26 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next two weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz translated by Nicholas de Lange

Language: Hebrew

Country: Israel 

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Why This Book Should Win: Haunting stories told with precision prose.

Today’s post is by Suzanne Zweizig, a poet/editor/translator living in Washington D.C.

Things get weird quickly in Amos Oz’s collection of linked stories, Scenes from Village Life. From the first story, Oz turns the “creepy” knob so gradually yet inevitably upward from beginning to end that what starts off as a fairly pleasant setting (the Israel version of “Tuscany!,” one character gushes) with seemingly innocuous characters ends up in a place so taboo that it disquiets and dissettles for the rest of the collection. One cannot help but turn the pages of subsequent stories under a combined sense of fascination and doom, not knowing quite where one will end up in such an author’s hands. I would not be a spoiler by saying that it usually s in a psychologically very uncomfortable space.

The thing is, many of these characters, like us, didn’t mean to go where they end up. Arieh Zelnik, in the first story, meant to tell the stranger on his porch that his “visit was now over.” Instead he tells him to wait outside and then makes no objection as the stranger follows him inside. Same with Yossi Sasson, in “Lost,” who visits the house of a famous, but now-deceased, author in the village, hoping to persuade his widow to sell the house. When the author’s young daughter answers the door and says that her mother is not home, Yossi makes up his mind “to thank her, take my leave, and come back another day.” Instead, “his feet followed her into the house of their own accord.” We don’t know exactly where Yossi’s feet are going to take him, but having already accompanied several of Oz’s characters as they are pushed (pulled?) ahead by some strange compulsion, we know, as much as any horror film audience does, to squirm and shout at Yossi to turn back. Indeed, he should have.

But there is no going backwards in these stories. There is only going ahead, towards the compulsion, driven on by some desire to know. To know what? Oz is enough of a story-teller, and a wise enough soul, not to let us off the hook of the question. This book is full of lost people, searching, and futile explorations: an aunt for her nephew who never arrives on the bus; the town mayor for his wife who disappears one Sabbath eve leaving only a cryptic note “Don’t worry about me”; the high school English teacher for the source of the strange nocturnal digging sound beneath her house. These searches take place with flashlight in hand, as night has arrived or is falling, or in locked or underground spaces that are usually “off limits” in a normal, well-lit world.

As universal and elemental as these psychological tales are, however, one cannot read this book without seeing it, at least to some degree, in the context of the “situation,” a comparison that Oz, with his consummate skill and subtlety, both suggests and does not belabor. Set in a small fictional town of Tel Ilan (a la Sherman Anderson’s Winnesborg, Ohio) in the north of Israel, these stories play out in a backdrop that is peppered with references to Israel’s history. Its characters wander incessantly along the town’s “Founder Street,” and “Memorial Garden” and the village’s famous deceased author wrote voluminous novels about the Holocaust that several characters, including his daughter, confess (almost heretically) to neither liking nor reading.

The book is rife with intergenerational tension, and aged parents are neither wholly beloved nor revered. In “Digging,” the longest story of the collection, and, dare I say its set piece (when I heard Oz read from this collection last spring, he chose this story), Oz creates a strange domestic triangle between a middle-age widow, her a cantankerous, almost-senile elderly father—a former Minister in the Knesset who harrumphs around, despising everyone, predicting gloom, lashing out alternately at Mickey the vet whom he fears has designs on his daughter and his former colleagues who betrayed his party’s ideals—and an Arab student who lives in one of the outbuildings doing chores in exchange for his board and taking notes for a comparative study “about you” (Israelis) and “about us” (Arabs). “Our unhappiness is partly our fault and partly your fault. But your unhappiness comes from your soul,” the student says, when pressed by the father to summarize the findings of his research.

There is much to ponder in these stories and Oz, while providing much suggestive layering, never makes a false step into allegory or heavy symbolism. Throughout the collection, his prose is spot-on: masterful, able to create a vivid character with a few spare lines and translated beautifully by his long-time translator Nicholas de Lange. The stories are slim, spare, taking you to places you never meant to go, but won’t be able to stop thinking about.

24 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our “Book Reviews” section is a piece by Dan Vitale on Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life, which is translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange and just came out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Dan Vitale is one of our contributing reviewers, and as such, has written a number of great reviews for us.

