The writer, herself and I
Maya Arad has taken on a nearly impossible mission, based on an idea nothing short of brilliant: a book about the life of a short story writer that includes the stories he has written.
Oman Hasipur Hakatzar (The Short Story Artist), by Maya Arad Xargol & Am Oved (Hebrew ), 453 pages, NIS 94
"A snob." "An elitist." "Conceited." And over and over: "Why is she such a smart aleck?" What hasn?t been said about the writer Maya Arad? And it?s just as well, because a reputation like that is an excellent motivation for certain readers to seek out her books. The kind of readers who − I must confess, much like me -- are used to having such epithets thrown their own way during wrathful moments, or whispered in suppressed rage behind their backs. Like misery, arrogance loves company.
J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield said the best kind of book is one that once you've finished it, you want to call up the writer. Right after I read Arad's first book, "Another Place, a Foreign City," a novel in rhyme, I asked the author to be my friend. Our dark past in the army's Education Corps was the perfect starting point, and from there we moved on to our shared affection for dead Russian writers and rhyme. Arad's 2006 novel, "Seven Moral Failings," perfectly suited my awful visit with a Harvard doctoral student who had just discovered that a brilliant star in the Israeli skies was just one of a thousand in America. The sins of my pampered adolescence fanned out over her next book, "Family Pictures."
So I looked forward to Arad's latest book, even though I'm not crazy about Israeli literature, not crazy about books that have not yet stood the test of time, and really really crazy about short stories. But after reading "The Short Story Artist" three times in one week, I found myself -- for the first time in our lives -- conducting broad-ranging and heated arguments with her. Plates were smashed, books hurled at the table, and lines like "Is that what you really think of me?" were shouted out loud.
Such chutzpah. An entire book about short stories without a word about Raymond Carver or Augusto Monterroso? And what about the character of the literary critic in the book? She's deliberately provocative, admits that she always wanted to write but was too lazy, discovers at age 30 that life isn't what she thought, and admires Isaac Babel? This is simply stealing from life. That is to say, from my life.
Disclosure: My relationship with Maya Arad is conducted solely in my head. Obviously.
"The Short Story Artist" is Arad's fifth book. And like its predecessors, it is based on an idea that is nothing short of brilliant. It appears that from book to book, Arad imposes on herself increasingly elaborate and complext tasks. If in the past she tried to reinvent Pushkin's wheel, now she is zooming into outer space at the speed of light. That is, she has given herself a nearly impossible mission: a book about the life of a short story writer that includes the stories he wrote.
The book's protagonist is Adam Tehar-Zahav of Tel Aviv, who is around 50, single, childless, and the successful author of short stories. Or rather, he used to write and he used to be successful. Ever since his beautiful lover Galit Golan abandoned him six years ago, he has been stuck in a dry period, artistically and personally. The book deals with his attempts to redeem himself from this situation. It makes a direct parallel between his ability to write, the nature of his writing, the content and length of his short stories, and his fragmented, empty life, which lacks the novel-like development of actions and consequences, the entire life-to-death process.
Adam's short stories -- some of which appear in full and some of which are just hinted at -- are scattered throughout the book. Texts by secondary characters also appear: an essay by Dr. Einav Meital, a provocative literary critic with whom Adam falls in love; sections of a book by his legendary ex-girlfriend, who began writing (bestselling novels for women ) as soon as she left him; and work by students in Adam's creative writing class. The book is a meditation on writing and writers, a romantic novel, and a semi-roman a clef. More than anything, it is an excellent novel on life and writing and how they are intertwined.
Arad's writing is precise and meticulous. Each line, each chapter and the structure of the plot have been polished until they shine. Loose ends are tied, lessons are learned, pace is maintained. The book begins in an amusing and romantic tone that is enjoyable and easy to read. I admit that after a while I looked forward to some kind of creative unruliness, either in the prose itself or in the lives of the book's characters, and though I do hope that Arad will allow chaos to enter her work in the future, that doesn't appear to be her way. She is an artist of suppressed despair, small humiliations and structural restraint. As to the structure she has chosen, short stories within a novel, to my mind she has for all practical purposes turned Maya Arad the author into the main protagonist of the book. The novel raises extreme awareness not only of the act of writing, but also of the person wielding the mighty pen.
For example, Adam's first short story (and the first to appear in the novel ) raises the question: How did Adam succeed at writing in an authentic feminine voice? Which, of course, leads to the question, as posed in the film "Victor Victoria": Has Arad succeeded in impersonating a man who writes like a woman? And from here to: Does the sex of the writer have any literary significance at all? This question gains in strength when it confronts Galit's physical, womanly and gut-spilling prose. All the female characters tend to be smart and fascinating, as are the theories of Dr. Meital on the death of the short story, which provide a fluent and amusing academic explanation of why Arad chose to write exactly this book in exactly this format. Because writing short stories in our time is irrelevant unless one addresses this irrelevance in the writing itself.
Unfortunately, the short stories themselves are the book's soft underbelly. It feels funny to criticize Adam's writing, when you consider that Arad herself has covered this issue very well in the book. The problem isn't that it's impossible to believe someone -- or even specifically a character in the book -- wrote them; it is rather the feeling that they don't contain enough sparkle or charisma to create the figure of a writer completely different from Arad (someone like Etgar Keret, say, an international artist of the short story; and moreover, the way Keret's success is almost completely ignored in the book is surprising considering its title ). In order to say something about short stories, or about the protagonist, the stories supply the goods. It is interesting that Adam's story modeled on Yaakov Steinberg's "The Blind Woman" appears in its entirety, while the story based on a Borges tale is mentioned in just a few lines. This is a choice that points to something.
Just as descriptions of sex are missing from the book, it is generally safer, when writing about writers, to avoid offering the writers' texts themselves (yet again, Salinger comes to mind ). Einav Meital announces that for her course, "all of Babel's stories will be on the test," and doesn't say a word about them. She's right; there is no need to discuss them. What can be said about Babel? You just have to read.
The book definitely increases one's appetite for reading. Many books and stories are mentioned, and it's nice to get a reading list from Arad (although it seems she doesn't bother to read American writers ), and to wonder, for example, what she really thinks about "Pride and Prejudice," a book that some of her characters loathe and others love.
Surprisingly, one text that does the trick very well, stands on its own and even deserves to be published separately, is a children's book "by" Galit Golan, waiting near the end of the novel like a cherry on a sundae for lovers of rhyme.
Naturally, it's hard to stop thinking about the connection between the characters and reality. Who is the "major writer"? Who is the young and boastful author of a polyphonic novel? Who writes about giving birth and calls her book "The White Midget and the Black Hole"? Unlike the author of a roman a clef, Arad doesn't really supply keys with which to deduce which Israeli literature and books she is talking about, there are hints here and there, but it's just a delusion, a game. Perhaps out of lack of interest, or perhaps because her interest is in the protagonist, and he operates on the margins.
Batya Gur's "Literary Murder" creates a portrait of the literary world and its motives that is far more sharp and fascinating than Arad's, but still, for book lovers who are not afraid of academia or abstract ideas, this novel is a lot of fun, even if it filled me, as is my way, with unfathomable, endless despair. The rumors about the death of the short story were truly not premature. Unless you're at this moment reading Alice Munro, but how many bananafish are there in this world anyway?
Liat Elkayam is deputy editor of the Haaretz Hebrew Books supplement.
Haaretz Books, January 2010, firstname.lastname@example.org