Contemporary Israeli Fiction
Contemporary Israeli Fiction
- Oded NirOded NirVassar College Department of Jewish Studies
Central to the transformation of Israeli literature in the early 21st century is the emergence of new genres and forms of writing. In this essay, I try to relate these new literary developments to socio-econoic transformations.. I address the emergence of three genres: Israeli speculative fiction (in works by Ofir Touché-Gafla, Vered Tochterman, Gail Hareven, and others), detective fiction (in novels by Dror Mishani and Noa Yedlin), and diasporic novels—novels whose interpretive frame of reference tries to bypass the Zionist-Israeli world of meaning (in novels by Maya Arad and Ruby Namdar). I suggest that these genres emerge as a response to the crisis of older forms of literary representation, registered in Israeli postmodernism in the 1980s and 1990s. I argue that these older forms become unable to provide concrete figures for the social and a sense of historicity, the emerging genres begin fulfilling precisely these functions, taking the place of the older genres. In particular, I demonstrate how the three new genres unconsciously map the unevenly developed socioeconomic structure of Israel, developing spatial allegorical languages through which to consider the antagonism between older welfare-state social form and the newer neoliberal structures in Israel (contrasting both to utopian states of existence). I suggest that Israeli detective fiction is useful in capturing the commodification of older national political projects and the rise of new neoliberal social forms; that diasporic novels help develop new allegorical understanding of individual existence that bypass national allegories; and that Israeli SF both captures the antagonism between welfare state and neoliberalism, as well as unconsciously imagine non-capitalist futurity.
- West Asian Literatures, including Middle East
The longing for normality in Israeli thinking seems to express an unconscious wish to wake from history as if it were a nightmare. Israeli intellectuals, when forced to say something about the larger historical trajectory in which they work, often invoke normality as a desirable end of history for Israel. Not with a bang, but with a whimper that is the familiar (but now deeply challenged) liberal everydayness. Thus, Tom Segev writes in his introduction to Hatziyonim hachadashim (The new Zionists) (2001) that the “fathers of the Zionist visions tended to say ironically that Israel would be a normal state once the first Jewish thief is arrested,” arguing that only in later generations (in post-Zionist Israel) would normality become hegemonic.1 In normality, Israelis will—like the citizens of any other country—discover irreducible imperfections, the latter clearly standing in for small utopian compensations whose existence is not indicative of some great lack to be overcome, but rather simply constitutes a permanent fixture of human existence.
These references to normality can be found in Israeli literary criticism, too. Whenever some literary genre, conveyed from a non-Israeli context, suddenly emerges in Israeli fiction as well, critics are quick to welcome this genre’s arrival as a sign of this kind of normality.2 That, in the 21st century, things all over the world tend to move away from liberal normality does not seem to disturb the critics—at least not so far. But it should be evident that there is nothing explanatory about normality. No explanations are actually provided for the absence of a genre from a particular literary tradition, or for its emergence. Rather, normality simply serves to end the discussion. It functions as an ideologeme, a pseudo-concept whose incoherence and ability to contain opposite meanings make it useful for reconciling contradictions (and thus as a narrative rather than an analytical tool).3 How to account for the emergence of new kinds of Israeli literatures and the morphing or dying out of others?
An account of the contemporary moment in Israeli literature is always also a historical account of it (any pretension to the opposite, namely, that there exists some purely descriptive account of the present moment, could be shown to project unconsciously a historical trajectory). And that this historical account is always political (the claim to impartiality or objectivity always itself a political stance) should also be stated here.
Lastly, in outlining the contours of Israeli fiction in the early 21st century, it is important to remember that the circulation of fiction, as has happened even earlier in other contexts, has, to a degree, lost its national frame of reference. Not only publishers take into consideration the sales potential in non-Israeli markets, but authors themselves seem to have internalized this constraint, which, in making more intense the penetration of literature by the commodity logic of aims and means, results in the intensification of the reification of literary works, as described by Theodor Adorno, Fredric Jameson, and Nick Brown in different ways.4 That Israeli authors must think of appealing to non-Israeli audiences means, quite simply, that there is more than one hegemonic symbolic code through which reification takes place in these novels: their utopian moments and affective charges must always appeal to multiple systems of meaning insofar as these are still distinguishable. This double determination presents an overlaying of two codes (where a literary thing means more than one thing) or more.
The presentation of literary transformations, focusing as it is on literature produced in a capitalist society, always has to do with reification’s neutralization of once socially significant literary work, the transformation of the thought performed in the literary work into so many consumable moments, the utopian valence of these—highlighted most sharply by Jameson’s discussion of mass-produced culture—notwithstanding.5
But to explore the most Israeli of literary genres or sensibilities is inevitably to concern oneself with how capitalism transforms it. Beginning by describing the dissolution of the different national-allegorical literary forms of Israeli fiction, primarily the genre of soldiers’ experience, the rural settlement novel, and that of the urban allegory (in which the apartment building, the neighborhood, or the city itself stands in for the nation), demonstrates that. This dissolution, part of the great representational crisis of the 1980s, will come to account for the rise of new genres and formal devices in the same period—including those of detective fiction and science fiction—and their flourishing in contemporary Israeli fiction. This historical transformation foregrounds the contradictions and changes of capitalism itself.
But this rewriting in terms of the economic—taking a step further away from the literary—will also be effectively a step back into it by recourse to an older term from the Marxist vocabulary, namely, that of combined and uneven development. The Warwick Collective’s discussion of the term “uneven development” to designate the ways in which parts of the globe that seem outside capitalism are in fact necessary internal components of it argues that which seems behind—“underdeveloped” slums, enclaves governed by monarchy or religious orders, etc.—are in fact necessary parts of the capitalist system as they are.6
In the Israeli context, the tension between neoliberalism and the welfare state designates one instance of uneven development. What remains of the welfare state in Israel—with its robust guarantees of full employment, social rights, separation of work and leisure, etc.—seems reserved for the Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.7 Yet these are not a part of Israeli society that can be privatized; rather, the Israeli settlements act as a necessary exception to Israeli neoliberalism and makes the existence of this neoliberalism possible in the first place. The settlements play a role in providing housing and work to all those Israelis who could no longer survive as a result of neoliberalization.8 Thus, the continued existence of the welfare state within the greater neoliberal logic of Israel is precisely a case of uneven development. That this distinction does not designate as dramatic a difference as that which exists between pre-capitalist social formations and capitalist ones is of course true; but this difference still implies distinctions that are important: for example, the different temporalities associated with work in each case, ones which will often reappear in literary form; and historicity—that ability to see the present as part of a historical process in which one is participating—is also strongly registered in literary form. Contemporary Israeli fiction makes visible this necessary clash between the welfare state and neoliberalism, which is precisely the unique way Israel is inserted into the capitalist system.
Death of a Soldier
To show how contemporary Israeli fiction encodes this form of uneven development, one must begin with a short exploration of Israeli fiction’s history—the analysis of the history of form being crucial for a true understanding of how form means anything (following here the writing of Georg Lukacs, Theodor Adorno, Roberto Schwarz, and others). The Hebrew literary soldier is perhaps the most important figure for collectivity in Israeli fiction, at least after it rose to prominence at the expense of the Zionist settler, the pioneer-vanguard (the halutz), in the 1940s.9 Moshe Shamir’s hugely popular 1946 novel Hu halach basadot (He walked in the fields) serves as the turning point in this shift from settler to soldier.10 Works by S. Yizhar, Nathan Shaham, Yigal Mossinsohn, and others from the late 1940s and 1950s, and the general explosion of soldier-related and war literature after the 1948 war, belong to the same rise of the soldier narrative. It is no surprise that the soldier became a much better figure for collectivity: mandatory conscription made soldiering into a universal experience, which meant that different people could easily see themselves in a literary soldier. But more important, the soldier is a much better figure for those who own nothing except their labor power, more so than the anticapitalist settler, who was not separated from the means of production, but who was not a slave either.