Amos Oz has a number of books available in English translation, including Rhyming Life & Death, which came out just a couple years ago. He’s won tons of prizes, including the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Israel Prize, the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, and the Goethe Prize, among others. He’s very involved in politics, and for all these reasons, is an annual favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Here’s the opening of Dan’s review:

Seven of the eight pieces—one hesitates to call them stories—in Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life take place in the fictional Israeli village of Tel Ilan. More than a century old, the village began by supporting farms, orchards, and vineyards but has now become something of an upscale tourist attraction:

“Many of the inhabitants still farmed, with the help of foreign laborers who lived in huts in the farmyards. But some had leased out their land and made a living by letting rooms, by running art galleries or fashion boutiques or by working outside the village. Two gourmet restaurants had opened in the middle of the village, and there was also the winery and a shop selling tropical fish. One local entrepreneur had started manufacturing reproduction antique furniture. On weekends, of course, the village filled with visitors who came to eat or to hunt for a bargain. But every Friday afternoon its streets emptied as the residents rested behind closed shutters.”

The book presents glimpses into the small and insignificant lives being led behind those shutters. In keeping with the Chekhovian echo of the book’s title, Oz tends to focus on the mundane passions that occasionally flare up and, more often, flicker out in the hearts of the village residents.

Click here to read the entire piece.

24 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Seven of the eight pieces—one hesitates to call them stories—in Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life take place in the fictional Israeli village of Tel Ilan. More than a century old, the village began by supporting farms, orchards, and vineyards but has now become something of an upscale tourist attraction:

“Many of the inhabitants still farmed, with the help of foreign laborers who lived in huts in the farmyards. But some had leased out their land and made a living by letting rooms, by running art galleries or fashion boutiques or by working outside the village. Two gourmet restaurants had opened in the middle of the village, and there was also the winery and a shop selling tropical fish. One local entrepreneur had started manufacturing reproduction antique furniture. On weekends, of course, the village filled with visitors who came to eat or to hunt for a bargain. But every Friday afternoon its streets emptied as the residents rested behind closed shutters.”

The book presents glimpses into the small and insignificant lives being led behind those shutters. In keeping with the Chekhovian echo of the book’s title, Oz tends to focus on the mundane passions that occasionally flare up and, more often, flicker out in the hearts of the village residents. There is, for example, Gili Steiner, a childless doctor who pines for a visit from her nephew; or Pesach Kedem, a bitter, aged former Knesset member who lives with his widowed daughter and their Arab student boarder, and who imagines he hears digging under the house at night. There is Yossi Sasson, the real estate agent who plans to buy, raze, and replace with a pricy villa the ramshackle house of a dead Holocaust novelist, but who falls for the temptations of the novelist’s granddaughter; and teenaged Kobi Ezra, son of the village grocer, who conceives what he believes to be an unrequited love for Ada Dvash, the 30-year-old divorcée who runs both the village’s often empty post office and its small lending library.

Oz begins each piece straightforwardly, but rather than—as in the typical short story—concluding it with the satisfying sense of a mystery solved or a musical composition that ends on just the right note, he more often introduces a sudden twist that jolts the piece in an unexpected direction and suggests that the deepest mysteries are those that exist within human beings, ones that can rarely if ever be truly understood, let alone resolved.

Take “Heirs,” the book’s opening piece, in which Arieh Zelnik is interrupted at home by Wolff Maftsir, a lawyer who claims an obscure kinship with the Zelnik family and offers, conspiratorially, to assist Arieh in getting his elderly mother to relinquish ownership of the house Arieh shares with her. Although repeatedly rebuffed by Arieh, Maftsir nevertheless gains access to the bedroom where the mother is napping, and the piece ends with this curious bit of business:

[Maftsir] bent over and kissed her twice, a long kiss on either cheek, and then kissed her again on the forehead. The old lady opened her cloudy eyes, drew a skeletal hand from under the blanket and stroked Wolff Maftsir’s head, murmuring something or other and pulling his head toward her with both hands. In response, he bent closer, took off his shoes, kissed her toothless mouth and lay down at her side, pulling at the blanket to cover them both. . . .

Arieh Zelnik hesitated for a moment or two, and looked out of the open window at a tumbledown farm shed and a dusty cypress tree up which an orange bougainvillea climbed with flaming fingers. Walking around the double bed, he closed the shutters and the window and drew the curtains, and as he did so he unbuttoned his shirt, then undid his belt, removed his shoes, undressed and got into bed next to his old mother.

