Darkness Lit From Within: On A.B. Yehoshua

Darkness Lit From Within: On A.B. Yehoshua

Darkness Lit From Within: On A.B. Yehoshua

The soul-destroying weariness in A.B. Yehoshua’s stories seems as old as time itself—and unique to contemporary Israel.


One winter’s night in Jerusalem, some thirty-odd years ago, I was waiting in Zion Square for the jitney that would drive me and several other passengers back to Tel Aviv. The way the system worked then, the first six people in line piled into the first jitney to arrive, the next six into the next one, and so on. That night I was the twelfth in line; I’d be the last one in the second jitney. Tired and cold, I had wrapped my arms around my chest and was turning in place to keep my circulation going when I happened to spot a woman with a head full of Farrah Fawcett hair, standing seven or eight people in back of me. The next time I turned, she seemed closer to me, and after the third turn closer still. Then suddenly she was behind me, and in another moment in front of me! As I had, at that point, been in Israel some three months, and this sort of line-cutting had happened many times before, I lost it. Tapping the woman on the shoulder, I said to her, “What you are doing is illegal, immoral, unethical and…” Without missing a beat, Farrah Fawcett turned to me and, both hands raised palms up, said, “Oll-right, oll-right, it means dot much to you, take it”—whereupon my jaw, always threatening to drop in Israel, did drop. The woman had been rude to me, but the tone of her voice, and the words that she spoke, implied that I was being rude to her. This country, I remember thinking, is a game I will never be equipped to play.

I had gone to Israel charged with the task of writing a book-length piece of personal journalism about the country as I found it, on the ground, in the ordinariness of its daily life. I never wrote that book. The country had not aroused my affection, and by then I had learned that to write critically, without sympathy, for the subject at hand was to commit literary suicide. I had met some of the most marvelous people I would ever know, looked at some of the most striking landscapes on the face of the planet, felt living history in the faces all about me. Yet however much I tried during the six months that I lived in Israel, through whichever of the various elements of identity at my disposal (Jewish, female, American), I was unable to connect. I returned to New York with a hundred pages of notes on people, places, events—all in the negative. Everything I had written said, “Yes, but…” As the child of Yiddish-speaking secular Jews, the Hebrew language meant no more to me than any other foreign tongue; as a woman, I balked at finding myself in a country more sexist than my own; as a product of individuating America, I found the tribalism of the culture dismaying.

I never knew anyone in Israel who was not an active member of a tight-knit family, and for whom consideration of the family was not permanently compelling. It was as though all Israelis had been raised to be husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, not simply women or men. The idea of living as a person who began and ended with oneself would, if proposed, invariably be met with a blank gaze, followed by: “But that is unnatural! What is natural is to be in a family.” A good many Israelis had married young and seemed to be going through life joined at the hip—a convention that I came to think at least partially responsible for the overwhelming impression I had of the Israelis I knew as men and women with a distinctly limited knowledge of themselves as sensual beings.

By the same token, most Israelis seemed to have as their closest intimates people they had met in high school or during the army stint that all Israelis (except for the ultra-Orthodox) put in at the age of 18. European or American immigrants often complained of not being able to penetrate the sealed circle of Israeli friendships formed in early adulthood. It was as though to individuate was to threaten the preoccupation with Jewish identity that permeated the shared sensibility. The public culture, of course, reflected these striking fundamentals. In the bank, at the post office, in line for a bus, perfect strangers behaved with one another like impassioned, unruly family members who felt free to take the coarse liberties one usually allows oneself only in family life.

* * *

One morning I walked into my neighborhood bank in Tel Aviv to exchange American dollars for Israeli pounds (as the currency was then called). In the neutral voice with which I usually greet the world, I said to the teller, “May I please have…” The teller barked at me, “Oll-right, oll-right, iss not prob-lem,” as though I’d been harassing her for two hours. Suddenly, I realized that I had been spoken to in that tone of voice—in the post office, at the supermarket, on the bus—about a dozen times in the last two days, and each time the harshness had left me feeling stung.

