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On the West bank: A New Israeli novel

2015 February 13


First published in the Times Literary Supplement (Jan. 2, 2015)

Among many obstacles to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the settlements established on the West Bank since 1967 seem peculiarly intractable. Part of their purpose was to create “facts on the ground” to inhibit the formation of a Palestinian state. Still, when Israel gave up the Jewish settlements in Sinai in 1982 and again in Gaza in 2005, the settlers appeared to have their backs to the wall. Instead, their influence over Israel’s politics, including the current governing coalition, has never been greater. Though many were drawn by economic incentives, others fit the more swaggering mold of gun-toting ideological zealots, motivated by biblically-rooted religion or nationalism. This is the stereotype that Assaf Gavron sets out to complicate in his new novel, The Hilltop.

Though the issues raised are grave, Assaf Gavron’s tack is surprisingly light-hearted, humorous, satirical. A previous book, Almost Dead, was a slashing, sometimes surreal comic novel about terrorism, including suicide bombing, told alternately in the first person from a Jewish and an Arab point of view. The Hilltop is a more conventional but also more ambitious work, a distanced overview, meticulously realistic, centering on everyday life in one corner of the territories. The setting is Ma’aleh Hermesh C, an improvised outpost of a handful of families on the fringe of an established settlement. It can’t be found on any map – hence can’t be evacuated – because officially it was evacuated years ago. It squats on land whose legal status is absurdly ambiguous. In a page out of Catch-22, it doesn’t exist though its residents are back, living under the protection of the Israeli army.

To Israel’s defense minister it’s become an annoyance, especially after a serendipitous press report draws the attention of the American government, even the president. The aggrieved defense minister feels “he went there to support them, and they spat on him. In any normal country,” he thinks, “ the outpost would have been dismantled and they would have been thrown in jail.” These settlers, though religious, are hardly extremists or militant fundamentalists. They’re hard-working, mostly well-meaning, with little patience for the “lefties” who challenge them. One of the founders, the genial Othniel Assis, simply knows how to play the bureaucratic game, exploiting loopholes and pulling strings whenever the outpost is threatened.

For some, the appeal of the territories is like that of the Wild West. Roni Kupper, whose recent past is clouded in mystery, returns from America to hole up in the outpost with his brother Gabi, who also has been through unspoken troubles. At loose ends, Roni hatches up a scheme to buy artisanal olive oil from a nearby Palestinian farmer and market it to Tel Aviv yuppies. Roni is secular and entrepreneurial while his brother, a loner, has become devoutly religious. Orphaned at a young age, raised by adoptive parents in a kibbutz in the north, they implicitly represent the two divergent wings of Israeli society, both cut off from the rugged, state-building generation of early socialist Zionists. To Roni, who has failed elsewhere, the territories offer a clean slate where he might start afresh. “There are no rules, you can make them up as you go along. It’s so cheap here, it’s another country.” By this point he has burned his bridges, first in Tel Aviv, where he’d opened a string of bars, then in the United States. There, escaping Israel’s “shallow waters of provincialism,” he’d had an improbably swift rise as an investment banker and Wall Street broker, only to be undone by his increasingly desperate financial maneuvers and brought down by the crash of 2008.

For his little brother, “the somewhat detached, somewhat impressionable, somewhat searching Gabi,” the outpost is also a refuge, a hideaway, but it has also given meaning to his restless life. We learn his story, like Roni’s, only in a long Faulknerian flashback. As in a layered tale like Faulkner’s Light in August, though without the same emotional urgency, we make sense of Gavron’s shrouded characters only long after we first encounter them. The boys’ parents, we discover, died in an absurd road accident, killed under fire, not by a stray shell but in a collision with a cow frightened by the shell. Since then Gabi’s life has been punctuated by episodes of violent rage, undermining his place in the kibbutz and propelling him as a teenager to act out and run away. These angry outbreaks cut short his army service and help wreck his marriage, after he becomes abusive to his young son. Almost by chance he gravitates toward religious observance, finding satisfying work and community, even renewed love, in this haphazard setting. Amid the makeshift trailers he begins building a small cabin of his own – itself a miniature outpost – on the nearby hilltop, and this proves therapeutic for him, balm to a restless soul.

