The Thin Line Between Fiction and Autobiography in Israeli Novels

A literary scholar reveals how some of Israel's most distinguished writers use the novel form - and not always consciously - as a covert report in which to embed the significant keys to their lives.

Hayyim Ketuvim (Written Lives: On Israeli Literary Autobiographies) by Nitza Ben-Dov. Schocken Books (Hebrew), 247 pages, NIS 92

In January 1994, after an interview, Amos Oz sent me one of his books with the dedication: "To Eilat, who knows which questions to ask and even which ones to avoid." This was his way of responding to the elegant duel in which we hovered around one particularly painful point, one about which Oz had still not spoken publicly: the suicide of his mother when he was 12.


The interview dealt with his then-latest book, "Don't Call It Night," which takes place in a southern Israeli town similar to Arad, where Oz himself lives. The dead are part of the community, and in a list of characters at the end of the book, one finds not only Pini Bozo, the shoe-store owner, but also his wife and baby who were murdered in a soldier's rampage; and side by side with the town's mayor, Bat-Sheva Dinur, appears the name of her husband, who was killed in the Six-Day War.

"My book discusses the presence of the dead in our lives, and in my life, the dead are certainly present," Oz said then, when I pointed out that nearly all his protagonists, throughout his books, had lost their mothers in strange ways, tragically and suddenly; as if Oz the writer could not allow his characters to enjoy the love he himself had been denied.

Oz scattered other pieces of himself in other novels. When I asked him about the resemblance between him and Fima of "The Third Condition" (published in English in 1993 as "Fima" ), a man who lives in filth and unbelievable disorder, and dreams of advising the government and repairing Israeli society - Oz responded angrily, "Don't confuse my underwear with my characters' underwear." I felt like a snoop, and wondered whether I was the "panting interviewer," as Oz put it in a later book, the interviewer who attempts to disassemble the skeleton and remain with the bones.

But when Oz's autobiographical "A Tale of Love and Darkness" was published, in 2002, I realized just how correct and substantial such questions are for understanding his writing. Only then, at age 62, did Oz dare to write explicitly about his parents' relationship, his mother's depression and her death: "My mother ended her life in her sister's apartment on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv on the night between Saturday and Sunday, January 6, 1952." He continued to describe how for several weeks following her death, he and his father neglected the house and drowned among the remains of food and waves of dirty dishes, fruit and vegetable peelings, scraps of paper, used tissues, a clogged toilet and piles of empty bottles. "This was more or less how I described Fima's apartment in 'Fima,'" Oz writes, confirming what I had sensed.

Subterranean arteries

In the hundreds of interviews I have conducted with writers in Israel and around the world, I have realized each time anew that a novel is a covert report in which the author has embedded the significant keys to his life. This is not necessarily expressed in the plot: Most writers know to avoid the trap of writing literal chapters of their lives in what is supposed to be not a memoir but a work of art. Still, these may be found in the subterranean arteries and twisting paths running through, not only an individual novel, but the author's entire corpus of work, as a recurrent motif, sometimes placed there unwittingly and sometimes almost against his or her will.

Academics and literary critics generally have reservations about connecting a writer's biography with the work, and view journalistic interviews as gossip, though they sometimes use material from these interviews in their work. So obviously, I was delighted to read Nitza Ben-Dov's "Written Lives: On Israeli Literary Autobiographies." Ben-Dov, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of Haifa, who has published books on the works of S.Y. Agnon, A. B. Yehoshua and Oz, is familiar with these recurrent autobiographical patterns, as well as with the new wave of clearly autobiographical works by writers who in the past wrote mostly fiction. She suggests new readings of Agnon, who mourned for his hometown destroyed in the Holocaust, and of S. Yizhar, Dahlia Ravikovitch and of A.B. Yehoshua in his most recent novel, "Spanish Charity," which, although the writer himself refuses to identify it as autobiographical, Ben-Dov sees as a novel teetering on the thin line between autobiography and fiction.