Israeli literary criticism tends to focus, still, on the hackneyed opposition between the individual and the collective that features prominently in these 1950s works, failing to go beyond the literary texts’ (and their period’s) own ideology, but it is not too difficult to see the turn to the soldier in the late 1940s as an attempt to regain historicity and a sense of historical agency, where the settler-vanguard could not provide it any longer. Yehudit Hendel’s masterful Rehov hamadregot (The street of steps), originally published in 1955, can be taken to demonstrate, in multiple ways, this crisis of historicity whose shadow was cast over all of the literature of the time.11
The soldier returns to occupy the literary center stage in the 1980s and 1990s with the publication of Yehoshua Kenaz’s Infiltration (1986) and the renewed literary production of S. Yizhar, including works such as Mikdamot (Preliminaries) (1992) and Gilui eliyahu, (Discovering Elijah) (1999) all the way to Yuval Shimoni’s 1999 Kheder (A room).12 All of these can be taken to be the postmodern iterations of the genre, demonstrating that the genre is no longer able to provide a good figure for collectivity (or, to put it more accurately, turning the crisis of social mapping dialectically into its own solution)—in sharp contrast to the 1950s. The fate of the settlement novel in the late 1940s was then replicated in its inheritor—the soldier novel—in the 1980s. This postmodernism in its Israeli incarnation is not simply an adoption of literary trends happening elsewhere, because all such adoptions must be motivated by some existing dynamic and carry their own peculiarities owing to their place in the global capitalistic system (which in the early 21st century truly encompasses the entire globe). In this case, it is the socioeconomic results of the 1967 war (the Palestinians becoming overnight a proletariat deprived of representation [in both senses]) for Israeli capitalism that brings about the crisis of social mapping registered in Israeli literary postmodernism.13 It is this systemic economic change to which Israeli “postmodernism” (in quotation marks now, so as to register—however minimally—its unique source) provides an imaginary solution.
Contemporary literature intervenes into this situation. What distinguishes this literature from its predecessors is not so much a transformation of the basic cultural logic, for postmodernity is still very much with us. Rather, what’s different is literature’s orientation toward it. In early Israeli postmodernity, the problem (of the crisis of social imaginary) was consciously perceived still as its own solution: a freedom from national ideology; now, however, this lack (in a variety of guises) increasingly floats up to consciousness as something that demands more than just the pastiche of forms offered in early postmodernity.14 In other words, if earlier, the autonomy of art was still expressed in its negation of an (already absent) national imaginary, now its autonomy is asserted precisely in imagining the negation of this very absence—in a search for new positive temporalities, histories, and social mappings.
The Invention of Israeli Science Fiction
Perhaps the most interesting development since 2000 in Israeli fiction is the emergence of speculative fiction. Darko Suvin sees utopian novels as the social variant of science fiction (SF), and as such, SF has been very marginal in Hebrew literature in the 20th century.15 Almost a hundred years separate the Zionist utopias (Theodor Herzl’s Old-New Land  the most well-known of these) and the slow revival of serious Hebrew SF and fantasy in the late 1990s, turning into an avalanche only in the 2000s, according to Eli Eshed (in contrast to detective fiction, which re-emerged in the 1980s).16 Commentary on this emergence of speculative fiction is very much still in its infancy, as many critics of Hebrew literature still see it as inferior literature despite the wide legitimacy speculative fiction has gained in literary studies more broadly.17 The little interest that does exist in Israeli SF and fantasy is mostly a matter for those outside the Israeli institutional academy (as in Eshed’s case).
Israeli speculative fiction makes evident its role as a new imaginary organ of historicity, a new production of a stable ability to see the present as part of a historical process (a negation of the postmodern and neoliberal tendency to perceive reality in all of its detail in immediacy). Vered Tochterman’s 2003 collection of short stories, Lif’amim ze acheret (Sometimes it’s otherwise), can be taken as an example of this renewed engagement with time. In the story that opens the volume, “Lishon, ulai lachlom” (To sleep, perchance to dream), a man with the ability to see the future is put under hypnosis by an expert on such powers.18 As it turns out, people possessing this ability often go crazy, unable to reconcile their unique experience of time with the way in which human reality is usually perceived. Under hypnosis, the expert makes the protagonist believe that he has killed himself, with a very specific purpose in mind: thinking that he has died allows for a certain suspension of disbelief, for the protagonist’s mind can now accept its ability to peer into the future as part of experience, preventing the protagonist from going mad. The story ends at this point, not really elaborating on any specific future observed by the protagonist.
Formally, the juxtaposition of seeing the future with present events (and the sense of strangeness it generates) stands out in the story. Thus, it is easily read as an allegory of the emergence of the ability to perceive the present historically, speculatively resisting postmodernism’s understating of the present in its radical immediacy. That the story is abstracted from any discussion of specific futures and specific realities only strengthens this allegorical reading. Yet it also signals that even if the barrier has become visible, it is still not overcome: no new great utopias or new temporalities emerge. Related to this is the constant presence in the background of some repressive state apparatus (e.g., the one to which the expert belongs to). This appearance is a literary vestige of older concerns: there is never in the stories a full elaboration of what the evil state is all about, as opposed to the great dystopian allegories of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. In Tochterman (and many others), the ominous state apparatus stays in the background. But this shriveled presence of the state provides a kind of totality effect, endowing the story with the authority to present totality itself.
Many of Tochterman’s other stories in the collection involve similar imaginative efforts. In “Machar hu hayom harishon shel she’erit khayecha” (Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life), a dissident is captured and is then treated with psychoactive drugs until she becomes an ardent supporter of the regime that she previously fought against (again, itself only marginally represented in the story).19 She keeps a diary in which snippets of her consciousness, as the process of breaking up her identity and its reconstitution, are recorded. The most chilling moment occurs when her “reformed” self sees the diary entries from earlier in the process. These do not make her question her reformation, but rather feel sorry for her previous self. The SF journal-entry form (e.g., as in Jacques Sternberg’s “How’s Business?”) has long had to do with positing the problem of our ability to narrate transformation.20 But here one is chillingly reminded that, evidence to the contrary, understanding does not automatically mean challenging existing narratives. Rather, what counts is the way in which these contrary understandings are embedded in our present-day narrative. Thus, what is reintroduced in Tochterman’s story is the hermeneutical distance that separates one’s perception of the past from the past’s own perception of itself (which is always somehow present in the latter). This tension is exactly what is lost in pastiche—that wholesale present adoption of the past’s own self-representation.
Other stories perform a related task to that of imagining temporality: generating new allegories of class antagonism. Tochterman’s “Ledaber im tzemach” (Talking to a plant) does exactly that, condensing the hidden abode of global production in the figure of a plant that can replicate objects given to it (but also, as it turns out in horror, improve objects and produce art, and even express hatred to its master).21 But a much stronger such figuration of class antagonism can be glimpsed in Yael Furman’s “A Man’s Dream” (2017).22 Here, an unemployed man dreams about a successful woman whom he finds attractive. The problem is that his dream physically “kidnaps” the woman, making her appear next to him at the time of the dreaming. This is considered a “dreaming accident,” not a purposeful crime in the world of the story. But, of course, the workings of the unconscious are clear, the man’s dreaming exacting vengeance, an expropriation of the bourgeoisie’s life. The class allegory is comparable to similar allegories in much earlier Hebrew literature (e.g., in the writing of Amos Oz or A. B. Yehoshua from the 1960s and 1970s) in which Arabs, college dropouts, women, and Mizrachi Jews are used as convenient figures for such allegories.23 The protagonist of “A Man’s Dream” is ripped from time (which here is the time of personal career rather than that of national progress). Yet, as usual, one can find the connection to older figures of the working class in the fringes of this story: the man and his wife’s unemployed journey around Israel is clearly a reference to a formal device, often used in early Zionist realism, in which unemployed protagonists toured the land looking for work (in works by Yisrael Zarchi, Chaim Hazaz, Moshe Smilansky, and others), pastiched later in, for example, Orly Castel-Bloom’s work.24
A new engagement with time is also present in Gail Hareven’s 1999 story “The Slows.”25 Two distinct human cultures (or better yet, “races”) are at the center of the story. “Normal” human society—the dominant group—has developed technologies that bypass sexual reproduction altogether. “Accelerated growth” means that no babies or children are around, and thus no childhood or childrearing (and perhaps no sexuality) exists anymore. The other group, The Slows, still engages in the reproductive cycle familiar to us, rejecting many of the technological features that the dominant group upholds. Throughout most of the story, an anthropologist from the dominant society is watching in fascination and horror a mother from The Slows who has a baby with her, which she begins breastfeeding at a certain point (the dominant society has done away with breasts altogether). The anthropologist’s desire to be touched by the woman is clear.
