There are only five class meetings left for my New Israeli Stories literature class. Why does this spring semester seem like it has gone by so much more quickly than last fall, I wonder? And these are the books I will be reading (or in a few cases since they are in progress) or finishing between now and the very end of April. There is a book missing, too, (Tel Aviv Noir), but as we are only reading a few stories in the collection I am hoping to borrow it rather than buy (unless I discover I really can't live without it, that is . . . ).
This week we discussed Orly Castel-Bloom's Dolly City (Doli siti translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu) which I recently mentioned. It's that book I haven't really been cozying up to, and when all is said and done I am suspect I will be glad I read it and will appreciate aspects of it but I think I might be happy to slide it back onto the bookshelf. However, discussing it has added some interesting and helpful perspectives on what Castel-Bloom was attempting to do.
There is a helpful afterword also, which I read before starting the novel (normally I don't do that but when faced with a postmodern work, I'll take all the help I can get). This might give you a sense of what the reading experience is like:
"Adi Ophir, in his review for Ma'ariv, recommended that readers read the novel three or four times: first to 'absorb the shock'; second, to understand how and why Dolly does what she does; third, to connect Dolly's world to one's own; and fourth, to get to the bottom of Castel-Bloom's idiosyncratic use of language."
I think this makes me feel better. If it takes that many readings to really get to the heart of Castel-Bloom's work and understand it, a first attempt, and a difficult one at that isn't meant really to feel comfortable in the story. And this is a story that leaves you very uncomfortable to say nothing of a little disoriented. Of course it makes me feel worse, too, as I am not sure I could face a reread of Dolly City anytime soon.
How to describe Dolly City to you? I'm not sure I can and I won't do it as well as I would like. This is a place that you can imagine yet one you could never imagine in your wildest dreams. It's somewhat futuristic, though (probably to those who know it) it resembles Tel Aviv. Dolly is a doctor who finds a baby in a black plastic bag and takes him home and makes him her own. She is a mother like any other but is wracked by fears and anxieties to a point that she takes her 'precautions' to excess. The strange thing about her precautions is that they seem less like a mother's overprotectiveness and much more violent, scarily so.
"Once again, terrible thoughts began to emerge from the depths of my despair and crush me like pythons. I tried to fight them by letting them express themselves and letting them go as far as they would, and indeed, when I confronted the worst and looked disaster in the eye, I felt somewhat calmer."
Dolly deals with her fears and anxieties by doing unspeakable things. Like cutting her son open and checking all his internal organs. Disinfecting everything, sewing him back up and dressing the cuts. It's not a pretty sight.
"Five minutes after I walked through the door I felt a new attack coming. The gnawing doubts, the fear and trembling."
* * *
"Before going any further, I would like to stress something : I don't want to give the impression here that I took a child and destroyed him. I only wanted to protect him form harm. I wanted him to live to a hundred and twenty, and what's wrong with that? I wanted to be in command on all fronts, and what's wrong with that? Why this hypocrisy? In some societies a man can be forced to chop off his sister's clitoris with his teeth--and I 'm not entitled to demand sovereignty over the defense of my son?"
As might imagine, this is a story filled with all sorts of imagery, none especially pleasant. This is a story without much of a plot and not really a lot of real character development (at least so it seems on that first read). But you do get a strange sense of a world not quite right and a mother's love that doesn't seem at all like love. But this is a story of extremes. There is a method to the author's madness and a reason for her outrageousness, and this was a hugely outrageous story.
The afterword begins:
"Dolly City is an astonishing novel. It leaves some readers enthralled, some stunned, and other intimidated. Orly Castel-Bloom told me that, in the months following the Israeli publication of the novel in 1992, people who recognized her as its author were actually afraid of her. Castel-Bloom's writing--confrontational, fearless, and disconcertingly funny--often evokes such visceral reactions. Now, nearly two decades after its appearance first shocked the Israeli reading public, the novel remains as provocative and powerful as it was then." (Karen Grumberg)
Dolly City was originally published in Israel in 1992 but was not translated into English until 2010. I think I fall into the "intimidated" (and maybe a little disconcerted) camp. But there are a few insights that came out of my class that helps make things a little more clear. Castel-Bloom's family is from Egypt and they later went to live on a Kibbutz. When she wrote the book she was herself a new mother and likely plagued with all sorts of anxieties of her own on motherhood.
Her novel is a 'stylistic outcry' and in class it was likened to punk rock music, which makes a lot of sense to me. Her writing is known as 'thin Hebrew', meaning it was not very poetic (and think of the tradition she was reacting against--the eloquent language of Amos Oz for example). This book is very much anti-literary establishment. It was new in style and language--very much an "anti" novel.
I suppose like any new young writer, and in her case she is also of Egyptian and not Western European heritage, she was trying to make a new sort of statement. There are lots of things the story touches on--nationalism, violence, war, the city, and most especially motherhood. Another really interesting little insight into Israeli culture, and it is hinted at in the blurb on the back of the book, Castel-Bloom was satirizing the "Jewish mother archetype". I always think of the idea of a "Jewish mother" as being something of a stereotype, but apparently in Israel when a woman is pregnant care of mother and child is taken almost to extreme. There are all sorts of tests given to the mother and child, a constant worry about children.
Knowing these cultural details helps put the story into perspective. All of a sudden it makes sense what Dolly was doing in the story, and if not exactly "sense" I can see that Castel-Bloom is satirizing (and as a new mother she would have just gone through all this) this "destructive, invasive love". I was thinking of Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal (I read it in high school) when we were talking about the book, and all of a sudden Dolly seemed just a little less offensive. I don't think anything in the story is meant to be taken literally, but the author is certainly making a statement.
Love it or hate it, this is a story you will certainly react to. I would never have read this on my own, but I am glad I did read it. It is definitely outside my comfort zone, but sometimes books should shake you up a little bit, right? Orly Castel-Bloom is, I think, an important female Israeli writer and she is still writing. Her more recent works sound a little more sedate than Dolly City. I am tempted to try her newest, Textile.
For now, however, we are moving into more familiar (and for me much more comfortable) are--crime fiction. Although for class we will be discussing his newer book, A Possibility of Violence, I am first reading D. A. Mishani's The Missing File (it had already been on my reading stack before I signed up for class) set in the Tel Aviv suburbs. As you can see by the pile above I have my work cut out for me for the next five weeks or so!