'What Would a Writer Be Without a Libido?’

As Yitzhak Laor’s 1994 watershed novel is reissued, the enfant terrible of Israeli letters talks about his life and career, and about the significance for Israeli society - and for him - of the sexual harassment accusations unsuccessfully directed at him several years ago.

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Yitzhak Laor’s novel “The People, Food Fit for a King” first appeared 20 years ago. The critics went wild, writing that it was a giant of a book; that, like a Tolstoy novel, it was a kind of little empire; that it was a rich work that stood out far and above the sea of minimalism, the most important book that had been published in Israel in years, a hot, bitter and exciting book. The novel won the Israeli Prize for Literature which was awarded at the time, and it was published in three editions.

In the literary world of recent years, however, books quickly go out of print and are never reissued. They die in storage, and memory of them dies, too, so the fact that “The People, Food Fit for a King” is now being reissued is unusual, and also entails Laor’s switching publishers to Yedioth Ahronoth.

The book tells the tale of two neighboring army bases in 1967. One is a food-supply base, whose physically unfit soldiers spend their time staring into space, arguing, fantasizing and goading each other. The other is home to an Armored Corps unit, whose recruits are all readiness, discipline and coordination. The members of the tank unit meet a tragic end, but the major conflict of that year − the Six Day War − is prevented in the book by the supply unit, by means of an imaginary secret document that comes into its possession.

The idea of reissuing the book came from the late Yoram Kaniuk, who suggested that Laor switch publishers. “Kaniuk possessed kindness and generosity,” Laor says. “For years, he loved this book very much. Yedioth asked me what I wanted from them to publish my next novel. Seeing as I am an economic miracle, I didn’t say that I wanted a NIS 20,000 advance, but rather that I wanted them to republish ‘The People, Food Fit for a King,’ with a new layout ... as the previous edition was very crowded. Naturally it is a little hard for me to leave Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing. There will be no more publishing houses that are not for profit − such as Am Oved and Hakibbutz Hameuchad, which survives only thanks to [its editor-in-chief] Uzi Shavit. That is apparently over, which is as tragic as it sounds.”

Laor, 65, author, poet, critic and editor, and a regular contributor to this newspaper, was a radical left-wing activist for many years and also one of the great critics of the Israel left. As early as 1972, he refused to serve in the territories, and did time for that in military prison. After the Yom Kippur War, he moved to the United States. His thought at the time was that he would not be returning, because Israel was a hopeless place that would always be at war − not a place to build a life.

“I sat in jail before Yom Kippur, and I said there would be a war before Yom Kippur,” he recollects. ‘In the last handbill I was arrested for handing out, it said: ‘Stop before you go to the next war.’ Zeira didn’t know about the war but I knew,” he says, referring to Eli Zeira, then head of Israel’s Military Intelligence.

“I didn’t want to return to Israel. I was reluctant. I was offended. It’s like with a woman whom you tell that you can’t live with her anymore, that she hurts too much. I couldn’t go back to the thing that was most powerful in me: love for this country. It is a source of never-ending pain.

“And then my father wrote me a letter; he wrote the day after Ben-Gurion died [in December 1973]. He wrote that he had gone through the process of migration, and that he had never truly managed to acquire a language he had once learned as a child, that he was always lacking something. And how I, who so loved Hebrew, would never be able to acclimatize somewhere else. It was a seductive letter, and I went back.”

In Israel, Laor had been destined to have an academic career − he wrote his doctoral dissertation at Tel Aviv University, on the comedy of playwright Hanoch Levin − but his advancement stalled. About the reasons for this, he says, there are many versions: “Faculty were quietly told that my political views were not to the liking of the president of the university. The president told me, though, that it wasn’t he, but rather that the chairman of the department and the dean who had asked him to oppose [my promotion]. Jealousy also consumes people. I was a poet and author in the most productive period of my life.”

He published story collections, essays, four novels and 10 volumes of poetry. In 2005, he founded the journal Mita’am: a Review of Literature and Radical Thought, which he edited for seven years. Over the years he received the Bernstein Prize for Poetry, the Amichai Poetry Prize and the Prime Minister’s Prize. He serves as a reviewer for the Culture and Literature section of Haaretz in Hebrew, and is a regular contributor to the paper’s opinion pages.

Laor spent three years writing “The People, Food Fit for a King,” and he says it gave him great pleasure to shatter what was characteristic of Israeli prose at the time.

“I had a great desire to write about the ugly, dirty, itchy heroes who save the people of Israel from the Six-Day War,” he says. “They discover the plans for war, and they flee to every part of the world. I had a desire to live that dream. I had hope at the time that I was fully done with politics and that I had no obligation other than to deconstruct narratives. I think the endless series of characters that develops, with one leading to another, enabled me to ask the question I formulated in retrospect.

“First of all the question of whether to write an Israeli novel. You may say that plenty have been written, and that is true, but I wanted to explore its weaknesses, the need to be dependent on a male hero, a manly man or a suffering manly man. I wanted to ask questions about this and about how women handle it. The book contains a type of lesbian feminism. The female soldiers abuse the men and they are very cruel toward each other as well.”

