The Great Israeli Novels

A response to Haim Watzman's 'The NeverEnding Stories' from the Winter 2020 issue.

“Always leave them wanting more,” goes the quote commonly attributed to P.T. Barnum. Apocryphal or not, it seems a befitting sentiment for a showman: Barnum could entertain more people—thereby pocketing more of their money—if they left a show eager for another. But should this aphorism apply to writers, who, though often entertaining, are generally aiming to provide something more than amusement, be that inspiration, insight, self-reflection, or provocation? This is what Haim Watzman suggests in the Winter 2020 issue of Tel Aviv Review of Books, where he accuses three books he recently read—or rather, did not read, since he candidly acknowledges that he made it through less than half (in two cases, significantly less) of these “never-ending stories”—of being “too long.” I’ve known Watzman both personally and professionally for many years; I have immense respect for his work as the preeminent translator of Hebrew non-fiction, and for his well-considered opinions on literature. This “review,” however, was ill-conceived and does a disservice to the books, two of which I am currently translating. Although it goes without saying that literary tastes are highly personal, I believe Watzman missed out on many of these novels’ merits. Moreover, I take issue with the ethics of reviewing books one has not fully read, particularly when—as in this instance—there are virtually no other reviews of these books available in English.

Most of the roughly two dozen books I have translated over the last two decades were sent to me by agents, publishers, or the authors themselves. Leah Aini’s Rose of Lebanon and Uri Katz’s The Man Who Got Stuck with a Scowl, however, are both books I stumbled upon, fell in love with, and asked to translate. One could argue that this means I am particularly sensitive to criticism of these works, but it also speaks to the huge impact they had on me. I turn down numerous translation proposals, sometimes for lack of time, but frequently because a book does not strike me as one I wish to spend many months of my life engaging with. Quite often, my work does not end with the translation of the book but—as in the two cases above—extends to helping raise funds to cover the cost of translation, contributing to the (frequently disheartening) search for an English-language publisher, and promoting the finished work. This sort of commitment is only feasible if I feel that the book has something unique to offer. My perspective as the translator also affords me an intimate familiarity with these works: if a book has any flaws, rest assured that the translator will find them.

I should note that I cannot address the third book covered in Watzman’s review, Dan Benaya Seri’s Artur, for the simple reason that I have not read it. (Although, given that Watzman himself read only a fifth of that book, I would argue that I am only marginally less qualified than he is to comment on it.)

Books might be long or short for different reasons. Calling a book “too long” is akin to calling a painting “too big.” If I held out my hand to block half a painting as I looked at it, would I still be seeing what the artist intended me to see? Would I be entitled to pronounce my opinion, having intentionally failed to see a full half of the piece? In my view, if you are not reading (or seeing) the entirety of a creative work, you are free to dislike it and move on. But in that case, you relinquish your right to publicly critique it. It is also worth wondering—continuing with the admittedly unsubtle analogy—why I would not move my hand to see the whole painting if I liked the part that I could see. If you go to a restaurant and are served a delectable appetizer, why would you leave without ordering an entrée? This, in effect, is what Watzman did. He reports that when he began reading these two books, he was “grateful,” “captivated by each, and really wanted to find out how they would end,” “inordinately pleased,” “caught up immediately.” He finds various aspects of them “wonderful,” “deft,” “well-conceived and convincing,” “expertly creat[ed].” Given these first impressions, alongside recommendations from trusted acquaintances and overwhelmingly positive critical appraisals, Watzman’s decision to abandon the books is puzzling. In fact, it seems almost indefensible, since he mentions that not only is he not averse to long books per se, but in fact has finished and enjoyed many long books, in both Hebrew and English. If a writer gains your trust early on, and you sense that wherever the book might be going she has the skills to get you there, then why would you not take the scenic route and keep going?

