Abigail Nussbaum on Fantasy in Hebrew Literature
Over at her popular review blog, Asking the Wrong Questions, Israeli critic Abigail Nussbaum looks at a new collection of essays, With Both Feet in the Clouds: Fantasy in Hebrew Literature, edited by Hagar Yanai and Danielle Gurevitch:
This isn’t something that I think about very often, but I live half my life in a foreign language. It’s the language I’m writing in right now. My actual, physical life, is lived in Hebrew. It’s the language I work in, the one I shop and bank and commute in, the one I use with friends and acquaintances and people on the street. But it’s not the language I write in, because it’s not the language I read in. I’m not sure when exactly it happened, but somewhere around the point that I transitioned from children’s books to adult fiction, I stopped reading Israeli writers, for reasons that I suspect will be familiar to many Israeli genre fans–because the books that caught my fancy, the Asimovs and Tolkiens and Pratchetts, were foreign. Unlike many of my fellow fans, I had the command of English that allowed me, eventually, to read free of the mediation of Israeli translators and publishers. So from a very early age I learned to gravitate to the English section of the bookstore, and when my literary horizons broadened beyond genre, that’s where I looked for reading material to scratch my new itches (and then online bookselling happened and I all but abandoned the Israeli bookstore). These days my tastes are varied enough that if I had the proper introduction I could probably read quite happily in Hebrew, but the reason I stepped away from it in the first place was that no one was writing genre in it. That’s changed somewhat in the last 15 years (right around the time that I was discovering English-language fantasy and science fiction), but Israeli genre works are still thin on the ground.
The question, of course, is why, and it’s one that Hagar Yanai and Danielle Gurevitch have tried to address in their essay collection With Both Feet in the Clouds, from the Israeli genre publisher Graff. As Yanai puts it in her introduction, how is it possible that in a country that garnered the inspiration for its very existence from a piece of utopian science fiction, the fantastic has been all but exiled from the cultural scene? This is a question I’d been thinking of in slightly different terms since the Jewish fantasy conversation exploded all over the internet this winter, spurred on by Michael Weingrad’s essay “Why There is No Jewish Narnia” (in which Yanai, who has written two volumes of a YA fantasy trilogy, is one of two authors discussed). My interest was in the Israeli aspect of the question, and when I became involved with content planning for this year’s ICon convention it was the first topic that came to mind. Which is when I was made aware of Yanai and Gurevitch’s book, which Rani Graff was kind enough to send me a copy of.
With Both Feet in the Clouds is geared, as its editors and publishers freely admit, at the non-fan, mainstream-reading Israeli audience, and frequently functions as a work of advocacy. Look, its essayists seem to be saying, this is fantasy! And this too! To this end the book opens with two essays that seek to define the genre. One, by Gurevitch, is academic and taxonomic (and flies the colors of that camp of genre scholarship that sees science fiction as a subset of fantasy), while the other, by translator Emmanuel Lotem (best known for translating The Lord of the Rings and other Tolkien works), is fannish and offers a more traditional definition of the genre, dividing it into the secondary world and urban types. A reader with some background in genre scholarship will find both essays a bit thin, but they are followed by one of the best pieces in the collection, Gail Hareven’s “Thinking About the Unthinkable” (all translations of titles and texts in this post are my own). Hareven, winner of Israel’s premier literary prize for her 2002 novel The Confessions of Noa Weber, is also the author of the science fiction collection The Way to Heaven (a story from that collection, “The Slows,” was translated and reprinted in The New Yorker last year). In a wry, energetic essay, Hareven considers the absurdity of a literary establishment that casts out the unthinkable in a country where the unthinkable happens so very often. It’s not simply, she argues, that the fantastic is rejected from Israeli literature in favor of reality, but that that reality is so carefully, narrowly mundane: “Most Israeli authors–though certainly not all of them–focus on the domestic scene, and even when they depart it they tend to tread lightly, crafting plots that move safely between the kiosk and the army base, between a “psychological problem” and an easily solved “dilemma.” … I do not know of a single Israeli author who would dare to inflict, as T.C. Boyle does in The Tortilla Curtain, a car accident, a robbery, a rape, a fire and an earthquake on their characters”.
Hareven’s persuasive answer to the question of Israeli literature’s aversion to the fantastic and even the melodramatic is that rather than be amazed that the country that was inspired by Altneuland has failed to produce new flights of fancy, we should be looking to that book for the reasons for our stolidness. Israelis, she argues, are still (or were, until the last couple of decades) in the process of bringing Theodore Hertzel’s vision to life, and while that real life worldbuilding effort is ongoing it is both difficult and potentially dangerous to immerse ourselves in the building of a fantasy world. “To dedicate himself to a task that seems ‘unrealistic,’ a person must believe that he himself is ‘realistic.’ He must assume that he understands reality and the ways in which it works”–fantasy, in other words, is the privilege of those whose reality is solid and secure, while the retreat to the quotidian and predictable in fiction is a defense mechanism employed by those whose real lives are lived on shifting sands.
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