Critical Failure

Dan Miron is one of Israel's most important literary critics (though he spends much of his time in New York ), and he's not happy with the way his colleagues are doing their jobs.

"Be talented," demands literary critic Dan Miron, "or don't go public. Nobody will blame you if you don't write criticism, but if you do, then do it reasonably."

The book "A.B. Yehoshua's Nove Mezzo: An 'Ashkenazi' Perspective on Two 'Sephardi' Novels" (Hasifriya Hahadasha ) has just been published. It includes two essays by Miron about novels by the major Israeli author: The first is on "Hesed Sephardi" ("Spanish Kindness" ), Yehoshua's most recent book, and the second is on the 1990 book "Mr. Mani."

Daniel Bar-On

In his essay about "Spanish Kindness," which was published early this year, Miron not only explains why he feels this is one of Yehoshua's most important books, he also comes out against the lack of enthusiasm with which it was received by the critics, and points out how they failed in their understanding and analysis of this book.

Miron, 76, spends a good part of the year in New York, where he holds the chair for Hebrew literature and comparative literature at Columbia University. He has published innumerable articles, studies and books, and is a laureate of the Bialik Prize and the Israel Prize for Literature. Miron claims that few people are able to write worthy criticism, and that it was criticism of "Spanish Kindness" that infuriated him and caused him to take to the streets and build this tent.

"I read the book with tremendous interest when it came out," he explains in an interview with Haaretz in his Tel Aviv apartment. "Then I started reading the reactions. It's not a matter of negative or positive. It's a matter of the thinness of the reactions compared to the tremendous richness of the novel. The novel is dense, perhaps even too much so. It contains content on content on content. What echoed in the writing about it, including the positive reactions, was something very poor, very meager, and it made me angry. I had the impression that in 150 or 160 years of professional Hebrew literary criticism there has been no worse period than the past 15 or 20 years."

He claims that most literary critics today are incapable of dealing with serious literature: "Suddenly a really complex novel appeared, which requires skill of the critic, and that clarified the poverty, the aridity of this field here. It stimulated me to write this essay. As they say, if the battle ends in a major defeat, then the veterans enlist. I tried to write an essay whose main purpose was not to praise. I have high regard for the book, otherwise I wouldn't be at all interested in writing about it, but I wanted to demonstrate the role of the critic as someone who is supposed to expose what is there in the book, and to reveal its various layers."

Miron believes the poor state of criticism at present is also related to the fact that there is no proper "home" for it: "All the frameworks that were capable of absorbing it, and of absorbing a debate surrounding it as well - a discussion, a reply, a contradictory statement - have disappeared. That in itself is very indicative of the fact that this type of interest in literature has become unnecessary to this culture. It doesn't support the entities that can conduct such a discussion."

Miron mentions times when the Hebrew press was "very much dedicated to literature," such as when those whom he considers to be the greatest critics - Dov Sadan, Baruch Kurzweil, Shlomo Zemach - wrote articles in the newspapers. "This has disappeared, perhaps rightly so. A newspaper wants to be a newspaper, it doesn't want to be a literary journal, but nothing came in its place. The existing structure has no room for this genre to live a real life, and left it the limited 1,000-word framework. And even within the 1,000 words a very strange process has taken place. It hurts me as someone whose life was part of that."

He identifies talented young people as well, but it is more the lack of talent that cries out to him from the pages of the papers. "For example, I read with great interest what Uri Hollander or Galili Shahar write; I sometimes read Erez Schweitzer with interest. Uri S. Cohen is certainly a very talented young man. It's concise, journalistic writing, but you feel that behind it lies knowledge, broad horizons, a bigger picture. So I'm not saying that there are no talented young people, but the boundaries have been breached and a large percentage of the literary reactions are very poorly written."

Opinion vs. information

Miron believes that an entire process has been damaged: Criticism, like journalism, is supposed to distinguish between opinion and information, and it is betraying its role, he declares: "You have to know how to present a text, to tell what it contains. You have to learn to say it without judging. Bring your argument afterward, give examples. That is basic procedure, that is the logic of this profession, and it has disappeared. There's no distinction between opinion and information. There's no presentation of what there is - followed by an opinion about what there is. Everything is intermingled. As journalism it wouldn't be acceptable. But critical writing is journalism, you're writing for a newspaper. It has to follow journalistic rules, journalistic fairness, journalistic order. You don't have to bring proof on the level of research; you can't, you don't have the space, perhaps you don't know how to do so, it's not your profession. But on the level of a journalist, you have to be able to show a connection between facts that are described and an opinion of them. The logic of the act of criticism has been damaged."

Miron says there are currently no critics who are anywhere near the level of the writers and poets at work. "The profession has deteriorated and it's no wonder. There's no room for it," he says. "It has no space to develop. There's no real debate. There are debates of a sectarian nature, but there is no reasoned critical debate with examples."

As an example, Miron points to Nir Baram's novel "Good People," published in 2010 by Am Oved (and acquired for English publication next year by Alfred A. Knopf ). "I greatly admire Nir Baram. You ask yourself where among the critics of his generation is there anyone who even begins to remind us of his ability to deal with the material, study it, understand it, try to integrate it. Where? There's no such thing. And if you ask the writers, they're very aware of that, a profound awareness that is below the noise of the literary uproar. There's a certain sadness. Does anyone see them the way Kurzweil saw Agnon?"

