Four Friends, Three Wishes

In his new novel, Eshkol Nevo - whose grandfather, Levi Eshkol, was Israel's third prime minister - probes the mysteries of male friendship and the life changes that are fomented mainly by women

As he does with all the important soccer matches, the writer Eshkol Nevo watched the European Championships of 2000 with four of his best friends, all of them former Haifa residents and current Tel Avivans. That time the experience was different, because after the nuts and seeds and watermelon ran out, one of the friends suggested that each of them write on a piece of paper the three wishes they would like to see come true before the next championship. The notes were to be opened four years later, but have not been opened to this day. "We left them with one of the guys and he said he lost them," Nevo says. "The truth is that none of us really wants to cope with the wishes we wrote down and we didn't really want to discover how much power the wishes have."

What was your wish?

"One of them was that I would have a book published, the second that I would have daughters and the third - I have to say that I don't remember the third."

Nevo and his wife have two daughters, Laila, three and a half, and Yaara, two years younger. A week ago his second book, "One Wish to the Right," based on that wishing game seven years ago, was published, and it is almost certainly going to be a bestseller at least on the order of his previous novel, "Homesick" ("Arbaa batim vegaagua"; English translation to be published by Chatto & Windus, London, next March).

The new novel is a book within a book. At the outset, a lawyer named Yitzhak "Churchill" Alimi, is asked by the relatives of a certain Yuval Fried to collect and edit the pages of a book titled "One Wish to the Right" from a police station. Fried, the author of the book and its narrator, is in a condition that prevents him from dealing with the book, whether because he is unconscious or because he is dead. The upshot is that Nevo's book becomes the fictional work "One Wish to the Right" written by Fried, which is punctuated by reservations expressed by Churchill, who is one of Yuval's three closest friends and the one with whom he has the most intense and problematic relationship. Churchill stole Yuval's love, Yaara.

The four friends and protagonists of the novel meet at the World Cup soccer tournament in 1998. Ophir, an adman who has held just about every position in the industry, is the one who puts forward the idea of the wishes.

"It's a lucky thing there is a Mondial," Fried says, referring to the World Cup tournament. "That way, time does not turn into one big block and every four years you can stop and see what has changed."

The World Cup and the other major soccer games, which are the usual excuse for the four friends to get together, have the effect of dividing time and marking the enormous changes that the four will undergo, but this is definitely not a book for soccer fans only. The novel invokes the intifada, governmental corruption, fashionable trends of one kind and another, and also contains instructions for the novice writer. Its two primary themes, though, can be stated as: What is friendship and what is its power to shape the lives of those who share it? And, what is life's meta-plan; will life follow the course of the goals we have set ourselves, or is it perhaps actually what happens while we're making other plans? The book is a page-turner written in an extraordinarily clean style and filled with humor, yet it left this reader feeling slightly sad.

Despite the temptation to identify Nevo with the narrator and the three friends with Nevo's real-life pals, there is no connection between the characters and reality. "Hanif Kureishi says that the relation between reality and literature is like the relation between reality and dream," Nevo says, quoting the award-winning British author. Material from the real world, he adds, is integrated into each of the protagonists, including the writer. "You know, I showed the book to friends at all different stages of the writing, and no one said about any of the characters, 'Hey that's me.'"

The four friends in the novel - in addition to Yuval and Churchill, there are Amihai, who is married and the father of twin girls, and Ophir, an adman who is fed up with words (Nevo also worked as a copywriter for a few years and now teaches copywriting at Tel Aviv University and Sapir College) - are totally regular folks. None of them is larger than life. They are all 28 and in the period when they are being molded into the people they will be as adults.

They have known each other since high school in Haifa, and in the first part of the book their friendship is conducted in Tel Aviv and stirs fierce ambivalence in all of them. "When you look at the history of literature," Nevo says, "you see that male friendships are mostly based on the army, and I absolutely did not want that kind of friendship. I think that in my parents' generation the army was the basis of friendship, but a little less in our generation.

