Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Yehoshua’s Gift

Five Seasons by A. B. Yehoshua

A man has to be in love.
                A.B. Yehoshua
It was only on the train ride from Haifa back to Tel Aviv, after I had found a seat and caught my breath, the ancient coastline flashing by outside my window, that I opened up my copy of Five Seasons to see what the author A.B. Yehoshua had written inside. Unfortunately the inscription was in Hebrew, a language with which I have but a stumbling familiarity. Eager to know what he’d written, I asked an Israeli soldier seated across the aisle from me—a frowzy-looking teenager with an I-pod and Uzi—if he could translate the message, a request with which he seemed happy to comply. “You met him?” he asked me, after a glance at the page. He looked genuinely impressed. “Yes, just now, at a café in town.” He shook his head and smiled. “My father says he’s the best.”

It had started on whim, before I was due to visit Israel with my wife and sons, when I'd written the author at the university where he teaches on the chance that he would meet with me for no other reason than that I admired his work, indeed had been deeply changed in my thinking by his many prize-winning novels about life in Israel today. As an American I was not alone in this. “When I stumbled on the writing of A.B. Yehoshua,” writes Vivian Gornik in a recent article in The Nation, “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.” I’d experienced exactly the same thing, some years earlier, before I’d actually been to Israel, when I’d chanced upon a novel of his, A Late Divorce, in a used bookshop in town. It was a revelation to me: for the first time there were people—real, familiar, struggling people—behind the daily newsprint drama of violence and fanaticism that had come to define the country for me. 
The Israelis of Yehoshua’s novels are at once universal in their needs and fears and aspirations, and complexly, compellingly distinct in their identity as Israelis, as Jews, a mixture of toughness, pride, and despair, a political, emotional, plainly existential dis-ease, that brings one so close to the brilliance and crisis of modern Israel that one can only be moved. And what else is literature for than to move us, to complicate our perspectives, to rattle the many truths and generalizations we hold dear?
This is not to suggest that Israel, as a nation, has simply been misunderstood, that the criticism of its policies in recent decades is without foundation, based largely on anti-Semitism and ignorance, only to state the obvious: that in a world fraught with bigotry and strife, a world sick with religious and cultural narcissism, it is fatal—literally fatal—to lose sight of the people themselves, be they Israelis or Palestinians, to be satisfied with cutouts and caricatures, with shadows on a screen. This is what good novelists do: they defy our complacency, our desire—all but instinctive, it seems—to simplify the world, to paint it black and white. This is Yehoshua’s gift: his ability to tell a story about a man, a woman, a family, in such a way that we know them as people first, with all their quirks and imperfections, and only after—if significantly—as Israelis, as Jews. 
His 1987 novel, Five Seasons (Molkho), my favorite of all, is a case in point. Never anywhere have I read a more stirring, more deeply human depiction of love and marriage and death, than in the pages of this book. The novel is worth buying for the opening pages alone, an exquisitely controlled description  of one man’s lonely vigil at the deathbed of his wife:  

Molkho’s wife died at 4 a.m., and Molkho did his best to mark the moment forever, because he wished to be able to remember it.  And indeed, thinking back on it even weeks and months later, he was convinced that he had managed to refine the instant of her passing (her passing? he wasn’t sure the word was right) into something clear and vivid containing not only thought and feeling but also sound and light, such as the maroon glow of the small electric heater, the greenish radiance of the numbers on the digital clock, the yellow shaft of light from the bathroom that cast large shadows in the hallway, and perhaps, too, the color of the sky, a pinkish ivory set off by the deep obscurity around it. 
What Five Seasons gives the reader is a grave, sometimes funny, always acutely personal account of a middle-aged man struggling to come to terms with his life after the protracted and painful death of his wife, a simple story replete with love and longing, yet further charged, further complicated, by the fact that it takes place in Israel, a nation at war with itself, so that even its most quotidian details seem intimations of some greater, more grievous truth. While never overtly political like his novels Friendly Fire, A Woman In in Jerusalem, and The Liberated Bride, each of which I strongly recommend, Five Seasons is to my mind his most accomplished, most finely-wrought tale because it leaves me, not with a nation and its politics—its settlers, terrorists, and soldiers—but with a person, a human being, a vain and vulnerable man who longs for little more from this life than love.

Avraham “Boolie” Yehoshua was born in Palestine in 1936, a fifth-generation Sephardic Jerusalemite.  Following his form al education at The Hebrew University, where he studied literature and philosophy, Yehoshua moved to Paris for four years.  In 1967 he returned to Israel and served as a paratrooper during the Six Day War. Today he resides in Haifa, where he has been a senior lecturer in literature at the University of Haifa since 1972.  His works have been translated into 28 languages and he is the recipient of the Bialik Prize, the Israel Prize for Literature, and the Los angles Time Book Prize.  He is credited with being among the first Israeli writers to give voice to an Arab character in post-1948 Israeli literature.*

* Thanks in part to Stephanie Tankel
Note: The inscription in my copy of Five Seasons reads simply: “To Peter Nash, with heartfelt greetings. A.B. Yehoshua”
Peter Adam Nash

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