To his more skeptical brother, who will eventually decamp for the secular world of Tel Aviv, the settlement feels too much like the kibbutz on which they grew up, “a hole at the end of the world, a small idealistic society, shut off and holier-than-thou.” This linkage to the kibbutz is the settlers’ great pride; they see themselves as rightful heirs to the chalutzim, the early Zionist pioneers who first settled the land. The novel neither endorses nor rejects this claim, centering instead on these two brothers whose lives have come unraveled, one of whom finds peace in the settlement while the other abandons it. The Hilltop has been acclaimed as a political novel, grounded in two years of research in the West Bank, yet its politics are hard to fathom. In interviews Gavron makes clear that he stands with the Tel Aviv secularists and questions the settlement project. Instead he uses fiction to explore the human reality of the settlers’ lives.

Like his contemporary, Etgar Keret, Gavron represents a distinctly new generation in Israeli writing. Though it sometimes echoes the wry, ironic tone of Amos Oz, Gavron’s novel, directed at a wide audience, eschews the symbolic freight and biblical intertexture of so much earlier Israeli fiction. Steeped in contemporary references, his work is not shadowed by the Holocaust or the ‘48 War of Independence. Born to immigrants from the UK in 1968, at home in English, he has retranslated books like Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Salinger’s short stories into Hebrew, along with the fiction of Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander. He feels completely at home in the vernacular and, thanks to a fluent, idiomatic translation by Steven Cohen, The Hilltop reads more like an American novel than a translation. Here people will “let you off the hook,” know how to “score the best weed,” or feel “stressed out.” We’re told that “Gabi lost it sometimes” when his young son “learned exactly which buttons to push to anger his father.” These are not simply verbal turns but reflect the book’s transnational flavor, especially as some of the backstory of both brothers evokes the Israeli diaspora in America. While the brothers’ earlier lives are not always convincing, Gavron fills them in with concrete, closely observed detail. He can tell you what it feels like to land for the first time in a bustling American airport and walk the mean streets of New York. Riding the subway for the first time, Gabi’s impressions take on an almost preternatural vividness.

“He swayed to the metallic rattling over bridges and underground. . . . One hand remained firmly attached to the bag, his eyes fixed constantly on a new target: huge billboards, stretches of tenement housing as far as the eye could see, two black men in baggy clothes, endless graffiti. . . . A chubby and unattractive girl with a blank expression, headphones from a music player wrapped around her head, which was wet at the top. Orange and yellow seats emptying and filling. Doors sliding to open and close. An intercom system that scrambled the words. A hot and stifling small, and different, everything was so different.”

All this is exotic to a young traveler from a small country but, as elsewhere, Gavron’s storytelling gift comes through less in the dramatic turns of a plot than in the more modest interstices of the ordinary, the quotidian.

Gavron surrounds the brothers with a cast of secondary characters as ample as in any Russian novel. Structured as a mosaic of small chapters and multiple viewpoints, the book allows the reader to identify with these diverse, affable, pragmatic settlers; in doing so The Hilltop inevitably lays out a case for them. It satirizes the legal shenanigans and official hypocrisy that empower the settlers, the army that shields them, the American millionaires who support them, but we see the world only from the settlers’ perspective. Except for a few rock-throwing incidents, they live in peace with their Arab neighbors, even join them in opposing a wall of separation, yet – unlike in Almost Dead – the Palestinian voice is never heard.

This built-in advocacy, nowhere explicit, perhaps even unintentional, comes through in the book’s unexpectedly soft conclusion, where it takes on the aura of a timeless fairy tale. Until then, almost the only violent confrontations have occurred in the video games played by a settler’s teenage son, aggressive behavior he comes to regret. In the real world an order finally comes through once again for the army to clear the outpost. At the same time, a drunken group of Purim revelers have gone down in costume on a friendly visit to the nearby Arab village, only to be met by stones, threats, and comical misunderstanding. This encounter draws the attention of the military, so that the outpost itself survives out of a moment’s distraction, the very inattention that has allowed it to slip through the cracks till now. Though not exactly credible, this is in one sense realistic – the status of these settlements is at once illegal and immutable – and it fits the benign logic of the novel, as if nothing very terrible could ever happen here. We finally learn which settlers once torched some of the Arabs’ age-old olive trees, but even such a heinous deed has no consequences. The forgiving spirit of humor, the license of carnival, the humanizing empathy of fiction, has relaxed political judgment and we are left with the workaday ways that ordinary people muddle through.

Marshall Berman, 1940-2013

2014 September 11
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(My longtime friend Marshall Berman died suddenly on September 11, 2013, just a year ago today. To mark his yahrzeit I’m posting some remarks I made at a memorial service  in November at City College, where he taught for over 45 years.)

