My Contemporary Israeli Literature class has not met for two weeks in a row now, and I have to say I am going a little bit into withdrawal. I was a little happy that last week's class was called off due to bad weather (it would not have been a fun walk in all that snow), but I missed not going to this week's class. It was cancelled as my professor was out of town. So, while I didn't actually 'miss' anything, I did miss meeting and discussing our reading.
Last semester the topic we studied was Israeli War Literature and this semester is Israeli Stories with the semester broken into smaller themed units. We began with army stories, Beaufort and Waltz with Bashir and had the weather cooperated would have talked about Shani Boianjiu's The People of Forever are Not Afraid. We'll be talking about it at our next meeting, so I will save it for a proper post then so I can share the insight my class is surely going to offer on her writing. I will say I liked the book very much. It is a group of interlinked stories posing as a novel. It was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2013 (now the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction), which (as a side note) was an especially strong list from which I am still reading. The Boianjiu is one of the books that most appealed and I had to have it then and there, though it has only taken . . . two years for me to finally read it.
Israeli fiction, maybe most European fiction is very different from American fiction. At least it feels different--different even from the British fiction I read. I'm not sure I can explain how it is different, but maybe by the end of the semester I'll be able to articulate why. It's not exactly the writing style, maybe the content and the way the storytelling is handled? Or maybe it just feels more 'foreign' to me than most of the other books I read. How's that for being vague? Before I took last semester's class I would not have even thought of traveling to Israel or anywhere in the region, but now the more I read the more I want to know and the more I want to travel there. Maybe someday I will. For now there are books and stories.
Although we'll still be talking about war stories and the Boianjiu novel in my class next week, I have started reading the next book, which begins a new themed unit. We'll be spending a couple of weeks on Arabs in Israel and have a story and a novel to read in preparation for the discussion. Yesterday I started reading Sayed Kashua's Second Person Singular. Kashua is an Arab-Israeli writer who I believe is quite successful and popular in Israel right now. His fiction has won prizes and one of his novels was even shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
This is where my books are crossing paths. Yesterday I was reading Nick Hornby and inwardly agreeing with him about reading for pleasure and enjoyment. He is quick to note that readers shouldn't feel as though they 'must' choose books that they think 'ought' to be read. Those books chosen not for pleasure but for the lessons they might teach us. [Disclaimer on my part--I think there is nothing wrong with choosing any book--easy or challenging as long as it is something you are excited to read and enjoy it].
I am going to have a lot to say about the Kashua novel. Only 30 or so pages in and I can already tell this is a novel that has a lot to say about a lot of things in Israeli society and Kashua has piqued my interest and curiosity and has me questioning lots of things and learning lots of things, too. The is about jealousy and maybe about adultery and likely lots of other things, too. It begins with a thirty-ish narrator telling the story. He is a lawyer, an Arab living in the more affluent side of Jerusalem with his wife and children. He is successful and upwardly mobile and you can tell he is trying to improve himself and get on in mainstream Israeli society. In an early scene he is in a bookstore, and this makes me infinitely sad really . . . he picks out a book he is reading in a group and the clerk sneers at him for his choice. " . . . he hated the saleswoman for making him feel the way he did, and predominantly, hated himself for the many things he wanted to know but did not."
He buys the books he reads about in the highbrow Hebrew newspaper he picks up daily. It's mostly modern fiction, but what he really wants is to read the classics, the books that even nonreaders know about, but he is too ashamed to take them up to the clerk as it would be a sort of admission that he doesn't know about any of these books at all. And the last set of literary fiction, the books that are the ones reviewed in the Hebrew paper are not the types of books he likes at all--the last set, he couldn't manage to make it through the first one at all. What he wants is to be able to read the books that all his Jewish peers had read.
I'm going to sound like a broken record, but I am going to say it anyway. I really like this book. It's still very early days, but from almost the first page the (as yet unnamed) narrator has my attention. He buys a copy of Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata, which is what the Kashua is modeled after, and this is where the story really begins I think. Yes, there is more to this story than meets the eye. So I have a copy of Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata in hand to read side by side. Now that is has been introduced into the story, I am ready to read. The Tolstoy is a short novella so should be easy to take on with all my other books. I've got a couple of weeks to make my way through the Kashua and Tolstoy, but I think the story is going to move at a nice steady clip. So yet another reading path where books cross and all will be enhanced by listening to Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 9, which I plan on loading on to my MP3 player.
Aren't stories wonderful? How perfect to be transported so many places all at once. Kashua/Israel--Arabs/Jews, Tolstoy/Russia and all to the sounds of Beethoven. Magic.