Laor says that Hanoch Levin was his best reader, as well as one of the smartest people he knew. Levin was the first one to read this novel: “He had a sharp mind, mathematical. He told me, ‘Don’t change a single word and don’t change the title either,’ because the publisher was debating this matter. I miss him so; in the past few years even more. [Levin died in 1999, at age 55.] I dreamed about him last night, that there was an event held in his honor, and there was a demonstration taking place outside against him, although not against me, for some reason, and that I told him about this with agitation. I knew he was already dead, but he explained that he had been given leave to go out.”

Rumors of rape

Three-and-a-half years ago, Laor came under fierce attack: It was alleged that he had raped someone 25 years before. That allegation was joined by others regarding use of inappropriate language. The accusations began on the Web, but they were repeated, with use of his name, in the media. He was also the target of protests by women who showed up outside literary events that he attended.

Ultimately, Laor was not charged with any crime − in fact, he was never even questioned by police. He says he has since learned to be circumspect and to spot herd behavior everywhere: “Beforehand too, at demonstrations, I didn’t know whether to yell in unison [with others]. Certainly not when they shouted ‘police state,’ because people who shout that have never seen a police state in their lives and neither have I. I learned to spot on the loony margins of the left − as though there had been no Stalin − support for censorship, as though freedom of speech is not an important value or that the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty is not a right. We used to think that at least the left would be ashamed of its historic past, of support for the Soviet Union, of support for regimes that suppressed freedom of expression, censored literature, and discounted the democratic process of innocence and trial.

“I paid for a very great lack of niceness in my life, I have no doubt about that. People settled scores with me without regard for what had actually been, and gave no thought to what it did to me. The sin did not resemble the punishment. It was an organized campaign and they needed a figure. There are explanations for this in the professional literature − it’s called ‘naming and shaming.’ But they got the wrong figure. Witness the fact that nothing came of it, except for my broken heart.”

What do you mean by “they got the wrong figure?”

“They confused feminine pain over ‘He was there and left’ and translated it into ‘He did wrong.’ They did something very cynical in the campaign against me. They played around between baseless guilt and rudeness. Yes, the world has changed, legislation has changed. Things you once said and did you can’t say and do today, for better or worse.”

But can you understand how a woman in a workplace feels when she is spoken to rudely?

“In general, my language was appalling, sometimes out of an attempt to be funny, and sometimes without realizing the power my words had, without grasping what power they have for the other party, especially when I am drunk − and I am drunk a lot. On the other hand, this figure that was constructed for me is not anything exceptional in the outside culture. Do you honestly think that if they held trials like this for every [Charles] Bukowski or [Raymond] Carver, the historical account would lead to something good? This has created a type of metrosexual writer, and it is awful.

“It’s not so bad if you’re ‘metro’ at a bank, but literary writing without a libido? That is terrible. Sometimes it seems like Mizrahi men are allowed to have a libido, and a woman is allowed to have a libido, and only an Ashkenazi man is forbidden.

“I was denounced, and I was forced to apologize, although I didn’t know for what. Had they come and said to me, ‘Apologize for your verbally violent personality,’ then I would apologize. But if they think literature ought to be emasculated, then let them read other writers. In any case, I am not only coarse, I am also gentle. Not evil, but rather generous too. That is what I can say in my defense.”

Lesbian magazines on trial

Laor sees an attempt being made to erase, police and censor a part of the shaky foundation on which Israeli culture stands. High-school students in a provincial French town will visit the municipal museum and see the nude women of Manet and Renoir. “And in Italy they see tits from the Renaissance on. Their culture is full of mystification of women. The critique of that cannot be done without loving part of these things. It is part of the great contradiction in our heterogeneous life. We do understand that values change and want to change them, but our cultural and artistic memory includes lots of things we don’t want to give up.

“During the German Peasants’ War, in the 16th century, the Protestant peasants tried to destroy the Catholic cathedrals. Under Stalin too, they destroyed churches, and Hitler burned paintings by Jews and degenerate art. There are such things, but the average person lives the change in values without destroying what came before. After all, you do not honestly think the objectification of the nude women in Renoir is only bad. So what do you do with that?”

In the United States, says Laor, there is a major rift between feminists on the right and those on the left, regarding censorship: “The leftists are opposed to censorship for the simple reason that these things wind up hurting minority groups. After all, if there were to be a law against pornography, in the end they would put a lesbian magazine on trial, but something within our culture calls for erasure from memory in the name of morality. So long as feminine puritanism does not intervene in cultural life, but rather is in the realm of the law, that is fine, but the argument that pretends to be moral, as though there were commands that must be followed, but they aren’t criminal in nature ... I mean, when Aryeh Deri says ‘It’s not criminal’ − they say he is bringing down the rule of law. But then they say that ‘not everything is criminal.’ Aren’t they also bringing down the rule of law? Then why [do they do it]? Because the left is allowed to?”

