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December 2018

Ronit Matalon: An Appreciation

In memoriam of the stellar Mizrahi writer who rejected identity politics

(1932 words)

“At a recent launch event for my book Bliss, someone in the audience raised his hand to ask a question. It was an elderly man (it could have been an elderly woman just the same), noticeably tall – he was easily visible from the back rows – who spoke firmly and clearly. And this is what he told me: ‘Pardon me for saying this, Ronit [female writers in Israel are addressed by the first name only, while for men it is usually followed by their family name], but my cousin read your book and thought it was humanly and politically repulsive. What kind of sick and twisted characters do you depict, and where do you find such people?

“At first I remained silent, because nobody – not even a novelist who hides behind her characters – is totally immune to dislike. But when I noticed murmurs of agreement and disagreement from the audience, I realized it was time to take my performative persona for a walk in the park, willingly or not. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘why don’t you bring over your cousin and we’ll talk?'”

This passage opens Ad Argia (2018), Ronit Matalon’s posthumously published collection of essays. To me and many others, this account demonstrates the powerful charm of one of the greatest and most influential Hebrew novelists of our time. Matalon, who died last year aged 58, was highly acclaimed in her lifetime, and an inspiration to numerous writers and scholars.

***

Ronit Matalon was born in 1959 in Ganei Tikva, east of Tel Aviv, to Egyptian immigrants. Her father, Felix, was a local political activist. Her mother Emma, born to a wealthy Cairo family, could only find working-class jobs in Israel. Matalon’s parents separated in her infancy.

Wedding at a Hair Salon (1983), one of her first published short stories, already featured a character modelled on her father. This fictional father, Mr Guetta, arrives at his daughter’s wedding, which takes place at a provincial hair salon, and launches into a speech entirely dedicated to praising then-prime minister Menachem Begin. In her semi-autobiographical novel The Sound of Our Steps (2008), Matalon’s father makes an appearance, complete with his political activism; she quotes his letters verbatim in this book.

Despite her appreciation of her father’s political activism, Matalon’s stories are not spared the rough details of the troubles the family suffered as a result. In The Sound of Our Steps, the father, named Maurice, condemns his wife to hard work as a cleaner and manual laborer. Throughout the novel, his wife says he is unfaithful to her – and she isn’t referring only to his demanding political commitments. She suspects him of cheating on her with other women, including, possibly, her own mother.

Even when Matalon didn’t take on her parents directly, the environment of tension and jealousy in which she grew up was palpable. For example, when she once told her sister about her novella Uncover Her Face – which begins with a woman carrying an oil tank to set her husband’s house ablaze – she added that the story wasn’t entirely a figment of her imagination. Her mother, most likely, was involved in such an incident, an event that the writer apparently repressed.

Matalon’s mother, just like her father, is a permanent fixture in her writing. In some respects, The Sound of Our Steps is an attempt to depict her mother, warts and all. She too is portrayed as violent and manipulative; but in some ways, these traits actually empower the portrait that she paints.

***

Ronit Matalon was an ideologically wholesome novelist, preoccupied, among other things, by Mizrahi identity. In an essay published in 1989, she compared her father to the Cairo-born novelist and essayist Jacqueline Kahanoff. For Matalon, the comparison was apt, because she generally saw Mizrahi identity as an external imposition, and sought to replace it with the inherently more hybrid and tolerant Levantine identity. Although well aware that the Levantine identity was borne out of colonialism, she nonetheless believed it was a better option than the categories that have prevailed in the Israeli discourse.

A similar skepticism led her to prefer the neutral “migration” to the Zionist-tainted term “aliya.” By reclaiming the word “migration,” Matalon contended on several occasions, we can better understand her parents’ life in Israel – where they never really felt at home – as a universal experience rather than one embedded in a national narrative.

Matalon tackled the Israeli experience from this ideological perspective. The poverty she witnessed growing up, the occupation of the Palestinian territories, Hebrew literature – she experienced and wrote about all these and other issues through that prism.

Despite her prominent status within the literary republic, her origin and “Mizrahi” identity (which she rejected) were always in the background. The following passage, from an essay entitled My Father at Age Seventy-Nine, captures this ambivalence well:

“Several weeks ago, I was sitting in a café with the writer Nurit Zarkhi, who has known me since I was about five – both of us are from that horrible city Petakh Tikva – and while we were talking, an old acquaintance of Nurit came to our table. She wanted to know if I was the writer Ronit Matalon, and immediately embarked on a confession: She belongs, she declared, to that group who came here, so to speak, on the Israeli Mayflower, and whose members were raised on utter disdain and disregard for Mizrahim, Eastern Jews. She began reading my novel The One Facing Us strictly out of anthropological curiosity and a desire to learn about Mizrahi existence. But to her surprise, she said, she discovered that the book was simply good ‘by any literary standard,’ and really wanted me to know that.”