When I first read Uri Katz’s debut, tentatively titled in English The Man Who Got Stuck with a Scowl, I was captivated from the first page, the exhilaration of a new discovery staying with me to the end. It is a remarkably ambitious work; there are moments when Katz teeters on the edge of that ambition, but in each instance he finds his footing. As one Israeli critic observed, summarizing the book’s plot is next to impossible—and would not do it justice in any case. If I had been told that I was about to read a pastiche of styles and genres (including, among other elements, a futuristic dystopian novella inspired by Karel Čapek; a fable à la Arabian Nights; a partially rhymed post-modern stream-of-consciousness meditation on love and loss; a Kafkaesque farce about office clerks and their increasingly unhinged escapades; a noirish fairytale; and a story of war and espionage set in the Judean Hills at the end of the British Mandate), I would have rolled my eyes. If you’d insisted that these seemingly unrelated parts coalesce into a coherent and riveting narrative, I would have been more than a little skeptical. And yet, this is exactly what this book achieves. Had Watzman continued past page 200, he would have encountered all this, as well as answers to many of the questions—both plot-related and existential—raised in the first half of the book. For example, the reason why a short story written by a possibly apocryphal Czech writer named Klemczek is believed to have helped the besieged settlers of Kfar Etzion survive the war is not, as Watzman assumes, that it “kept their spirits up,” but rather involves an intricate plot twist that more persevering readers will discover. Shared character names, motifs, plot elements, and fundamental themes thread their way through the various episodes like a dizzying hall of mirrors. And while there is much cerebral and meta-fictional rumination, Katz is also a writer of profound emotional sincerity, with a biting sense of humor. There are moments when the narrative sags a little under its own weight. But then, it is the rare novel that succeeds in sustaining the same intensity on every page. I would rather amble through the occasional bagginess and reap the rewards, than trot across a novelette that offers little in the way of insight or originality.

It is difficult to conceive of two more dissimilar Israeli novels than The Man Who Got Stuck with a Scowl and Rose of Lebanon. Quite possibly, their principal commonality is their translator. That, and the fact that they are long. They are long for different reasons, however, and in different ways. To vastly oversimplify: Katz’s book is long because it comprises many distinct elements woven into an effective whole; Aini’s book is long because its narrative involves cumulative fragments that spiral slowly but powerfully around a devastating core. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I view this extraordinary book as a contender for “the great Israeli novel.” As Watzman describes, Vered, the author’s alter-ego, sits every week at the bedside of Yonatan, a critically wounded soldier who tried to commit suicide rather than fight in the Lebanon War. This narrative framework, and the brutally candid monologues that the narrator tells her captive audience of one, are also the novel’s thematic backbone. Leah grew up in a drab working-class neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, with near-illiterate parents, surrounded by Holocaust survivors (including her father), Mizrahim, and other marginalized Israelis who collectively represent “the Second Israel,” their workaday stories and deprivations largely excluded from the national narrative. Yonatan, conversely, is a privileged Ashkenazi from an upper middle-class Jerusalem neighborhood, a handsome combat soldier coasting on family connections and privilege—a poster child for “the First Israel.” The symbolism is clear: Yonatan can only hear Vered’s story when forced to do so by being in a near-vegetative state. Aini all but invents a new vernacular to relate her childhood recollections, one that reflects her multilingual background and is deeply rooted in the imaginary world and idiosyncratic observations of the precocious child-narrator. The writing is disorienting at first, requiring the dedicated ear one might use when first hearing a marked foreign accent. But as the voice grows familiar, the narrative becomes an immersive experience that provides an intimate look at—and through—the perspective of a keenly sensitive writer. In contrast to Katz, who comes out swinging (perhaps having little to lose as an unknown writer), Aini, the author of over a dozen well-received novels, has earned the right to take her readers on this long and, yes, often demanding journey.

