Ever since I finished reading Meir Shalev’s new book, I have been seeing snakes everywhere, actual snakes, like the one reported on in the news recently who bit a man to death. Shalev says there are several cases like that every year, but that we simply don’t take notice. Being fatally bitten by a snake is what happens to Neta, son of Ruta, the narrator of his book “Two She-Bears” (“Shtayim Dubim”), just published by Am Oved.
Shalev’s style is unmistakable, but in this book it takes on especially powerful urges, madness and terrible violence of the sort that is hard to get out of your head. There are dead of all sorts there, murders of all kinds: a well-planned blood vendetta; the vengeance of a psychopath; maybe even God’s vengeance.
“It wasn’t too violent for you? There are a lot of murders in it,” Shalev acknowledges, when we meet in Tel Aviv. He agrees that this book is different from his previous ones: “From the start I felt that it was different, and that was both pleasant and scary, because I was treading on less familiar ground, from a narrative standpoint, and also in terms of the environment and society in which it is set.”
He wanted to write a story that centers on actual vengeance. “‘A Russian Novel,’ my first book [1988, called ‘The Blue Mountain,’ in its English translation], also involves vengeance,” Shalev says, “but there it is a polished ideological vengeance, the vengeance of the grandfather in the village. The vengeance that says, ‘You wanted Zionist farming, I’ll give you a graveyard,’ which is Diaspora farming. It is a Hebrew pioneer’s vengeance that is ideological. I guess I had a burning need to depict vengeance because it is a very powerful emotion, basic, that exists in everyone. Fortunately, most of us do not exercise these feelings, but it is a feeling that exists.”
These basic components are part of Shalev’s own unpredictable character. On the one hand, when he walks into the coffee shop wearing his round glasses and a white brimmed hat, he looks like the classic author. On the other hand, we are talking about a man who with his own hands kills rats and vipers that periodically show up in the yard of his home in the Jezreel Valley. He shows me a photograph of himself with the last viper he caught in his yard. The serpent is still alive, while Shalev holds it and smiles at the camera. “I’m armed with a rubber squeegee when I go up against him. Killing a snake is terribly easy. Capturing it alive is a whole other story.”
At a certain point in “Two She-Bears,” the narrator, Ruta Tavori, says that it is the kind of story that couldn’t have been made up. Shalev admits it is a tale that could indeed have taken place: “It’s a story I heard from two different sources. I don’t know if it’s true, but I did hear it.”
It has been seven years since the publication of his last novel, “A Pigeon and a Boy.” During this time he wrote the memoir “My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner,” the book of essays “Beginnings: Reflections on the Bible’s Intriguing Firsts,” and three children’s books. He says he himself needed time to digest the new book, “as though I had slowly molded it inside myself and let each layer set. It was really a special experience for me, because there were sections that were very tough to write, and there was also a feeling that I was embarking alone on less familiar territory. There are thriller elements here that I’ve never had before, though there was violence in earlier books as well.”
Shalev, born in 1948, was already 40 when he brought out his first novel, “The Blue Mountain,” which was a great success. That was followed by “Esau,” “Four Meals,” “Alone in the Desert,” “Fontanelle” and “A Pigeon and a Boy.” In between, he wrote children’s books that became classics, and his two books of commentary on the Bible, “The Bible Now” and “Beginnings.” Shalev also writes a column in Yedioth Ahronoth’s weekend supplement.
The new book is dedicated to his editor, Avraham Yavin. “He’s the man who edited all of my books, starting with ‘The Blue Mountain,’” Shalev explains. “We’ve developed a relationship of love and affection as well. As a functional writer/editor couple we are also a very good couple. We have no ego contests. I don’t think I’ve rewritten the Ten Commandments, nor the Odyssey; he doesn’t think he has to put the young author in his place. He is razor-sharp. An editor needs to be smart, with a history of reading, a veteran and experienced, with an excellent memory, and mean. Avraham is very good by all these parameters.”