What is evident is that only the Slows have access to some commonly imagined time and historicity, however minimal it is, and rumors of “contagion” (of people joining the Slows) are spreading. At a certain moment, the anthropologist seems confused about when a treaty with The Slows was signed: “These treaties were signed many generations ago. Things change,” to which the Slow woman responds with “my grandmother signed them.”26 Important here is that temporal terms like “generation” have lost any temporal meaning for the anthropologist, and with it one of the last markers of time or historical change. That time in the case of the Slows is strongly related to the body is everywhere apparent in the story, as if only the human reproductive cycle and bodily growth and aging are the only incontrovertible ways to tell time at all. This reduction of time to the body is of course one of the ways of thinking about the crisis of historicity associated with postmodernism.27
Thus, the time-less anthropologist and the Slow woman represent two regimes of time. And it is precisely here that the peculiar state of uneven development that Israeli culture strongly expresses is revealed. Reproductive time is on the side of the receding welfare state, while timelessness stands for a thoroughly neoliberalized Israel. This chafing against each other of the two social forms—neoliberal and welfare state—is accompanied by a certain becoming magical of the latter, a mystification captured in the elusive attractiveness of the Slows.
More serious attempts to generate historicity belong to speculative novels; important among them are Ofir Touche Gafla’s works, particularly Bayom she’hamuzika meta (The day the music died) (2010), and Olam hasof (The world of the end) (originally pubished in Hebrew in 2004), which deal with ending as a narrative problem in its own right.28 Gafla prefers to use death as a thematization of ending in his novels. Thus, for example, Olam hasof imagines death as opening a different kind of existence, one that seems to release the subject to pursue stalled or repressed desires. But perhaps more interesting is the thought experiment that grounds the narrative of Bayom she’hamuzika meta. The novel has a simple enough otherworldly premise: every resident of Ignoville knows the date on which he or she will die, thanks to a visit to the town by a mysterious stranger who can tell when a person’s death will come by looking into that person’s eyes. Yet it is not as simple as that: the stranger visited the town in 1984, so only the people in the town during his visit (and who went to meet the stranger) know the date of their death. All those born after the visit do not as well as those who choose not to find out when they will die (for the dates are stored in a special institution)—for the knowledge is not forced on a person. Rather, after one turns eighteen, one can choose to find out the death date the stranger read in their eyes, which ends up being the great majority of the townspeople. Those who for some reason do not know their dates are considered somewhat external to the town’s social order, labeled either “ignorant by will” (those who choose not to know their expiration date) or “ignorant by necessity” (those for whom that knowledge is denied, such as everyone born after the visit). To this state of affairs, Gafla adds one other twist to drive his plot: After turning eighteen, Dora Mater, the novel’s protagonist, sets out to find out the date of her death, only to discover a blank page—the mysterious stranger has not recorded her death date for some unknown reason.
This deceptively simple initial premise turns Bayom she’hamuzika meta immediately into something like a utopian novel (in which Dora is like that alien visiting a strange new society), with the genre’s familiar division into two: detailed social descriptions juxtaposed to the narrative of how Dora’s life is transformed (it is a coming-of-age novel, too). Yet the similarity to the form of utopian novel is reproduced not only in Dora’s externality to the unfamiliar social structure, but also in the novel’s detailed exploration of new social institutions and practices. A good example would be the Municipal Center for Life Planning, presided over by Mr. Diderot, who urges the townspeople to consult the Center in order to lead a “satisfying life without regret,” and on the back of their brochure one sees “a salt figure of a weeping women. ‘Do Not Look Back with Anger,’ shouts the big black print on the letterhead.”29 The invocation of Diderot and Lot’s wife urge one to read such passages as humorous, but this is a deeply ambivalent laughter; it gives off a whiff of playfulness, but also of those Freudian jokes in which laughter inadequately covers something terrifying.
To the Center one should add the Carpe Diem Parties, which take place a few days before one dies, and which provide a quasi-religious cathartic outlet and organized farewell; the Tour de Force, a trip around the world that all Ignovillians take at least once in their lives; the funerals and Farewell Ceremonies that take place in conjunction with them—meticulously planned by the deceased themselves, in which they choose the music that will be played (with the help of the municipal Farewell DJ, an official city post that Dora takes after a while); the custom of wearing black on the anniversaries of one’s death; The Death Exchange, in which bets are placed on a person’s cause of death; a special hospital section for those who wish to be hospitalized when their time of death approaches; the division of the cemetery into the plots of “living dead,” and the various kinds of “ignorants” (and the living dead, of course, choose their grave plots and headstones in advance and visit them often).30
Gafla’s novel’s organizing principle stages an allegorical encounter between neoliberal temporality and a more Fordist or welfare state one. The introduction of a death date as a known certainty into one’s life acts in two ways: first, if neoliberalism is governed by a temporality of an absolute present, then the insertion of a finality is a negation of that, one that many times comes in forms familiar to us from welfare state capitalism. Thus, for example, the predictable rhythms of one’s life, and planning it out, so characteristic of the town’s people, definitely conjures welfare state temporalities. Knowing the date of one’s death produces a certain insensitivity in the Ignovillians, according to Dora: their eyes become covered with “a strange film, like in those of a tired person at the end of a workday,” which produces “an indifferent gaze” that sees “only what one needs to see, nothing else.”31 It is easy to explain this attenuation of the town’s people to immediate reality as they exist in welfare state temporality, because having historicity means that reality is not perceived immediately in all its minute details (as in postmodernity); rather, what exists is filtered precisely by the sense of history, by what in reality is related to the direction in which history is headed.
One of the features of postmodernity (of which neoliberalism is surely a part) is the folding of temporality into objects, where each thing seems to carry with it the assumption of some future that belongs to it alone. So many of the inventions in these fictions do exactly that: they try to make a certain object somehow include its own finality into its structure. Thus, the introduction of finality at a specific date throws up a kind of encounter, an imaginary juxtaposition, of neoliberalism and the welfare state, one which echoes precisely the sense of uneven development.
Finally, Israeli speculative fiction takes the place of older genres when novelists revive the usage of the Old Testament as a way of generating historicity. One prominent example is Dror Burstein’s Tit (Muck) (2016).32 The novel presents what seems like a near-future Jerusalem, but one strangely mixed with biblical Jerusalem under the corrupt Jewish king Jehoiakim. Jeremiah, the protagonist, is both the biblical prophet and a modern-day poet, for example, and priests and prophets ride the Jerusalem light rail. This “biblicization” of Jerusalem is surely occurring already (in naming archeological tourist attractions and high-end construction projects), abandoning the once secular commitment of the Israeli state. And this trend is definitely related to a leftist fear of a complete takeover by the religious right of Israel. The same feared near-future is hinted at when readers are informed casually that the Palestinian city of Ramallah is abandoned, hinting at a total deportation (or worse) of Palestinians.33
So Burstein’s novel seems to engage the reader in an earnest cognitive effort of understanding this near-future (yet biblical) Jerusalem, full of magic alongside technology. Yet the main contradiction of the novel is a different one, pitting this serious SF effort against the sense of cuteness or twee that exists on the novel’s sentence level (and which are common to Burstein’s earlier novels, such as Avner Brener) (2003).34 This sets it apart from other invocations of the Bible in contemporary literature and cannot be ignored in trying to understand the novel.35 The antagonism between the welfare state and neoliberalism is ingeniously solved in imagination: the twee cuteness, on the one hand, neutralizes the urgency and earnestness of the cognitive effort, with its biblical weight, but, on the other hand, authorizes it—for it is under the guise of “non-serious” literature that the pursuit of historicity is allowed to take place. Thus, this formal tension shrewdly solves the social contradiction it evokes. This contradiction sews together what are originally incompatible levels of interpretation: a deconstructed subjectivity and a definite historical horizon.
Other invocations of the Old Testament in speculative Israeli literature appear here and there, for example, in Yael Geller’s Eretz ararat (Land of Ararat) (2016).36 But a more traditional literary dystopia that is based on the Old Testament is Yishai Sarid’s Hashlishi (The third).37 This novel is much more recognizable as a dystopian work: after a nuclear attack on its coastal cities, the military takes over what remains of Israel, removing all non-Jews from the land. Israel becomes a theocratic kingdom (a revival of the biblical kingdom of David, as the characters of the novel and also extreme religious right in contemporary Israel would like to see it). This is followed by the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem and state law becomes Jewish religious law. The continuity with biblical times is immediately asserted in the name of the novel: “the third” referring to the Third Temple, after the destruction of the first two Temples by invading forces (first the Babylonians and then the Romans).
