Tuesday, June 08, 2010

With Both Feet in the Clouds: Fantasy in Hebrew Literature, edited by Hagar Yanai and Danielle Gurevitch

This isn't something that I think about very often, but I live half my life in a foreign language.  It's the language I'm writing in right now.  My actual, physical life, is lived in Hebrew.  It's the language I work in, the one I shop and bank and commute in, the one I use with friends and acquaintances and people on the street.  But it's not the language I write in, because it's not the language I read in.  I'm not sure when exactly it happened, but somewhere around the point that I transitioned from children's books to adult fiction, I stopped reading Israeli writers, for reasons that I suspect will be familiar to many Israeli genre fans--because the books that caught my fancy, the Asimovs and Tolkiens and Pratchetts, were foreign.  Unlike many of my fellow fans, I had the command of English that allowed me, eventually, to read free of the mediation of Israeli translators and publishers.  So from a very early age I learned to gravitate to the English section of the bookstore, and when my literary horizons broadened beyond genre, that's where I looked for reading material to scratch my new itches (and then online bookselling happened and I all but abandoned the Israeli bookstore).  These days my tastes are varied enough that if I had the proper introduction I could probably read quite happily in Hebrew, but the reason I stepped away from it in the first place was that no one was writing genre in it.  That's changed somewhat in the last 15 years (right around the time that I was discovering English-language fantasy and science fiction), but Israeli genre works are still thin on the ground.

The question, of course, is why, and it's one that Hagar Yanai and Danielle Gurevitch have tried to address in their essay collection With Both Feet in the Clouds, from the Israeli genre publisher Graff.  As Yanai puts it in her introduction, how is it possible that in a country that garnered the inspiration for its very existence from a piece of utopian science fiction, the fantastic has been all but exiled from the cultural scene?  This is a question I'd been thinking of in slightly different terms since the Jewish fantasy conversation exploded all over the internet this winter, spurred on by Michael Weingrad's essay "Why There is No Jewish Narnia" (in which Yanai, who has written two volumes of a YA fantasy trilogy, is one of two authors discussed).  My interest was in the Israeli aspect of the question, and when I became involved with content planning for this year's ICon convention it was the first topic that came to mind.  Which is when I was made aware of Yanai and Gurevitch's book, which Rani Graff was kind enough to send me a copy of. 

With Both Feet in the Clouds is geared, as its editors and publishers freely admit, at the non-fan, mainstream-reading Israeli audience, and frequently functions as a work of advocacy.  Look, its essayists seem to be saying, this is fantasy!  And this too!  To this end the book opens with two essays that seek to define the genre.  One, by Gurevitch, is academic and taxonomic (and flies the colors of that camp of genre scholarship that sees science fiction as a subset of fantasy), while the other, by translator Emmanuel Lotem (best known for translating The Lord of the Rings and other Tolkien works), is fannish and offers a more traditional definition of the genre, dividing it into the secondary world and urban types.  A reader with some background in genre scholarship will find both essays a bit thin, but they are followed by one of the best pieces in the collection, Gail Hareven's "Thinking About the Unthinkable" (all translations of titles and texts in this post are my own).  Hareven, winner of Israel's premier literary prize for her 2002 novel The Confessions of Noa Weber, is also the author of the science fiction collection The Way to Heaven (a story from that collection, "The Slows," was translated and reprinted in The New Yorker last year).  In a wry, energetic essay, Hareven considers the absurdity of a literary establishment that casts out the unthinkable in a country where the unthinkable happens so very often.  It's not simply, she argues, that the fantastic is rejected from Israeli literature in favor of reality, but that that reality is so carefully, narrowly mundane: "Most Israeli authors--though certainly not all of them--focus on the domestic scene, and even when they depart it they tend to tread lightly, crafting plots that move safely between the kiosk and the army base, between a "psychological problem" and an easily solved "dilemma." ... I do not know of a single Israeli author who would dare to inflict, as T.C. Boyle does in The Tortilla Curtain, a car accident, a robbery, a rape, a fire and an earthquake on their characters".