When I described the bank incident to an acquaintance of mine, an Australian immigrant of three years’ standing, she said to me, “You have to make friends with the teller. Get your relationship on a personal basis. Otherwise, she’ll make your life miserable every time you go into the bank. Because, you see, she feels persecuted by your requests. You open your mouth, and she thinks about her lousy life—her son is being called up, her husband hasn’t made love to her in months, the cost of everything is rising, and why don’t people just let her alone? Why are they always pulling pieces from her? But if you get friendly with her, ask her how she feels, how her daughter Dalia is doing, she’ll lie down and die for you.”

The next morning, I walked into the bank and said to the teller, “Boker tov [good morning], Mrs. Schwartz. How are you feeling today?” She smiled and told me how she was feeling. Then I asked how the family was doing. Twenty minutes later, my business was concluded, and Mrs. Schwartz never barked at me again.

There were, however, elements of daily life in Tel Aviv that would have defeated Solomon, no matter how hard he played the ingratiating relative. The need to take a bus, for instance. The bus system in Israel was superb—there was no place in the country, not the remotest village or settlement, that a bus didn’t serve—but riding the bus was a trial of monumental proportions, and in Tel Aviv it could feel life-threatening.

The buses themselves were long tin cans that hurtled madly along, driven by middle-aged delinquents wearing shorts and sandals, smoking and blasting the radio as they drove, all the while being excoriated by passengers who objected to the speed and brutishness of the ride they were paying for. Then, no sooner did the bus come to a halt than it was attacked by the people at the bus stop, who began climbing over one another—twenty people pushing simultaneously to occupy a space fit for one—while those on the bus began yelling, “We are full up!” Whereupon the change-maker, who controlled the doors, began closing them as fast as he could on arms, legs, heads.

Three conditions did pre-empt the incredible free-for-all—age, infirmity, pregnancy—and the shortest bus ride was punctuated by the collective cry of “Rega! Rega! [Wait! Wait!]” when, say, an old man struggled to get off before the closing doors crushed his legs or a woman with a baby-filled belly lost her balance. This extraordinary combination of churlishness and protectiveness came to be permanently associated for me with the cry “Rega! Rega!”—which after a time began to float through my dreams.

Of course, the all-embracing sense of family feeds the remarkable solidarity that Israelis demonstrate in the face of external threat. During my time in the country I witnessed, more than once, the transformation within twenty-four hours of a random population into what felt like a civilian army. It was an impressive sight, one not easily forgotten: the unambiguous reward for being raised to take your place in the tribe. On the other hand, God help you if you did not take your place. In Israel, at that time, if a man or a woman was gay, or unmarried by choice, or a pacifist who refused to serve in the army, a crippling sense of social exclusion—far greater than any that could be leveled in Europe or the United States—dogged one’s life. Such was the price to be paid for living in a society that did not know how to accommodate the one who is different.

Should I voice any of these sentiments to the Israelis I knew, I would, more often than not, receive that familiar blank gaze, followed quickly by an outburst of “You do not understand our problems! The pressure under which we live!” And they were right: I didn’t understand, if by “understand” they meant empathizing with alienating behavior because there was a historical explanation for it. That, I never was going to understand; in fact, as the months went on, my heart grew progressively more ignorant. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that the ignorance was sealing over all the small openings in that vital organ through which the feeling intelligence takes in important information.

* * *

When I stumbled on the writing of A.B. Yehoshua, it was as though a fault line had opened in a hardened surface to expose me to an emotional insight that life on the Israeli street had denied me. Interestingly enough, I met the author before I read the work, and only later realized that it demonstrated beautifully the old chestnut about the best part of a writer residing in the work, not in the person. Yehoshua’s prose penetrated to a level of psychological understanding that moved me deeply, whereas he himself could have doubled for the bullying Israeli with whom I dealt daily.

