Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Critics Be Damned

The Flying Camel and the Golden Hump by Aharon Megged

Pour ce que rire est le propre de l’homme.

“Asking a working writer how he feels about critics,” declared English playwright, John Osborne, “is like asking a lamppost how it feels about dogs.” So might have gone the epigraph to this witty, erudite, ever-surprising exploration of the age-old relationship between writer and critic.  

My first taste of Aharon Megged’s work was his novel Foiglman, and I was so impressed by the strange and melancholy tale of an Israeli historian named Zvi Arbel and his anguished, ultimately tragic relationship with Foiglman, a Yiddish poet and Holocaust survivor, that I’d bought up every book in his name. Among them (and the subject of this post) was the curiously titled novel, The Flying Camel and the Golden Hump. Set in an apartment building in 1980’s Tel Aviv, it tells the story of a writer named Kalman Keren who makes the horrific discovery one day that his arch-enemy, the literary critic, Naphtali Schatz, has not only moved into his apartment building but into the apartment directly overhead!

Keren, having just started work on what is to be his masterpiece (the book to end all books, the ultimus liber), in short, the translation into modern Hebrew of Fran├žois Rebelais’ five interconnected scatological novels, La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel, suddenly finds himself paralyzed by the presence of this literary specter, this “Mr. Bookflayer,” this “degenerate descendent of Zoilus the Scourge.” It is too much for the hapless writer to believe: “Impossible!—I repeated to myself—the devil has tricks no mortal can imagine, but in the field of literature?! It’s inconceivable that he would think up an allegory like this, a literary critic living right above a writer, walking on his head, as it were. Especially a critic whose first book was a polemic against allegory!”

Brilliantly, the antipathy Keren feels for the critic is rooted, not in some harsh or captious review he’d received from the man, but in the unendurable fact that the widely esteemed Schatz never even acknowledged his last, most successful book, The Flying Camel of the Golden Hump, let alone reviewed it. “Twenty-eight articles written about this book of mine in six months after it was published. But Schatz—not a word!” It is a slight, a damnation, further compounded by the fact that the critic—now his neighbor—refuses even to greet him on the stairs. 

Stymied each day in his effort to make headway on his magnum opus by the machine-gun clatter of Schatz’s typewriter upstairs, and humiliated by the thought of the critic’s daily sewage gurgling past him through the pipes in the wall, Keren decides to exact his revenge upon the cocksure man, both by means of his disarmingly kind and sensuous wife, Naomi, who has made no secret of her interest in Keren and his work, and by viciously satirizing the man and every critic in Israel like him—the very tale this novel tells. Yet The Flying Camel and the Golden Hump is also the story of Keren himself—of his emigration from Romania, of his brief marriage and divorce, and of his life as a writer in Israel. Clever, allusive, punditic, it is delightful to read, a story, finally, about the wonder of wonders, that of literature itself.

Aharon Megged was born in Poland and came to Palestine at the age of six. He was a member of Kibbbutz Sdot Yam from 1938-1950, and later, a literary editor and journalist. He has been a pivotal figure in Israeli letters since the 1950’s.  His many novels, short stories, and plays reflect the complexities of Israeli society over the past fifty years.  He has won many literary awards, among them the Bialik Award, the Brenner Award, the Agnon Award, and the much-coveted Israel Price for Literature, 2003.  The Flying Camel and the Golden Hump is published by The Toby Press.  Check out their remarkable list at http://www.tobypress.com/.
Peter Adam Nash

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