The many virtues of these books notwithstanding, they are undeniably long and, as Watzman notes, the expansion rate when translating from Hebrew to English can be well over thirty percent. Pitching literary fiction in translation to foreign markets, especially when the author is unknown, is a daunting task however long the book. A number of books I’ve translated, such as To the End of the Land by David Grossman, Eden by Yael Hedaya, and At Night’s End by Nir Baram, have been shortened. This is never an easy decision for the authors, who are often surprised by the rigorous editing their books undergo when they are acquired by English-language publishers. Given my sense of ownership over my translations, I was initially taken aback when an editor recommended significant cuts, but my attitude has shifted over the years. I used to feel that a translation should—as some of my contracts stipulate—“neither omit anything from the original text nor add anything to it other than such verbal changes as are necessary in translating Hebrew into English.” But I have come to believe that viewing the original book as somehow static or sacrosanct is in fact detrimental—or, as the translation cliché goes, unfaithful—to it. The “mere” act of translating is, by definition, a transformation. To translate is to author a new work; the process inevitably involves changes deemed necessary (by the translator, the editor, and sometimes the author) in order to successfully ferry the book into its new habitat. While I resist the dreaded “smoothing out” that some editors push for, I am open to revisions and omissions, and I encourage my authors to be equally adaptable. I tend to work closely with my authors, and as I’ve become more familiar with the type of adjustments editors often propose, I frequently obtain an author’s approval to implement some of these revisions myself as I translate. With very few exceptions, they have warmed to this process, even welcoming the opportunity to reconceive their work for a new readership.

In The Man Who Got Stuck with a Scowl, the narrator’s fictitious editor observes that “the book raises questions regarding the editor’s role in modern literature. To my mind, the absence of editing is itself an editorial decision.” He goes on to quote his recalcitrant author’s quip: “‘Never has an editor been paid so much to stay out of the way.’” The relationship between writing and editing is an underlying theme in Katz’s novel, along with questions such as why writers write, what is an original and what is imitation, how technology affects creativity, and the author’s inability—whether because of internal resistance or external impediments—to finish a story. The fictional Katz’s editor prods him through writer’s block and bouts of skepticism regarding the whole enterprise of writing. Rose of Lebanon, though less overtly meta-literary, depicts a lifetime of storytelling that is, essentially, a portrait of the writer as a young girl. Far from being, as Watzman intimates, “overly fond of everything she writes,” Aini felt compelled to write this book, dredging up buried memories despite the pain it clearly entailed.

Watzman, in his Tel Aviv Review of Books piece, recalls being told by the late Amir Gutfreund that his editor once cut one of his novels by roughly a third. I have heard similar accounts from countless Israeli writers. The work of Israeli editors, Watzman argues, “is indiscernible to the reader.” But surely the same is true of all editors’ work, insofar as we are rarely privy to what a book endures before we hold it in our hands. Save a few infamous allegations of overzealous editing (Raymond Carver on Gordon Lish’s chopping board comes to mind), the reader must assume that the writer whose name appears on a book’s cover is responsible for its content; we only wonder who the editor is if something about the book disgruntles us.

This should sound familiar to translators, who have long complained, justifiably, that reviewers or readers who find fault with a book point fingers at the translator, yet when a book is acclaimed the translator is rarely acknowledged. While Watzman surmises that the editors in question are “too indulgent” when editing long books but “accept and endorse” short ones, I would argue that this is in fact the hallmark of a good editor: the ability to employ a keen editorial eye and good judgement while preserving the author’s vision and style. Again, editors and translators share a similar obligation in this regard.

Many Israeli novels, and most of the ones I am drawn to, are characterized by a certain unruliness: a juxtaposition of disparate styles, registers, and ideas that can seem haphazard and self-indulgent but, when done well, make for a vibrant, though-provoking read. As a translator, I try not to over-burnish this kind of writing, even as I wrangle it into a language that is less tolerant of rule-breaking. Israel, as the joke goes, is a country held together by masking tape. Its literature, I suggest, is cemented by an intellectual and emotive zeal unfettered by conventional requirements of style and efficiency. But since when is art supposed to be efficient?

Watzman, as a reader, writer, and translator with decades of experience, surely knows that the factors shaping editorial decisions are many and manifold. His decision to dismiss two ground-breaking novels as indulgences of the Israeli publishing industry—especially since he did not give either book the chance it deserved by reading it through to the end—is contrary to the culture of vigorous but fair literary criticism that I know he values. He frames his essay with references to The Importance of Being Earnest. It seems he might have taken rather too literally, however, something else Oscar Wilde once wrote: “I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so.”

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