Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Sex

The (deliberately) bad sex scenes in four modern Israeli novels reveal writers who play with and subvert expectations and conventions.

Bad sex makes good books. Let me put that on the table, or in the bedroom, or even on a grave, as in one of the four Hebrew novels I have come to praise in this essay. In our times, when works of fiction are expected to delve into the most intimate parts of their protagonists’ souls, bedclothes, and anatomies, and to provide at least one erotic episode to give a lift to all three, the ability to write a convincing and moving scene in which the sex act is portrayed as indifferent, unfulfilling, boring, or frustrated by impotence is the mark of a great and original talent.

I don’t mean to imply that sex is the central subject of Maya Arad’s All About Abigail (Kin’at Sofrot), Haim Be’er’s Their New Dreams (Halomoteihem Hahadashim), Eyal Megged’s Secrets and Betrayals (Sodot Uvgidot), and Sami Michael’s Water Kissing Water (Mayim Noshkim Lemayim). Avigayil Shalev (no, I’m not going to accept the Americanization of her first name), Alma Webber and Gidon Sorek, Solomon Rifkind, and Yosef have more important things at stake than orgasms. Love is just one example; another is that, in one way or another, they’re all frustrated novelists.

Now, unless it’s by James Joyce, a novel whose protagonist is a writer starts out with a black mark from me. As soon as it became apparent, early on in each of these stories, that the protagonists are or aspire to be writers, I was prejudiced against them. That I kept reading, indeed could hardly stop reading, shows just how inventive the authors of these four books actually are. The bad sex scenes were the cream of the jest, ultimate confirmation that I was reading writers who play with and subvert rather than follow expectations and conventions.

Let’s start with Avigayil and her inventor, Maya Arad, an Israeli-born Hebrew novelist who has long lived in California. Arad’s books—this is her ninth work of fiction—generally get decent reviews and enjoy good sales here, but there’s a common complaint. It’s hard to sympathize with her protagonists because the author herself doesn’t seem to like them very much. Avigayil Shalev is a case in point. An awkward literal rendering of the hard-to-translate Hebrew title might be The Envy of Women Writers; Avigayil’s envy, insecurity, and obsession with her literary standing are up front and center from the novel’s first paragraph. In a cab taking her from her modest middle-class apartment in north Tel Aviv to an appearance at a book club in a southern suburb’s municipal library, she is fixated on her phone. Her third novel has made the longlist for Israel’s preeminent literary award, the Sapir Prize, and she fantasizes about making the short list and perhaps even winning. But at the library, she’s insulted that the book club’s leader, an aging and long forgotten minor writer who interviews her before an audience of women, clearly has not read her novel. It’s the first in a series of slights that make her go ballistic and cast aside the techniques that her longtime therapist had taught her for controlling her anger. From here on out, there isn’t a gripe that doesn’t get voiced loudly, not an imagined affront that goes without retaliation, not a lighting flash of criticism of her latest manuscript that fails to bring in its wake a thunderclap of fury. She seethes when her incredibly patient husband Niv, with whom she has indifferent sex every Friday morning like clockwork, tells her that it reads like chick lit. Then she develops an adolescent crush on a literary scholar who invites her to speak at an academic conference—an unmarried single mother who, after Avigayil stalks her all the way to her Cambridge college, firmly repels her advances.

Arad’s artistry is that, tiny step by tiny step, she draws the reader inside Avigayil’s soul, into that place where we can feel her insecurities, fears, needs, and sexual ambiguity as if they were our own. She makes us see this ostensibly disagreeable woman as a complex human being, much as Philip Roth forces us, against our will, not just to see but actually experience the humanity of that incontinent, lying, cheating lecher, Mickey Sabbath. One way Arad does this is by creating an intriguing web of literary doubles: characters who share or nearly share names, who serve as foils to and commentators on other characters, as if the novel contains and is in dialogue with its own critics. Another is that All About Abigail is, in addition to being a novel, a discourse on how women were permitted to enter Israel’s literary universe only at that moment when literature lost its exalted position in the national culture. A third is the intrusive narrator who keeps intruding on the story and, in the book’s final twist, turns out to have an ax to grind. And then there’s the bad sex, to which I will return.

