North Tel Aviv Star

Twenty years after Orly Castel-Bloom electrified Israel's literary scene with her first collection of stories, it is being reissued. Where is this iconic author headed now?

Exactly 20 years ago, in 1987, the young Israeli author Orly Castel-Bloom published her first collection of stories, "Lo rahok mimerkaz ha'ir" ("Not Far From the Center of Town," Am Oved). The book's uniqueness was immediately striking: its language, the urban world of its heroes, their banal existence and its suppressed fantasy dimension, which would grow wilder and wilder in Castel-Bloom's later work - all these drew the attention of critics. They responded with appreciation, sometimes with anger; either way, the stories generated a heated debate.

"The collection does contain a spark of promise," a Haaretz review claimed then, "but the stories are on the fence, they have a roughness, perhaps intentional, but also unintentional ... There is a banal tone to the stories, perhaps an intentional one. At times the banality is interwoven with an obscure eccentricity. But they are not thrilling, and they leave nothing behind."

Twenty years later, it is obvious that the appearance of Castel-Bloom's collection was a landmark moment in the development of Hebrew literature. Since then Castel-Bloom has published more than 10 books, some of which ("Dolly City"; "Sipurim Bilti Retzoniyim" ["Involuntary Stories"]) have become classics of modern Hebrew fiction. Her work was and remains at the center of the debate about a new trend in Hebrew literature, called by some "sifrut raze" (shallow literature), and by others "postmodern literature."

On its 20th anniversary, Castel-Bloom's debut collection is now being reissued (by Hasifriya Haktana, Hakibbutz Hameuchad), in amended form and with the stories arranged differently. A few weeks later the novel "Dolly City" will also appear again in Hebrew. On this occasion, we decided to go back to Orly Castel-Bloom and talk to her about the beginnings of her writing career.

Was it you who asked to reissue "Not Far From the Center of Town" and to make corrections in it?

Castel-Bloom: "I have never looked back, because I was very afraid to. The books I wrote are locked in a cupboard in another room, not placed on the family bookshelves in the living room. I don't have a cult of my own writing, and I did not imagine that they would appear again. Although it is certainly nice for a person to see his books being published, like 'his posthumously published works.' It is certainly responsible of the publisher to reissue the book and to expose new people to my writing.

"There simply has been this strange situation, in which I am still alive, but my books have vanished and no one can get hold of them. We are also planning soon to reissue 'Dolly City,' 'Heichan ani nimtzet' ('Where Am I') and maybe 'Involuntary Stories' as well. But I am afraid of flooding the stores. We'll see."

Tell us a little about the circumstances in which your first collection was written.

"I was seven months pregnant then, and my father was dying of lung cancer at Ichilov [Sourasky Medical Center]. I knew that he was going to die, and I had nothing, no profession, no perceivable future. My father wanted very much for me to be a doctor, and I think that I was a disappointment to him. Two days before he died I said to myself, 'Orly, be serious now.' Until then I had written all kinds of nonsense, poems, an essay titled 'Diary of a Secretary.'

So two days before he died, I began to write the story 'Not Far From the Center of Town.' When I was done I was sure I had written a novel, but when I began to count the pages I realized that it was a story, and that I needed more. The second one I wrote was 'Shifra,' and the others followed. I knew that my father was about to die, and that I couldn't stop his death or face it. That's why every story has a death in it. I made sure that in every story, someone would die. "

Your first two books were short-story collections (the second was "Sviva oyenet" ["Hostile Surroundings"]), and only then did you publish the novel "Where Am I." In recent years the short story has all but vanished from the Israeli literary landscape, and young writers are immediately writing novels. What do you think of this?

"A short story is a genre that's fun to read, especially at the pace of life today. I think it has disappeared because of publishing considerations that are seeping into the literary arena. On the other hand, I don't like it when short stories are treated as an apprenticeship on the way to the novel. This really is not the case. But you can stop eulogizing: I am bringing the short story back, with the reissuing of 'Not Far From the Center of Town' and the book I am now writing, which is made up of novellas and stories."

'Ordinary book'

When you wrote the first collection, did you expect it to arouse so much controversy and interest?

