One Man's Battle Against the 'Horrifying Shallowness' of Israeli Literature

Maverick poet Yotam Reuveni comments on civilization today.

Eli Eliahu
Eli Eliahu
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Eli Eliahu
Eli Eliahu

“Up until twenty years ago, the rule was that writers or poets wrote to the cosmos. They sent a cable to the stars,” says author, poet and translator Yotam Reuveni. “Then the madness of the Internet appeared. The moment we moved from the anonymous reader who never reacts, to a reader whom you want to see as a commenter, everything changed."

The literary world has indeed changed dramatically since Reuveni, who was born in Romania in 1949, published his first book of poems, “Reporting while things are still happening,” in 1979. “I could never have guessed at the time that the name of my book would so precisely describe what is actually happening today,” he recalls.

“Today everyone reports while things are still happening. Everyone writes, ‘I was here, I was there,’ and uploads pictures from here and there. Facebook in fact makes writing as an art completely superfluous.” Reuveni published a second book of poetry in 1982, “The sadness that is amassed in a dream,” but then he stopped publishing books of poetry and instead focused on writing prose. Now Keshev Poetry Publishing is coming out with a collection of the poems Reuveni wrote between 1970 and 2012.

Q:Why did you distance yourself from poetry during those years?

“According to my perception, when youth is over, so is poetry,” he says. “Despair, hope, drunkenness and a carefree spirit are what enabled me to write poetry, to write those cables to the cosmos. Short poems. You have the feeling as if you have for a moment been given a galactic microphone and then you get to say your three or four lines. And those lines always express amazement, wonder, thankfulness and an ending. The moment there is a mortgage and the world forces you to be less emotional and more calculated in your conduct, that is prose. And that’s way the poetry ends.”


But Reuveni, who has in the past worked as an editor for Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth, not only stopped publishing during those years but also consciously distanced himself from the entire Israeli literary scene. The formal declaration of his disengagement came with his setting up in 2000 of the Nimrod publishing house, which operated from his apartment in Tel Aviv, and through which he began to publish his books independently.

Q:Why this withdrawal? Did you disengage yourself out of choice?

“Just see for yourself what was written and what was being published by the major publishing houses,” he says. “Who published? The emphasis was always on a realistic narrative style and I just couldn’t continue with that kind of style. I felt that I had to write something different, something personal, something that was not built around a plot. There is no point in turning to the major publishing houses with that kind of literature. It would be a contradiction in terms. It just doesn’t sell. “A horrifying shallowness has been imposed on Israeli literature,” Reuveni maintains. “And I say this with great pain. The shallowness has been imposed on both authors and readers. And for this we can thank television with all its channels and all its pranks.

Today we find it difficult to deal with complex texts. The more complex a text is, the less attractive it becomes. This problem, the difficulty in understanding complex texts, is here to stay, and the academic world is powerless to correct this situation. The moment it becomes impossible to write complex texts for an anonymous reader, then you can just close up the shop known as literature. Eventually literature will become high-quality journalism. Like long magazine articles. Depth is frightening. It takes a lot of time, it requires solitude and considerable effort.”

Reuveni recounts that he reads Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka or Fyodor Dostoyevsky every day; he hardly ever reads new literary creations. Recently he published a new prose work − put out by Nimrod, of course. The book, titled “The Hired Killer of the Jewish People,” blends historical fact with fiction. Essentially, it is the story of Fritz Haber, a Jew who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and who developed Zyklon B, the gas that was used to exterminate millions in Auschwitz. Haber emigrated with the Nazis’ rise to power, and was on his way to Palestine in 1934 when he died of heart failure in a hotel in Basel, Switzerland. Meanwhile, Reuveni is translating Proust’s “Sodom and Gomorrah.”

“Even plastic art has become a circus, just like literature,” he says. “One could say that this religious-redemptive principle exists today only in documentary films. The documentary film has perhaps replaced confessional literature. I am not anticipating any changes in poetry or fiction; instead, we are going to witness more and more pranks. More and more books that give the false impression of depth. People will read this interview and then immediately forget it because this is part of the mass, part of this ocean of words that deluges us and leaves nothing behind. Not even us. It exists by its own right. The more strength that is accumulated by the electronic means of expression, the closer we get to the situation I depicted in ‘The meaning of the deeds,’ in the chapter entitled ‘Adios Las Meninas.’ “The subject of that chapter is Diego Velazquez’s famous painting, which has become a milestone in the theory of painting because it deals with perspective − because, when you look at the painting, it is not clear what the viewer sees and what the painter sees or what it is hiding behind the fourth wall,” says Reuveni. “In my book, I describe a scene in which Japanese tourists with cameras gradually close this wall; they keep on photographing themselves until they just disappear. In the end, all that remains is cameras photographing themselves.”

No festivals, thank you

One of the fundamental experiences in Reuveni’s new book of poetry is the homosexual experience. This is nothing new in his writing. Reuveni dealt with this subject in his first prose book, “In favor of illusion,” which appeared in 1978.

“I’m not a homosexual,” explains Reuveni. “I don’t define myself as a homosexual. I am a poet and in addition I am a homosexual, as well as a whole lot of other things. If you read the poem that appears on the back jacket, ‘A little more,’ can you guess whether the poet is homosexual or ‘straight’? Well, the answer is that you can’t. This poem represents me and that is why it was printed on the back jacket. The thing is to write something that can speak to homosexuals, lesbians and ‘straight’ people. That is a real poem. If the poem is limited to a specific population, then you must have done something wrong.”

At the same time, however, he points out: “Homosexuality was actually the main topic in my poetry because my poems dealt with adolescence, love and enthusiasm. It was somewhat forbidden at the time, it was problematic − there were no clubs, unlike the situation today. Things are much easier today, at least in Tel Aviv. In the smaller towns, the situation is precisely what it was 50 years ago. Young gays have to flee to Tel Aviv. Sometimes after their parents have put them through a humiliating ceremony.”

Q:Has the situation improved from the standpoint of how gays manage in Israeli society?

“In the big cities, things are undoubtedly much better. However, we must never forget the murder that took place at the Bar Noar gay center [in Tel Aviv] and all kinds of stories about gay abuse,” he says. “There is a change but it is a bizarre kind of change. Most gays are still in the closet, leading a life of difficult assimilation in a heterosexual world. There is a declared minority and it is a very vocal minority that mistakenly thinks that it is the majority. That it is the people. But it is only a vocal, extremist minority.

"In my opinion, they are just making fools of themselves with all these weddings and the children in India [that they adopt]. I’m not judging anyone, but, from the standpoint of homosexuality, the puzzle is still immense. And all these festivals and processions belong to a tiny minority. Most gays are in hiding, most of them are afraid, most of them live just as gays lived in the previous century. This is heartbreaking. A really sad situation. On the other hand, I don’t know whether all these declared guys who are celebrating are really happy.”

Maverick poet Yotam Reuveni lives a secluded life in Ashdod.Credit: Uri Gershoni