For further reading:

Literary Criticism / The mother lode
Rediscovering Hebrew literature in the shtetl
Mistaking ethnicity for literature

Ben-Dov examines several broad subjects, such as the link between the writer's biography and the collective Israeli story, and to themes of identity and place. In all of these areas, she says, we are dealing not with memoir, or with the purportedly "true story" (because even a so-called "true story" is also distorted and refurbished, and does not represent life as it was really experienced ), but rather with the way the writer chooses to depict these elements, grant them color and meaning and mend them. "With the magic needle, the artist may sew the tatters of experience and rag ends of memories, creating a different life from the one he lived," Ben-Dov writes. The result is the creation of a Joycean myth - as per "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" - out of personal biography: the myth of the birth of an artist through a specific formative path. "The huge quantity of books that were in Oz's childhood home, as he describes it in 'A Tale of Love and Darkness,' and in contrast to that, the complete lack of books in Haim Be'er's childhood - as described in his autobiographical novel, 'The Pure Element of Time' - both have identical goals: to fashion a writer emerging from books, or, alternatively, from a complete lack of them," Ben-Dov writes.

Wave them off

The current wave of self-revelation began with S. Yizhar, who broke 30 years of literary silence in 1992 with "Preliminaries," and shortly afterwards "Tzalhavim" and "Tzdadi'im" (Asides ) - all of them autobiographical. The reason for Yizhar's return to writing was prosaic, incidental and cruel from his point of view: He had lost a lengthy legal battle with his nephew and was forced to leave his childhood home in Rehovot, which was sold to a developer who would tear it down and build an apartment house on the site. For Yizhar, suffering from writer's block at the time, the imminent destruction of his home, where he had lived 70 years of his life, served as a kind of madeleine, initiating his own Proustian search for lost time. He had to put his childhood on paper, since the childhood home was no longer there. From his own point of view, he was not only writing about himself, but also about the first Hebrew child born before the land was reborn, the future artist, a vulnerable weakling, over whom death hovered all the time, but, like the Zionist enterprise, able to stand up to all his enemies.

Once I once asked Dahlia Ravikovitch in an interview how she would title her autobiography - if she ever wrote one - and she answered, "What Must Be Forgotten." But this was a pretense of innocence, for in her poetry and prose Ravikovitch never forgot for a moment the inferno out of which she wrote, and as a result she never let her readers forget it: the death of her father, Levi Ravikovitch, who was run over by a drunk soldier when she, Dahlia, was 6. In Ravikovitch's work, Ben-Dov sees an obsession with time, dates and the years that had passed since the tragedy, a myth of the birth of an artist that is "a portrait of the poet as an orphan."

In his novel "Feathers" (1979 ), Be'er depicts how he discovered a 3-year-old child's blue and white sailor suit in his mother's closet; to his amazement, he learned that he was not her first and only child, as he had thought. Almost 20 years later, in 1998, he returned to this tragedy, this time in an explicitly autobiographical novel, "Ropes" - the Hebrew title "Havalim" (meaning both "cords" and "pains" ) is a reference to the birth pangs of the artist and the ties of love to his mother. And it's no wonder that in the latter version of the story, the sailor suit is replaced by two infant dresses, one pink and one white. The dead brother in the fictional "Feathers" was a symbol for the two deceased, real sisters, Tovale and Yael, about whose existence Be'er had been unaware. We readers have no way of knowing what actually was the truth, except for what the novelist says.

"Be'er created in 'Feathers' a special genre in which the reader's misgivings, whether the story is true or not, are both the message and the riddle," writes Ben-Dov. And in Meir Shalev's "My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner," he appears to tell the true story of his grandmother Tonia, of Nahalal, complete with photos and real names, a grandmother, addicted to cleaning, who receives a vacuum cleaner from the United States; but the humor and magical realism in the style of Gabriel Garcia Marquez change Shalev's grandma from what she was - an ill-tempered and uptight woman - into a mythological figure, larger than life, who takes her revenge on dirt.

Nitza Ben-Dov sees the trend of autobiographical novels as a symptom of the culture of self-exposure in which we live. Well-known authors, she says, have reached the age where they are requested to tell their real stories and stop playing hide-and-seek with the reader, while the young writers have been born into this individualistic period, in which stories of gaping wounds and childhood traumas are daily bread. The endless fascination with the true story is also the reason that when "A Tale of Love and Darkness" was published in the United States, the publisher emphasized on the cover that it is a memoir, a true-life story. Oz did not like this definition, and in Hebrew the book was issued as a novel. At the same time, the American editors removed the didactic chapter about good and bad readers in which Oz criticized readers looking for gossip. From the American publishers' point of view, there are no good or bad readers. There are only readers.

Eilat Negev is the author of "Close Encounters with Twenty Israeli Writers" (Valentine Mitchell, 2003 ).