Solomon Rifkind, the abusive protagonist of Eyal Megged’s Secrets and Betrayals, is even more unlikeable than Avigayil Shalev. Solomon is a man who desperately needs love but is certain that those he loves are betraying him. He’s an outsider, a Jew who is not quite a Jew, who settles in Palestine and loses his pants after investing his inheritance in a citrus grove that he mismanages. He wants to be a writer but instead spends his time fending off creditors and pursuing harebrained investment schemes. He yearns for his wife’s love, physical and spiritual, but mistreats her and pretty much forces her into the arms of the Australian soldier that she runs off with. And he betrays his people and his country by selling military intelligence to the enemy. Unlike Avigayil, who by the end of her story has succeeded in taming her demons, accepting her life and her literary career as they are, Solomon dies repentant—but then he’s always been repentant—yet without taking any real step toward reconciling with those he loves. Megged kept me in the company of this ugly-spirited man with prose that reminded me of the two staves of a piano composition: a treble stave narrating Solomon’s deceptions, jealous fits, and betrayals, and a contrapuntal bass line expressing inner feelings that, if he would only let them rise to the surface, would redeem him. Megged also writes with laudable concision, covering a twenty-year span of Solomon’s life in just 336 pages. It’s a talent far too rare in contemporary Israeli literature—see my pan, a year and a half ago in these pages, of three critically acclaimed Hebrew novels I wasn’t able to get through (“The Never Ending Stories,” Winter 2020).

None of Arad’s or Megged’s novels have been published in English. Two of Haim Be’er’s and three of Sami Michael’s have; yet, despite being two of Hebrew literature’s towering living figures, they are little known outside Israel. Both represent, in their persons and in much of their work, groups that lay outside the mainstream, social and literary, of the country’s early decades—Be’er comes from and writes in the idiom of observant Israelis familiar with biblical and rabbinic texts, and Michael arrived in Israel as a young man who fled his native Iraq not so much because he was a Jew but because he was a Communist.

Be’er’s Hebrew prose is playful and heavily inflected with idioms from ancient and medieval Hebrew, from the legends of the sages and medieval poets, halachic jurisprudence, and liturgical poets. Translating Be’er is like translating Agnon—so much of what makes reading him so pleasurable must, in any other language, either be left out or seriously compromised. Michael is more serious, direct, and intense. Be’er is a master of the beautiful sentence, Michael a craftsman who builds intricate fictional edifices in which the way the story is told bears much of its meaning and fascination.

Alma Webber, in Be’er’s Their New Dreams, has published a single novel closely drawn from her poisonous marriage. Now she lives alone, occasionally with her ungrateful and demanding teenage son, eking out a living teaching creative writing and copying old audio tapes into digital formats. Gidon Sorek is a widowed former Mossad agent with an estranged daughter who comes to her for the second service—his mother, recently deceased, left him a testament she made on an old tape recorder. He quickly pivots to hiring Alma to coach him in writing a grand historical novel about the North African campaign in World War II, and how it might have played out had the Germans reached Palestine. Alma works with him and slowly brings him around to realizing that his novel needs to find its seed closer to home, specifically in the mysterious life of his mother, who raised him alone in Haifa after escaping from Nazi Germany—placing him, for a time during his childhood, in the care of an Arab Christian family. Alma and Gidon fall in love. Together they delve into his mother’s past, in Haifa and in Germany. It’s a chronicle of estrangement and dis-estrangement. The Mossad agent whose life work is to uncover secrets that must then be kept secret, and the writer whose specialty is creating fictions that represent the world in ways that mere sensory impressions cannot do, are the fulcrum of this wise and funny novel.

The same processes of estrangement and dis-estrangement run through Water Kissing Water, a work closely based (as most of Michael’s novels are not) on the author’s own life. Like Michael, Yosef is a young Iraqi Jew who had to flee Baghdad because of his Communist activism, and who finds his way almost by chance to the Jewish state. He ends up working for the country’s Water Authority, in a period when that work was as dangerous and as male-gendered as serving in the military—the sources of the Jordan River, essential for the young country’s water budget and thus required constant monitoring, lay in the Galilean panhandle, under constant Syrian bombardment and infiltration. Yosef wants to be a novelist and is struggling to write in the language of the country he has reluctantly adopted.