I first met Marshall in 1958 or ‘59 when we were sophomores at Columbia – can it be that long ago? We arrived at this melting pot on Morningside Heights from different places. He was a secular Jew from the Bronx who’d already gotten a terrific education at one of New York’s elite public schools, the Bronx High School of Science. I was a yeshiva boy from the Lower East Side and Queens, who had finally rebelled against a parochial school curriculum focused as much on Talmud as on English and math. He had been left raw and vulnerable a few years earlier by the early death of his father. Living at home, growing up too soon, he was the man in the family, the source of emotional support for his widowed mother and younger sister, while I had managed (with difficulty) to break away by moving out. Though he was in history and I was in English, we shared a vast intellectual hunger fed by many of the same books: classics of the Western tradition beginning with Homer and Plato, subversive modern works from Nietzsche and Dostoevsky to T. S. Eliot, radical contemporary books by the likes of Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Norman O. Brown, and the Beats.

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My Cousin Harry

2014 July 4
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First published in Tablet (posted July 3, 2014)

My cousin Harry Krug, who died early last year at 88, was related to me only by marriage but he couldn’t have been more braided into my mother’s extended family. This matriarchy was dominated by strong-minded women like Harry’s mother-in-law, my aunt Lily, stubborn and spiky as a Russian peasant, and Harry’s wife Pauline, a force of nature, who had crisp reactions to everyone she knew. The climate of our clan was heated, the atmosphere operatic; the men who married in had to surrender their passports and go native, as my mild-mannered father readily did, trading in his dour Polish kin for some Russian joie de vivre. Harry too jumped in with both feet. Through stormy scenes he remained as genial and unflappable as his wife was volatile. With his generous girth and dark good looks, his twinkly, mischievous smile, it seemed impossible to upset him. Whatever the weather, no one was going to spoil his day.

Pauline and Harry, both born in 1924, met when they were twelve and became high school sweethearts on the Lower East Side. They always planned to marry but the war intervened and he was tapped for what would one day be dubbed the Greatest Generation. A year or so before he died I called him as part of my research for a memoir – he was one of the few people still around who had vivid memories of my childhood. Instead we spoke for an hour about his army experiences, none of which I had heard before, since he rarely talked about himself. Conversations with Harry usually focused on your life, about which he was endlessly curious, joshing, and funny. Unlike New York’s late, voluble mayor, he always wanted to know how you were doing.

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The Best of the Best?

2013 October 30
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by Morris Dickstein

First posted on NBCC Reads (October 29, 2013)

So many of the finest works of the last 38 years have been nominated for the NBCC book awards that it’s almost impossible to choose a single title. Many of the best did not finally win the award, including Irving Howe’s seminal World of Our Fathers, Norman Mailer’s remarkable nonfiction novel The Executioner’s Song, J. M. Coetzee’s best novel, Disgrace, Marshall Berman’s irresistible study of modernism, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Paul Zweig’s unsurpassed biography of Whitman, and Wayne Koestenbaum’s delicious meditation on gay men and opera, The Queen’s Throat, to name just a few. Among those that did win the award, my favorites, singled out almost at random, include Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Joseph Frank’s definitive biography of Dostoevsky, perhaps Philip Roth’s best novel, The Counterlife, C. K. Williams’s collection of poems, Flesh and Blood, Marilynne Robinson’s poignantly intelligent Gilead, and two enduring collections of essays, Joseph Brodsky’s Less Than One and Gary Giddins’s Visions of Jazz. But faced with the impossible demand to select only one title, I’d have to plump for The Stories of John Cheever.

First of all the stories, one after another, are simply wonderful – beautifully shaped, seductively written – the evolving arc of a whole career, brought together with perfect tact. A good dozen of them are among the outstanding stories of the postwar years – quite a batting average. Then too, the book came out at a low ebb of Cheever’s career: his writing had changed, The New Yorker, long his literary home, had begun turning down his work, which had nevertheless been typed, quite wrongly, as a certain kind of New Yorker story, teacup tragedies about predictable material – the genteel, gentile middle class, the terminally boring life of the suburbs – in a predictable tone of bland, well-mannered civility. Also, Cheever’s reception had turned sour; his edgiest novel, Falconer, had hardly been understood by reviewers, let alone welcomed. But reading the stories en masse overturned the stereotypes about him and his work, which now looked much darker and more daring than anyone had realized. There was a dawning sense of his conflicted, surprisingly tormented nature, which would be amply confirmed by the posthumous publication of his journals. Finally, there was the man himself, who charmed the pants off everyone as he accepted the award. I can still recall the wicked grin on his face, along with that wry New England tone of voice, when he said that he was so used to presenting awards to his friend Saul Bellow (whom he hugely admired) that he never expected to take one home himself. It was a performance, one of the most winning I’ve seen, but it was also heartfelt, a long overdue recognition that had to be the best reason for handing out these awards in the first place.

