Thursday, November 29, 2012

Janice Weizman interviews novelist David Bezmozgis

David Bezmozgis was born in Riga, Latvia, and immigrated to Canada with his family when he was six years old. He is the author of Natasha and other stories and The Free World After spending week in Israel in October 2012, he was interviewed by Janice Weizman, author of The Wayward Moon and editor of The Ilanot Review.

Janice Weizman:  What gave you the idea for the story of The Free World?

 David Bezmozgis: It began with an interest in this peculiar aspect of the emigration of Soviet Jews in the 1970s and 1980s, the interval in Italy—in Rome and the surrounding towns—when thousands of these Soviet Jews found themselves living in Italy waiting for some country to accept them. I thought this was fertile ground for a novel. This encounter between Soviet people and the West—in Rome of all places—seemed to me dramatic and compelling. The experience was both romantic and traumatic. The emigrants experienced a mix of liberation and disorientation. And setting the novel at this time enabled me to address not only the present tense experience in Italy but also to invoke the past that had shaped them—the Soviet past which is receding farther and farther into obscurity.

 JW: Can you talk a little about your process of character development for the story?

 DB: The intention of the book was to present to the reader a complement of characters who—while fully and individually human—would also serve to reflect different types of Soviet people. For instance, Samuil, the patriarch of the family, is reflective of many people of his generation, Jews who put their faith in Communism, hoping that it would improve the dreadful circumstances of the Russian Jews. His sons, Karl and Alec, born after the time of the pogroms, after WWII, and after Stalin, no longer feel their father’s burning passion for communism. For them, it is mostly hypocrisy and they are eager to look to the West. Other characters offer other perspectives, all of which were to be found at the time. Taken together, they should show the complex and often contradictory nature of Soviet Jews.  

JW:  Rome and its neighborhoods are portrayed in great detail in the book. Can you describe how you went about doing the geographical research?

 DB:  I lived in Rome for four months to get familiar with the city and also the surrounding towns that feature in the novel, Ladispoli in particular. JW The mindset of Samuil, the staunch communist, comes across very clearly. It was fascinating to see how he justified Communism and distrusted the Capitalist west. Was it challenging to get inside his head? Which Characters were trickier for you to envision and create? Why?

 DB:  I suppose what was difficult about Samuil was coming to terms with the fact that someone could think so ideologically and staunchly. I read a great deal about the Soviet era, and particularly about the revolutionary and Stalinist period. What struck me most was the fervor of the communists’ beliefs, how deeply they had internalized the dogma. So many were willing to offer their lives for the revolution and, even during the time of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, refused to attribute the injustice to communism or Stalin. There was a willful blindness. Or, tp put it differently, faith. Once I understood this and accepted it, I was able to write from Samuil’s perspective. The challenge was reminding myself that such people were once very common, even if today they are practically extinct.

 JW:  When you wrote The Free World, what was important to you that readers take from the story?  

DB:  The Free World is a complement, of sorts, to my first book, Natasha and Other Stories. Natasha was a book about the experience of Russian Jewish immigrants to North America in the 1980s and 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews settled there at the time and I wrote the book because I hadn't seen anyone treating this subject. North America has a rich tradition of immigrant writing and, more specifically, Jewish immigrant writing. This last wave of immigration continued that tradition. It also happened to be my family's story and mine. The Free World accounts for the parts of the story that preceded the action in Natasha--which is to say life in the Soviet Union and the experience of leaving that country. Little was known in the West about the reality of the Soviet Union and of the particular experiences of Soviet Jews. It is true of Canada and the U.S. that the idea of Jewish immigration from Russia was at least half a century out of date. The images that predominated had to do with the Holocaust, if not with Fiddler on the Roof. The Free World tells the updated story of Russian Jews and of Soviet life. If these Russian immigrants who now populate so many cities in the West seem strange or hard to comprehend, the book is there to help explain why they are the way they are and what unique forces have shaped this community of people. And, of course, at the very heart of both books is the belief that the lives of these people are sufficiently interesting and dramatic to justify a reader's attention.  

JW:  What was the most challenging aspect of the process of writing The Free World, and how did you attempt to overcome it?  

DB:  I found the sheer length of the novel to be hardest. It took some seven years to write and to sustain interest in a project for such a long time was difficult. One overcomes it the way one overcomes any difficulty, by persevering.  

JW: Which do you prefer, writing short stories or novels? Why? Which do you prefer as a reader?