At the beach with a friend, Yosef meets two women. There’s vivacious, red-haired Semadar, with whom he immediately falls in love. But she’s married, and she instead sets him up with her friend Katina—small, inhibited, and traumatized. Katina’s father, a senior Mossad officer, and mother, a professor, come from the highest echelons of Israeli society, and have the money and connections to set the young couple up comfortably. But they dismiss Yosef’s intuition that Katina was sexually abused—until she disappears into the waves not far from their beachfront house.

Michael’s genius is to structure the book’s core in a way that reminds me of The Wild Palms, in which William Faulkner tells two stories in counterpoint, moving from one to the other and back again. But Faulkner’s two stories share no characters. In Water Kissing Water (I think the Hebrew title could better, and more tellingly, be rendered as Water Touching Water) the central chapters alternate between Yosef’s life at home with Katina and her parents and the arduous and often terrifying excursions he makes with a partner while doing his water work. The latter plays out as the metaphorical parallel to his efforts to love and understand the repressed and sexually unresponsive Katina even as he longs for the unobtainable Semadar, which in turn is the metaphor for his immigration to Israel and the need to marry into a culture that is not really the one he longs for.

Sexual dysfunction is also a central metaphor in Water Kissing Water. Yosef can’t get it up in his first sexual encounter—on top of a grave, with a religious girl he has picked up. It’s a very brief episode in the book, but when I read it I was struck by how seldom, if ever, one comes across a sensitive and convincing account of erectile dysfunction, or indeed unsatisfactory sex of any sort, in contemporary fiction. The only example I can think of is H.C. Earwicker’s bad night in Finnegans Wake; the only way I know that was the case is because the commentators think that that is what Joyce meant to describe.

When Joseph first has sex with Katina, it’s as if she herself is dead—she is frozen, unmoving. She wants him to receive the physical love he needs, but she is unable to want it herself. When, after Katina’s death, he and Semadar begin to see each other, there’s also a long period of adjustment before he can do what he so much wants to do. He can’t make real love until, at the end of the book, he is on the road to integrating his old identity into his new, his work into his private life, his moral commitment to Katina with his feelings for Semadar.

Solomon Rifkind never really achieves that, which is his tragedy. When he makes love to his wife he is angry; when he takes lovers he can’t find himself. Alma Webber and Gidon Sorek, he well into his sixties and she in her forties, are the mature couple in this quartet of books. Neither has expectations of erotic ecstasy or adventure. Be’er does not accompany them into Alma’s bedroom. We know it went well, that it was loving, but we also know that the expectations were sober ones.

At the end of All About Abigail, Avigayil realizes that the honest support and mature affection she receives from her husband is far more important than the passion she felt for the woman she wanted to leave Niv for. That includes the humdrum pleasures of their routine Friday morning fuck (Arad’s unreliable narrator uses the Hebrew equivalent of that word)—what he calls their marital work. That narrator, who we now know to be an aspiring novelist of as-yet unproven talent, portrays the bad sex in considerable detail early on in the book, when it angers and frustrates Avigayil. But now that Avigayil accepts it as the habitual love of “marital harmony, affection and endearments, acceptance and reconciliation,” it’s beyond the narrator’s powers as a writer. It bores her. And that is, to my mind, the sign that she will never be as good a novelist as these masters of the bad sex scene, whose works so moved me this past year.

*Maya Arad, All About Abigal  [Kin’at Sofrot, Hebrew], Hargol Publishing, 2021, pp. 412.

* Haim Be’er, Their New Dreams, Am Oved, 2022, pp. 684.

* Eyal Megged, Secrets and Betrayals [Sodot Uvgidot, Hebrew], Yediot Books, 2006, pp. 336.

* Sami Michael, Water Kissing Water [Mayim Noshkim Lemayim, Hebrew], Am Oved, 2001, pp. 403.

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