This could be taken as a hallucinatory portrayal of the irresistible predatoriness of lawyers, but instead it seems more pleasurable to take it at face value in all its bizarrerie. Not every piece in Scenes from Village Life is quite this strange, but the general rule still holds: Oz convinces us to accept his characters just as they are, not asking us to fathom their depths but simply to marvel at their complexity. Even when the eighth and final piece wrenches us suddenly from Tel Ilan into a scene set in a primitive, possibly post-apocalyptic society—a shift that arguably makes the entire book replicate the quirky structure of most of the individual pieces within it—Oz’s respect for human mystery stays with us and richly rewards our attention.

9 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re really not trying to kick Amos Oz while he’s down, but in addition to not winning the Nobel Prize for Literature yesterday (there had been rampant speculation, and he was the odds-on favorite for a while), it sounds like his new novel is as messy as the new Houghton Mifflin Harcourt website1 . . . At least according to our reviewer Dan Vitale whose piece on Rhyming Life & Death is the latest addition to our Review section.

Here’s the opening:

The short novel is a form in which writers typically exercise great control over their material, accepting the abbreviated length as a kind of challenge, working within that limitation to craft a tight, jewel-like story in which all the elements of the piece—plot, tone, imagery—work together to create a unified artistic effect similar to that of a short story. (Think Heart of Darkness, Death in Venice, The Metamorphosis, or The Old Man and the Sea.) This is decidedly not the case with Rhyming Life and Death, Amos Oz’s latest work of fiction to be published in the U.S. in translation.

There is no doubt that Oz, one of Israel’s most prominent writers, is a master. For four decades he has been producing powerful and moving novels such as Elsewhere, Perhaps (1966; translated 1973) and Fima (1993); he is also the author of A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002; translated 2004), an extraordinarily beautiful memoir of his childhood in Jerusalem. But Rhyming Life & Death is quite simply a mess. For such a brief work it is annoyingly loose and undisciplined, and its overall artistic effect borders on incoherence.

Click here for the rest.

1 There are so many cool people I know at HMH that I feel bad always ragging on their web shenanigans. But damn, someone there must have a clue as to how the Internets function. I’ll walk you step-by-step through my most recent experience. For this review, I wanted to include a link to HMH’s page about Rhyming Life & Death. This is something we always do in order to give publishers some attention and provide readers with another source of information. And why not? Every publisher has a website nowadays, right? So I type “Houghton Mifflin Harcourt” into Google and am lead here. WTF am I supposed to do now? My obvious choices are: “At Home,” “At School,” “Around the World,” “Recent News” . . . behind which one of these will I find info about Amos Oz? Since I’m sort of kind of “at home,” I click there and find this, which, at first glance, is about a) Best Sellers (not the Oz book), b) Reference & Professional (shouldn’t this be in “At School” or maybe “At Work”?), and c) Learn @ Home (which really merges that whole “Home” vs. “School” divide on the main menu). Info on all the HMH trade titles for sale in your local bookstore? . . . Well, if you read carefully enough, you’ll find the link beneath “Best Sellers,” which is fucking illogical and pretty deceitful. What’s particularly aggravating about this is the fact that this is at least the fourth different HMH site I’ve tried to use in the past two years and every version has been pure suck. Look, I know you’re bankrupt and all, but please, pay a teenager $50 to show you how people actually use websites. Or just get off the Web.

9 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The short novel is a form in which writers typically exercise great control over their material, accepting the abbreviated length as a kind of challenge, working within that limitation to craft a tight, jewel-like story in which all the elements of the piece—plot, tone, imagery—work together to create a unified artistic effect similar to that of a short story. (Think Heart of Darkness, Death in Venice, The Metamorphosis, or The Old Man and the Sea.) This is decidedly not the case with Rhyming Life & Death, Amos Oz’s latest work of fiction to be published in the U.S. in translation.

There is no doubt that Oz, one of Israel’s most prominent writers, is a master. For four decades he has been producing powerful and moving novels such as Elsewhere, Perhaps (1966; translated 1973) and Fima (1993); he is also the author of A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002; translated 2004), an extraordinarily beautiful memoir of his childhood in Jerusalem. But Rhyming Life & Death is quite simply a mess. For such a brief work it is annoyingly loose and undisciplined, and its overall artistic effect borders on incoherence.