 DB: I prefer short stories. I prefer writing them and reading them. Most of my favorite works of literature are stories. I admire the concision. But not every story can be short. And, for various reasons, in the past ten years I’ve written very few stories and have instead written one novel and am now engaged in writing another.  

JW: You’ve said in other interviews that the writer Leonard Michaels was an important influence on your development as a writer. What was it about his writing that appealed to you?

DB: It was a combination of his subject and his style. He wrote about secular Jewish life in North America in a way that seemed authentic and familiar to me. He grew up on the Lower East Side in the 1940s and 1950s. His characters are both physical and cerebral. This was similar to my experience growing up thirty years later in a community of Soviet Jewish immigrants. But even more than that was the quality of Michaels’s prose, the meticulous attention to detail, the richness and vibrancy of the language. And the very distinct impression that not a single word was gratuitous. I held and still hold his prose as a model.  

JW:  Your roots are Russian, but you basically grew up in Canada. Is there anything about the Canadian experience that you would like to explore it in future writing?  

DB: I feel I have written a great deal about the Canadian experience. All the stories in Natasha are set in Toronto and so too a couple others that I have written since. The experience of growing up in a Russian immigrant neighborhood is part of the Canadian experience.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Odeh Bisharat's reluctant hero

By Mitch Ginsburg

Israeli Arabs are the minority people of the eternal minority people. This is a strange, sometimes cruel and sometimes humorous place to find yourself. It is also, I think, some very fertile literary soil.

According to Odeh Bisharat, a first time novelist who was at Tmol Shilshom last Wednesday introducing his book, Bchutzot Zatounia, there are no more than ten novels published each year in Israel in Arabic. Those that are brought to print are self-published. But many writers that have sprouted from within that community, from Emil Habibi to Sayeed Kashua to Bisharat, share, what seems to me, a note of self deprecation and acerbity that sounds like the same note Yiddish writers used to hit.

Bisharat, an editorialist at al-Ittihad newspaper and former Secretary of the communist Hadash Party, spoke with Professor Moshe Ron, a former department head at the Hebrew University and current editor at Am Oved publishing house. The two sat on tall stools, before a disappointingly scant crowd. I counted eight people, including his wife. Which was too bad because he had a lot to say.

The soft-spoken and silver-haired Bisharat sent his novel in the mail to Ron, who looked at the obviously self printed copy and the Arabic text and wondered why this had arrived on his desk. No Arab-language novel written by an Israeli had been translated since the days of Emil Habibi a generation ago. (Kashua writes in Hebrew.)

Then he read the accompanying letter, in Hebrew, and was intrigued. The book is about Khaled el-Musli, a young, underachieving teacher who’s picked, by a devious and far more influential relative, to run for office in the Local Council of the fictional town of Zatounia. The plan is for him to lose, but he, and especially his ambitious wife, take the offer far too seriously, forcing the protagonist, over the course of the campaign, to deal with many of the not-so-fictional problems that riddle the town—entrenched nepotism, a feeling of victimhood, and a violent misogyny.

Obviously I write differently in Hebrew and in Arabic, Bisharat said. “In Hebrew, I write about your problems—prejudice, land theft, that type of thing—and in Arabic I write about ours.”

Ron gave the book to a young, Arabic-speaking friend, Daniel Bahar, who had written several articles on Arabic literature in Haaretz, and on his recommendation decided to bring this novel, which features not a single Jewish character, to the Israeli public.
But first he needed a translation. He gave the book to two different translators and found both of their work lacking. “So I called Odeh and I told him, you speak Hebrew well. Write this book for me in Hebrew as best you can and have faith in me that I’ll make it work.”

Judging by the parts Bisharat read aloud on Wednesday night, it does. The third person story has a fluid style and a satirical bite. Ron said many reviewers have compared Bisharat, style-wise, to the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem.
I was not surprised.

Mitch Ginsburg is a graduate student in the Shaindy Rudoff Gratuate Creative Writing Program at Bar-Ilan University

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Light Fell, on authenticity and desire

Novelist and translator Evan Fallenberg will be the first to tell you he is currently living his dream, though, he cautions, it was a long time coming. He’s probably one of the most grateful people I’ve met.

His first novel, Light Fell (Soho, 2008) which won a slew of heavy-weight prizes, takes its title from the translation of a Talmudic expression nafal nehora, which describes a sudden and overwhelming desire.

After reading the book ns one grand sitting (I simply could not put it down), I would say this about the title: The light seems to reveal both who you are and what you really want. But it can be devastating and destructive if the subject of this falling light is not willing to make enormous sacrifices or endure the consequences of knowledge. As often as not, this knowledge makes you change (or end) your life. The light does not promise joy and ecstasy, but rather, authenticity.