"In the book Yuval develops a thesis that people who served during the intifada will not want to stay in touch with people who will remind them of that. It was important for me to write about non-army and not distinctly masculine friendship. My friends and I have riveting conversations that are not about saliently masculine subjects, even though the excuse to meet is sometimes a soccer game. One of the things that sparked my interest in friendship of this type was the friendship in the television drama series 'Sabbaths and Holidays' between the character played by Dror Keren and the one played by Alon Abutboul. It intrigued me to write about a friendship like that, which also has elements of intimate conversations and humor." In contrast to the book's protagonists, Nevo is already 36. He lives in Ra'anana with his wife and daughters but does not rule out a return to Tel Aviv. He was born two years after the death of his grandfather, Levi Eshkol, Israel's third prime minister. Both his parents were psychology professors. His mother, Ofra Eshkol, established a "center to advise students who want to realize their wishes," though her professional expertise is humor; his father's expertise is examinations.

In the wake of his parents' careers, Nevo's childhood consisted of endless wandering from Jerusalem to Haifa, to various places in the United States, to Holon, back to Haifa and Jerusalem, and finally, during his army service, to Tel Aviv. "The result was that as a boy I really hated all those changes, but as a writer they help me a great deal, because there are so many places where I feel at home and I actually don't feel at home in any of them."

If he were asked to jot down his wishes when he was the age of the protagonists, "for sure the first wish would have been to be a clinical psychologist," he says. He had always written - "usually in my school notebook" - though until the graduation show in the prestigious Reali High School in Haifa, of which he was one of the writers, he had never had the opportunity to check the response of a live audience to his work. Still, it was clear to him that in the wake of his parents he too would go into psychology. After a backpacking trip to South America, he decided to finish off the rest of his savings by devoting half a year before his studies to writing. Naturally, he wrote nothing. On the day he completed his undergraduate degree he registered for a writing workshop given by the novelist Yael Hadaya.

"I owe her my life," Nevo says. "I came to her with two pages, and she extracted from me, sometimes with shouts, sometimes with insults in front of the whole workshop, the book 'Bed and Breakfast' [title of the short-story collection in Hebrew: "Zimmer b'Givatayim"; published 2001]. She is an amazing teacher and a wonderful writer, and thanks to her I also became a great believer in writing workshops."

These days, a hefty part of his income derives from the writing workshop that he has been giving for the past five years together with the poet Orit Gidli. "What I get out of the workshops is the ability to see other people developing and to see the development of a writer, which is one of the most powerful experiences there is. We already have graduates who have published books. There is a book out there that I followed from the very beginning. I was at the workshop last week. When you have a book coming out you are completely wrapped up in yourself, and suddenly for three hours to be focused on other people is very calming and stabilizing. The workshops were Dorit's idea and are something I am very proud of."

Echoes of this can be found in the numerous tips to the writer that Yuval - in the new novel - repeats to himself as he writes the book, tips he picked up in a writing workshop he attends.

After getting his undergraduate degree, Nevo registered for a master's degree in clinical psychology at Bar-Ilan University. That was his dream since childhood, and few are accepted to the course, "but on the day they called from Bar-Ilan to tell me I had been admitted I suddenly realized that I was not happy at all, that it was much more important for me to publish 'Bed and Breakfast.'"

He therefore enrolled at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva, studying literature, and also took a writing workshop given by four highly respected authors: Amos Oz, Haim Be'er, Nurit Zarhi and Ori Bernstein.

Like the wishes of the group in the novel, which are realized - though not necessarily by the person who made the wish - the new novel, too, is something that happened when Nevo had other plans. "The truth is that after 'Homesick' I started to write a completely different book and I even got to something like page 360," he says. "Then one day I got tired of it. For me that is the key - whether you get attached to the characters or not. I wrote an almost complete novel and did not get attached to the characters. Suddenly, after a whole year, I discovered that if I left the characters I wouldn't really care what happened to them. So I dropped that novel. I had a short story that I had started, about four friends - this was a year after 'Homesick' was published. Then for a year I didn't write anything, because Laila was born. So after abandoning the novel I went back to the story and this book came out of it."

One of the subjects that interested him in the book, he says, "is how people become friends. Friendship is a relationship without self-interest. It is a pure relationship of mutual attraction. I was very curious to see how it happens. For example, one of my criteria is if a person understands my humor. Like Yuval and Churchill in the book: their friendship begins when Yuval tells a joke and Churchill is the only one who gets it.

"Humor is very important for me. One of my best friends is Amnon Wolf, the actor, who is extremely smart and has an unusual humorous outlook on life. Even though my mother is a researcher of humor, I come from a very serious home. I met Amnon when I was 17 and had come from Jerusalem, where everyone is very serious, and I think that our friendship and his sense of humor changed my life.