To understand what the appearance of Sarid’s novel means is to take into account its most conspicuous formal element: the emphasized appearance of text from the Old Testament in the body of the novel itself. The narrator is an unimportant son of the new king, symbolically castrated by his father. The novel is made up of his journal entries, which he writes from his prison cell where he is put after the kingdom succumbs to external invaders. The narrator is a senior priest in the rebuilt Jerusalem Temple, in charge of the smooth functioning of religious rituals. Throughout, he quotes extensive passages from the Old Testament pertaining to the architecture of the Temple, the details of the rituals, and other matters. Many times, these passages do not advance the narrative or add new information (e.g., quoting the Ten Commandments word for word), but rather seem like an obsessive tic, or repetition compulsion. Ritual works here as the atemporal dialectical opposite of narrative, as if trying to capture in a synchronic snapshot the same effect of diachronic narrativity.
Thus, the place of the Old Testament in Israeli letters becomes immediately important for deciphering the meaning of Sarid’s novel’s form. The Old Testament featured prominently in early Zionist fiction and in Israeli fiction of the 1950s, but it lost importance in the 1960s and 1970s.38 The relation to the Palestinian landscape is many times mediated through the biblical text in early Zionist fiction, and historical novels such as Moshe Shamir’s Melech basar vadam (The king of flesh and blood) (1954) demonstrate its historical usage.39 Against any moralizing or empiricist discussions of the relation of Zionism’s relation to Judaism, Zionism should present a new allegorical understanding of Jewish religious imaginary, inheriting and revising its allegorical framework for relating individual life to a messianic horizon. It is this multilayered allegorical structure that animates Zionist (or pre-state Hebrew) literature. It is therefore precisely with a sense of allegory and a historicity that these overt quotations of the Jewish sources endow the text, reviving an ability to perceive the present as historical rather than in experiential immediacy.
His formal way of conjuring the possibility of allegory moves beyond the obvious fears of Israel turning into a fundamentalist religious state; instead, Sarid’s novel ingeniously refers back to the capitalist structure of Israeli society. After the establishment of Israel, the Orthodox Jewish way of life (and not “lifestyle”!) was precisely the sign of Israel’s uneven development, the political concessions to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community (labeled as the now defunct “status quo” regulating religious life in Israel) around the establishment of the state being precisely the way in which an older way of life survives within the new capitalist one, both subservient to it and dependent on it, but also constituting the capitalist state’s condition of possibility.40 Thus in the novel, religiousness does not only bring back the possibility of allegory and historicity, but also stands for what is outside capitalism, to a certain extent, because of the protections from capitalist life enjoyed by the ultra-Orthodox or those whose studies is their craft, as the legal Hebrew expression goes.
Thus, the unconscious thought-object of the autonomous religious society of Hashlishi is no less than an attempt to imagine society after the end of capitalism. And particularly important is the new imaginary work of condensation performed by the novel, as the signs of uneven development (enclaves of messianic orthodox Jewish life) that conditioned the past welfare state is here taken as the sign of the unevenly developed status of the welfare state itself within contemporary Israel.41
While the theocratic monarchy of the novel stands in for non- (or at least less) capitalist social relations, that does not mean that non-capitalist society is necessarily anti-scientific, racist, and patriarchal as the explicitly imagined theocratic monarchy. Rather, what is illustrated by this use of messianic orthodox Jewish life to imagine the end of capitalism is the need to come up with concrete figures for this end, ones that must come from the past even as their imagining may pave the way to a different society. Thus, the novel uses the Old Testament to produce historicity, thinking about the uneven development that juxtaposes the welfare state to neoliberalism in Israel.
Hebrew in a Foreign Landscape
The renewed status of Jewish sources as sources of historicity in contemporary Israeli fiction provides a transition from speculative fiction to a different kind of fiction that has developed since 2000: “diasporic” Israeli fiction, written in Hebrew but problematizing the relation of modern Hebrew to Israeli space, as its protagonists (and authors) spend their entire lives outside Israel. This situation is surely unfamiliar to English speakers whose language seems by now to have permeated even the most remote locales and contexts. As a result of this puzzling development, and other ones, some critics have tended to define Israeli fiction as fiction written by authors who possess Israeli citizenship.42 If one can still talk about coherent cultural units as the basis of analysis (which cannot be taken for granted anymore!), it is because each of these units designate a common structure of feeling, as Raymond Williams would call it, a common social experience and necessities of inherited common historical conditions, which the category of citizenship status does not capture.43 If these commonalities are to mean anything, they cannot be conceived of as conscious choices (“lifestyles”) of the subject, but as something necessary and unconscious, which itself precedes and conditions subjectivity itself, that otherness that is the basis of any self, in Lacanian psychoanalysis.
For this reason, Lavie Tidhar’s science fiction work, for all its American success, is not Israeli in any significant way—even if it does feature some “Israeli” content (as in his Central Station ).44 In this respect, one could consider the following strange dialectical reversal: that Israeli SF, written in Hebrew and reflecting Israeli society, tends to have very little, if any, overt signs of Israeliness, while SF that features “Israeli” content, such as Tidhar’s, is not really about Israel at all, but about its own historical and cultural context. The Israeli flavor of such writing is at most the reification of Israel into so many consumable goods (which does not mean, of course, that such literature cannot be interestingly approached from other interpretive vantage points, as Tidhar’s certainly can).
Hebrew diasporic fiction, written as a response to “territorial” Israeli literature and social experience, thus still has these latter as their implicit referents. This literature is not an attempt to create a Hebrew political project outside Israel, as Yaron Peleg comments.45 Unlike its obvious parallel—the revival of Hebrew in the late 19th century—the contemporary attempt to invent a diasporic or non-Israeli Hebrew structure of feeling does not have an accompanying material collective project (which the earlier revival of Hebrew had within the Zionist movement). As long as this is the case, this type of literary production provides an essentially utopian gesture.
Jewish religious sources make their appearance here, too. The most prominent of these is Ruby Namdar’s Habayit asher neherav (The Ruined House) (2013), which contains whole pages designed to appear like the pages of the Talmud (in which some of the text is taken from actual Jewish religious sources). The novel’s protagonist is a successful American academic living in New York, who is a nonpracticing Jew.46 His seemingly perfect life is thrown into crisis and features hallucinations from the Temple in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur, which is the only day in which the High Priest performs yearly rituals of atonement. Our professor discovers that he cannot write, he starts neglecting his appearance, and an important appointment falls through. The crisis is only contained toward the end of the novel, in the last pages, when the 9/11 attacks are mentioned, almost off-handedly.
While a literary staging of personal trajectory that has in its background a historical event is a common enough mechanism for producing historicity (or allegorizing its absence, when what is highlighted is that there is no relation between private and collective life), it is with the mediation between the private and the historical that literature (and indeed all ideological structures) is concerned. And it is a decidedly non-Israeli mediation in the novel: formally, in Israeli literature, the novelistic outside-Israel space is supposed to function as a non-place, one in which social forces are neutralized to allow for reflection on the (Israeli) social whole to emerge. Eshkol Nevo’s Neuland (2011) is a good example of this formal apparatus, which is common in early Zionist realism.47 That the historical event evoked in the background is decidedly not Israeli derails any such possibility in Namdar’s novel, for it is precisely in the background of the literary work that collectivity subconsciously resides, filling the space between the individual and the historical.
But this gap cannot remain empty (in the cases that it is represented as empty, this emptiness should always be taken as itself in some way a positive filling). And so, in Namdar’s novel this gap is precisely where the Talmud-like pages reside. These pages appear at the ends and beginning of chapters, literally in the margins of the text, thereby replicating the spatial structure of the Talmudic page itself: at the center is the text to be interpreted (the novel), and surrounding it are its (accepted or canonical) interpretations, ones that bridge the gap between the text and the other contexts in which it is read. This spatial arrangement can be taken as a formal device designed to bridge historical and geographical distances. The Talmudic form, therefore, provides a good example of text as social institution—what mediates our relation to collectivity, which Fredric Jameson and Phillip Wegner see as the main operation of genre.48 Thus, the Talmudic form endows the text with a sense of historical depth. What was implicit and invisible in the allegorical, historical novels of early Zionism and statehood (the interpretive code and implied community) is here replaced with the text’s making explicit of its own interpretive code, a multilayered allegorical reading of the novel itself.
