Are Two of the Most Promising Recent Hebrew Novels Just Too Darn Long?

March 4, 2021 | Jessica Cohen
About the author:

Reviewing three works of Israeli literature, Haim Watzman—an American-born Israeli writer and translator—labeled them “never-ending stories” that are simply “too long,” and admitted that he stopped reading all of them before he was halfway through. Jessica Cohen, also a well-regarded translator of Hebrew books into English, argues that Watzman has done a disservice to two of them:

When I first read Uri Katz’s debut, tentatively titled in English The Man Who Got Stuck with a Scowl, I was captivated from the first page, the exhilaration of a new discovery staying with me to the end. It is a remarkably ambitious work; there are moments when Katz teeters on the edge of that ambition, but in each instance he finds his footing. . . . Katz is also a writer of profound emotional sincerity, with a biting sense of humor. There are moments when the narrative sags a little under its own weight. But then, it is the rare novel that succeeds in sustaining the same intensity on every page. I would rather amble through the occasional bagginess and reap the rewards, than trot across a novelette that offers little in the way of insight or originality.

It is difficult to conceive of two more dissimilar Israeli novels than The Man Who Got Stuck with a Scowl and [Leah Aini’s] Rose of Lebanon. . . . Aini’s book is long because its narrative involves cumulative fragments that spiral slowly but powerfully around a devastating core. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I view this extraordinary book as a contender for “the great Israeli novel.” . . . Vered, [Hebrew for rose], the author’s alter-ego, sits every week at the bedside of Yonatan, a critically wounded soldier who tried to commit suicide rather than fight in the Lebanon War. This narrative framework, and the brutally candid monologues that the narrator tells her captive audience of one, are also the novel’s thematic backbone.

Leah grew up in a drab working-class neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, with near-illiterate parents, surrounded by Holocaust survivors (including her father), Mizraḥim, and other marginalized Israelis who collectively represent “the Second Israel,” their workaday stories and deprivations largely excluded from the national narrative. Yonatan, conversely, is a privileged Ashkenazi from an upper-middle-class Jerusalem neighborhood, a handsome combat soldier coasting on family connections and privilege—a poster child for “the First Israel.” The symbolism is clear: Yonatan can only hear Vered’s story when forced to do so by being in a near-vegetative state.

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