My Life in Fiction

2013 October 9
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First published in The Threepenny Review (Fall 2013)

Novels demand a projection of self that varies with your moods and seasons, the stages of your life. Reading fiction is a way of finding yourself by losing yourself – getting immersed in stories about other people. It makes strange places seem familiar yet defamiliarizes people and places we thought we knew. You could describe it as a kind of possession. Fiction gives us not only access to but ownership of experiences not our own, even as it casts a kind of spell over us, drawing us out of where we are. Rosanna Warren describes it this way in her autobiographical essay “Midi”: “To read is to take possession. But it is also to give oneself completely, if temporarily, to the keeping of another mind, and to enter another world.”

For me as a young reader, that other world had two favorite regions I loved to explore – history, which seemed like a fabulous and richly peopled country, and sports, that fiercely competitive terrain where people from nowhere could make good. Since I was from nowhere too, a bright, ghetto-bred yeshiva boy, son of Americanized immigrants, it gave me bold figures with whom I could identify. I was particularly taken with a series of eight young adult novels by Joseph Altsheler about the Civil War, focused alternately on two cousins, close to each other before the war, who find themselves fighting on opposite sides. These books turned a divided family into a metaphor for a fractured nation pursuing a fratricidal war. First published during the first world war – Altsheler died in 1919 – they focused on major battles and had similar titles – The Guns of Bull Run, The Sword of Antietam, The Rock of Chicamauga – place names that were exotic, hard to pronounce, yet meant America to me, the real America as opposed to New York Jewish world I knew best.

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Norman Mailer and the Nobel Prize

2013 April 11
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by Morris Dickstein

From the Mailer Review, Fall 2012:

[Going through my papers recently I came across the carbon of a letter nominating Norman Mailer for the Nobel Prize in Literature. It probably dates from around 1980 since it refers to The Executioner’s Song as recently published. The PEN American Center no doubt solicited nominations and this was my response. The occasion seemed to demand an exhaustive C.V., a condensed catalogue raisonée, but even in this pedantic format I notice a few  phrases I’m moderately pleased to have written, since they evoke his talent in ways I had forgotten. The reference to André Gide particularly surprised me. Of course Mailer was not the only perpetual nominee never to be awarded the Nobel Prize. On this distinguished list he joins writers from Tolstoy and Proust to Graham Greene, Nabokov, and (so far) Philip Roth, some of them blocked by the dogged opposition of a single figure on the committee, others by their presumed failure to be sufficiently upbeat and life-enhancing, as the terms of the bequest officially demand.  -M.D.]     

Norman Mailer was born in 1923, attended Harvard University, from which he was graduated in 1943, served with the U.S. Army in the Pacific theater in World War II, and returned to write what is still considered one of the best of all American war novels, The Naked and the Dead (1948).  Yet Mailer was not content to continue writing in the naturalistic vein of this first novel. One of the hallmarks of his career is his shifts of style and ambition from book to book. His second and third novels, Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955), remain impressive experiments in allegorical and political writing, especially where they touch on sexual themes. During this period Mailer wrote two of the best American short stories, “The Man Who Studied Yoga” and “The Time of Her Time,” and began a truly extraordinary career as a writer of nonfiction and journalism with “The White Negro” (1957), later collected with his other shorter writings in Advertisements for Myself (1959). Interlaced with a remarkable autobiographical commentary, these writings were truly prophetic and helped usher in the drastic changes in American culture in the 1960s, with their new interest in politics, their fascination with Beat and bohemian countercultures, and their advanced treatment of sex, which was radically new for the still-Puritan American culture of the period.

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Joseph Frank and the Unknown Dostoevsky

2013 March 4
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by Morris Dickstein

As a tribute to the late Joseph Frank (1918-2013), I reprint my review, slightly updated here, of the first volume of his great biography of Dostoevsky, which first appeared in the New York Times Book Review (November 21, 1976).