Yet, that a text tries to elaborate explicitly on its own interpretation is not unheard of, especially in postmodernism. In Israeli fiction, Etgar Keret’s well-known story, “Ga’agu’ai lekisinjer” (Missing Kissinger) (1994), is a good example of this collapsing of interpretative code into the level of the text itself (e.g., the Freudian interpretation becoming literalized or concretized in the boy’s literally bringing his mother his girlfriend’s heart).49 Thus, for this effect to be more than mere pastiche, the tension between the interpretive “Talmudic” pages and the narrative itself must be apparent. Two things are worth noting here. First, that the Talmudic pages themselves include not only the actions of the High Priest and the interpretations of the Yom Kippur ritual at the Temple; they also include, for example, the perspective of a minor priest who views the events from their periphery, recording his attitudes and his minor involvement in the ritual. This leads to the second point: this invention of the marginal perspective in the Talmudic pages completes a full allegorical parallel to the text itself; the academic undergoing crisis is allegorized as the High Priest, while the reader is the minor priest witnessing the events. Thus, there is a full-fledged allegorical structure in which religious myth provides the most fundamental horizon of interpretation (which includes not only subjective attitudes, desire, and fears, but also empirical historical context, in Jameson’s allegorical schema).
Thus, what The Ruined House tries to achieve is no less than a wholesale substitution of Israeli history and national destiny with biblical myth as the basic interpretive DNA, the implicit allegorical depth structure of Hebrew literature (a challenge that may be the reason for the controversy around the book in Israel). The Talmudic pages function as a re-education project: they are there to instruct the reader on how to read the novel. This suggestion for a complete bypassing of Zionism and Israel in the interpretation of Israeli literature is perhaps the boldest of all the diasporic novels. A new historical perspective is thus generated, one that is perhaps available only in the unique situation of Hebrew, of a return to a Hebrew as a territory-less language of a religious group. Again, religiosity becomes unconsciously a way to imagine a threat to capitalist life (and makes 9/11 into a figure of such threat). Religious myth becomes a source of radical interruption, a death drive seeking to break through the smooth façade of the protagonist’s life. This anti-capitalist impulse is completely unconscious, just as in the case of Sarid’s Hashlishi, and it is contained at the end of the novel. But what is crucial to understand is the revival of attempts to think historically in the novel’s form, against the postmodern turning of the crisis of historical thinking into its own solution.
Maya Arad’s Sheva midot ra’ot (Seven moral failings), which also belongs to the diasporic group of novels, may seem completely different from the religious preoccupations of Namdar’s The Ruined House, at least until one notices that the novel’s title is based on the Christian Seven Deadly Sins, whose religious-allegorical potentiality is obvious.50 This borrowing from the Christian tradition seems to indicate that beyond national time, religion provides a repository of ways of thinking about problems of collective time. Arad’s novel’s structure is divided into seven parts, each dedicated to a different “sin.” The protagonists of all the stories are part of the same overarching frame narrative in which four younger scholars compete for an academic position at an imaginary college. Three senior professors at this college complete the roster of characters. The seven “moral failings” around which the novel is structured do not exactly replicate the classical religious sins, however. Pride, for example, is gone, and sloth is replaced by two adjacent terms: slowness and idleness. One should not read each chapter, as some critics do, for their reward and punishment for individual deeds; these, in the religious allegories, are only given in the afterlife (Dante’s Divine Comedy is one of the most well-known examples), a dimension wholly absent, even in its secular forms, from Arad’s novel. This lack of clear reward or punishment sometimes pushes critics to conclude too quickly that the novel sabotages the allegorical framework so obviously conjured by it.51 But judgment depends on a reified notion of allegory in which the moment of reward or punishment (or their absence!) becomes consumable in its own right, while the allegory itself becomes unimportant, a mere pretext for the act of consumption.
Instead, there is an affinity between postmodern flatness and a similar flatness of characters in myths or moral allegories, which also grants Arad’s novel its somewhat comic tone. This enables a non-dialectical perceptual ambivalence. What was seen as an expression of postmodern doxa is also activated in a completely different way, relating to much earlier uses of the same formal device. This is what happens in Arad’s novel, which marks it as a novel of transition (in which postmodernism gives way to the new attempts at social and historical mapping). The first two chapters, on slowness and hatred, read like simple moral allegories. In each case, the protagonist begins the chapter plagued by the moral failing: Alan is slow and procrastinating;52 Johanna hates whoever is around her with a passion.53 In the course of each chapter, the protagonist is given an opportunity to alter their vice. Alan, for example, is taught to overcome his slowness. After that moment of possible change comes a test in which the subject’s will to remain free of immorality is tested—and the characters always fail the test.
Yet something different happens in the next chapters. In the third one, dedicated to idleness, it is not clear how the protagonist, Lisa, embodies idleness.54 But idleness in the novel’s understanding of it is not a lack of any action; rather, it is a state of being stuck, both professionally and in her private life. The guest who passes through the chapter helps Lisa and the reader see what an unstuck situation would look like. But, in contrast to the previous chapters, it is not clear at all what Lisa can do to end her state except to completely abandon her current life. The next chapter, dealing with ignorance, introduces yet another complication. In general lines, the structure is preserved: Ana-Belle Lee (the similarity to Poe’s poem doesn’t go unnoticed by the characters), one of the candidates for the job, demonstrates a complete ignorance of her interactions with the professors during her on-campus interview, even though she is given plenty of opportunities and clues as to their attitude toward her. Yet here a formal innovation is introduced: the narrative moves between the consciousnesses of several characters rather than just staying within Ana-Belle’s to show how she manages to stay ignorant of all of their attitudes to her. The remaining three chapters introduce other formal variations into the allegorical structure: the sixth chapter, for example, includes long flashbacks—introducing temporality beyond that of the immediate events of the chapter.
Thus, the novel experiments with allegorization. Each chapter adds organs and possibilities to the allegorical structure of the previous chapters. In the fifth chapter, on ingratitude, Professor Doug Fisher, whose perspective the narrative takes, is not himself guilty of the sin. Rather, he is convinced that everyone is ungrateful toward him, while the reader is urged to understand Doug’s accusatory rants to himself as indicative of Doug’s own problems, which he represses by seeing everyone as ungrateful.
But what is the true significance of this expanding process of allegorization in Arad’s novel? This meaning goes against the motto of the novel, taken from Y. C. Brenner, according to which the ultimate referent of literature is internal to the subject, and the objective setting to the psychological drama remains peripheral, for the true work of allegorization is produced exactly on the periphery of the narrative, the conditions of life of both generations of academics in the United States. This allegory undoubtedly borrows from the very rich tradition of professors and writers being themselves the protagonists of Israeli fiction—one that begins with the professors and intellectuals of Amos Oz (if not all the way back to Mendele) and ends with those of Lilach Netanel.55 Anyone familiar with this body of work will know that the figure of the intellectual here always has the nation and its temporality and semiotic codes in the background. Thus, the novel’s true work is performed in omitting the national background from the allegory. To put it briefly: what replaces the nation and its time is quite simply capitalism and its utopian supplements and subjective excesses—these are dramatized in the sprawling allegory of Arad’s novel. Thus, again, the neutralization of a national set of meanings (as a way of containing capitalism) brings to the fore the ethical dilemmas and hopes of petit bourgeois existence (which, of course, also are used to contain the contradictions of capitalist existence), explored extensively by Ernest Bloch and others.56 In this way, Arad’s novel is indeed all about the external world, despite the text’s own ideology.
The Hebrew Detective
Local detective fiction (as opposed to the translated variety) flourished in 1930s Hebrew Palestine, as Eli Eshed reports.57 About fifty years separate this first appearance of the Israeli fictional detective from its massive resurgence in the late 1980s, a wave whose most conspicuous names are those of Shulamit Lapid and Batya Gur, the latter becoming the definite representative of 1980s and 1990s detective fiction. Again, this revival enacts an attempt to reinhabit older genres whose role was to totalize Israeli society in the imagination—in particular the genre of the soldier’s experience.