The story takes place in Tel Aviv in the early 1980s. A famous Israeli writer in his forties—referred to only as the Author—has been invited to a cultural center to participate in a literary evening devoted to his work. His question-and-answer session with the audience is the last part of the program, preceded by a critic’s lecture and a professional reader’s recital of excerpts from one of the Author’s books.

Before arriving at the cultural center, the Author stops at a café, and we get our first chance to see his creative mind in action. He has barely communicated his order to the waitress before he has begun to speculate about her, and has soon mentally concocted an entire fictional history of her life. Far from this being an idle fancy of his, it turns out to be the Author’s primary way of seeing the world. Almost immediately we get similar speculative portraits of two other café customers, and then, at the cultural center, additional portraits of several audience members as well as the critic and the center’s director. In each case, the Author assigns the person a fictional name, even when it would be reasonable to expect (as with the critic and the director) that the Author would know the person’s real name.

After the program, the Author initiates a conversation with the professional reader, whose (apparently real) name is Rochele Reznik. He escorts her home, then wanders the streets in the company of his various thoughts and imaginings; later he returns to Rochele’s apartment and attempts to seduce her. Afterward, he wanders the streets again, thinking more thoughts, imagining more scenarios about the lives of the people he has met this evening. And that’s essentially it.

Which would be fine if the Author’s speculations, memories, and aesthetic theories were unique or compelling. But for the most part they seem banal, as when, for example, he imagines one of the audience members (whom he names Arnold Bartok) meditating on the supposedly symbiotic relationship between life and death:

One might say, he argues, that life and death came into the world together, as a dialectical pair whose members are indissolubly interdependent: say life and you’ve said death as well. And vice versa. The day life appeared on Earth, death appeared with it.

But this is a completely false supposition, Arnold Bartok reasons. For millions of years trillions of organisms flourished on Earth without any of them ever experiencing death. . . . Only in the present age, when a different form of reproduction, sexual reproduction, appeared, did ageing and death occur.

In only one instance do the Author’s thoughts rise above the predictable to take on a haunting, touching quality, when the Author debates with himself about the ultimate value of the fiction writer’s task:

He is covered in shame and confusion because he observes [his subjects] all from a distance, from the wings, as if they all exist only for him to make use of in his books. And with the shame comes a profound sadness that he is always an outsider, unable to touch or be touched . . . .

To write about things that exist, to try to capture a color or smell or sound in words, is a little like playing Schubert when Schubert is sitting in the hall, and perhaps sniggering in the darkness.

Even so, one can’t help feeling that these sentences would be more at home in an essay (such as those that appear in Oz’s wonderful 1999 collection of literary criticism, The Story Begins).

But the deeper problem with Rhyming Life & Death is illustrated by Oz’s handling of the Author’s return to Rochele’s apartment. At the start of this sequence, each new step in the narrative is introduced with words like “maybe,” “perhaps,” or “but there is another possibility”—as if the sequence were not really unfolding in time but were only another of the Author’s speculations. Nevertheless, actual narrative choices are being made: Oz inexplicably drops the qualifiers as suddenly as he’d introduced them; the sequence does after all unfold in a definitive manner; it contains actions and reactions; certain things transpire while others do not. Oz is trying to have it both ways, but the rules of fiction virtually forbid this. Because if the sequence is speculative, then nothing would prevent the entire novel from being speculative: not just everything the Author imagines about the lives of those around him but the visits to the café and the cultural center—the initial events from which the rest of the novel springs—and even the existence of the Author himself.

Of course, nothing in fiction is “real,” but in order to make any sense fiction has to posit itself as real or else call explicit attention to its artifice. But Rhyming Life & Death does neither. Instead, the text just hangs in a void, leaving no firm ground on which to engage with it. Rather than being an artist’s exploration of the “shame and confusion” of indulging in idle fancy, the work itself becomes an idle fancy. Even a narrative about the basic falseness of narrative could be made to feel true in the hands of a careful writer, but in this short, self-canceling novel Oz has abdicated the artist’s responsibility of shaping his text and making it signify something. Art doesn’t get much more incoherent.