And though the book is not autobiographical, a point about which Fallenberg is adamant, for good reason, it does deal with the issues the author had been grappling. Indeed, they are issues that anyone who wants to lead an examined life have: How does one balance being true to oneself with being true to one’s family, who often transform us to fit the shape of their needs? How do we reconcile genuine religious beliefs and love of G-d with our innermost self, if who we really are is not recognized by other practitioners of our faith?

Evan Fallenberg’s authenticity is evident in the joy and delight he takes in sharing the beautiful home he and his partner have made in Bitan Aharon, a Moshav. And he is very generous in sharing this space. (And yes, he does have a swimming pool in his living room).

He has created The Studio, a center for writers and readers of English, a space for readings, celebrations, workshops and retreats.

The studio is built on the grounds of a nursery, flanked by a field of flowers. The nursery, one of the most extensive I’ve ever seen in Israel, sells, among other fragrant and gorgeous flora, a type frangipani that was named for Fallenberg’s partner, Yariv, who discovered it.

Fallenberg’s authenticity also shines through his literary translations, which include Meir Shalev’s A Pigeon and a Boy, Ron Leshem’s Beaufort, Alon Hilu’s Death of a Monk and Batya Gur’s Murder in Jerusalem. As a practicing translator, I believe that self-knowledge is one of the most necessary tools in translation. To translate well, one must be able to recognize when one's own obsessions and world view are filtering the words of the writer. In order to lose oneself in the text one translates, one must first know where he or she begins and ends.

Fallenberg the translator makes himself a luminous pathway between the reader and the writer. He himself is invisible, but his work makes the original text glow.

His second novel When We Could Dance on Water has been acquired by Harper Collins, and is slated for a 2011 publication. I can’t wait to read it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


by Judy Labensohn

Ever since I read Amos Eilon’s biography Herzl as background for an articleI wrote for Hadassah Magazine in 2004 in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Theodore Herzl’s death, I have been in love with Herzl.

I have gazed at the dilapidated building where he slept in Jaffa in 1898 on the first night of his only visit to Palestine. I ogled over the renovated 2nd-story porch in Rishon Zion from which he spoke to the villagers below. I have stood on the road outside Mikveh Yisrael where he waited in the hot sun to catch a glimpse of Kaiser Wilhelm, who was riding a white horse up to Jerusalem. I walked from the Jerusalem train station to the Stern House in Mamilla, where Herzl spent two nights and then to a derelict building behind Jaffa Road that served as Herzl’s hotel while he waited to gain an audience with the Kaiser, hoping the Kaiser would help him gain a Protectorate for the Jewish People from the Turkish Sultan. In short, I am a Herzl groupie.

After the Hadassah article, Herzl began to appear in my fiction, so there was no doubt I would go see the Cameri’sproduction of Herzl,based on Eilon’s book and Herzl’s journals, and performed at the Cameri’s temporary location on Nachmani Street in Tel Aviv.

Here I encountered the familiar events of his biography, played by eleven Herzls, each actor depicting another side to his mosaic personality. The minimalist set and props bring to life the Vienna that shaped him and the Paris that convinced him Europe was finished for Jews. Here, in this two and a half hour performance (including an intermission,) his wife finally gets a public platform to complain: “Zionism ruined my marriage” and an excellent belly dancer reveals the pull of the East, a taste of that foreign land far away from the troublesome Zionists in Basle.

After the play I waved down a sherut to scoot me over to the central bus station. You know it by its smell, a curious blend of urine and vodka. Next to the line of five people waiting to ascend to Jerusalem, a group of ten men sat in front of a flat screen watching a football match. African cleaners swept the filthy floors while I remembered Herzl’s first impressions of Jaffa and Jerusalem. He would clean up the place, he had written in his journal.

But as the bus left the station, past the apartments collapsing behind soot-covered plastic walls, and flew across Highway One, the lights of Ben-Gurion Airport and the Nesher cement factory shining on either side of Israel’s main artery, and as the Judean hills beckoned the Egged bus eastward into the mountains, I thought of this sad man Herzl, this complex European figure torn between his loving mother and jealous wife, whose children went crazy or converted, this tall man who loved the theatre but failed as a playwright, this assimilated Jew who had a dream one night in Paris and became obsessed by turning this dream into drama.

