Emotional Excavations

Shiri Lev-Ari
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Shiri Lev-Ari

Six months passed before Zeruya Shalev managed to return to her writing. She had already begun to feel that she would not want to write any more. The terror attack that occurred a year and a half ago close to her home in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem forced the writer to abandon her work. The bus blew up a few meters away from her and Shalev received an injury to her knee, was hospitalized and underwent surgery. Ten days later she returned home on a stretcher and had to undergo four months of rehabilitation. During that whole period it seemed to her that dealing with matters of love, guilt, remorse and fear was superfluous compared to the power of life and death.

But when she returned to her writing, slowly and gradually, there was not a trace of what had happened to her. Once again Shalev abandoned external reality and dove into the inner realms of the soul, into her area of specialization: emotional life. Now the new novel she had been working on then has been published. "Tara" ("Late Family") deals with the life of a family, or more precisely the breakup of one family and the building of a new, later family.

"The return to writing was very difficult," she relates. "The terror attack occurred at a time when I was in the middle of the second draft of the book. That morning I had left the house to take my son to school, and it was very important to me to get back home quickly and write. I had a kind of strange urge to write that day, an urge I don't generally feel.

"I started to head for home, and two minutes away from the house a bus drove past me. I was three meters away from it, it drove by me and blew up. I didn't see the explosion, but I found myself sprawled there on the sidewalk and next to me a woman's corpse. I lay there like that, and my first thought was `What luck my child is already at school and I'm alone.' And then I thought, `Okay, I'll go home.' I tried to stand up and I saw that I couldn't. And by then the ambulances came and they evacuated me. I had surgery that same day."

When Shalev returned home, her first urge was to go back to writing. "All my friends told me that to recover and to keep myself busy I should continue to write," she says, "but I couldn't - and I hardly even tried."

During those months writing lost its appeal. "I was even afraid that I would never find any point in it again," she continues. "I didn't want to use writing as therapy. I wanted to recover first and then write. Only last summer, when my knee had more or less healed, and I was able to sit at my desk at all, I turned the computer on and went back to the same sentence where I had stopped that winter. In the book, I don't mention what happened even in a single word. It's not that I'm convinced that I'll never mention it, but I believe in lengthy processes of working through and internalizing material. I didn't see any point in suddenly introducing a woman who was injured into the book. Altogether, I don't like to write about things the way they were. I like to use them and to make something different of them. So maybe in the next book I'll find myself writing about feelings I had, that I won't even know I have taken from there - humiliation, helplessness, shock. Maybe I will use this in a completely different direction."

Shalev chooses to hold our interview at a Jerusalem cafe that until not long ago was Cafe Moment, where another suicide bombing occurred. She lives very close to it. But still, every time a bus rumbles by, she turns her head and squeezes her eyes shut. A moment later she stands up and points out the intersection where the terror attack occurred, reliving the trauma, again and again.

On the edge

"Late Family" can be read as the third part of Shalev's trilogy about emotional life and relationships between couples. If "Hayei ahava" ("Love Life") - the novel that brought her fame in Israel and abroad and became an international best-seller - dealt, as the title indicates, with love life, and "Ba'al ve'isha" ("Husband and Wife") dealt with marriage, "Late Family" deals with family life.

Shalev's novels are written as a prolonged, detailed and tempestuous woman's monologue. Her characters are nearly always on the edge, unstable, on the brink of breakdown and loss of control. In the current book it is Ella Miller, 36, an archaeologist who has been married for some 10 years to Amnon, also a well-known archaeologist, and they have a 6-year-old son.

Ella perceives her married life as insufferable and longs for the days when she did not have a husband. She decides to break up the nuclear family and embark on a long road that will involve concession, loss and pain that she had not imagined. She forms a relationship with Oded, who is newly separated with children, and tries to build a new family life.

As usual in Shalev's books, the writing sweeps up and wrings out the reader, and is full of beauty. She conducts an archaeological excavation in the book - a metaphor that accompanies the narrative throughout - in an attempt to investigate what family life is, whether it is possible to dismantle it and if so, at what price. "Excavation is a destructive action," explains the book's protagonist. "Only in retrospect is it possible to know whether it was justified."

Shalev, 45, is married for the third time; her husband is writer Eyal Megged. The two met after she published a review of one of his books. She is the mother of Marva, 17, from her second marriage, and of Ya'ar, 10, from her current marriage. Her books (all of them edited by Yigal Schwartz) are very successful internationally, especially in Germany, where she is a well-known personality. Yet still, despite the success, she is full of anxieties. "It doesn't get better with the years," she says.

Once again there is the gap between the external and internal realities: "The life of my books is different from my own life. The books travel the world and are well-accepted, but my real life is a life of sitting alone in front of the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter. I go over them again and again with pleasure, but also with anxiety. What looks like the glamour of success and fame ultimately doesn't sink in, because when I'm sitting and facing the text I am again in a primordial situation that is not affected by anything from the outside."