"No, not at all. I thought I was writing a perfectly ordinary book and using perfectly ordinary language. Later, when the book came out and this argument erupted, I was shocked. I admit that I also liked suddenly being at the center of an aesthetic debate, of a camp, with people suddenly coming up to me and saying, 'We are on your side,' when I had never been militant about anything."

While you were writing, did you have a sense that you were writing "something else" - a different kind of fiction than had been written before?

"No. While I was writing, I spent a lot of time at libraries reading, for inspiration. I read Katherine Mansfield's 'The Garden Party' and Chekhov and Agnon. I was also influenced by the small-town stories of Sholem Aleichem, and when I read Ya'akov Shabtai's 'Zichron dvarim' [published in English as 'Past Continuous'] and 'Hadod peretz mamri" ['Uncle Peretz Takes Off'], I realized how Hebrew had to be written: that you had to write in an ordinary way.

"The canonical authors at that time were A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz, and when I read their books, I told myself I didn't want to write 'that way.' The words can't keep themselves on the page, they fall off; every description contains 17 synonyms, an archaic, forced, coy language. This was a language that canceled out a large part of the population of Israel, which is an immigrant country. How many people could understand all of those words? I started writing in the 1980s, and I looked for a language that would reflect reality. I knew that every word had to be accurate, I felt a need to say things in a concise, short and condensed way."

Many critics have commented on your language; at first it was called "raze - thin," then it was claimed to be a "hodgepodge of languages." Did you wish in your writing to take apart some "proper" language?

"I grew up in North Tel Aviv with parents who had immigrated from Egypt, and until I was three I had French nannies and was spoken to only in French. It was all very continental. I didn't speak any Hebrew, and my parents only spoke Arabic between them about important matters. When I realized that I had been misled, I began to rebel and stopped answering in French. From a young age I had the challenge of conquering Hebrew. I remember that in the fourth grade we had a spelling test. My class was entirely made up of native-born Israelis, and I was one of the few who knew how to spell tzavar (neck). And so I told myself, 'There, I've conquered Hebrew.' And although I've always known that I can speak the language, I still have that detached perspective, that observation of the language."

Is it right to say that your language is very contemporary, that it is a language without a past?

"When I began to write, I was like all the Zionists, ignoring the past and using real, contemporary Hebrew. I was also the child of immigrants, which means not wanting to be like your parents, ignoring the past and wanting to rebuild yourself. It was important to me to prove in my writing that we were a normal country. You see, I wanted to normalize Israeli reality in my writing. Can I normalize Israel? It is godlike of me to think that. Up until 1995 I was sure that state-building was all behind us, and only in 2001 did I understand that it was not. The security situation made me feel a historical obligation to write about the present."

You are referring to "Halakim enoshiyim" ("Human Parts"), your 2002 novel, which described the effect of terrorist bombings on Israeli society.

"Yes, that's when it came into focus. I felt a moral obligation to write from the position of a witness about what was going on in the present. To write about it as it was in our lives, to document reality and abandon the fantastic for a minute. I noticed the absurdity of reports in the press: Whenever there was a bombing, they would say: 'The Iz a Din al-Kassam organization has claimed responsibility,' or 'the Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility.' They took a concept that reflects the better side of man, which represents morality and values, and they tied it to killing and massacre. What is Bin Laden doing claiming responsibility? So I said to myself that I would be responsible, too, not for a bombing, but for a book documenting this reality."

Critics have categorized your work in different ways: "thin writing," "women's writing." What do you think about this?

"You left out 'postmodern.' I've been accused of that, too. I've long outgrown these labels. To call my writing 'women's writing' is not suburban, it's peripheral.

When you began to write 20 years ago, didn't you feel that you were entering a very masculine space?

"I felt that I was entering an artistic literary space, and that I was required to have integrity and honesty. That space was dominated by men, but my inspiration actually came from the women poets, from Yona Wallach and Dahlia Ravikovitch. Wallach, who died on the same date as my father, spoke of the men who crowded poetry, and she said that male poets were like water to her. Without disrespecting water and its value, she meant that it spilled away and disappeared. I understood what she meant."

