as these four lions tend to write grand, national narratives—like Grossman’s latest, To the End of the Land, a story of a woman embodying Israel’s conflicts and jagged history—writers who veer in different directions are often left outside of Israeli publishing’s small circle of potentialities.

This can leave even a writer like Castel-Bloom—the author of fourteen books, one of which, the novel Dolly City, has been included in UNESCO’s Collection of Representative Works, a catalogue of world masterpieces—feeling something close to despair.

“The soul erodes,” she said. “I gave my best years to constructing sentences in Hebrew. I thought I was doing the right thing. Maybe Hebrew is less important. I didn’t even think of myself as a writer. It came out of a desire to fill the lines, to write things as they really happened. I would see books in stores by other Israeli writers, I was twenty-five, and I’d say ‘the words aren’t sticking to the page.’ The words need to stick to the page. That’s our job.”

Castel-Bloom’s way of making the words stick is at the heart of her mastery as a writer: Each of her sentences is at once deeply familiar and soothing and profoundly alienating and disturbing. Consider the following, from the opening to her story “Diary”:

“At two in the morning someone knocked at the door. I pretended I didn’t hear it. The knocking continued. I got up and opened the door. No one was there. I couldn’t get back to sleep because I was afraid. At three in the morning someone knocked at the door once again. I didn’t answer. Even if they’d said ‘Flowers!’ or ‘Telegram!’ or ‘Neighbor!’ I wouldn’t have answered.”

These last few lines are ridiculous and intolerably mundane, but they only serve to make the terror of the nocturnal knock on the door more palpable. The same is true of Castel-Bloom’s view of life in Israel in general, both on and off the page: Everywhere, everyday occurrences, tiny indignities, and cosmic absurdities creep up and become one menacing beast. Her way of fighting it is with a humor and a sensibility that owes something to the post-War French writers, particularly Boris Vian, who merged surrealism, existentialism, pulp fiction, and verve to create a wholly original voice.

And yet, Castel-Bloom is finding it harder and harder to fit in with the growingly monolithic culture. “With age,” she said, “your desire to describe increases, and the desire to bomb with stories diminishes. You still need a story. But I thought I’d buy two apartments in Europe, and just describe the cities, describe the people. It doesn’t matter where. I’ll describe the nature. I can reach some far-reaching insights. And then I’ll get back here, and describe the Israelis.”

The yearning to escape somewhere else is also at the core of Agur Schiff’s 2007 novel, Ma She’ratzitem (What You Wanted). It tells the story of Ziggy, out of work and down on his luck, and Yudi, a wealthy construction magnate, who together embark on a fantastic project, the reconstruction of an Eastern European small Jewish town, or shtetl, in modern-day Israel, the ultimate nostalgic theme park. In search of cheap space, they settle on a hill in the West Bank. In search of cheap labor, they hire local Palestinians to play the parts of the shtetl’s Jewish inhabitants.

The book is half satire and half elegy. It shares a little of Castel-Bloom’s sensibility: What appears at first glance to be some sort of satire delivered in simple, rhythmic language is soon revealed to be a far more intricate commentary on life under extreme circumstances. And what seems at first like some glossy, blurry version of Israel—Schiff’s book has very little of the paeans to the landscape and its majesty that pop up frequently in Oz or Grossman’s work—turns into an incisive analysis of the national psyche.

Which, Schiff said, was not exactly the comforting, inspiring stuff Israeli readers were clamoring for. Writing his book, he said, felt like swimming against the current of time. The book is set in “2002, in Tel Aviv, it was a period in which suicide bombers struck, it was a terrible time. Of course, our society, like any society, has a short memory. When I wrote the book, in 2006, people didn’t remember the terror, the fear that ruled the streets.”

After the book came out, Schiff embarked on a new project, this time set during Israel’s war against Lebanon in 2006.

“I remember that during the war I couldn’t write,” Schiff said. “I asked, who am I writing this for? People here were vehement, but people like me realized it’s a mad adventure that will bring nothing but disaster and pain and trouble. But now I’m trying to capture that pain, just like in 2007 I tried to capture the pain of 2002. We’re in a sort of a cycle of madness.”

Keeping the mad cycle in spin are the particular economics of publishing in Israel. With nearly 7,000 new books published each year competing in a tiny market, and with publishers and retailers forming joint ventures that have turned bookselling into a zero-sum game, often selling new books for just a few shekels, Israeli literature can be an inhospitable environment for serious writers in full bloom eager to continue and write.

“The situation here is very problematic,” Schiff said. “There aren’t any market segments, there’s only a mass audience, because there’s a very small number of people who write in Hebrew. That’s a very problematic starting point for writers. It already condemns short stories to death, because if the market decides there’s no room for short stories, then there’s no point. There’s also only one literary section in one newspaper, and a few small journals. The market has changed in the last two years. I felt it changing. It is dominated by two retail chains that brought about an absurd reduction in book prices, turning books into consumer products. This created a real distress for publishers, which in turn created an unbelievable inflation to cram more and more books into the market. As a result, shelf life is very short, sometimes only a few days.”

These trying conditions, he said, got him thinking about life in a shtetl, where communal bonds were intense and the feeling of siege always present. “There’s much correlation between the social structure in Israel and a social structure in a shtetl,” he said. “That’s one of the things I wanted to say in the book. And it influences everything: the social inequality, the social paranoia, all these things make Israel look like a shtetl.”

In their work, Schiff, Ron, and Castel-Bloom are trying to break down the small town’s walls. They tether the collective traumas that have been occupying many of their colleagues for decades to larger, more universal forces, like love and greed and frustration and all the other small joys that make human life anywhere worth living, even under the most dire circumstances.

“When I was getting started,” said Castel-Bloom, “[critics] said I was writing from my stomach. What an intolerable expression. I had no idea what they were talking about. I just thought I was writing ordinarily.”

Israel, of course, is no place for the ordinary, which means it might not be a place for Castel-Bloom for much longer.

“I can leave,” she said again. “I can live in some old, historical house, talking to the rocks and to the trees. This morning, I remembered a poem by [renowned Israeli poet Dahlia] Ravikovitch. She wrote that there’s no love in this place, and there’s no fear of god.” That may be the case; but for now, Israel still has a major talent like Orly Castel-Bloom, and, as long as it does, it’s not so much of a shtetl after all.

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