Matalon, equally, often experienced the ambivalence of others. Despite her wide acclaim and numerous awards, she was quite often dismissed by literary bigwigs. The most flagrant of such attempts was in 2006, after the publication of Matalon’s surrealist novel Uncover Her Face. Benny Ziffer, Haaretz‘s literary editor, having calculated the book’s cost per page (NIS 0.80, according to him), claimed that the publication was a publicity stunt by a greedy publisher. Ziffer also insinuated that she was a literary lightweight, and that soon enough she would be forgotten. He was joined by Dan Miron, the prominent literary scholar, who endorsed Ziffer’s conclusion and said that unlike S.Y. Agnon’s Book of Deeds, a book of similar length, Uncover Her Face did not deserve to be published as a standalone.

These vicious attacks continued after her death. In his review of the posthumous Ad Argia, Ziffer again insisted that Matalon was an unremarkable novelist, placed on a pedestal by hegemonic forces seeking a Mizrahi agent to promote their identity politics agenda.

Notwithstanding these vicious attacks, Matalon had equally powerful and influential champions, such as scholars Hannan Hever, Michael Gluzman, Nissim Calderon and others.

***

Although she was considered a leading figure in Mizrahi literature, emerging more or less at the same time as her artistic coming of age, Matalon fervently disapproved of identity politics. Her attitude emanated not so much from her ambivalent take on Mizrahi identity, but rather from her focus on literature. For her, Mizrahi identity, as well as other conflicts so prevalent in the Israeli discourse, were secondary to the literary exercise itself.

The following passage from The Sound of Our Steps demonstrates this transition from identity to aesthetics:

“The child sat down on [Maurice’s] lap again, but this time sideway, breathing in the smell of his clothes, his skin: tobacco, shaving lotion, and something else that smelled like roasted almonds. ‘The book is called David Copperfield and it was written by an English writer, Charles Dickens. It’s the first book to read, because it’s the best of all,’ said Maurice.

“She peeked at his face as he said this, his face with the horn-rimmed dark glasses and the broad, drooping lower lip that quivered slightly, she wanted to see his face when he said ‘the best of all,’ and afterward, when she took her eyes from him and counted the paving stones on the path leading to Nona’s house, she became confused and started counting again from the beginning. Then, too, she thought ‘the best of all, the best of all,’ shifting her gaze from the paving stones and the dizzying lines joining them, turning it to the roof, Nona’s hot gray-tiled roof, which now seemed to be melting in the sun, about to explode at any minute into a thousand sparks and then to melt, to pour like heavy lava over the outer walls, over Nona’s front door and three concrete steps, and the ‘best of all’ poured too, the ‘best of all,’ which was a thought and words poured into her, melted and turned into a thing, a vapor, or spirit, or the air joining and separating the things that had a name.”

Despite her uncompromising take on identity politics, Matalon was nevertheless considered a pioneer of Mizrahi writing.

Alongside the emphasis that Matalon put on aesthetics, humor featured heavily in her work, culminating in her last novel, And the Bride Closed the Door. In it, she tackles the most quintessential of contemporary Israeli phenomena – the wedding – and turns it into a farce: it begins with a bride who refuses to open the door of her room, and continues with a Russian doctor specializing in remorseful brides, the Palestinian fire brigade, and a transvestite cousin.

In an interview with Haaretz on the book’s publication, Matalon expressed her opposition to identity politics, openly criticizing Ars Poetica, a group of vocally Mizrahi artists, for what she saw as their sense of entitlement and exploitation of the Mizrahi identity for personal gain.

Despite her uncompromising take on identity politics, Matalon was nevertheless considered a pioneer of Mizrahi writing. Trying to unpack her paradoxical status, the literary scholar Yigal Schwarz has argued that her fervent opposition had always been interspersed with a limited acceptance of some elements of identity politics.

***

The gap between Matalon’s awareness of and preoccupation with social issues, on the one hand, and the importance she attached to literature, on the other, is accounted for by a recurrent character in her fiction, a young Mizrahi girl. Often named Margalit, this character is in many ways Matalon’s alter ego. Like her, she grew up in an underprivileged environment. Like Matalon, she chose literature. Like Matalon, her devotion to literature pulled her out of her dreary upbringing and saved her from her destiny. Across Matalon’s oeuvre, this character conveys the understanding that for her, there is no tension between socio-political issues and her allegiance to literature; rather, these are two components that complement each other.

In a posthumously published essay, Matalon explained the movement between autobiography, memory and reading thus:

“[…] The girl in the book [The Sound of Our Steps], at times called ‘the girl’ and at others ‘me,’ the older narrator, embodies the three-pronged identity I was talking about, encompassing autobiography, memory and reading. The encounter with the literary world, through books, is what gives the other components – autobiography and memory – their meaning.”

When I read this passage, I could not but recall Matalon’s ire at what she called “literary entrepreneurs.” She despised those novelists who engage in literature in earnest, but always with the feeling that they seek to please a certain audience. Not only did Matalon underscore the flaws of literature, she also provided, by virtue of her life story and her personality, an alternative. Matalon paved the way to another literary life; one which could be independent of commercial enterprise and transcend identity politics, but did not estrange the reader, nor disavow our lived experiences.

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