Yavin is a legendary editor whose prowess only three writers benefit from these days: Yehoshua Kenaz, Haim Beer and Shalev. As for his fidelity to a single publishing house throughout the years, Shalev says: “For me, Am Oved is Avraham Yavin, and I also find it pleasant to work at the same publishing house that brought out my father’s books.”
Shalev’s personal life has changed greatly in the past year. He may have the same editor as before, but he has a different life partner: After Shalev and his wife of many years split up, he now lives with Ayelet Sade, who is 19 years his junior. Sade is a graphic designer, and owns a branding and design studio in Ramat Hasharon.
“She mainly deals with package design,” Shalev says. “Every time one of her packages has words with nikkud marks, that is my contribution,” he adds, referring to the diacritical signs that represent vowels in the Hebrew alphabet. “I vocalize packages. One of the only things I know how to do really well is vocalize.”
Shalev also has a hobby: “Wildflowers have been my hobby for the past 10 years. I collect wildflower seeds.”
Other than that, he makes 10 liters of limoncello every year from the lemon tree in his garden. He claims his limoncello is better than that of Dovik, one of the characters in “My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner.”
Shalev’s new novel deals with vengeance and masculinity. With societies of men, with men who know how to navigate in the desert, to court women, to make you laugh, help a buddy, light a fire − and kill an enemy.
“In the past year a very good friend of mine died, [the cardiologist and restaurant critic] Dr. Eli Landau, and another good friend of mine, Gadi Giladi, lives abroad. At the time of writing, this subject was an issue for me. Besides, in the past year, because of the breakup at home, I was given a welcome opportunity to understand who my real friends are and whom I can’t count on. It’s a bit different from the friendships of women, who naturally have an easier time forming bonds of friendship, candor and trust with each other. It takes men time, perhaps also because they are competitive and territorial.
“I think that to a certain extent I also wanted a masculine story. In the previous books, men told stories, a few of which were romantic, and now I have a female narrator who tells a very masculine story about the men in the family. She is my seventh narrator to date and she is the narrator who most resembles me.”
Mocking gender studies
Most of the men in the book do not meet the standard for the New Man, and the narrator mocks the whole notion of gender studies.
“It is a book told in the first person, but I’m not committed to everything she says. She has critical opinions, she doesn’t like the word migdar [the Hebrew word for “gender,”] and I’m with her on that, because I think they invented that word so it would be phonetically similar to ‘gender.’ But, whereas ‘gender’ has an etymology that relates it to sex, ‘migdar’ does not. ‘Migdar’ basically refers to a bounded group, and conjures up the image of a fence within which women set themselves off... I don’t like the root gimel-dalet-resh. The purpose was to adopt a word from English and to seem international, in that I share Ruta’s derision.
“I like the fact that a woman also has certain masculine sides. But I don’t like to make generalizations; I ascribe importance to the individual. When I describe a particular man, it does not mean I am expressing my opinion about all men; when I describe a particular woman I am describing her, referring to her, and expressing my opinion about her. A thousand women could be similar to her and a thousand could be different from her.”
What sort of woman is Ruta Tavori?
“She doesn’t belong to the group called ‘girls,’ and nor to what is called ‘females.’ She is an opinionated gal, and mainly she is unafraid. She is a person who speaks freely, she is an open person and independent. It took me a long time to shape her language, because on the one hand she has to make spoken-language mistakes, and on the other hand there are mistakes that a high-school Bible teacher will not make. Because of that, I love the title ‘Shtayim Dubim.’ It’s an error [in terms of Hebrew grammar] − but it’s from the Bible, so it’s okay. The Bible is full of errors in Hebrew.”