When I ask Laor who he was 20 years ago, when “The People, Food Fit for a King” first came out, he replies that it is hard to reconstruct but that he recently found a video shot a few months before he finished work on the novel: “I was quite handsome and very sure of myself. Not to the point of hubris − that happened to me later. I appear there to be a relaxed person, satisfied, at peace with himself for a moment. I make a toast, and say the only thing I miss is my parents. I was 40-something, the ripest age in life, the right age to write a novel, at least for men.

“One of the troubles with Hebrew literature is that the hero is still always an adolescent boy, and an adolescent boy is usually something boring, unless he is mad, as in ‘Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘Franny and Zooey.’ They say that when you begin to hate your child, you know he has reached adolescence.”

When were you guilty of hubris?

“I think when I wrote the 1995 ‘Narratives with No Natives,’ a book of politically anti-Zionist essays, with which I thought I would be contributing to literary research in Israel what the ‘new historians’ contributed to historiography. It could be I should not have done that, because it harmed me personally in the literary establishment. The second expression of hubris was in the novel ‘And With My Spirit My Corpse,’ which came out in 1998. This work is so hard in terms of what the imagination is called upon to do and the revolutionary images were beyond what an audience was prepared to accept.

“Maybe it isn’t hubris. I have a tendency to criticize myself too harshly at times. The main thing is that the times changed between ‘The People, Food Fit for a King’ and ‘And With My Spirit My Corpse’: The best-seller list had begun running in the literary supplement of Haaretz. People started buying books according to what everyone else was reading. Such a thing never existed before. Channel 2 came into being at that time as well and afterward the Internet generation. The novel ‘And With My Spirit’ was apparently a dividing line from my standpoint because it seemed to me that I had produced the height of poetry and yet there was no one to talk to.”

He talks about a crisis in Hebrew literature, of the sort a bill to protect literature ‏(i.e., Knesset legislation that would guarantee the retail price of books during the first years after publication‏) won’t resolve: “The great historical break is the assumption back then that there would be a state and Hebrew culture, and we would start everything over. I knew two major Arab writers, Elias Khoury and Mahmoud Darwish, one of Christian origin and one of Muslim origin, one from an urban environment and one who came to an urban environment at the age of 20. They inspired great envy in me when I talked with them, because they had one foot in their traditional world, culturally speaking, with a very deep familiarity with the continuum of Arab texts − and the other foot was in the West.”

The first generation of writers in the new Hebrew literature, Laor continues − Mendele Mocher Sforim, Micha Josef Berdyczewski, Yosef Haim Brenner, Haim Nahman Bialik − also had their feet in two places like that. “They had Yiddish, German and Ru ssian, and their reader had it too. When they used biblical and Talmudic phrases, the reader recognized it; their educated reader had become secular along with them and they had the illusion it would stand forever.”

But in his opinion the modern generation in Hebrew letters was wrapped up entirely in longing for the West: “It’s like Hanoch Levin’s characters: They want Jane in Texas, but they stay here and imagine Jane. We aren’t in the West because of our entirely different textual continuum. The desire here for Christianity is growing steadily. Why? From thinking that perhaps this way we will succeed in becoming more a part of the West. They constantly talk with the ultra-Orthodox about core-curriculum studies. That’s funny because anyone whose child has gone to high school wonders what core curriculum? Reading summaries on the Internet is core curriculum?”

Authors of the new generation, Laor observes, no longer have the ability to distinguish between what came from the Bible and what from the sages, and when they study S.Y. Agnon, their teacher has to explain the Hebrew: “Basically the reader of my poetry needs to be a graduate of Bnei Akiva [national-religious youth movement]. I live with a powerful sensation that we are living in the desert and that right now, at this historical stage, it looks like everything is a goner. They keep saying that print is dead, but it isn’t print that is dead, but rather the desire of memory. This memory is what the entire novel ‘The People, Food Fit for a King’ revolves around. There the assumption is that there is one big memory that imposes itself on us and there is a counter-memory that operates without a single memory. I had then a post-modernist illusion that you can create an alternative for the single memory with lots of little memories. Is that right? I don’t think so. The single memory is dribbled in constantly.”

Menachem Perry, the original editor of the book, described it then as “a major anti-epic of the Six-Day Way, the dark, opposite side of ‘Days of Ziklag.’” S. Yizhar himself thought that Laor would burn himself out. In the 1980s, Yizhar invited Laor to read poems in his university class. After Laor left the room, Yizhar told the students that Laor’s writing is writing that burns out the writer and that Laor would not manage to write another book, that he wouldn’t last. Yizhar was both right and wrong. Laor’s writing does burn, but today he is in the final stages of his fifth novel.

“I guess I have energies I can’t always explain,” Laor admits. “For many years I did not leave the house, and I wrote. When I am working on something I don’t budge from it, I stick to the goal like a Protestant, I give it everything I’ve got. How long will this writing last? I don’t know.”

Yitzhak Laor.Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz

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