During the interview, Shalev prefers to speak cautiously, not to reveal much of her private life, not to create an identification between herself and the protagonist of her book, letting the fictional character reveal herself in her stead. In the cafe she sits, slender and delicate, her hair still as long as a young girl's ("It serves me as a curtain sometimes - I can hide behind it"), a cigarette in hand, weighing her words.

"I knew more or less that I wanted to examine the subject of a second family in a literary way, the way a new home is established on the ruins of a previous home," she explains, "but it turned out that a large part of the book is devoted to the breakup of the first family. I realized that the family that broke up is to a large extent more important than the family that is built, because it is the base. Ultimately, it is difficult to answer the question that the protagonist raises after the separation - whether it was a move that had arisen from self-indulgence, a caprice or a whim, or whether it really was a step necessitated by reality."

There is something pessimistic about the book. Your heroine has no way out. On the one hand, her marriage is insufferable, and on the other hand breaking up the family is disastrous.

"I don't think that there is no way out, because the way out is first of all something she has to sort out for herself. I'm not trying to give advice about married life, but I've learned that the relationships inside the family with the partner reflect above all our relationships with ourselves, our abilities and our decisions. Out of depression, remorse and guilt, a new family suddenly emerges and this family disappoints her because she had expected more after the price she had paid. But she also moves from a stance of `what I'm entitled to, what I need to obtain in order to be happy' to `what obligates me.' This is an almost religious stance.

"Most of the characters in my books are on the one hand skeptical and ambivalent, and on the other it seems to them that there is a world of happiness, they deserve it and they will try to obtain it, sometimes in a very circuitous way. In this book, after all the things she goes through, she realizes that this is not something to which she is entitled and that happiness is linked to commitment - above all, to the people who are dependent on her."

Independent longings

If in any case things are solved by people sorting them out for themselves, maybe it does not make much difference to whom a person is married.

"I think that this is one of the things that she understands in the end - not that it really doesn't make any difference, but rather that the more important question is how she chooses to live, and not with whom she chooses to live. It was important to me that she break up the family not for a man, and that her longing would be not for a new man, but rather for an independent existence of her own.

"Readers sometimes make moral judgments of the characters. About `Love Life' they were always asking me how the heroine could fall in love with an old man like that. About `Husband and Wife,' they asked why the heroine wasn't assertive. And I assume that here they will ask how she could have been able to break up the family and why she doesn't stand behind what she has done. And I always feel that this is what attracts me to these characters - they are so far from perfection and so full of conflicts. Otherwise I'd be bored. It doesn't interest me to write about a strong and assertive woman who sets a goal for herself and achieves it elegantly. This isn't me and it doesn't suit me."

Do you think that the current generation, which is engage in the search for personal happiness, is self-indulgent? That our parents' generation was perhaps right?

"This is a question that I ask myself. When I built the characters it was important to me that her divorce wouldn't be justified in the strict sense of the word - she doesn't separate from a violent or battering husband and he doesn't even cheat on her. She gets divorced because of ordinary problems that many couples experience and don't get divorced because of them. It is clear that in our generation it is a lot easier and more acceptable to do this and it may be that sometimes people are too hasty, but this liberty is still a big blessing."

Do you think that the family unit is a remnant of a world that is obsolete?

"I personally very much believe in the family unit and I am a very family-oriented person, more and more so as the years pass. But as a writer I see very acutely the difficulties, the price and the complexity of family life."

You live with a husband who is also a writer, and he is also a partner to your writing processes. Does he take the male characters in your books personally?

"He tries not to. Both of us are already used to this, and I also deal with the female characters in his books. I'm learning to distinguish between myself and them. Clearly there are fragments of life that find their way into the books, but I haven't heard any personal response from Eyal about the male characters in the book, and I also try not to take things personally."

Small tragedies

Shalev has relinquished the treatment of national and public issues and has preferred to deal with the private and the personal. How is it possible that even the terror attack she experienced is not spurring her to write on the national level?

"This is a question that I get asked a lot abroad," she answers. "I can't force myself to write about topics that are not at the root of my being. Although we are living in this reality, and this reality has hurt me physically, I still don't manage to see materials for writing in it. I feel that the external reality has been forced on us one way or the other, and at least in my writing I am entitled to a freedom that maybe I don't have so much in the outside world. It interests me to illuminate the small, everyday tragedies, the difficulties and the grace of the simplest and most basic everyday life."

The terror attack is still with her - physically and psychologically. "Every time I leave the house I ask myself whether and how I'll come home. There is a kind of loss of innocence. During that whole period I made an effort to be a mother, even from my bed, but inwardly I investigated the fateful moves of that morning over and over again. I asked myself why it had happened, what I could learn from it. I had meetings with other survivors of that terror attack. But even in the hardest times of pain and distress, the emotional life still engaged me. After all, in the end this is what I write about, about the human psyche, and to my delight it continues to fascinate me even afterward."