February 14, 2002
Author A.B. Yehoshua believes readers can find solace in literature.
Sept. 11 marked a resurgence in America's love affair with the news media. Desperate to make sense of the tragedy, we made CNN and MSNBC staples of our TV diet.
But according to prolific Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua, television was not the only place we turned to for solace.
"People are reading novels again," he told The Journal from his Haifa home. "In this time when people are turning more and more inward, when they are avoiding public places, they are reading. They read to understand the world, not in terms of the quick and easy media, but through literature."
It is his faith in art as spiritual guidepost that has made Yehoshua -- whose novels, plays, political essays and short stories have been translated into numerous languages -- one of Israel's most inspiring and haunting voices. As he prepares for his visit to Los Angeles, where he will join writer-composer Liz Swados for a literary dialogue with the Writer's Bloc, Yehoshua meditates on the role of literature in an age of terrorism.
"Novels keep human feeling alive," he says. "We have to be very careful not to get caught in sentiments of anger, hostility and revenge; to maintain humanism until today's wave of anger passes. This is the role of art, and this is why novels will not die."
Such philosophical gems illuminate Yehoshua's oeuvre, a mélange of various genres, forms and influences: Kafka-esque psychological realism, Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness, existential absurdity à la Beckett, the epic style of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.
Yehoshua has been rereading these classic writers of late because he "takes comfort" in them -- and because he finally has a moment to rest on his laurels. His self-described "voluminous" novel, "The Liberating Bride," was published recently, and will soon be translated into English. His last novel, "A Journey to the End of the Millennium," the story of a North African Jewish trader and his Arab partner's voyage through medieval Europe, received critical acclaim in Israel and abroad and has just been sold for possible movie production.
Yehoshua, who has been professor of comparative literature at Haifa University for the past 20 years, seems amused that this "very, very Jewish and very medieval" novel may make it to the silver screen.
With his career at a climax, Yehoshua can now trace his path of development with ease. Born in 1936 Jerusalem to a fifth-generation Israeli father and a North African mother, Yehoshua took his degree in philosophy and Hebrew literature at Hebrew University. His first pieces of writing came, as he puts it, "from the comic side." They were sketches and humoristic stories about contemporary events.
After military service -- he was a paratrooper during the Sinai Campaign -- Yehoshua turned his attention to short story writing.
He wrote short stories and three plays in this vein -- but never a novel. "Unlike young people nowadays, I didn't jump right into novels," he explains. "I was writing very slowly and working carefully with language. This was good for me as a writer, because when I did come to the novel, I was more mature and more acquainted with the craft of prose, thanks to all the short stories I had written."
He published his first novel, "The Lover," at age 40, and his change in form coincided with a change in literary theme. It was the politically volatile '70s, a time when Yehoshua says "the question of history, which I was trying to avoid, was imposing itself on me. I realized that in order to understand Israeli humanity, I had to move backward through history, back to the traumas of Jewish identity."
In looking for something that would help him "integrate the national malaise and national trauma" into his writing, he discovered William Faulkner, whose stream-of-consciousness style schooled him in the use of multifarious fictional voices -- a feature that remains critical to his novels. In "Mr. Mani," for instance, each chapter consists of a two-way conversation in which we read the words of only one participant.
The voices in Yehoshua's fiction are varied, indeed; he is mouthpiece to Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike, as well as Arabs and Jews, Westerners and Easterners, men and women, right- and left-wingers.
There is no easy ethnic category of "Jew" in his work, and there is also no Jew in stasis. His novels are peripatetic, taking us to Jewish worlds in Israel, in Morocco, in Paris and India. "This is a Jewish way to understand the world. We are a people who are always moving," he says.
Yet these travel narratives work hand-in-hand with the psychological narratives of his work, which he gleans from talks with his wife, a psychoanalyst. And in an age of terrorism, such insights have particular resonance.
"I have seen many wars, but I have never sensed such a difficult time as today. There's a feeling of despair in the air," he muses. "And through understanding of human motivation, we can put a stop to hostility and revenge and live peaceably, side by side. We have no other choice."
Writers Bloc and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion present A.B. Yehoshua in conversation with writer-composer Elizabeth Swados on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m. at Temple Emanuel, 300 N. Clark Drive, Beverly Hills. $15. For tickets, call (323) 655-TKTS or purchase at the door. Also, on Saturday, Feb. 23 at 8 p.m., Yehoshua will be at the University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel-Air. $10. For more information, call (310) 440-1246.