The NeverEnding Stories

Why are so many contemporary Israeli novels excruciatingly overlong?

“Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel,” Miss Prism, the governess, cautions her charge in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Through four decades of reading Hebrew novels, I have diffidently heeded the sage advice of this sterling Victorian educator. But no longer. I boldly pronounce, here in the pixels of this daring Israeli literary publication, what I have been keeping pent up in my kishkes for so many years. Many contemporary Hebrew novels are too long. Way too long.

I arrived at this state of exasperation after setting aside the third of a run of highly recommended, critically acclaimed works after 200 pages of 444, 166 pages of 543, and 86 pages of a relatively modest 380, respectively. The books were not published in three volumes; however, considering that a translation into English would bulk up each by about a third, they in fact match in length, more or less, the literary institution of which Miss Prism spoke so highly.

None of them have been published in English. But if there are overseas houses thinking of taking such a risk, they might indeed best revert to the Victorian strategy that gave birth to the three-volume novel. The idea worked like this: if enough subscription libraries could be persuaded to buy the first volume, then the proceeds could be used to pay for the print run of the next two—which the libraries would also end up having to buy because otherwise Miss Prism would rage and roar and bang on the counter demanding her right to find out whether Jane Eyre would really be so foolish as to marry Mr. Rochester.

I began reading these three books because they had been flagged by critics and friends whose opinions I respect. And, at first, I was grateful. I was captivated by each, and really wanted to find out how they would end. Did the elusive Czech author Pawel Klaczek actually live and write in the fictional universe created by Uri Kats in The Man Who Got Stuck with the Frown, or is he a hoax, perpetuated by Kats’s fictional characters on his namesake protagonist? In Lea Aini’s Rose of Lebanon, will Vered, who surreptitiously and compulsively visits a comatose soldier who tried to end his life during the First Lebanon War, be able to reconcile that young man’s trauma with that of her own father, a Saloniki Jew who survived Auschwitz? Will the nameless young narrator of Dan Benaya Seri’s Artur find a way out of the devastating web of biblical stories that his family seems doomed to reenact, in twisted ways, in Jerusalem of the 1940s?

I’ll never know, because all three authors over-tried my considerable patience with grueling longueurs that should not have been submitted to a publisher, and that said publisher’s editor should not have allowed to go into print.

The first fifty or so pages of Kats’s book are wonderful. This far in, I was inordinately pleased to have found a new author willing to set aside the dreary realism of too much contemporary fiction to instead experiment with shifting genres, styles, and points of view. He even overcame my kneejerk aversion to all novels about novelists trying to write novels. Uri, the central character and narrator, is a frustrated Israeli writer in search of the work that, according to a legend handed down in his Czech-Jewish family, is the greatest contemporary novel ever to come out of Prague: The Man Who Got Stuck with the Frown. Its author is Pawel Klaczek, who was a member of a circle that included Franz Kafka, Max Brod, and Hugo Bergmann, all of whom considered him the greatest writer of them all.

The problem is that Uri can’t find any evidence of Klaczek’s masterpiece beyond a few typescript pages left by his grandparents. On the other hand, traces of the story and its author turn up all over the place, from Arab legends told to Uri during a visit to Jordan to the lore of his Czech girlfriend’s family. Most importantly, Uri’s grandfather, one of the besieged defenders of Kfar Etzion—a religious kibbutz, south of Jerusalem, which fell under an enemy onslaught during Israel’s War of Independence—kept up his comrades’ spirits by telling them the story until they were all massacred.

Kats’s deft movement between the fantastic and the real kept me reading for a while, but I kept encountering sections and chapters where the narrative stalled, the characters lost volume, and where the prose read like material taken from a sketch pad. Yes, this is part of the mirror Kats holds up to Kafka. But such literary devices should be used judiciously. Kats lost me when he launched into a riff on the father of Czech science fiction Karel Čapek, in which The Man That Got Stuck with the Frown plays out in a futurist dystopia. The riff turned into a movement, and then into something that threatened to reach the length of a Mahler symphony. At page 200 I checked out and began Rose of Lebanon.

Aini’s book also caught me up immediately, in part because the central narrative takes place in the early weeks of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. I served many months in Lebanon in the aftermath of that invasion, and so it’s part of my biography.
Here, too, the author shares her name with her alter-ego. Lea is serving at a rear signal corps base in Jaffa and opposes the war. Once a week, she sneaks out of her base and takes a bus to the military hospital at Tel Hashomer, adopting the pseudonym Vered (Rose in Hebrew) on her visits to a wounded soldier she had heard about on the news. He may or may not be able to hear and understand the tale that Vered begins to tell him as she sits at his bedside, her story of growing up in a Greek-Jewish working-class family in south Tel Aviv. It’s a story of repressed trauma, repressed love, and repressed identity, for this Saloniki family’s culture is very different from that of the young Lea’s Ashkenazi schoolmates, even though it shares the shadows of the Holocaust with them.

Most of the individual scenes in Rose of Lebanon are well-conceived and convincing. The problem, though, is that there are too many of them. For each one that moves the larger story along or provides new insight into a character, there is another that simply distends the tale. Most novelists produce first drafts containing many finely-crafted scenes that ultimately must be tossed in the trash bin; making those painful cuts is part of the writer’s craft. Aini didn’t do enough of that, so I set her book aside.