I met him in Haifa, where he lives and teaches. A friend in New York had sent him a letter of introduction on my behalf, and one day when I was in the city, I called and was invited to come right over. He was sitting at his desk when I arrived: a man in his mid-40s with a bulky body, a powerful face and a mass of curly black hair. He looked up and said in a voice rising on a note of insinuation, “So why are you still living in the Diaspora? Why aren’t you living here where you belong?” I laughed. “You’re kidding,” I said. He told me that he most certainly was not kidding and went on to sketch a picture of my life in the States as one at risk in a Christian nation that, at any time, might turn on me; right now, at this very minute, I was standing on a narrow strip of beach with the sea at my back and the goyim, for all I knew, beginning to advance on me. The visit lasted an hour, during which I said little while Yehoshua harangued me.

When I got back to Tel Aviv, I bought a collection of his early stories and sat down in my rented apartment with its stone floors, shuttered balcony and long door handles to read the writing of this fiercest of old-fashioned Zionists. I began to read in mid-afternoon and continued straight through to the last page of the last story, whereupon I remained sitting with the book in my lap, staring into a room now shrouded in a darkness that, mysteriously, felt lit from within.

While Yehoshua’s conversation mimicked the national idiom, his writing was soaked in existential loneliness. The stories, all of them set in modern Israel, were uniformly tales of disconnect in marriage and friendship. At once timeless but of their Israeli moment, they were the work of a writer who, wanting to dive down into those psychic regions of loss and defeat common to all humanity, knew how to make metaphorical use of a sick, sweating man awakening in an empty flat in Tel Aviv on a hot summer morning sometime in the 1970s. This, these stories tell us, is how, at this time in this place, the creatures we call women and men, just out of Plato’s cave, are moving blindly toward some vague understanding of what it is to be human. Any reader whose emotional reflexes were intact was welcome to take in the experience.

* * *

The composite Yehoshua character who haunts my imagination is a failing academic who’s balding, wears glasses, can’t complete his dissertation, hasn’t slept with a woman in five years, and is walking at an angle down a Jerusalem street beneath a burning sun whose heat and dazzle double the surrounding silence—a silence that only a place this hot, this remote, could generate; a silence that makes palpable the silence within.

A version of this character is the protagonist of at least two of Yehoshua’s most powerful stories—“Three Days and a Child” and “Facing the Forests”—and his essence informs the main character of another important story, “A Long Hot Day, His Despair, His Wife and His Daughter.” In each case, the narrator is a man so ill at ease inside his own skin that when the mundane circumstances of his life threaten to turn hallucinatory, we’re right there with him because Yehoshua has put us deeply inside that unease—which, as it turns out, is not the situation but the story itself.

In “Three Days and a Child,” the narrator is a high school math teacher who lives alone in Jerusalem, sleeps with a woman he does not love, has been working for years on a hopeless dissertation, and now, in the last days of the summer vacation, receives a letter from a woman he once loved passionately (although she’d hardly given him the time of day), asking him to take care of her small son while she and her husband study for university entrance exams. This woman has, for years, been the focus of the narrator’s extended fantasies of erotic humiliation, and while he now meekly agrees to do as he’s asked, it is with a mixture of negative emotions, all the greater for being stifled, that he opens the door to receive the child. What follows is an account of the three days with the little boy—“end of summer, hot desert winds blowing over the land”—wherein the narrator’s spirits repeatedly rise, fall, flicker, go dead, come back to life, now flaring with bitter nostalgia, now falling back into the inertia that is his daily companion.

The narrator and the child go out wandering “about a Jerusalem stewing in its silence.” At the zoo, he sits on a bench and dozes off. When he awakens, the little boy is not there. He searches for the child with his eyes and spots him walking behind three older children along the top of a slanting wall. He watches with apparent indifference, thinking idly, “One incautious movement and he’ll be lying on the ground with a broken neck.” Not only did the narrator not worry: “On the contrary, I was excited!”

Very quickly, of course, he is rescuing the child, nursing him tenderly through a high fever, and suddenly feeling more alone than he did before the boy came: “Now my loneliness was undoubtedly greater than his.” He recognizes the forlornness of the child, but only his own can hold his attention.

He thinks with despair of the woman with whom he sleeps: “We may chance to meet in a crowded Jerusalem street…only last night we lay locked and now, as if by agreement, we ignore each other…so great is the pity we sometimes bear each other.”