Gur’s first detective novel, The Saturday Morning Murder, features a struggle between an army officer and a detective—which the detective wins, eventually, while the military officer is exposed as perverted, ideologically and sexually.58 This struggle, which is very much inessential to the solving of the crime, is almost ritualized in the novel. That Gur’s detective, Michael Ohayon, is himself an ex-academic and that the novel explores in-depth the dominant Israeli class in general is also a manifestation of this inter-genre rivalry in which, since the 1980s, the detective is the obvious winner. Prominent critics, such as Dan Miron, condescended to Gur’s fiction, seeing the genre as a whole as useful in its own right, but for unimportant tasks only; thus critics ignored the symbolic importance of this dramatic struggle.59
This ritualized struggle of the detective with the soldier became something of a semipermanent feature of the Israeli detective novel. Perhaps the most visible representative of the genre are the novels of Dror Mishani, featuring (like Gur’s novels) a half-Mizrachi detective, Avraham Avraham. In Mishani’s first detective novel, Tik ne’edar (The missing file) (2011), Mishani’s detective also comes into confrontation with the Israeli “security” apparatus, revolving around a question that the detective poses early in the book: why isn’t there Israeli detective fiction?60 Even if this confrontation is not central to the plot, it serves as a remnant of the need to prove that the detective is somehow better than the soldier.
Most commentators, in both the cases of Gur and Mishani, focus on the content of the novels—in Mishani’s novel, that of the nondescript city, Holon, and to types and classes usually unrepresented in Israeli fiction—and on the expressed ideology of the texts.61 Part of this attraction to content also includes emphasizing the solution of the mystery itself: whether the detective got it right or not.
But social form finds its unique expression first and foremost in aesthetic form, even in genre novels that always turn the reader’s attention away from the composition to the content, as Roberto Schwarz and others remind us.62 This focus on form can loosen the hold of the reified sign of closure—the catching of the criminal—and refocus attention to the way in which Mishani’s novel formally divides its characters. The novel’s characters either work in a public or private space: teachers work in public spaces while housewives work privately. One could plot the different types using a Greimassian square (fig. 1).
The detective (and also the writer) embodies the ideal that combines both poles—his work takes him into both kinds of spaces (even as his office, as the novel emphasizes countless times, is like private space: windowless and closed off from the outside world). That the public–private divide in relation to work spaces registers class anxiety should be of no surprise under a flexible wage labor regime of neoliberalism. But the singular advantage of using the square to capture the form of the novel is the neutral term, the one found at the bottom of the square and that designates work spaces that are somehow neither public nor private. One example for such space is the sea, where the missing boy’s father (who also participated in the boy’s killing) works.63 Another clear example is that of the prostitutes in the red-light district in Brussels, which, to the detective’s surprise, “lay right at the feet of the shiny skyscrapers of the European Union institutions.”64 The prostitutes are found in a liminal space between private and public, on display in storefronts. The novel’s alternate plotline, with the teacher Ze’ev at its center, offers another example of this neither–nor state. While he is writing fictional letters, as the missing boy, to his parents, he must hide what he is doing, both at home or outside. (Ze’ev ceases to occupy this place when he confesses to the police, which is why his name has an asterisk in the chart.) The novel offers other examples of such non-spaces: construction sites or the potato field outside Brussels, signifying all that has deteriorated into rural appendages to European cities in general. These non-spaces are where trouble emerges: corpses and important clues are always found in them, as well as the criminals themselves. In these neither private nor public spaces, the new kinds of labor and class antagonism arises in contemporary Israel.
But this logical division of work spaces is not enough for the detective novel to have a claim on social wholeness—to provide the social mapping that figures of soldiers had previously made possible (this claim to wholeness does not depend on an empirical mapping of all of society). Nor is the brief confrontation with soldiers enough to provide that sense of wholeness. Rather, it lurks in the literary background of the plot, as if standing behind the typology of work spaces presented by the novel. The all-pervasive presence of families (of the missing boy, of the detective, of the teachers, of the Belgian detective) is not enough because familial relations end up being the source of the trouble. The familial helps figure the contradictions of the social whole rather than the whole itself. Instead, the sense of social wholeness, or the “totality effect,” as Jameson calls it, following Georg Lukács, is generated using the urban environment.65 The reader hardly notices the street names that are casually reported all the time as characters drive or walk down them; they seem like unimportant details. But this unimportant, transparent background grants authority to the claim of wholeness. The street names that dominate the background—“Histadrut,” “Ben Gurion” — always carry with them national significance, always echo the imagined whole of the nation. Thus, the national past itself is coded into the casually mentioned street names, and their omnipresence in the novel (particularly in the beginnings and ends of chapters) endows the novel with a sense of wholeness.
Needless to say, the broken lives of both the family of the murdered boy and that of the teachers is a figure for the Israeli working class (expanded in Mishani’s other novels to include migrant workers). These lives impinge on harmonious national wholeness, necessary symptoms (rather than mere avoidable aberrations) of the contradictory totality that governs Israeli society in the early 21st century.
Noa Yedlin’s Ba’alat Habayit (House arrest) (2013) has no actual detective in the novel.66 Still, its plot is guided by the posing of a mystery and its solving: Elisheva Fogel is a retired professor and the deputy CEO of the “Hirsch Center for Peace,” which, as its name suggests, is an organization that supports initiatives related to peacemaking (“peace” here referring to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation). Elisheva is suspected of embezzling money from the organization and the novel focuses on one of her sons, Asa, as he reluctantly tries to find out whether his mother has really done it. She did, and the knowledge of the mother’s ability to sin seems to signify some delayed coming-of-age moment for Asa. Right from the outset, the milieu represented here is the opposite of what Mishani focuses on: the novel deals only with the Israeli bourgeoisie, its work, habits, and interests taking center stage.
If the novel contains anything resembling an inquiry into the source of wealth of the Israeli dominant class, it has to do with the central place of real estate.67 Real estate is the main channel for embezzlement (through rental properties in Israel and abroad), but it is also how Elisheva’s daughter makes her money: trade and speculation in real estate and construction, reflecting a reality of rent as the dominant mode of how capitalists today appropriate surplus value, not only in Israel. A typology of characters for this novel, too, using a Greimassian rectangle, exposes this configuration (fig. 2).
Neither “social good” nor “beauty” designate attributes outside or against the logic of the market, but rather those that have become commodified as such: from the psychotherapeutic Reality TV show of Elisheva’s younger son, Amotz, or the computer game designed to teach statistics designed by Ben Ami, to Michal’s wooden toy designs. The great split is between careerists who just make a lot of money to those who may make less money but are at least making something beautiful or good. Most characters oscillate between the two poles, not being clear representatives of either, but rather emphasizing the split itself. Elisheva, of course, embodies the most complete balance of the two: her job at the Hirsch Center for Peace is both lucrative and promotes the greatest leftist Israeli goal of peace (which has not really animated a serious political project in Israel since the 1990s).
Yet peace seems to be still above the dirty realm of money, a sphere more removed from the profit motive than making educational computer games or popular TV. If one defines postmodernity as the becoming cultural of production—that all commodities must signify something, in addition to whatever other uses they have—then it seems to have taken hold of everything except the cause of peace. But as the novel progresses, two things become clear: first, that peace has indeed become a profitable business for Elisheva, who is revealed to be very cynical about the whole operation.68 That speaking about money is frowned upon becomes less classical bourgeois shame about the lowly profit motive and more simply a mobster’s silence about her business. Thus, at the end of the novel, Elisheva loses her place as the ideal union of values and careerism, becoming just a cynical careerist.
The second thing that Asa discovers is his implication in the embezzlement: he has been living in an apartment that is part of his mother’s elaborate scheme. This moment has something of a totalizing aspect to it: the entire of the Israeli bourgeoisie is implicated in this form of corruption, and it is unclear if it is even possible to distinguish between this corruption and the legal operation of capitalism. Even if one does not know it, one is involved in it. It is important to stress here the primacy of form over content: what is crucial is that the formal oscillation between career and values tends toward effortless profits, which neither of these terms captures. That the demise of peace as a political goal is exposed as nothing but a money-making scheme also has allegorical value: it tends to historicize the leftist project of peace itself and its collapse. The prevalence of national newspapers, in daily paper form as a source of credible knowledge (and as a detective substitute) in the novel, which is anachronistic considering their absolute usurpation by the internet, is another way of generating, even if very imperfectly, the totality effect of the novel. It demonstrates another instance of the presence of Israel’s uneven development in the clash between the welfare state (daily national news read by all) and neoliberalism (the fusion of career and “values”).