Hareven's persuasive answer to the question of Israeli literature's aversion to the fantastic and even the melodramatic is that rather than be amazed that the country that was inspired by Altneuland has failed to produce new flights of fancy, we should be looking to that book for the reasons for our stolidness.  Israelis, she argues, are still (or were, until the last couple of decades) in the process of bringing Theodore Hertzel's vision to life, and while that real life worldbuilding effort is ongoing it is both difficult and potentially dangerous to immerse ourselves in the building of a fantasy world.  "To dedicate himself to a task that seems 'unrealistic,' a person must believe that he himself is 'realistic.'  He must assume that he understands reality and the ways in which it works"--fantasy, in other words, is the privilege of those whose reality is solid and secure, while the retreat to the quotidian and predictable in fiction is a defense mechanism employed by those whose real lives are lived on shifting sands.

After these introductory essays, With Both Feet in the Clouds dedicates a chapter to instances of the fantastic in contemporary Israeli culture.  It's here that the collection makes its most damaging blunder, already commented on by several Israeli reviewers, of ignoring the halting but undeniable emergence of fantastic Israeli literature in the last 15 years.  The absurdist novels of Orly Castel-Bloom, for example, are mentioned in asides in several of the articles in the collection, but no single piece is dedicated to them.  Etgar Keret, Shimon Adaf, and others who have been introducing fantastic elements into the Israeli literary fiction scene for years are hardly even mentioned, and neither are instances of more traditional genre writing in Hebrew (such as Yanai's own novels).  In online conversations with their critics, Graff and Yanai have explained this absence not as an oversight but as a conscious decision, made to prevent scaring off mainstream readers who have learned to associate Keret, Castel-Bloom, and their ilk with a strange and incomprehensible mode of fiction.  That's a defensible choice, but also an unfortunate one, as many of the articles deemed non-threatening enough for inclusion in this chapter are also unpersuasive.

Menachem Ben's "The Messiah Won't Stop Calling--Fantastic Poetry in Hebrew" breathlessly makes its way through nearly a century of Israeli poetry, with stops for luminaries such as Nathan Alterman, David Avidan, and Yona Wallach among others, but his argument seems to be that any instance of metaphor and poetic imagery counts as fantasy.  In contrast, there is no question that the children's novels of Nurit Zarchi, covered in Noa Manheim's "The Grand Witch of Dreams," are fantastic, but looking for instances of the fantastic in the children's section of the bookstore feels like reaching for low-hanging fruit.  Far better is Mirit Ben Israel's "Fantasy and Science Fiction in David Grossman's The Book of Intimate Grammar," a close reading of the novel whose protagonist, a preteen in early 60s Jerusalem, tries to gain control of his changing body by inventing scientific experiments and magical rituals meant to halt its growth, and imagines an interior world into which he can disappear when these fail, leaving behind his now-adult husk.  Ben Israel does a good job of selling me on the book, but is less successful at arguing that it constitutes a work of fantasy or science fiction.  Her descriptions remind me of Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, another novel whose protagonist tries to control their world by inventing rituals and creating totems, and one that I would never have thought to call a fantasy because Jackson makes it clear--as Grossman apparently does--that these are the manifestations of the character's mental instability.