"That is another of the themes that intrigued me in the book: how friendship shapes people. I know that my friendships have been very formative. Also, how friendship survives changes. In the book I tried to catch the friends just before they become family men - maybe that was because I wrote the book exactly in the period when our whole group started to move from the couples stage to the family stage, and it interested me to examine how friendship survives that change. I hear from people that after the family stage, the friendship returns."

Friends are also a type of substitute for family - what's known as a family by choice.

"Yes, especially for men. One of the subjects that interested me in the novel was the characters of the friends' fathers. One of the fathers was killed in the army, another is a driving instructor who flirts with his female students. A third is divorced and disdains the son who grew up with the mother and doesn't allow him to get close to him. The father who is somehow the most acceptable is the closed and introverted and very English father of Yuval, who at least has some moments of softness.

"I don't know a man who doesn't have a problem with his father. It is very interesting for me to put that on the table. In this, too, friends are a type of healing. Did you notice that the friends have family-type nicknames for their friends - Baba, Mummy, Bro, My Bro?"

When do your friends date from?

"From all kinds of periods. I have my Haifa friends and I have my Jerusalem friends. But the big coming together was in Haifa around the time of 17-18. Not one of them is still in Haifa.

Your last book had 'four houses' in the Hebrew title, and this one is about four friends and wishes. Is there something magical connected to the number four for you?

"No. It just came out like that by chance. You can also liken the friends to the four elements - fire, water, earth and air. Yuval is the still water that runs deep. Amihai is earth because he is a one-woman man who tries his whole life to make her happy, and a man of one job even though he wants to change jobs; and he has earth-colored eyes. He is a man of broad shoulders, but he too is dual - when things go awry he is the one who leads them to do something completely new, which consists of something besides watching soccer, and suddenly he, of all people, becomes famous.

"Ophir," Nevo continues, "is air. On the one hand he is the Tel Aviv adman. His change is fomented because of a woman, not because of the place he went to. His friends are not convinced by his change: they think it is another type of campaign. What happens to him is that even though he is the least connected with the body, he becomes the most physical. From someone whose occupation is words, he becomes a person who does not believe in words.

"Churchill is the only one who makes a socially-oriented wish. He pursues justice. When he sees Shahar [one of the novel's characters] wronged at school, he defends Shahar, even though he has an account to settle with him. At the same time, he is instinctual and is not in control of his passion. There is something very infuriating about him, even though he is also a terribly good friend. On the other hand, he breaks the taboo and steals the girl his friend loves."

Churchill is also the dominant figure in the group - the entertainer, the one I find the most interesting, attractive and repellent. There is something in him that reminds me of Caesar in 'Past Continuous' [by Yaakov Shabtai].

"Well, that is a tremendous compliment that I really don't deserve, but 'Past Continuous' is the novel that truly made me write. I took a seminar on the book given by Nissim Kalderon, and because it was Kalderon it was a total experience and very emotional. When I first started writing I tried to write a short story in the style of Shabtai. I sent it under a pseudonym to Efrat Stieglitz, who edited a short-story section for Zman Tel Aviv [a local weekly], and she called to say that she wanted to publish it. I told her that if so, I wanted it to appear with my real name. She asked me what my name was and I told her, Eshkol Nevo. There was a moment of silence, and then she said, 'Come on, what is your real name?' In one of my meetings with readers in the wake of 'Homesick' - it was in Petah Tikva, I think - a woman in the audience waved a clipping of the story at me and said, 'I have kept this story for 11 years and I think you should go back to writing short stories.'"

Which of the protagonists do you like best?

"There is no such thing. I hold them all dear. Including, and in particular, the missing friend, Shahar Cohen, who is cruising the world and is an honorary friend. He disappears and is said to be living in Mitzpeh Ramon or studying to be a veterinarian in Holland. He suddenly shows up and deals with a friend of his who is in mourning, by using laughing gas. He sends a postcard from Australia. His sexual identity is not clear."

Do you have a friend like that?

"In every class there is someone who disappeared and no one knows what happened to him. There are rumors. Somewhere he is doing what all his friends are not doing. Everyone foists their fantasies on him."

It's a brilliant idea to use laughing gas on people in mourning. I think you have the makings of a startup here.

"The inspiration for that was of course dental treatment using laughing gas."

Did anyone in your group steal a friend's girlfriend?

"No. With us that taboo was never broken. But it's really interesting to break the taboo in writing. It's intriguing to see how they overcome it. If they stay friends. With us it didn't happen, but all kinds of changes did happen. People change a great deal between 18 and 30 - but there are changes that close friendship can handle."