The cynical note on which the novel ends is ambivalent: it can be read as both an example of what Slavoj Žižek calls cynical ideology—that commitment to capitalism expressed through a muckraking attitude—or an attempt to return to an anti-hegemonic cynicism, which actually intends to threaten the system and is quite rare in the Israeli literary landscape.69 The final scene—in which Asa wakes up after discovering all this—leaves room for both interpretations.70
Other novels do try to reproduce older genres, such as Ron Leshem’s Im yesh gan eden (Beaufort) (2005), being the last (perhaps ever) iteration of the literary soldier. Some novels reflect on early Zionist settlements and their legacies, such as Lilach Netanel’s Hamatza’v ha’ivri (The Hebrew condition) (2008) and Yiftach Ashkenazi’s Haide lahagshama (Fulfillment) (2014).71
Still more, “identity” novels provide something beyond the hackneyed and reified consumer pleasures of foreign food, clothing, customs, and language—all novels of Israeli multiculturalism (or capitalism). To this universalizing particular category belong not only Mishani’s half-Mizrachi detective, whose universalizing aspirations are clear, but also interesting works like Kobi Ovadia’s Ha’ona ha’achrona shel Moti Biton (Chronicles), in which, in order to narrate his life, a Mizrachi teenager imagines a soap opera centered around a factory owned by a rich Ashkenazi family.72 Other interesting avenues include the newer work of established writers, such as Ronit Matalon, Yuval Shimoni, or Orly Castel-Bloom, which pose interesting interpretive challenges.
Israeli literature is in the process of reinventing an Israeli sense of historicity (and along with it, a new sense of social mapping), formulating creative and unique responses to the peculiar situation of uneven development in Israeli society and to the new social landscape that it entails. Moreover, the genres discussed argue for the liveliness of Israeli fiction: not in its mere ability to reflect social trends and ideological fashions, but as a response to them and a resistance to them, in making it possible to think beyond the present.
Discussion of the Literature
While there are many critical studies on Israeli literature that focus on military experience, very little has been written about the new genres explored in this article. Recent works that explore Israeli literature dealing with military experience and war include Uri S. Cohen’s Hanusach habitchoni (The security form), and Nitza Ben Dov’s Hayei milhama (The consciousness of war in Israeli fiction).73 To these one can add the literary critical essays published in the collection Narratives of Dissent.74 The dominant approach in these is concerned with the ethics of representation, its veracity (i.e., its reflection of historical truth), and the critique (or lack thereof) of Israeli national ideology in literary works. This is the approach taken to this genre of Israeli fiction in the past thirty years. For example, Yochai Oppenhemer’s work on the representation of Palestinians in Israeli fiction, or Hannan Hever’s work on the formation of the Israeli canon, both of which precede these recent publications, already articulate the basic coordinates of this approach.75 None of these literary critical works relates the Israeli literary works that deal with the military and armed conflicts to social forms, as attempted in this article.
There is very little critical literature dealing with Israeli speculative fiction, despite the fact that several Hebrew literary speculative fiction magazines seem to be thriving. One important exception is the essay “Limbotopia: The ‘New Present’ and the Literary Imagination” by Elana Gomel and Vered Karti Shemtov, which attempts to define a new genre of speculative fiction in which the future is identical to the present.76 Missing in Gomel and Shemtov’s discussion is the relation of timelessness to socioeconomic forces. Amir Eshel’s Futurity touches on issues of historicity similar to those explored in this article in relation to Hebrew literature (among others).77 Yet, the interpretive horizon of Eshel’s discussion of Hebrew fiction remains within the matrix of the ethical relation to the oppression of Palestinians rather than providing a general exploration of historicity. The essay collection Im shtei haraglayim amok ba’ananim (With both feet in the clouds), on Israeli fantasy, does the work of tracing the existence of fantasy in Hebrew fiction.78 Yet, the discussion keeps slipping between discussion of fantasy as a genre to fantastic elements in Hebrew realist or modernist fiction. In this way, it becomes impossible to date the emergence of speculative fiction as a genre or group of genres
Israeli detective fiction, even though it has already made a significant appearance in the late 1980s, also has not received significant critical attention. While late 1980s detective fiction is the subject of a few essays, no serious critical writing exists about the explosion of Hebrew detective fiction in the past two decades, since the early 21st century. One of the singular important critical sources is Dan Miron’s essay, “Komeriya beyisrael” (The detective in Israel), on Batya Gur’s detective fiction.79 Miron uses for his analysis a distinction between popular and high literature, condescendingly treating detective fiction as only good at entertaining its readers. Miron’s high–low division is not only embarrassingly obsolete even at the time his essay is written, it also makes Miron miss completely the genre’s important role as providing social cognitive mapping since the 1980s in Israel. Other critical sources on Israeli detective fiction include Eli Eshed’s exhaustive survey of Hebrew detective fiction.80 While Eshed’s survey is informative, it lacks any interpretive depth or an attempt to explain the appearance and disappearance of detective fiction in Hebrew.
Lastly, very little has been written about the emerging genre of Hebrew literature written abroad. Yaron Peleg’s essay “A New Hebrew Literary Diaspora? Israeli Literature Abroad,” is perhaps the best source on this, as it traces the emergence of the genre from the 1980s onward.81 Yet, in Peleg’s survey, no persuasive explanation is offered for the emergence of the genre. Other recent publications on Hebrew diasporic literature, such as books by Shahar Pinsker and Allison Schachter, demonstrate a tendency to invert the relation between Israeli Hebrew fiction and diasporic Hebrew fiction, so that the diasporic state is the dominant and “normal” one, resisting Zionism’s ideological relation between language and state.82 Yet, both authors focus on the emergence of Hebrew fiction rather than on a recent revival of diasporic Hebrew writing.
The author thanks Yiftach Ashkenazi, Etai Eisinger, Udi Greenberg, Yoni Nir, Yaron Peleg, and Orit Rozin for their recommendations of literary works to discuss in this article.
- Berg, Nancy, and Naomi B. Sokoloff, eds. Israeli Literature at 70. Albany: State University of New York Press, forthcoming.
- Cohen, Kfir. Makers of Worlds, Readers of Signs: Israeli and Palestinian Literature of the Global Contemporary. New York: Verso, 2019.
- Gomel, Elana, and Vered Karti Shemtov. “Limbotopia: The ‘New Present’ and the Literary Imagination.” Comparative Literature 70, no. 1 (2018): 60–71.
- Lottem, Emanuel, and Sheldon Teitelbaum, eds. Zion’s Fiction: A Treasury of Israeli Speculative Literature. Simsbury, CT: Mandel Vilar Press, 2018.
- Peleg, Yaron. “A New Hebrew Literary Diaspora? Israeli Literature Abroad.” Studia Judaica 18, no. 2 (2015): 321–338.
1. Tom Segev, Hatziyonim Hachadashim (The new Zionists) (Tel Aviv: Keter, 2001), 7.
2. See, e.g., Dvir Abramovich, “Israeli Detective Fiction: The Case of Batya Gur and Shulamit Lapid,” Australian Journal of Jewish Studies 14 (2000): 147–179.
3. Fredric Jameson, Allegory and Ideology (London: Verso, 2019), xi.
4. Nicholas Brown, “Close Reading and the Market,” in Literary Materialisms, ed. Emilio Sauri and Mathias Nilges (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 145–165.
5. Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text 1 (1979): 130–148.
6. Warwick Research Collective, Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World Literature (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2015), 10–12.
7. Amtanes Shehada, “Dokh Mekhkar: Medinat Harevakha Shel Hamitnakhlim,” Teoria Ubikoret 47 (2017): 203–222.
8. Daniel Gutwein, “Some Comments on the Class Foundations of the Occupation,” Monthly Review Online, June 16, 2006.
9. Oded Nir, “Literature at Work: Zionist Literary Realism between Utopia and ‘Hirbet Hizeh,’” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 16, no. 1 (2017): 1–16.
10. Moshe Shamir, Hu halach basadot (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2010).
11. Yehudit Handel, Street of Steps, trans. Rachel Katz and David Segal (New York: Herzl Press, 1963).
12. S. Yizhar, Mikdamot (Tel Aviv: Zmora Bitan, 1992); S. Yizhar, Gilui Eliyahu (Tel Aviv: Kineret, Zmora Bitan, Dvir, 1999); Yehoshua Kenaz, Infiltration (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 2003 ); and Yuval Shimoni, Kheder (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1999).
13. Oded Nir, Signatures of Struggle: The Figuration of Collectivity in Israeli Fiction (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2018), 109–178.
14. Mathias Nilges, “The Presence of Postmodernism in Contemporary American Literature,” American Literary History 27, no. 1 (2015): 186–197.
15. Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 5.