It's probably telling that the most convincing article about literature in this section, Yanai's own "The Demons Who Didn't Make Aliyah: Thoughts on the Fate of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Hebrew Literature" discusses an author who, as the title notes, made the conscious choice not to become an Israeli, and concludes that this choice was necessary for his literary success.  Yanai discusses Bashevis Singer's fiction but also wonders what would have happened to him had he chosen a life in Israel, concluding that his brilliant literary career, which culminated with the Nobel prize, could never have occurred in an environment that was not only hostile to the Yiddish that Bashevis Singer wrote in, but which couldn't tolerate the type of fantasy he wrote, in which characters are at the mercy of supernatural powers beyond their understanding or control.
Passivity very nearly led to the destruction of the Jewish people in the Holocaust, and it is therefore destructive, dangerous, and not to be permitted in Israel.  In a literary context, it seems that one could argue that an excess of imagination leads to helplessness, as with Don Quixote. ... Bashevis's characters are buffeted by the external forces of fate and history and the internal forces of lacerating passions.  At best they can choose how to meet their fates, but choosing, shaping, or steering that fate is beyond them.  This dangerously passive approach could not be reconciled with the effort to create a new Jewish state in Israel.
Happily, the section on contemporary Israeli fantasy also includes two articles about non-literary media, both of which present a much more optimistic outlook than the articles about literature.  Film reviewer Shmuel Duvdevani is somewhat ill-served by the placement of his essay, "Magical Realism in Israeli Cinema," right after Hareven's piece, in which she pointedly argues that fantasy is permitted in Israeli culture only if it serves an elevated purpose--"Fantasy should have a moral; it should have some correlation to 'the fiery reality of our lives'; it should examine some degraded national symbol and generally, in the words of Gogol, be 'of use to the state.'"  Duvdevani's choice to take precisely this approach--he argues that magical realist elements in Israeli cinema are a means of undermining the dominant, moneyed, Tel Aviv-dwelling Ashkenazi class--thus seems a bit like self-parody (it is also a little over-argued).  But he supports this approach with close readings of the films he's chosen to focus on--Sh'Chur (1994), The Flying Camel (1994), The Appointed (1990), Forbidden Love (1997), New Land (1994), Saint Clara (1995), and Life According to Agfa (1992)--which use fantastic elements to discuss the Israeli establishment's fraught relationships with Sepharadic Jews, Palestinians, the ultra-orthodox, and immigrants, along the way creating a portrait of the Israeli film scene as vibrant and multifaceted.  It is a shame, however, that the essay includes almost no discussion of the films of the aughts, a decade in which Israeli cinema is widely considered to have come of age.

Another excellent essay comes from theater reviewer Eitan Bar Yosef.  In "Dybbuk, Husband, House: Shmuel Hasfari and the Fantastic Tradition in Israeli Theater," Bar Yosef gives an overview of Hasfari's deliberately fantastic plays, which include such elements as Moses traveling in time to the present day ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea She'arim, the devil bringing about the apocalypse while camped out with messianic settlers, and angels who crash an Israeli family's Passover seder (Hasfari, who also directed the Israeli production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America at the Cameri theater in 1993, describes his shock at discovering that another playwright had "already developed the style I was thinking of, with the same universal Jewish associations").  It's a window to a world of Israeli letters that I'm entirely unfamiliar with, and made me very eager to discover Hasfari's work for myself.

In its third section, With Both Feet in the Clouds discusses cross-pollination of fantastic elements between Jewish and non-Jewish cultures.  Gurevitch, for example, in "The Kingdom of David in the Arthurian Legends," suggests that Geoffrey of Monmouth and Robert de Boron, the earliest known compilers of the Arthurian legends, consciously modeled the image of the once and future king on that of the Biblical David: "a military leader, a wise strategist who doesn't act alone but is accompanied by a respected religious authority figure, a determined, decisive but charismatic king who can deliver fair judgments, victory on the field of battle, peace and security, and most of all, who can unite a divided people into a single, strong nation."  It's a convincing theory on the macro level, though Gurevitch's evidence on the micro level often seems a bit strained.  Hananel Mack stretches the point a little in "The Christian Use of Jewish Fantasy" when he describes the co-opting of Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan's messianic writings by the 13th century priest Raymondus Martini for his work Pugio Fidei (the dagger of faith), as it seems clear that Hadarshan was writing theology, not fantasy (in general there is a tendency in With Both Feet in the Clouds to conflate the two) and that he was simply a messianic Jew.  Happily, this segment also includes Ilana Gomel's "The Alien With the Yellow Star of David" and Yael Sela-Shapiro's "Fantasy--It Sounds Better in English?", two of the best pieces in the collection.

Gomel, who emigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union, delivers a fascinating and all-too-brief history of Jews in Communist Russia and their transition over the second half of the 20th century from the heart of the revolution to its discard pile, and interweaves it with a discussion of the science fiction novels of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky--which, she argues, deliberately reflected the Soviet Jew's dilemma, their growing realization that they were different but that, having lost much of their cultural heritage, had no idea what that difference entailed.  Gomel describes the Soviet establishment's efforts to remove Jews from public and professional life by establishing ethnic quotas, and to erase their part in history (the memorial at the site of the Nazi massacre at Babi Yar describes the victims as 'Soviet citizens,' not Jews), and she describes Soviet Jews' conflicting feelings of superiority over the unwashed, uneducated masses and inferiority before the state's persecution of them.  All of which, she argues, is reflected in the Strugatsky brothers' novels, who provided Soviet Jews with an outlet for their frustrations and a consoling fantasy of their intellectual superiority triumphing over the maliciousness of their persecutors.  Just about the only thing wrong with this article is that I would have liked it to be twice as long.