'Suburbs of the soul'

"Not Far From the Center of Town" already touches on one of the themes with which you would become especially preoccupied in the following books: The Israeli bourgeoisie that lives in the suburbs, "not far from the center of town."

"The suburbs are a state of mind, the suburbs of the soul. And to me, these people who live in Afeka and Tel Baruch and Ramat Aviv are precisely the Israeli bourgeoisie. It certainly is a look at the Israeli middle class that lives 'not far from the center of town.' In the time I have lived here, I've heard that there is a lot less humidity here than in Tel Aviv, that it's not as hot, that there is more oxygen because of the trees.

"I myself am stuck here, of course, it is my environment, and it seems more responsible for me as an author to focus on my own backyard. But, of course, this is also a generalization. I read in my youth that Nietzsche wrote that the more you focus on one thing and write specifically, the more you are able to touch many, and so I thought to myself, 'Write about your neighborhood, and it will characterize many people.'

The characters in your writing are always in motion, they are frenzied.

"That motion is the way to keep living. And let's face it, all this motion by the characters stands in contrast to the static condition of the author. After all, what do I do? I get out of bed in the morning and move here [pointing to the armchair - V.L.] with the laptop, and I move some characters from the edge of the world and back. Now I want to write books that move the author around and that take place close by. Very close by. It's like in the Castel taxi company, when they ask on the radio: 'Mi barahok' ('Who is far away')? Mi bakarov ('Who is close by)?' So I will be bakarov. I'll permit myself to write about this tree outside, which is a fast tree, it loses its leaves in two days and restores itself quickly, not slow like other trees."

You also write quite a bit about the experience of motherhood. In "Dolly City," "The Mina Lisa" and "Textile," motherhood is experienced as anxiety.

"Philosophical anxiety, if you will."

If in "Dolly City" the heroine operates on her son out of fear for his health, in "Textile" the mother unravels and sews herself when she becomes addicted to plastic surgery, wishing to numb the fear she feels about her son being an army sniper. Is motherhood always experienced as injury?

"No, there are beautiful moments as well. When I wrote 'Dolly City' I thought that now I would write about motherhood once and for all, but it hasn't ended. I thought it would end there, but it is a part of my life. I write my own motherhood, of my own children.

"You know, after 'Dolly City' came out, I found myself doing public relations for myself. I had to prove to my surroundings that I was normal, that it was okay to bring children over to my house in the afternoon, that my kids could be played with and that I was nice. After 'Dolly City' I wrote a children's book, but it didn't sell, because apparently it was hard to buy a children's book by the same woman who wrote 'Dolly City.'"

Do you consider "Dolly City" the pinnacle of your work?

"If we say that my writing is like a armaments factory, then it is my nuclear weapon. I also have submachineguns, pistols, rifles, but that is the nuclear weapon."

Do you feel that you made a change in Hebrew literature?

"I think so. The waves come to me and back, but there's also a trap in there. I was an unexpected twist, as though all of a sudden the literary space was infiltrated by this woman, the daughter of immigrants, not the salt of the earth, but also not from the ma'abarot (tenement housing for Mizrahi immigrants), but from North Tel Aviv."

What about the future? Don't you sometimes feel trapped inside your work?

"I've thrown out at least four or five novels in the course of writing or after they were written. I deal with the trap: I have a Lacanian psychoanalyst who helps me a lot, and whenever I feel stuck I call the 'doctor,' (Israeli author) Yeshoshua Kenaz. But being trapped is also okay. I'm afraid of it, but I don't believe in the mystique of 'the work has come to an end.'

"Look, when I started to write I had a plan. I told myself that at first I would write short stories, and then I would dare to write novels. In terms of content, I told myself that first I would write about 'place,' because I was 25 and didn't think I knew enough; from age 30 I would write about 'time,' which fulfilled itself in 'Dolly City' and 'The Mina Lisa'; and at age 40 I planned to write a novel in the third person. Now that I've carried out my plans, I can do whatever I want. I think that in order to get out of the trap you have to move the author, so I'm plotting maybe to move to Zichron Ya'akov soon, to hold workshops about the narrative self and to write rural literature."

(Castel-Bloom's books have been translated into several different languages, including English.)