The origin of the title “Two She-Bears” is the story of the prophet Elisha, in 2 Kings. “There are kids there who are killed by bad animals like in my book,” Shalev notes. “There too it is unclear why God did it. The prophet Elisha was heading up the road from Jericho to Beth-El. When he passed by Beth-El, children came out of the town and made fun of his baldpate. They said to him, ‘Go up, thou baldhead; go up, thou baldhead.’ So he cursed them in the name of the Lord. In other words, he didn’t just curse like any one of us would do, he exploited his power as a prophet of God. When a prophet curses, things happen. According to the Bible, two bears came out of the forest and killed 42 children.”
He adds: “What’s going on here? How can God participate in such a thing? Elisha is a prophet I loathe.”
“The prophet Elijah was far crueler and more radical than him, he slaughtered 450 prophets of Baal in the Kishon with his own hands, but all of his religious violence was directed against idol worship and against the political and idolatrous establishment of his time. In his personal life he was not violent in the least. He ascends into heaven in a storm and bequeaths his magic powers to his student Elisha, and the latter on his first day as a prophet does two things: He sweetens the water of the poisonous Jericho spring that gives the city life, and kills 42 children who laughed at his baldness. That shows that the man does not understand his professional ethics as a prophet, he doesn’t understand that these powers were intended for ideological use and not for personal use.
“The traditional commentators are very uncomfortable with this story. They explain that it never happened, and that is where we get the expression ‘lo dubim velo yaar’ [literally, “no bears and no forest,” meaning that something never happened]. Some of them even say that these children were not even Jews or that their mothers conceived them on Yom Kippur, so they had it coming to them.”
Something similar happened to Ruta Tavori, the Bible teacher.
“She says that an act of brutal cruelty in which a dangerous animal kills a child is what happened to her too, and she wants to understand what is behind such a thing. She tells God that gone are the days when bears and lions roamed these parts, so where do you get off pulling your ancient tricks on me? A snake?! What next? Are you going to hurl big rocks at me from the sky? She is an utterly secular woman and these are not faith-based conversations, but rather conversations like those of Job, who tries to understand what happened. The story of Elisha is so cruel and so arbitrary that I felt that she, as a Bible teacher, would recognize something in it.”
Shalev says that the snakebite is not the only element in which the book goes back to the basic components of human existence in the world: “Prehistoric man is an active and present figure in this narrative. And it also contains a very unapologetic friendship of men with each other.
“Eitan [Ruta’s husband] and Ruta’s grandfather would not be welcome in any Tel Aviv cafe. The grandfather is a dreadful man, but I get it that his grandchildren love him, because he is a real human being. It’s like I am sure that in Don Corleone’s family, everyone loved old Vito even though they knew what he was into.”
You’re saying that men and women today have moved away from something basic that is in their nature, and according to the book you can’t get away from it, not really.
“Things are diverse; you can’t demand that all men obey the new norms. On the other hand, I don’t have a single man in the book who commits rape or an act of sexual harassment.”
While saying that, and with complete indifference, Shalev takes care of a moth that has entered our space. With one open palm slammed into the wall he annihilates the pest. This is the moment to quote his narrator to him, who declares that there are men who every once in a while need to kill something, and sometimes even someone. Otherwise they simply go crazy.
“Ruta thinks that because of the experience in her family,” he says. “Her brother fantasizes tales of heroism and does not carry them out, and her husband, who is a trained assassin but not a sadist, does what his conscience tells him to do − he conducts a ‘blood redemption.’ And there is her grandfather who is a psychopath. But you can’t say that about all men. I, for example, am not a psychopath, but I am capable of performing blood redemption, and I also know women who are interested in doing away with somebody.
“Speaking personally, I have both these facets. Just as Ruta feels like both a woman and a man, so I too feel that way a lot of times. Just as I have an inherent loathing for coarse people, and on the other hand I don’t like the apologetic men who bow their heads in the face of fashionable social pressure. I don’t like the rule of ideology, and it makes no difference if that ideology is communism, fascism, gender, political correctness, religion or vegetarianism.”