In the course of the writing, which took more than a year and a half, the book's protagonists became close friends of Nevo. So much so that on Yaara's birthday a few months ago, "I suddenly felt that I had forgotten to invite someone, that something was missing, and then I realized that I had forgotten to invite Amihai, Ophir, Churchill, Yuval and, of course, Shahar Cohen, too."

Writing, Nevo says, is a very lonely occupation. "My wife, Anat, says that because of the loneliness I decided that I would at least write about imaginary friends who would sweeten being alone. My daughter, Laila, is also now in a period when she has imaginary friends. So I found some, too."

To allow himself the quiet he needs to write and also to live close to Anat's parents, who help out with the granddaughters, the Nevos moved to Ra'anana.

"Writing requires a boring environment," he explains. "And there is something else - after my trip to South America I made a decision never to live in an urban environment again. That is a decision I did not always carry out: Later I lived in a few places in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But one of the reasons I like the place where I now live is that it's out in nature setting and is a 12-minute drive from the sea."

The friendships and the passage of time change the group in the book, but in the end it is the women who truly foment change. There are three central female characters. Women will have a hard time understanding the secret of the writer's attraction to Yaara, whom Churchill takes from Yuval.

"I understand why you can't stand her. Anat, my wife, isn't crazy about her either, but I find her very attractive," Nevo says. "She also wears glasses, and I find women who wear glasses very sexy. For a few months I observed the small motions of women in glasses in order to construct her character." There is also the weepy Ilana, a psychology lecturer, Amihai's sour wife who cannot be satisfied. The third central female character is Maria, a Dane whom Ophir meets in India, a big New Age-type woman with a daughter. A fourth woman, more marginal, is Yuval's mother, who at the age of 60 discovers the pleasures of life, to her husband's distaste.

"The issue of the far-reaching changes that are undergone by older people when their home empties out, and their need to manage to do all kinds of things they had not done previously, intrigues me. In fact, the whole subject of change in life is very important to me. That is why Yuval writes a doctoral thesis about moments of change - and, by the way, in order to be able to quote from the thesis I did my own research. I studied philosophy so that I would be able to write about philosophers."

Nevo adds that he did other research as well. "Because Churchill is a lawyer, I sat in on law classes and reached the conclusion that if I had not been a writer I would like to be a judge. People are always asking what you would be if you were not what you are - well, I would want to be a judge or a deejay. I really love music and I am very envious of musicians. I have a neighbor who is a musician, and people come over and they have jam sessions. A writer always works alone."

What do you think it is that foments change in people?

"I think it's love, friends and traveling. My love for Anat changed me a great deal. So did my friends and my trips, and especially the big trip to South America. Those motifs also appear in the friends in the novel, of course."

Your previous book is set against the background of the Jerusalem area. Many of the memories of the protagonists in the new book are set in Haifa. What does Haifa mean to you?

"Both Haifa and Jerusalem are cities that carry a sense of depth, and I mean that in the concrete sense as well. There are ups and downs, in the symbolic sense, too. I think I am a hill person who has been living for a long time on the plain. The other side of growing up in Haifa and Jerusalem is not to know about all kinds of options. There is a kind of creative effervescence in Tel Aviv, and it's not surprising that all my friends moved there. Here there is the possibility of developing and changing. I am in a state of balance, because I live in a quiet place that is very good for writing, and it helps me that the surroundings are boring, but I am in Tel Aviv a lot and go out in Tel Aviv, and I do not rule out the possibility that we will move to Tel Aviv."

Wishes, he says, are the opposite of nostalgia. "After 'Homesick' I felt I could no longer deal with nostalgia. I wanted to deal with hopes and with plans for the future. In the past few days I have thought about how happy it would make me if our leaders would write notes with wishes. But none of them does that. They have no plans for the future, and one of the things I write about them in this book is that a person needs a saxophone in the forest - something to move toward. What [Prime Minister Olmert] said about not having an agenda and not needing an agenda is absolutely horrible. There has to be an agenda, hopes, direction."

What wishes would you write today?

"I want my girls to grow up healthy and good and happy, to feel toward me and toward Anat that we are the people who will always be there for them. I very much want them to grow up well. I have another four books that I want to write. A non-fiction book, short stories, a book about music, and I think that creatively speaking that could be a period of cooperation with musicians, for example. What I least want to deal with least is words." W