Sela-Shapiro, a translator who has rendered Pullman's His Dark Materials and Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire into Hebrew, discusses the difficulty of translating fantasy, and particularly the Tolkienian, medieval-set variety, into Hebrew, a difficulty rooted not only in the absence of a shared linguistic and cultural heritage, but in Hebrew's unique status as a revived language.
During its long period of dormancy Hebrew was used primarily for ritual purposes and as a Lingua Franca between Jewish communities in different countries, while the day-to-day lives of these communities were lived in their local language.  As a result, the development of the Hebrew language skipped over nearly every historical, social, cultural and technological advance made during this period, and no new words were invented to describe these advances.  The revivers of the Hebrew language invented and repurposed thousands of words, but their limited resources were dedicated to adapting Hebrew for the modern world.  What is the point, they may have asked themselves, of inventing appropriate Hebrew analogues for obsolete terms when contemporary ones remain untranslated?  As a result, the terms introduced into modern Hebrew were those relevant for the 19th century and onwards.
The difficulty of translating fantasy into Hebrew, Sela-Shapiro goes on to explain, is rooted in 'semantic voids'--cultural and environmental concepts for which there exists no analogue in Hebrew, such as types of weapons (arquebus, stiletto), gradations of social class (manservant, lady in waiting), and fantastic creatures (daemon, harpy).  She goes on to describe some of the techniques used by herself and other translators to nevertheless produce an accurate and satisfying translation, which include commissioning new translations of poetry (the existing translation of Paradise Lost, a line from which is used as an epigraph for Philip Pullman's books, translates the phrase 'his dark materials' into the singular), and, in one of my favorite examples, substituting Jewish cultural references for European ones, so that Harry Potter's Wizengamot becomes the magical Sanhedrin.

In its final section, With Both Feet in the Clouds discusses instances of the fantastic in Jewish history and tradition.  Some of these articles needed quite a bit more editing.  Ruth Kalderon's "The Cave," a comparison of two versions of the story of Honi HaMeagel, an important figure in Jewish myth, is somewhat too focused on academic minutiae, and doesn't do enough to invite lay readers into the topic.  Dov Schwartz's "Notes on the Limitations of Messianic Imagination in Jewish Thought," which discusses theological hair-splitting between different messianic thinkers in the time of the Rambam (who was deeply opposed to, and tried to stamp out, messianic fervor), feels like too deep a discussion of too trivial a topic (the central question seems to be whether, after the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead, there will be eating and drinking), and once again seems to conflate theology with fantasy.  Hagay Dagan and Anat Aderet offer two too-short pieces, the former on the tale of Rabbi Yosef Dela Rena, a Kabbalist who decides to bring about the salvation of the Jewish people by taking the devil head-on (in a rather unpersuasive parallel, Dagan calls Dela Rena a "Jewish Frodo Baggins").  Aderet offers a much more interesting report on a 17th century Yiddish travel narrative describing a trip to the holy land, concluding with a fantastic description of the traveler encountering the ten lost tribes of Israel, and finding them living in peace, prosperity, and most importantly, self-rule (making the narrative a sort of proto-Altneuland).  As Aderet says, "it is plain that [the author]'s visit created a nearly irreconcilable gap between the reality he encountered and the image of the holy land embedded in the collective consciousness of his readers in the diaspora," hence the resort to fantasy.  It's an interesting corner of history, but Aderet does little more than mention its existence.