A writer needs a critical perspective, explains Miron: "In the final analysis the writer is an isolated person, he sits there and does it and only when a critic comes and looks within, whether negatively or positively, do you receive what a child receives in order to grow. Someone has to look, to see him. And a serious critic is a critic who provides the writer and the poet with the service of observation, of the concentrated, penetrating, powerful look. Sometimes it's unpleasant, sometimes it reveals things you don't want, but in the final analysis it's of utmost importance for the writer as well as for the public that's interested in the writer."

Miron says that he is not upset by the fact that Yehoshua was knocked for his latest book. "There are different types of knocks. Natan Zach knocked Natan Alterman. Not justly, but with some kind of intelligence, it was brilliant. After all, despite all the final overall injustice of his judgment, he put his finger on real weaknesses. So he knocked Alterman because Alterman was so prominent that it was almost impossible to see anything else. So there are different ways of knocking. Not every knock has the same value."

What did Miron see in "Spanish Kindness" that others didn't see? He claims that Yehoshua created the character of a mediocre man, and that's why the critics were unenthusiastic. But the novel, he argues, is about "the ability to change. He asks whether a person can change in a moment of awakening. The power of this book is that it goes somewhere. It's something that exists a great deal in literature, the writer chooses a mediocre person in order to create a revelation. Had Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich not been an official, a careerist, an opportunist, then what would have been the great truth he discovers when he is ill with cancer and is about to die? The same is true of Josef K. in 'The Trial.' He also was a very mediocre person who thinks about how to get ahead in his job and how to compete with his rival in the office, and suddenly he is brought to trial. It's a very common literary convention."

Miron also suggests that Yehoshua's natural audience - the intelligentsia - had difficulty liking the novel, which insults them: "The book has an anti-intellectual element, it examines the intellectual and says, 'Grow, live more, be both this and that, don't be so logical in your choices, see that life confronts you with ambivalent situations and learn to live with them.' I think that's one of the reasons it repelled a certain type of people."

Miron says that people on the left could also probably find things to object to in "Spanish Kindness." "Yehoshua says here that there's no point in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but there is something to be done with issues within Israeli society. That's not something that the Israeli left likes to hear, and the left is the group that supports canonical Israeli literature."

These days it's actually the bon ton to discuss the social situation.

"Suddenly everyone is speaking this language, but the truth is that the Israeli left cut its own throat by spending decades dealing with a single problem - a crucial one, an important one - but it's not clear whether there's a solution. The left forgot all the other problems. Do you want to go to Gaza and Damascus? You have to go via Sderot and Netivot, if you don't go there you won't get any further, because they'll bring you down in the elections. They'll drag you to the margins and you'll have three delegates in the Knesset. The person who will rule and decide will be the person who speaks to these people."

The Mizrahi issue

And there is also the Mizrahi issue.

Miron: "All the main characters who brought [Yair] Moses, the protagonist of 'Spanish Kindness,' creativity, an idea, a thought, wildness, imagination, were North Africans who were born in development towns. The main character is a Yekke [German Jew] from Jerusalem from a critical family, they work for the state comptroller, they're from the good old established Jewish community. The book asks whether it is possible to conduct a genuine, unpatronizing dialogue between these two parts of society, and his answer is that if there is no dialogue, there will be no creativity. Not only the Ashkenazim will lack creativity, because they become impotent, but the Sephardim will lack creativity because they give birth to a brain-damaged child, a nice, pleasant sweet child, but incomplete. If they don't share a womb there will be no real birth. Or on the one hand, there will be old age, impotence and inability, or on the other hand, this defective child."

Furthermore, observes Miron, "all the members of the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow [social-action group] are angry at [Yehoshua], because they feel that he is saying something very harsh. The fact that he comes down hard on Ashkenazim is clear, it's already water under the bridge, but the fact that he tells Sephardim, 'You won't be able to do it alone, you have to speak to the other side because they have something to give you, they do have something, after all: culture, proportion, which if you don't use, things won't be good.' They don't like to hear that, but it's a very up-to-date message."

Miron says that the novel raises the question as to where Israeli culture stands, what it is capable of creating. "The book makes a very important statement that should have aroused a genuine debate. So start arguing seriously about this theory that you need both - that you can't follow one path. You need a type of crossover of the two paths. An important Israeli writer comes and says something important to Israeli society, and Israeli society, instead of understanding that he has told it something important, is really reacting in an inferior manner.

"Had a Sephardi intellectual appeared and attacked the book, but with explanations, on a high level, then well and good. That's what culture needs and that's what good literature does for culture, it's a service it provides. You present a mirror, you present a picture, you receive a response to it."

Miron says others share his feeling that something must be done: "The real thing that should have been done is an opportunity should be found - in terms of finances and the publishing industry - to publish a journal devoted to criticism. I don't see anyone willing to become involved in that. Apparently the audience for it has also been lost. We'll see how this book is received, is there an audience for such a detailed discussion? The numbers here may be very important for the publishers' calculations, but not so important for cultural calculations."

Apropos the publisher, what was it like to work with Menachem Peri?

"I don't know whether people realize what a good editor Menachem Peri is. I really like thorough editing. An editor who doesn't do anything, what is he? He only transports the text. Peri edited the text, he returned it to me with a lot of corrections, and everything flowed better. He's very experienced, very good. Praise is also permitted."

So maybe you're betraying your mission when you live in the United States and are not here, involved regularly with criticism.

"I have other jobs. I'm a historian of literature. But the truth is that you're right too. Look, I'm almost 77. If someone were to come and tell me that he's letting me edit a periodical for criticism that can appear three times a year, I would come back to do that."