Marc His Words

Ever since the publication of `War Book' - which was greeted with open hostility by the Parisian press - its author says he has lived in intellectual isolation.

I first heard his name last summer, at a theater festival in Avignon, in the south of France. Someone who works for the radio station France Culture jotted down the name of a must-read book about Israel written by a friend of his, Marc Weitzmann, editor of the literary column of "Les Inrockuptibles," a very prestigious Parisian magazine. The name of the book: "Livre de Guerre" ("War Book").

When I returned to Israel, the whole matter slipped my mind. In a country where terror thrives, who feels like rehashing the subject through the prism of an outsider - and in another language to boot? But fate is fate. After the Twin Towers collapsed on September 11, as my eyes were glued to the television, having just begun a new job as a TV columnist, there on the screen was Marc Weitzmann.

France 2 had just launched a new literary program, "Campus." In the second half of the show, a regular panel of critics was asked their opinion on new books. One of them, a young man with blue eyes, sitting beside Josyane Savigneaur, editor of Le Monde's literary supplement, let out a cry that brought to mind Joseph Haim Brenner's famous "right to shout" speech, at the insinuation by a member of the studio audience that Israel was to blame for the Twin Towers tragedy. To be pro-Israel in France is not a recipe for popularity nowadays. Marc Weitzmann didn't stop to calculate whether such a move was worthwhile: He leaped like a lion to protect Israel's good name. I made myself a note to keep tabs on him.

A month ago, I heard from Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua that Weitzmann was here in Tel Aviv. He was staying with Ariel Schweizer, a film critic, and working on a new book. Before we met, I read "Livre de Guerre" as well as the novel that won him fame in France, "Mariage Mixte" ("Mixed Marriage"), based on a true story in the newspapers about a man who shot his son to death after discovering that the (son's) real father was his wife's Jewish lover.

The book contains a chillingly graphic circumcision scene. Weitzmann experienced this in the flesh. He was circumcised at the age of 35, after his assimilated French parents refused to have the rite performed in infancy. This decision, to become a bona-fide Jew, changed his life - not least because "Mariage Mixte," the fruit of that circumcision experience, turned him into an established author. The French newspaper Liberation found the book "disgusting," but Le Monde's literary supplement gave it a major spread, entitled: "Weitzmann, Wandering Child" (a play on the "wandering Jew").

That signaled the great reconciliation - between Weitzmann and his family, and everyone with Judaism. One aunt called him, all excited, to say: "For the first time, our family name is in lights." Since this book, his publisher has been paying him a stipend so he is free to write. Success has also made it easier for his parents to accept his fling with Judaism. The first book he wrote, "Chaos," is a history of the family that was a great source of embarrassment for them.

But who can blame them? They, who believed in De Gaulle and his promise to the people of France, Jews and others, that they would never again suffer racial discrimination and who made up their minds to solve the problem by erasing Judaism from their agenda? As a boy, Weitzmann says, he asked about the source of the family name. "It's a German name," they told him, without further comment.

Hydrogen bomb

There is something frightening about names. A relative of his, a writer and an admirer of Israel - when being such a thing was still allowed - wrote articles for the newspapers under the pseudonym "Derogis," the name of the family that saved his life during World War II. Was it because "Weitzmann" wasn't good enough for public consumption? On his mother's side, incidentally, Weitzmann is related to the Cremieuxs, an old Jewish family from the south of France. One family member was the driving spirit behind the Cremieux Treaty, which granted French citizenship to the Jews of Algeria.

Like all Frenchmen, Weitzmann doesn't have a good word to say about French literature. More than anything, he hates the grand French style of certain contemporary authors who seem to think it is their job to rescue this form of writing from extinction. One of the few authors he feels close to at heart is Michel Houellebecq, a provocative writer of his own age, who has published a novel called "Particules Elementaires" ("Elementary Particles").

Houellebecq has drawn much flak for hanging out dirty laundry that the French never had the least intention of washing. In his scandalous books and interviews, he writes and says things that others only think. For the shock value, he will make any kind of politically incorrect remark, be it racist, homophobic or anti-Islamic. The characters in his novels are obsessed to the point of perversion with American vices, from shopping malls and Coca Cola to pedophilia.

Weitzmann has written an important article in praise of Houellebecq's work, and one sees a certain similarity between them, at least in one respect: The inspiration they derive from America - or in Weitzmann's case, Jewish America. His literary idols are Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. He is not as fond of Paul Auster, and for good reason: Auster is a sworn Francophile! Among the Latin American writers, his favorites are Onetti and Cortazat, and among the Europeans, the great Jewish writers of Central Europe: Kafka and Danilo Kis.

"Livre de Guerre" was born out of two articles Weitzmann wrote for his magazine while in Israel. Like "Mariage Mixte," it hit the French, with their confused feelings about the conflict in the Middle East, like a hydrogen bomb.

"Say `Jews' and a Frenchman thinks of Vichy," says Weitzmann. "Say `Arabs' and he thinks of Algeria." Hence the great hypocrisy of the French press, which has clearly influenced the recent surge of anti-Semitic incidents in France.

"War Book" is meant to straighten things out in the French reader's mind, to balance the picture created by television, with its constant mudslinging and defamation of Israel. Mainly, it is a book that offers very precise descriptions. When you board a bus to Jerusalem with the author, you can almost smell the soldiers' M-16s; you can almost touch the masking-tape wound around the bullet cartridges. Weitzmann writes about the settlements. He travels to Hebron in the company of soldiers. He interviews left-wingers and right-wingers.

Text before reality

The consequence: His book was greeted with deafening silence by the French-Jewish newspapers ("they're stupid") and open hostility by the Parisian press. Weitzmann says he has lived in intellectual isolation ever since. That's why he visits Israel so often. Not because Israel is a paradise on earth. Far from it. He can't understand how Israelis can be so serene, and the paralysis of the left worries him greatly. Nevertheless, he says, Israel is a place where one can breath intellectually. There are people to talk to, people with whom one can engage in an incredibly frank and honest dialogue.

Above all, says Weitzmann, emphasizing this point several times in the course of the interview, Israel is a metaphor for the 21st century. It is the only place in the world where a theoretical text came before reality, where reality was forged on the basis of texts. Call it texts or call it maps, he says, but where else in the world have definitions preceded actuality? Israel, says Weitzmann, is a laboratory of the 21st century. It is here that the great issues of the century will be probed: violence, the meeting of Islam and the West, the role of religion in modern society. Israel - no, not Israel, Tel Aviv - is also home to Yehoshua Kenaz, the Israeli author Weitzmann most admires. As far as he's concerned, that alone is sufficient.

We spoke at length about provincialism. We, Israelis, convinced of our marginality, cast longing eyes toward some "center," without even knowing exactly where. Weitzmann says that provincialism worries everyone today. It's a generalized feeling that anyone can have when stuck in a rut. After the interview, Weitzmann sat down and put pen to paper.

"I have a feeling that mass culture has turned the concept of provincialism upside down," he wrote. "Everything that used to be the product of long history, tragic and universal, is considered localized and provincial, whereas everything that is hollow, devoid of content and able to be summarized in a few simple sentences is universal. The provincial, in other words, has become universal!

"The Palestinians, for example, feed into the universal, while the State of Israel, entangled in complex problems that cannot be summed up in a few sentences, bears the scarlet letter of provincialism. If anything is provincial, it is the life of the Parisians, which doesn't go much farther than Cafe Flore, and begins and ends with the question of who will win the next Prix Goncourt. Without Le Pen, France would have died of boredom long ago."

So says Marc Weitzmann.

And I think to myself: When will we ever have the chance to die of boredom?