Happily, Ido Peretz's "Ghost Stories in the Medieval Jewish Folktale, an Examination of Two Story Collections: Sefer Hasidim and Shivchei HaAri" is both interesting and suitably comprehensive, reproducing several stories from each collection--the former a 13th century work of moral instruction whose stories seek to encourage correct behavior in all walks of life, the latter a work of hagiography in praise of Rabbi Isaac Luria, who founded his own stream of Kabbala--while comparing the different treatment of ghosts in both stories, and the different uses to which the two collections put their ghostly characters.  In Sefer Hasidim, the ghost stories are cautionary tales.  They describe how Jews who failed to show proper reverence and humility in life are punished in the afterlife--a woman who hurried out of prayer while others lingered in the synagogue is constantly harried after her death; another woman who would weave linen instead of preparing for the Sabbath is afflicted with burning linen--while those who were devout are rewarded--a man who sang his prayers particularly beautifully is granted an eternal reward.  In Shivchei HaAri, meanwhile, the purpose of the stories is to extol the Kabbalist, and they therefore describe him saving Jews from damnation (a butcher who accidentally served treif meat to the congregation is reincarnated in a goat, and his kosher slaughter secures him his rest) or condemning them to it (an evil tax collector begs the Rabbi, in the form of a raven, to help him, but Luria sends him away). 

It is inevitable that a collection like With Both Feet in the Clouds will have its high points and low points, but with the exception of the flaws I've already pointed out--the absence of any discussion of modern Israeli fantasy, and the tendency to conflate theology with fantasy--Yanai and Gurevitch have produced a fascinating collection of essays.  Though there is room for expansion, both in individual essays and in the book's overall scope, this is only to highlight the necessity of such a work, which casts a light on instances of the fantastic in Jewish tradition that the modern Israeli reader might not be aware of, and tries to puzzle out the reasons for Israeli culture's weakening but still-present antipathy towards the fantastic.  I don't know whether an English translation of With Both Feet in the Clouds is likely (and if it is, I hope that is is of a revised edition that includes a discussion of the missing modern Israeli fantasists), but I hope that I've done a good job of summarizing it for English readers, and maybe whetting their appetites for it.

12 comments:

Niall said...

"and maybe whetting their appetites for it."

Mine, at least! Thank you.

Jade Carver said...

I often think sadly of all the good literature - fiction and non-fiction - that I am missing out on simply because it hasn't been translated into English yet. I really need to expand my reading horizons.

Jakob Schmidt said...

I want to read the whole thing!
Maybe I should finally join my friend for his Hebrew class ... it can't be that hard!

Athena Andreadis said...

A. B. Yehoshua should probably be in any anthology of this kind. Speaking of language barriers, one of the best writers of magic realism is a Hellene, Evgenia Fakinou. Her books have never gone out of print in my country, and she has won scads of awards. She is entirely unknown to English readers.

Abigail's Mom said...

Athena, as you said, I'd never heard of Fakinou. So, I googled her and fell into a fascinating report of a meeting of Israeli and Greek writers in 2005
http://www.greekembassy.org/embassy/content/en/Article.aspx?office=4&folder=218&article=16946

mondyboy said...

Thank you. That was wonderfully written. Just one thing: was that much mention of midrash? And was there anything on the stories of king Solomon and asmodeus

Athena Andreadis said...

Abigail, interesting link! They paired Fakinou with Savyon Liebrecht -- two outstanding writers (and women in the bargain). Liebrecht's Apples from the Desert collection is simply beautiful.

Hellenes have an interesting blessing/burden, which is mentioned in passing in your link. They still read Homer and watch Eurypides and Aristophanes for entertainment. Too, a lot of poetry, including that of Nobel-prize winners, has been set to compulsively singable music by Hellene popular composers – and the songs are sung across Hellas independently of social stratum.

As a result, they don't make genre (or high/low culture) distinctions the way Anglosaxons do. And writers are far better off for it.

P. S. Too much white in the new color scheme of the blog and the red of the letters is too stark. Maybe ivory/white sand for the former and maroon/brick for the latter would work better.

Athena Andreadis said...

P. S. Apologies -- I belatedly noticed that the note that addressed me and that I replied to was from Abigail's Mom!

Anonymous said...

A very interesting and informative post.

Jeff Ford

Stephen said...

This isn't something that I think about very often, but I live half my life in a foreign language.

I, for one, would be very interested to read any further thoughts on this if you're ever moved to write them.

Alexander said...

And this review was just shortlisted for the BSFA. Much congratulations, and here's hoping this brings your thoughts here and in other areas to a wider audience.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Thank you!

Post a Comment