Shalev says he always tries to imagine himself in the situations he writes about. “Eitan’s blood vengeance I would contemplate carrying out. The only thing that would keep me from doing such a thing is fear of the law, not morality. Because of this I am a devotee of law and order, because if people like me can ponder the possibility of wasting someone, that’s a sign we need police and courts of law. The third horrifying crime described in the book − and we won’t divulge what it is − I cannot see myself perpetrating in any situation.”
In contrast to all these, the novel is also interspersed with children’s stories that Ruta writes for her dead son Neta. And these are not-half-bad children’s stories by Meir Shalev. “Yes, they told me at Am Oved that I blew three children’s stories for them in this book,” he says.
Even though Shalev is one of Israel’s most successful writers, and in the world his books have been translated into 26 languages, his name is not mentioned in the same breath as those of Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua and David Grossman. He is leery of the political dimensions of literary writing. “What is actually going on here? Are you promoting your politics by literary means or are you promoting your literature by political means?” he asks rhetorically.
He says he knowingly waived the option of being a spokesman for political causes. “I am pleased that I’m not there. This is the result of a natural tendency and also of a conscious choice. At a certain stage I decided that I was detaching myself. There was a brief period when I was there and I discovered displays of hypocrisy that I did not care for. I decided that I would engage in my art, and I have a column in Yedioth Ahronoth, where I write my opinions.”
You are giving up the opportunity to be a preacher and prophet.
“Knowingly, with awareness and relief. When I am abroad and I am asked political questions, I say my opinion, but I never initiate it. Sometimes I will ask, after a few questions, if we can go back the book. From a literary standpoint I do not feel any problem with my standing in Israel and among the peoples of the world. My views are clear and known. Here and there, mainly when several authors are sitting together, I encounter situations I do not like. Such as people who say one thing in Israel and another thing overseas.”
In Belgium, a reporter quoted some of his articles back to him, and told him that he understands he is an anti-Zionist writer. “They think that anyone who objects to the government’s policy is anti-Zionist,” Shalev observes. “Another reporter asked me whether the character of my grandmother − the Zionist pioneer with a vacuum cleaner in her hand in Palestine − is a simile for the ethnic cleansing we did to the Palestinians. I told him he forgot to mention that the vacuum cleaner is American and that we are also the envoys of American imperialism in the Middle East. I discovered that there is one man who unfortunately will never leave me alone and that is me. With myself I need to live in peace, therefore I live in accordance with my personality, which not infrequently does me damage, and in accordance with my internal integrity. And that is hard for writers, who make a living from falsehoods.”
And while we are on the subject of livelihood, when Shalev is asked about the legislation to protect writers and literature, it turns out that even a writer whose books are all best sellers needs to do other things to supplement his income.
“I think the retail chains have done a terrible thing to the book market in Israel,” he adds. “I buy books only at one store in the country, at a small family-owned store called Yarden on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem. I recently went into a Steimatzky’s to buy a book of mine because I had scheduled a lecture and forgot the book at home. I left there with my book and another three trashy books I didn’t even want to read; they more or less forced me to take that stuff. What is happening today is that even the writers who are established in terms of sales can’t make a living from writing in Israel.”
“I lecture a lot and write every week in a newspaper to supplement my income. From ‘The Blue Mountain’ to this day, my income from literary writing has gone down by 70-80 percent. The contention that the ‘books bill’ [which would limit stores’ ability to offer books at a steep discount for 18 months after publication] would be bad for novice writers is also nonsense. I was a novice writer: Who among us wasn’t a novice writer once? We were. There isn’t a single literary critic in Israel who can degrade or elevate a book, but Steimatzky’s and Tzomet Sfarim can erase a book. I am in favor of protecting books in the first year or two. I am pretty surprised at the slowness and weakness the government is displaying here. Well, I get it that the government is scared of the tycoon, of the gas company, of the big guys, but who exactly is it afraid of here?”