Some great writers leave books behind that are like monuments, chiseled in alabaster, inviolable, or like tall mountain peaks which must be climbed simply because they’re there. Dostoevsky is one major writer who will never harden into a classic. He forces his readers to grapple with his books in a personal way, with some of the same intensity he brought to writing them. The author of the definitive biography, Joseph Frank, describes “the unusual sense of excitement that Dostoevsky manages to create from page to page, and the almost hypnotic fascination, quite aside from plotting, that he never fails to exercise on his readers.” At moments Dostoevsky seems to reach out and grab the unwary reader by the throat, enclosing us in an atmosphere of emotional violence that is sometimes comical but can also come to feel suffocating.

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Becoming Gore Vidal

2012 August 6
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First posted in The Daily Beast (August 4, 2012)

Gore Vidal liked to style himself a populist but for his political leanings this hardly fit tha man at all. Populists in America come in many shapes and sizes, from William Jennings Bryan to Frank Capra, from Thomas Hart Benton to Sarah Palin. Vidal didn’t resemble these would-be common folk prone to idealize the salt of the earth. He was a patrician radical, a type more common in Europe than here, since we have never had a formal aristocracy. His prototype was Henry Adams, the grandson and great grandson of presidents, who felt that he had been born to public service but found that the corrupt, rough-hewn America of the Gilded Age had no use for his talents. Becoming a writer instead, he turned his disappointment into cutting irony and wit, surveying the details of American history – and his own life – from an eagle’s perch. After his death in 1918 his autobiography, written largely for private consumption, became a surprise bestseller, evoking an era long gone.

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The Great Contrarian – Dwight Macdonald

2012 August 5
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by Morris Dickstein

First published in The East Hampton Star (July 19, 2012)

Masscult and Midcult (New York Review Books, $16.95) gives us only one phase of Dwight Macdonald’s storied career as a political gadfly, provocative journalist, nonpareil editor, and embattled critic. It showcases Macdonald as an endlessly entertaining highbrow scold, taking up the cudgels for literary standards, drawing a bead on misconceived cultural projects. His political writings are out of print but this side of his work is well worth revisiting. Macdonald died thirty years ago but, as many reviewers seem to agree, this may be the liveliest collection of essays published this year.

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Looking Back at the French New Wave

2012 June 7
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by Morris Dickstein

First posted in The Cine-files  (May 28, 2012)

At a time when movies seem more mass-produced than ever, we have every reason to wax nostalgic about the French New Wave. Rarely have so many divergent but pathfinding talents emerged at the same time and place. The New Wave was essentially the product of a single decade, from 1959 to 1969, set in motion by a handful of directors who had sharpened their teeth as film critics in the 1950s. Their gift for offbeat storytelling, propelled by an invigorating spontaneity, ran parallel to the social upheavals of that era.. Yet each had his own personality, and their most characteristic films are surprisingly unlike each other. What they had in common needs no rehearsing here: their dislike of the upholstered, screenplay- and star-driven French cinema of their day; their preference for underrated Hollywood directors ranging from Hitchcock, Hawks, and Welles to hard-boiled outliers like Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray; their warm affinity for the European humanistic cinema of independent spirits like Vigo and Renoir, Cocteau and Melville, Bresson and Becker. With Melville they shared a love of the unsentimental brooding fatalism of American gangster films and pulp fiction, which were part of the heritage of postwar existentialism. But they were also caught between the buoyant, life-affirming legacy of Renoir, who showed them how to improvise and sympathize, and the plot-driven aesthetics of the more macabre Hitchcock, whose darker humor demanded iron control.

Though most of the New Wave directors enjoyed long careers, their best films came early on. Truffaut never equaled his first three breathtaking features, The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim. These are the films I’ve invariably used in courses, and they still play beautifully, each in its own way. In his next feature, The Soft Skin, the Hitchcock influence weighs heavily on him, even as it kindles the imagination of Claude Chabrol who after his first features, such as the superb Les Bonnes Femmes, evolved his own style of bourgeois thriller over five productive decades. Yet his work too crested early, at the end of the 1960s with La Femme Infidle, This Man Must Die, and Le Boucher, all introduced here at the New York Film Festival under the Francophile direction of its devoted founder, Richard Roud. Godard is a special case since he produced so many varied films in the decade that followed the release of Breathless in 1960 – perhaps the film that most defines the New Wave and one that holds up astonishingly well on repeated viewings.

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