I thought how he might enjoy the late night bus ride up to Jerusalem. I would show him the cypress tree he planted in Motza in 1898, chopped down in its youth, covered today by Perspex. Herzl, Directed by Renee Yerushalmi, in Hebrew, Cameria Theatre. Tel. 03-6060960. For Herzl lovers only.

Judy Labensohn coordinates the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing, of which she is an alumna.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The exotic library

For weeks now I’ve been feeling like a nineteenth century explorer in my own home. I’m not referring to the fact my three-year-old daughter and I made aliyah last month in the middle of the academic term. Or that I have built every piece of furniture in the new apartment with my own bare hands. Or that I have to map out every tiny detail of my domestic world from scratch : Where do I buy paint? How do I pay bills? What’s the deal with these strange mops?

No, this exotic and exhilarating feeling is the direct result of reading Joy Katz’s The Garden Room (Tupelo Press) which won the Snowbound Series Chapbook Award in 2007. The poetry collection is astonishing for the way it breaks open the smallest, most insignificant domestic objects and spaces until these spaces contain cities, worlds, cosmoses, and all of history. But, remarkably enough, they remain intensely intimate. Here is an excerpt from “A Desk,” a symbol for our mediation with the world, presumably through language:

Perhaps I cannot have a sentence without a desk,
more pepper than salt, more voilá. Perhaps in life
one does not discover a desk enough—its cruelty and trousers—
simple as a line of dancers, full of bone.

Is a desk modestly a field?
No: a turnstile, an airplane wing.

You can count on railroad bridges, on a cut celery.
You can count on the flatness of bateau,
on all that is not the flesh, such as a deck of cards.

The boxes fit one inside the next, the cutlery is put away,
sturdy to push on as bike pedals. All this belongs to the desk,
not panicked or insane.

Here we have a mundane and useful object, a servile object, in fact, in the sense that desks are merely the hard surface that allow us to exert pressure (in the days of pen and ink) to produce words or that, today, hold our laptops. Our words are the agents that create or define reality. But in this poem, the reverse is true: the desk becomes the central reality, or consciousness, and the mediating I that normally constructs and orders the world is secondary.

Other objects are imbued with the accretion of daily significance that makes our lives meaningful. The bed, for example, in the poem “The Made Bed” becomes a historian place-marker as well as moral paradigm:

is a highway between us, we go away from each other.
Further it accepts contagion, conferring upon it the dignity of a
low voice.
Between our birth and death, this place marker.
Between sex and fights the made bed turns a clean cheek.
It makes us believe we are clean, too.
It breathes slowly, evenly, like Gandhi.
If this is true, then what kind of mind must I have?
Surely not disordered.

Katz is also the author of the full-length collection Fabulae (Southern Illinois University Press 2002) which examines the history and culture to which we stand heirs “from Dachau to the deceptively still surfaces of American suburbia, from Proserpina to Plath, from the subjugation of women to the lust for empire.”

Joy Katz has given both of these books to the new reading library for creative writing students at Bar-Ilan.

When I first discovered I would begin directing the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Creative Writing Program, I began building a reading library for all creative writing students. I went about soliciting as many recent prize-winning collections of fiction and poetry as possible--also journals and magazines—from people I knew, barely knew, or only virtually knew.

Obviously, I, like many writers, believe that books are the sacred, magical, mundane spaces through which we find meaning, order, and intimacy with and in the world. As Katz puts it in the dedicatory poem of Garden Room [“To the sun]:

This black wet I walk myself through is the world
I am ashamed of needing,
is meaning.

Is the “black wet” ink?

Maybe. Send us your books!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh and Meir Shalev

By Judy Labensohn

Yesterday Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh visited Tel Aviv University to receive the $1 million Dan David Prize in literature for “Rendition of the 20th Century.” Atwood, the novelist, poet, essayist and environmentalist, charmed the standing-room-only crowd with her glib, monotone, soft voice that bites. “I’m the cleaning lady,” she said, relating an episode from her past when she taught nature at a Jewish summer camp; “I’m the one who looks in your drawers when you’re not there.”

She knows the power of monosyllabic words: “Uncle George swam there. Don’t go,” describing the human need to tell stories, “a trait we acquired in the Pleistocene.” She describes the novel as “Black marks on a page,” comparing it to a musical score that must be read to be heard. The novel, according to Atwood, is “the only art form that lets you see another person from the inside.”

She read from The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize and from Oryx and Crake, a novel about “the near future” and 2003 finalist for the Booker. In Oryx and Crake, one character called Jimmy, who changes his name to Snowman, creates a new breed of people who, among other things, can purr like cats as a self-healing mechanism. “This new trait is great for broken hearts.”