The copy of Artur that I found at the book stop in our neighborhood community garden might just be the same one I bought and then gave away when it first came out, to much praise, in 2011. Back then, I read a few dozen pages before getting bogged down. When I saw it at the book stop last summer I picked it up again, wondering whether the fault had been with me. Maybe nine years back, my ability to parse oneiric Hebrew prose and my knowledge of the Tanach and Hebrew literature was not sufficiently up to snuff for me to appreciate the author’s biblical and literary references. I really ought to like this book, I told myself when I began my second attempt. After all, I love Agnon, whose Hebrew prose is inflected with the language of the Bible, Talmud, and Midrash; so too the intertwining of myth and reality of which Haim Be’er is the Hebrew language’s finest living master.

Seri’s story, and the language he tells it in, are of that genre. It is set in one of Mandate-era Jerusalem’s old neighborhoods, the Jewish underground attempting to drive out the British. The narrator is the younger son of a family of grotesques; the father is a midget, the mother mad. They all live with the boy’s grandparents, who hate their family, their neighbors, Ashkenazim in general, and the British in particular. Seri expertly creates the mysterious and baffling milieu that the narrator finds himself living in, a kind of horror show of passions and death wishes and misalliances, largely devoid of the one thing the boy most needs, a mother and father’s love. Seri’s dysfunctional family seems to be a distorted reincarnation of those of the book of Genesis—doomed to reenact their tragedies, but without the divine presence that grants the biblical stories meaning and hope.

Believe me, I like books that are difficult, enigmatic, and exacting. But even a slow story must keep readers invested in the project of reading it. It need not be the plot—it can be the poetry of the language or the choreography of the characters’ movements in the space they occupy. The intricate and melodic prose used by Agnon and Be’er work like an opera’s score, as do the subtle metamorphoses of the spatial relations between S. Yizhar’s characters. One of my most rewarding reading experiences over the last two years was Anthony Powell’s leisurely twelve-novel, four-volume A Dance to the Music of Time. Currently, I’m immersed in Miriam Borenstein’s wonderful Hebrew translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob (712 pages). Some critics slammed Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness (593 pages) for being too verbose, but I don’t think a single word was wasted. There were episodes in Amir Gutfreund’s When Heroes Fly (672 pages) that I would have advised cutting had I been his editor, but they were few and far enough between that they didn’t make me set the book aside.

The three cases I offer here are only the most recent of many such experiences since I read my first novel in Hebrew nearly half a century ago, with dictionary at hand and a pencil to write in marginal translations. Why are so many modern Hebrew novels much longer than they should be?

I suspect that editors at Israeli publishing houses may share in the blame. Israeli editors are honored figures; their names are even given in book reviews in Hebrew publications, along with the book’s title, author, and publisher. But their work is indiscernible to the reader. When I read a novel, whether lean or obese, I have no way of knowing whether the book’s physique reflects the author’s or the editor’s work. Kats’s book was edited by Oded Wolkstein. To the best of my knowledge I haven’t read any other book that he edited, so I don’t have enough evidence to convict him. Over the years I’ve read many novels edited by Yigal Schwartz, one of the most senior, active, and respected figures in the field. Some are exemplary in their tightness of structure and prose—Sami Michael’s Aida (271 pages), and David Shütz’s White Rose, Red Rose (255 pages), are two examples that come to mind. But his name also graces both Aini’s and Benaya Seri’s books. I can only surmise that when he’s working with an author who knows how to pare down his prose, Schwartz accepts and endorses this; but when he’s given an overly long manuscript, he is too indulgent of his authors. Perhaps this lenience has its roots in the traditional Jewish reverence for texts; perhaps, because most Hebrew authors will never be published in other languages and compete in larger markets, editors here tend to let novelists publish what might best be termed the author’s cut of their works. If the author is a good critic of his own writing, that can be salutary. If she is overly fond of everything she writes, it can be disastrous.

But I want to stress, before Wolkstein and Schwartz send me angry letters or hire lawyers to sue me, this is just speculation. One of the few windows I’ve had into how Israeli editors work indicates that they are indeed doing their jobs, at least to some extent. When, some years before his untimely death, I asked Gutfreund about the gargantuan length of When Heroes Fly, he told me that his editor cut down the original manuscript by a third.

While I’m an editor myself, I do not think editors are always right. They can do damage as well. I very seldom set aside a contemporary English novel because it feels bloated. Indeed, the opposite is often true. I often get the feeling that they have been whittled down to the point of losing the complexity I seek, either by editors or by authors who fear— probably correctly—that this is what they need to do to get their book published. But maybe it’s about me. Maybe my tastes just don’t represent what most Israelis want from local fiction. Still, to use a phrase coined by the influential and difficult Hebrew writer Yosef Haim Brenner, I stand on my right to cry out.

“I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar, and often convincing,” thunders Lady Bracknell, Miss Prism’s employer, at the end of Wilde’s play. She has just heard that the hapless governess in her employ lost the manuscript of her three-volume novel many years ago, left in a handbag that she had deposited and then forgotten in the cloakroom of the Victoria Station. But it’s not the loss of a bloated work of fiction that has enraged Lady Bracknell. Also abandoned in the handbag was a baby, Lady Bracknell’s nephew. The comedy ends with all the loose ends tied up and two weddings in the offing. But no one reads Miss Prism’s three-volume novel.

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