16. Eli Eshed, “Reshimat Sifrey Hamadab Ha’ivriyim Hatovim Vehachashuvim Beyoter Be-110 Hashanim Ha’acharonot,” Kulmusnet, April 2, 2003. http://www.blabla4u.com/sites/blabla4u/ShowMessage.asp?ID=1531128.
17. Sheldon Teitelbaum and Emanuel Lottem, “Introduction,” in Zion’s Fiction: A Treasury of Israeli Speculative Literature, ed. Sheldon Teitelbaum and Emanuel Lottem (Simsbury, CT: Mandel Vilar Press, 2018), 2.
18. Vered Tochterman, Lifamim Ze Acheret (Tel Aviv: Opus, 2002), 3–18.
19. Tochterman, Lifamim Ze Acheret, 29–42.
20. Jacques Sternberg, “How’s Business?,” in Travelling towards Epsilon: An Anthology of French Science Fiction, ed. Maxim Jakubowski (London: New English Library, 1977), 61–73.
21. Tochterman, Lifamim Ze Acheret, 19–28.
23. A. B. Yehoshua, “Facing the Forests,” in Modern Hebrew Literature, ed. Robert Alter (New York: Behrman House, 1975), 357–392; and Amos Oz, My Michael (New York: Knopf, 1972).
24. Orly Castel-Bloom, Heichan Ani Nimtzet? (Tel Aviv: Zmora Bitan, 1990), 46–47.
26. Hareven, “The Slows,” 48.
27. Fredric Jameson, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army (London: Verso, 2016), 13.
28. Ophir Touche Gafla, Bayom Shehamusika Meta (Jerusalem: Keter, 2010); and Ophir Touche Gafla, The World of the End (New York: Tor Books, 2013).
29. Touche Gafla, Bayom Shehamusika Meta, 191.
30. Touche Gafla, Bayom Shehamusika Meta, 220, 181, 212, 232–233, 109.
31. Touche Gafla, Bayom Shehamusika Meta, 231.
32. Dror Burstein, Tit (Tel Aviv: Keter, 2016).
33. Burstein, Tit, 20.
34. Burstein, Avner Brener (Tel Aviv: Bavel, 2003).
35. See, e.g., Sharansky-Danziger’s overview of Muck and its use of the Bible that ignores the book’s tone: Rachel Sharansky Danziger, “Muck: Biblical Fiction as Criticism,” Tel Aviv Review of Books, 2019.
36. Yael Geler, Eretz Ararat (Tel Aviv: Yediot Sfarim, 2016).
37. Yishai Sarid, Hashlishi (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2015).
38. Sharansky Danziger, “Muck: Biblical Fiction as Criticism.”
39. Moshe Shamir, Melech Basar Vadam (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1954).
40. For a short discussion of the “status quo” and its current state, see Guy Ben Porat, Between State and Synagogue: The Secularization of Contemporary Israel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 27–57.
41. Important in that regard is the still nonexistent analysis of late-19th and early- 20th-century Jewish literature from Europe in terms of uneven development. That certain magical or surreal moments appear in S. Y. Agnon’s writing or that of Isaac Bashevis Singer can be taken as the traces of uneven development in Europe—for one mode of production clashing with another in the Jewish shtetls—in such an interpretive project.
42. One example is Teitelbaum and Lottem, “Introduction,” 2.
43. Raymod Williams, The Long Revolution (London: Chatto & Windus, 1961), 57–70.
44. Lavie Tidhar, Central Station (San Francisco: Tachyon, 2016).
46. Ruby Namdar, Habayit asher neherav (Or Yrhuda: Kinneret, Zmora Bitan, 2013).
47. Eshkol Nevo, Neuland (Or Yehuda: Kineret, Zmora Bitan, Dvir, 2011).
48. Phillip Wegner, Imaginary Communities (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), 5.
49. Etgar Keret, “Missing Kissinger,” in Gaza Blues: Different Stories, ed. Etgar Keret and Samir el-Youssef (London: David Paul, 2004), 39–44.
50. Maya Arad, Sheva Midot Ra’ot (Tel Aviv: Khargol, 2006).
52. Arad, Sheva Midot Ra’ot, 9–60.
53. Arad, Sheva Midot Ra’ot, 61–98.
54. Arad, Sheva Midot Ra’ot, 99–152.
55. Amos Oz, Elsewhere, Perhaps (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973); Oz, My Michael; and Lilach Netanel, Hamatzav ha’ivri (Tel Aviv: Bavel, 2008).
56. Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986).
57. Eli Eshed, Mitarzan ve’ad Zbeng (Tel Aviv: Bavel, 2002), 20–26.
58. Batya Gur, The Saturday Morning Murder: A Psychoanalytic Case (New York: Aaron Asher Books, 1992), 71–77.
59. Dan Miron, “Komeriya Be’israel: Kama He’arot Al Hasipur Habalashi Vemekomo Batarbut Hayisraelit,” Ho! 3 (2006): 104.
60. Dror Mishani, Tik Ne’edar (Tel Aviv: Keter, 2011), 182–183.
61. Hannah Herzig, “‘Lachayin Ein Analogiyot Vesmalim’: Al Tik Ne’edar Shel Dror Mishani,” Yekum Tarbut, September 20, 2011.
62. See, e.g., Roberto Schwarz, “Objective Form: Reflections on the Dialectic of Roguery,” in Literary Materialisms, ed. Emilio Sauri and Mathias Nilges (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 185–199. Schwarz is drawing on the Marxist Hegelian interpretive tradition.
63. Dror Mishani, The Missing File, EPub (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 505.
64. Mishani, The Missing File, 308.
65. Fredric Jameson, Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality (London: Verso, 2016), 66.
66. Noa Yedlin, Ba’alat Habayit (Tel Aviv: Zmora Bitan, 2013).
67. Erez Cohen, “The Rise in Israel’s Real Estate Prices: Sociodemographic Aspects,” Israel Affairs 24, no. 1 (2018): 108–127.
68. Yedlin, Ba’alat Habayit, 240.
69. Slavoj Žižek, “Introduction: The Spectre of Ideology,” in Mapping Ideology, ed. Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 1994), 1–33.
70. Yedlin, Ba’alat Habayit, 335.
71. Netanel, Hamatzav ha’ivri; and Yiftach Ashkenazi, Haide lahagshama (Tel Aviv: Khargol, Modan, 2014).
72. Kobi Ovadia, Haona Ha’achrona Shel Moti Biton (Tel Aviv: Keter, 2012).
73. Uri Cohen, Hanusakh Habitkhoni (Tel Aviv: Mosad Bialik, 2017); and Nitza Ben Dov, Hayei Milhama (Tel Aviv: Schocken, 2016).
74. Rachel S. Harris and Ranen Omer-Sherman, eds., Narratives of Dissent: War in Contemporary Israeli Arts and Culture (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012).
75. Yochai Oppenheimer, okay here?n the Mirror: The Image of the Arab in Israeli Fiction,icProoftexts 19, no. 3 (1999): 205e234; Yochai Oppenheimer, Me’ever Lagader: Yitzug Ha’aravim Basiporet Ha’ivrit Vehayisraelit (1906–2005) (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2008); Hannan Hever, r: The Image of the Arab in Israeli Fiction,ical or surreal of the Early Sixties, 2Prooftexts 10, no. 1 (1990): 1290147; and Hannan Hever, Producing the Modern Hebrew Canon (New York: NYU Press, 2001).
77. Amir Eshel, Futurity: Contemporary Literature and the Quest for the Past (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
78. Hagar Yanai and Daniela Guretich, eds., Im Shtei Raglayim Amok Ba’ananim (Tel Aviv: Graf, 2009).
79. Dan Miron, Graf, 2009)’israel: Kama He’arot al Hasipur Habalashi Vemekomo Batarbut Hayisraelit, PaHo! 3 (2006): 99ur Ha
80. Eli Eshed, Mitarzan ve’ad Zbeng (Tel Aviv: Bavel, 2002); and Eli Eshed, Be’ikvot Habalash Ha’ivri, HHamulti Yekum Shel Eli Eshed (blog), 2007.
81. Yaron Peleg, .Shel Eli Eshedmekomo Batarbut Hayisraelit,Paste Arab in IsraStudia Judaica 18, no. 2 (2015): 321r338.
82. Allison Schachter, Diasporic Modernisms: Hebrew and Yiddish Literature in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); and Shachar Pinsker, Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010).