A couple of years ago I decided to lead a group of adult learners in a class on Jewish fiction. The reason was that I wanted to share a few books I loved, and I also wanted an excuse to read some I’d never got around to. It was an amazing experience, both as a teacher and as a reader.
Re-reading some favorites – like Bruno Schulz, Primo Levi and Meir Shalev – only served to deepen my attachment to them. But the writers I’d wanted to get to know – like Clarice Lispector and Joseph Roth – were a revelation. Two or three really stand out in that category. Lispector for certain – nothing in literature is quite like her, and I urge you to read through twice before you judge. But it was Roman Gary who won my heart with his incomparable character Momo – the little Arab kid adopted by the Jewish Rosa – in a work that is simply perfection, there is no other word for it. As for sheer greatness, it has to be Yaakov Shabtai, whose Past Continuous is not only a virtuosic masterpiece, but deeply moving; also truly great is S.Y. Agnon’s Only Yesterday, which is remarkable for its breadth, its unflinching eye, and the beauty of its prose even in translation. Each one of the works I taught has a special place in my heart, and I believe you will also find them gratifying to read or re-read. Bruno Schultz is fundamental – in a class by himself. Dovid Bergelson’s short stories, only recently translated from the Yiddish, and are a mad joy. David Grossman needs no introduction, except I strongly recommend reading Schultz first. Continue reading
Is it possible to take the ego out of writing?
I ask this question because I ask myself why I write, and why so many people write, and why writing has quite literally taken over our society – you cannot blink without someone Tweeting, Tumbling, Facebooking, blogging, Yelping, product rating, movie reviewing, book eviscerating. Just think about the last time you wanted to buy a toaster. You went on Amazon or some other site, and there, for each of the two hundred different toasters were two hundred individual comments, some many paragraphs long, by people apparently passionate enough about their toasters to write about them, and people, like me, stupid enough to read them and have them sway my judgment. (In the end, and based on countless reviews, I ended up with a toaster I hate – Calphalon 4-slot model 1779207, two stars at most!)
But were these people passionate about their toasters or simply passionate about the fact that someone might read their opinions? Are we Tweeting to say something important or to simply assert our existence?
We all know the answer. But what about those of us who write fiction – what’s in it for us? Continue reading
In my first novel, I wrote from the point of view of a Nazi. In my new novel,The Wanting, I’ve taken on the persona of a suicide bomber from a village outside of Bethlehem. And while this character, Amir, is only one of three distinct voices in the book, his was the most painful to write and the most difficult to come to terms with. On the one hand, he murders scores of people – unconscionable and terrifying. On the other, he is also a person, not a monster. It is that person within him I was trying to access in my writing – but did I succeed? And should I have even tried?
My friend and fellow writer Jonathan Rosen (Joy Comes in the Morning, The Life of the Skies) has some doubts on this score. He wondered if I had created a moral equivalency between the victim (in this case the Russian Jewish immigrant, Roman Guttman) and the victimizer (Amir). I hope Jonathan won’t mind if I quote from his email:
“…my fear [is] that Jewish imaginative sympathy sometimes runs the risk of secretly being narcissism disguised as empathy, as we project the better angels of our nature outward in the name of human understanding and then have a dialogue with ourselves. German Jews did it with Germans, as Gershom Scholem argued so persuasively about Buber — I and Thou is sometimes Me and Me.”
This, of course, begs the question of fiction writing in general – but without addressing that (and Jonathan himself told me he genuinely thinks writers should be free to attempt anything and everything) I have to admit his misgivings give me pause. What is it we do when we write about the radical other, especially when this other has declared itself our mortal enemy and feels empowered to use any means, no matter how repugnant, to achieve its aim. Is it merely an exercise in vanity, a sort of hope against hope – wishing away the truth of the barbarity which confronts us?
I struggled with this from the onset. Just doing the research was painful in the extreme. Like poking at a sore, I had to read page after page of vitriol aimed at Jews and Israelis. The writings and rantings of mullahs and radical Islamists throughout the Muslim world frightened me, and our history reminds me it is wise to be frightened. My conversations with Palestinians and Israeli Arabs were of course less rife, but an underlying fury was never very far from the surface. I did not feel safe. Add to that the painful and inevitable realization of our own (my own) responsibility for the suffering and thwarted ambition of Palestinian people, and you can see how complex things became for me. Fear and guilt. Never a good place to write from.
So it’s not surprising that my first characterizations of Amir were flat and lifeless: in turns he was demonic, hate-crazed, and otherworldly – a kind of poet of cruelty – in others he was comic and buffoonish, a mindless machine of vengeance. I was stuck, and it was not until my Israeli reader, Michal Evron Yaniv, said, quite simply, “Just make him a person,” that I was reminded that my task as a novelist is to render all my characters with empathy – an empathy that extends throughout this awful symphony of life. And I fully admit that in the end I did perversely fall in love with Amir, because I came to see that he, too, is a victim – not so much of the Israeli occupation as of his own limited experience and the agenda of powerful forces far beyond his control or ability to understand.
I believe I’ve created a vital and living character who demands our attention and rewards our reading in a book I hope papers over nothing while attending to the thing that matters most: the human spirit.
But should there be limits to a writer’s empathy?
I welcome your comments.