Amitav Ghosh, an Indian, Bengali and New Yorker novelist and non-fiction writer, read from his 1992 In an Antique Land, which is part autobiography, part biography. His gentle voice, melodious Indian inflection, his beautiful white hair against dark skin and his ability to identify with the woman in the audience who didn’t know how to turn off her cellphone when it rang forever during his reading—“It always happens to me”—totally endeared him to the audience. He read In an Antique Land, the story of a search for Abraham ben Hidju, a 12th century Jewish trader who wrote letters about his travels from Tunis to Egypt to India and back. Ghosh learned Judeo-Arabic, a colloquial Arabic written in Hebrew script, to read Hidju’s letters and lived in an Egyptian village for a year, also as part of his studies in social anthropology from Oxford University, where he earned a D. Phil..

When Israeli writer Meir Shalev joined the panel and the excellent moderator, Dr. Hana Wirth-Nesher asked the three writers to discuss the topic of the shifting boundaries of Home, Shalev took the mic and with wry humor replied that it wasn’t a fair question, “We are the best in exile.” Nonetheless, Atwood wondered out loud if nations matter to a writer. She recalled the opening of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man where protagonist Stephen Daedalus tries to locate himself in the universe. “Nation is only one category of that attempt to pinpoint identity,” she said. “No one can be defined just by that.”

Ghosh countered with “Nations are important and it is important to be active in them. Moving around a lot has taught me that I am completely Indian.” Coming from South Asia, he explained, makes him understand that the nation is an institution with a certain reality and should not be taken for granted. “The alternative is much worse. It isn’t love peace and brotherhood, but war and warlords.”

In the university cafeteria after the event, the Irish woman standing behind the food counter swore at her co-workers with “Jesus Christ.” While arranging the humus beans around the sprouts, she told me that a customer earlier in the day had told her not to swear that way in Israel. It made me think of Atwood’s Snowman character: We could all profit by learning to purr.

Judy Labensohn coordinates the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing, of which she is a graduate.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A.B. Yhoshua and Daniel Mendelsohn

By Mitch Ginsburg

A.B Yehoshua and Daniel Mendelsohn were at the big tent last night in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, proving to one and all that opposites really do attract, and that they make fascinating conversation while doing so. Yehoshua—short, shlumpy and relentlessly sincere—interviewed the dapper and wry author of The Lost: the search for six of six million.
In 1972 Yehoshua had taught a course on Literature of the Holocaust and one of the class’s main objectives was to figure out why literature failed to artfully render the events. Perhaps the sheer awfulness stifled the imagination, smothered the notion of humor. He was not sure. What he did know was that Mendelsohn’s book, although non-fiction, was a towering achievement, a true work of art.
The author waited for the end of the simultaneous translation and then said, thank you, before I address that I want to say two things. “One, I did not fly all the way around the world and reserve seats in the front row for my mishpucha so that they could now be seated all the way in the back row. So, to the people who took the reserved seats, enjoy the rest of this talk from a standing position. And two, to the woman who gave me these headphones and is worried about the deposit, I promise to return them.”
Then he addressed the issue. Turns out he never wanted to write a Shoah book. If I’d wanted to do that, I’d still be in front of a blank computer screen, he said. What he set out to do, in this book that recounts his attempts to chronicle the lives of his Great Uncle Shmiel Jäger, wife Ester and their four daughters, is to gather as many details as possible about those who were “killed in a way that was meant to deny them specificity.”
Then he told a story: of kids playing in a cemetery in Bolechow, Ukraine. His brother asked if they knew where they were, and they said yes, a Jewish cemetery. Mendelsohn, after some time, had a thought. He asked them if they knew what Jews were. They did not. That, he said, is the meaning of annihilation.
You were obsessed with the details, Yehoshua said, and that obsession of yours, of the protagonist’s, as far as I’m concerned, is what gives this book its literary force. (In an aside Yehoshua wondered if this type of obsession, which he sees in Faulkner and Hemingway, wasn’t very American.) Mendelsohn said he used to joke with his friends that the alternate title of the book was Moby Dick. He said it was true that he was obsessed and that memory was in fact the obsession of the age: not just Jews and not just in Israel but everywhere—computer memory, i-pods etc. But extermination, he said, by its nature erases memory, leaving us only with commemoration. Creating a memory of his lost family members, Mendelsohn said to heavy applause, has been a minor victory.