21 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . For the next three days we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck. (Israel, Ibis Editions)

I won’t be surprised if this post gets attacked by someone in the “blogosphere”: Jewish-Arab relations and military actions is an intellectual powder keg. So before saying anything, I want to make it clear that this book—written from the point of view of an Israeli soldier involved in the takeover of Khirbet Khizeh and the evacuation of the Arabs living there—is on the longlist is on here for aesthetic reasons only. And for the quality of the prose and the translation.

That preface might not even be necessary . . . Khirbet Khizeh is considered a classic work, and although it has been the focus of many debates over the course of its history, what’s interesting is how it was received when first published in 1949, just months after the 1948 war:

Fifty-nine years ago, when “Khirbet Khizeh” was first published, it was not an expose of wartime misconduct. No expose was needed. In 1949, few Israelis were unaware that Arab villages had been forcibly evacuated. As historian Anita Shapira has shown in a brilliant essay on the novella’s reception from its publication until the 1990s, though “Khirbet Khizeh” was a best-seller in its first years, and though it was much discussed in newspapers and magazines, its veracity was hardly challenged and few questioned whether such an unpretty account of events should be published. When “Khirbet Khizeh” first came out, it was a rumination on something people knew to be true – how could they not? – and its aim was to clearly describe what had appeared vague in the fog of war and then the exaltation of victory: the moral muck inevitable in creating a Jewish majority in Palestine. This was the “Khirbet Khizeh” that was added to the high school curriculum. [from Noah Efron’s review in Haaretz ]

As mentioned in brief above, this short novella is about the violent expulsion of the Palestine villagers by Israeli soldiers acting under orders. The hatred the Jewish soldiers express about the Arabs, the fact that they’re doing this because “they were ordered,” the callous, unforgiving behavior, allows one to make parallels between this situation and other wars/conflicts. And even in the abstract, this base violence toward “the other” is universal, and the book illustrates as much about human nature as it does about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

And for all the beautiful descriptions of Khirbet Khizeh, there are passages that are tough to swallow, that force the reader to see the worst parts of war. From a section after the village is secured and all the inhabitants are being loaded up and sent off:

“They’re just like animals,” Yehuda explained to us, but we did not reply.

The women were gathered onto another truck, and they began to scream and weep, and no one envied those who had to look after them. [. . .]

We felt a mood of beggary, pus, and leprosy, and all that was lacking was the sound of dirges and charity saveth from death.

“Ugh, revolting!” said Shlomo.

“Better they should die!” said Yehuda.

“How many blind people and cripples do they have in this village!” said Shlomo.

Not always so explicit, these sorts of sentiments run throughout the novella and make this a bit hard to read. One of the things that complicates, and elevates, this novel is the main character’s interior reaction to these events, which isn’t always straight down the party line:

But not this . . . not this . . . something was still unclear. Just a kind of bad feeling. Like being forced into a nightmare and not being allowed to wake up from it. You’re caught up with several voices. You don’t know what. Maybe the answer is to stand up and resist? But maybe, the opposite, to see and be and feel . . .

Or:

My guts cried out. Colonizers, they shouted. Lies, my guts shouted. Khirbet Khizeh is not ours. The Spandau gun never gave us any rights. Oh, my guts screamed. What hadn’t they told us about refugees. Everything, everything was for the refugees, their welfare, their rescue—our refugees, naturally. Those we were driving out—that was a totally different matter. Wait. Two thousand years of exile. The whole story. Jews being killed. Europe. We were masters now.

But as David Shulman writes in his afterword, “this story is in fact far from being moralistic, utterly remote from preaching and pontification.” And maybe that’s what’s made it such a lasting book, one that’s prompted a lot of discussion and debate, as great books should.

S. Yizhar—the pen name for Yizhar Smilansky—passed away rather recently (2006), was a longtime member of Knesset, and in addition to Khirbet Khizeh, is known for his 1,156-page magnum opus, Days of Tziklag. (Which hasn’t been translated into English.)

It’s unfortunate that Ibis Editions doesn’t get more attention from American reviewers and publications. They’re doing some very interesting books, and personally, I like the simple, unadorned style and feel of this title. We’ll make a special effort to review more of their books for Three Percent in the upcoming months. But for now, if you can get your hands on it, Khirbet Khizeh is worth checking out.

....
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