He thinks of all the times he has returned to the classroom where “a few moments after I entered the room the sun, too, would enter through the window. The light would glare in my eyes. It was pure torment.”

When the narrator daydreams a phone call to the parents to tell them that he’s at the hospital and the boy has died, we are brought to the heart of the matter. In his fantasy he sees:

The bursting into the hospital, assailing the nurses, the doctors.
   The meeting face to face.
   Her wonderful, crushed beauty.
   They at my feet, I at theirs. Clinging to each other.
   The wonder of their not letting me go now…. They would cleave to me then, surround me, as though their child were in me, of me.
   Would take me for their son.
   Because love—of love I have despaired.

The protagonist of “Facing the Forests” could easily be the math teacher of “Three Days and a Child” a few years down the road. Consider the opening paragraph of the story:

Another winter lost in fog. As usual, he did nothing; postponed examinations, left papers unwritten. He had completed all his courses long ago, attended all the lectures [and the rest of the task had been] left in his own limp hands. But words weary him; his own, let alone the words of others. He drifts from one rented room to another, rootless, jobless. But for an occasional job tutoring backward children he would starve to death. Here he is approaching thirty and a bald spot crowns his wilting head. His defective eyesight blurs many things. His dreams at night are dull. They are uneventful…. At student revels he is already looked at with faint ridicule.

This character becomes a fire watcher in a forest some hours south of Jerusalem in the deluded hope that here, in total solitude, he will complete his graduate work. The only other people at the fire station are an Arab caretaker and his little girl. The Arab cannot speak; his tongue has been cut out—“By one of them or one of us?” our narrator wonders errantly—but he is there to serve the fire watcher, who soon begins to experience the Arab as a creeping threat. Needless to say, the narrator’s books are hardly cracked, nothing academic gets done, and when it turns out that the forest had grown over an Arab village that was destroyed years before—the caretaker and his child are the only survivors—the narrator begins to think that the Arab is going to set fire to the forest. Apprehension gives way to obsession, obsession to hallucination. And then, sure enough, there’s a conflagration. When he returns to Jerusalem six months after he left it, his time away is spoken of as just one more episode of work avoidance on the part of our aging student. “His waggish friends meet him, slap him on the back, and with ugly grins say, ‘We hear your forest burned down!’” while “his real friends have given him up in despair.” No one seems to guess that this will have been his last attempt to achieve an inner life.

* * *

The protagonist of “A Long Hot Day” is a 42-year-old engineer who, due to a faulty diagnosis of cancer, has been returned against his will to Israel after nine happy months on a project in Africa. Waiting for reassignment, he is plunged into an abyss of aimlessness that puts him on a continuum with our depressed academics.

One of the first mornings home, his wife and daughter having gone off to work and school, the engineer awakens to an empty flat, brooding on the night before, when he and his wife had retired to their bedroom for the second time in nearly a year: “He put his arms about her. In spite of his abysmal tiredness he intended to be with her, to make love to her…. But she pushed him away lightly, kissed the top of his head, slipped out of her clothes, put on a nightdress, got into her bed. He tried to insist…. At last he let go. Anyway, there had been trouble even before his African journey…. He gave in. She fell asleep at once.” In Africa, he had “lived in solitude, conceived by him as freedom.” Now, back home, he awakens daily into a domesticity that spells desolation:

Naked he paces through the house, enters each room and closes shutters and windows against the heat…enters a sun-drenched kitchen and tumbles straight into the chaos left by his [teenage] daughter. The butter is melting on the table, the milk going sour in the heat, the door of the refrigerator isn’t shut properly, jam is dripping over a dry slice of bread, a piece of nibbled cheese is on top of a load of dirty dishes—it’s as though a band of hoodlums had had their breakfast here instead of one thin, straggly child…. He puts the kettle to boil, moves the entire pile of dirty dishes to the sink and starts chewing at the slice of bread left by her.

