A. B. Yehoshua Bids Farewell to a Literary Great

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Portrait of Israeli author Yehoshua Kenaz, 1937-2020
Yehoshua Kenaz, 1937-2020Credit: Eran Wolkowski

After hearing that Yehoshua Kenaz had passed away, I was surprised by how many requests I received from the media to talk about our relationship as well as his literary work.

I was surprised because Yehoshua was someone who categorically refrained from contact with the media in any form and from any personal exposure whatsoever. Moreover, because of his illness over the course of the past five or six years, he had been disconnected from any ongoing, live contact with Israeli reality.

His distance from media outlets was particularly noticeable in comparison to some of his close friends, like Amos Oz and myself, who interacted regularly and freely with them. Granted, he closely followed our non-literary interactions, our speeches and essays. He would voice his opinion and encouraged this active involvement of ours, which he considered important. But even though he had a clear, tightly constructed world view, he didn’t see himself as suited to appearing in the public arena.

Yehoshua was a man of the left, secular to the bone. His Israeli identity was of the Canaanite variety, and he saw the French model of a state of all its citizens as the proper model for Israel to follow.

Yet despite having well-thought out political and ideological views, he knew how to craft characters from every walk of society, with all their different opinions and customs, accurately, credibly and with impressive objectivity. In his literary efforts, he was actually drawn to creating nonintellectual characters, but without trying to prettify them out of any kind of false populist ideology.

In this sense, he adopted a Chekhovian model of writing that was precise, realistic and cruel. The character of Mrs. Moskowitz, the heroine of the novel “The Way to the Cats,” was based on one of his neighbors in the apartment building where he lived – a woman he took care of and helped. “She’s a terrible woman,” he would tell me, laughing. And nevertheless, he succeeded in bringing me to tears when he described what happened to her at the end of this wonderful book.

Anyone who wants to appreciate the scope and depth of Kenaz’s work must navigate between his three most significant works: “Musical Moment,” “Infiltration: A Novel” and “The Way to the Cats.” That will enable the reader to understand the greatness of this author, who was also a stellar translator of classic French literature (Stendhal, Flaubert, Balzac and Simenon) and had extensive knowledge of music.

Because he was a bachelor and maintained a pleasant, youthful appearance until his latter years, he had the patience to form deep friendships with a great many people. The family meals that Amos Oz and I had with him will never be forgotten.

Despite our urging, he was resolute in his refusal to accept the Israel Prize, not out of any opposition to the state, but for fear that the prize would lead to personal exposure beyond the bounds he had set for himself. But the Israel Prize hovers over both his extensive work and his warm personality.

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