Slowly, the engineer drives himself to the edge of mental instability—he broods over his loveless marriage, starts napping in his wreck of a car, hoards the letters that a young soldier writes to his daughter—and all the while there is the “sun-charged morning” into which he must repeatedly awaken; “the sweltering air that is making the road wave and contort…the sun exploding silently, breaking up into a thousand sparks…. Splinters of light quiver between his feet, and over his head a canopy of coals.”

Hardly a page in these stories is free of heat—the sun and the heat; the glare and the heat; the unexpressed yearning and the heat; the sexual dysfunction and the heat. It is there in every story: pressing into the narrator, driving him to experience, in almost equal parts, the landscape and the people in it (the narrator himself, first and foremost) as surreal rather than immediate.

Inevitably, I found myself comparing Yehoshua’s Israeli heat with the heat of, say, Camus’s Algeria or Coetzee’s South Africa. Their heat, too, goes hand in hand with an emotional unreality that allows people to do unspeakable things to one another beneath a burning sun in the middle of nowhere. Yehoshua’s heat, however—unlike that of Camus or Coetzee—is neither sinister nor murderous; rather, it is anxious, depressed, exhausted. It’s the exhaustion that makes Yehoshua’s stories remarkable, even profound. The exhaustion runs so deep it feels as old as time itself; as though it has been there since the beginning of instinctual life; as though, knowing as we do in the womb that we are about to be born into loss and abandonment, we are exhausted in advance.

In every age—what with the undying barbarism of human history—it is given to a few places in the world to make incarnate such existential knowledge. In Israel, for obvious reasons, we have one of those places. Yehoshua’s stories remind us that Israeli literature rightly joins the literature of those other cultures that have earned the right to make of ordinary lives a metaphor for such soul-destroying weariness.

* * *

It is common knowledge that Yehoshua is a man of the left who endorses a two-state solution to the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Yet to his followers abroad he seems more preoccupied with haranguing the Jews of the world who persist in living outside the state of Israel, as though it were they, not the political situation at home, who are making of life in the Middle East the hell that it is. In a voice laced through with contempt, he regularly thunders like a prophet of old that only Israelis are complete Jews. Other Jews are partial Jews—Jews who put on and take off their Jewishness as they would an article of clothing appropriate to the weather of the country in which they reside. Such Jews are worthy of the deepest scorn Yehoshua can summon.

In recent years, Yehoshua has become a writer of middle-class stories about aging and its anxieties that could be located anywhere in the Western world—his new novel, The Retrospective, about an aging movie director, could easily have been set in France—with the Israeli-ness of the characters existing simply as an identification tag. But for those who know his early work, it is painful to hear him speak of who is and who isn’t a Jew, because at times he can sound like a West Bank settler with a gun in his hand and murder in his heart, declaring the land of another his land. It’s the bully behind that sound—whether it comes from the left or the right—that makes one cringe. It seems then not to matter why one is bullying; it matters only that another is being bullied. In the court of humanity, the violence one human being does another is a nonnegotiable crime. Very nearly, in this court, there is no such thing as a just war.

At the end of last summer, for the first time in thirty years, I spent a week in Israel. The buses were no longer tin cans, no one barked at me in the shops or tried to get ahead of me in line, and the youth culture of Tel Aviv—beautiful young people dressed in Alphabet City black, everywhere, in bars, restaurants, cafés—was striking. Nonetheless, old friends were shocked to learn that I was still neither married nor a mother, and insinuating inflections marked most encounters in a way that still got on my nerves. (Question: “Are you enjoying that book?” Response: “And why shouldn’t I be enjoying this book?”) What was most startling, however, was the frenzy of building that seemed to be going on everywhere at the same time. Maybe it was the killing heat—it was, after all, the end of summer—but everyone and everything, the very air itself, seemed tired: bone tired, bitter tired, millennial tired; tired of the weariness and the canopy of coals, the escalating isolation and the petrifying last stand. It flashed through my mind: perhaps the Jews—because love, of love they have despaired—really are tired of being Jews.

Laura Brahm reviewed Jews and Words, by Israeli novelist Amos Oz and his daughter, historian Fania Oz-Salzberger, in the February 25, 2013, edition of The Nation.

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