By Tamar Gelbetz
187 pages; NIS 79
On first impression, Tamar Gelbetz is the stereotypical North Tel Aviv woman. Teetering on the edge of 50, she is a commanding presence: erect, witty and neurotically skinny.
She is separated (like the heroine of her second novel, Mekupelet), and a mother of one (also like her heroine). She takes her coffee as a double espresso with soda water on the side and eats nothing. But this persona disguises a distinct fragility, humanity and warmth, some of which, by her own admission, has been learned through life. In the past six years, she has fought cancer (the subject of her first novel, You're in a Good Phase), survived separation and created a new career path after more than two decades working as a journalist, film critic and editor for Ma'ariv and Ha'ir.
Mekupelet ("Folded") charts the dissolution of a marriage from the moment the husband declares "I'm not happy," to the beginning of a life alone.
By the writer's own admission, the story is an old one. Man meets woman, woman marries man, the couple have a child, the couple get divorced.
But Mekupelet isn't tired. Its heroine is wounded in battle, crazed, unsure of herself and her domestic and sexual roles.
What makes Mekupelet exceptional, and what has placed it firmly on the best-seller list since its release in November, is the frankness and intimacy the author offers her readers.
"There's a culture that says, so what, so your husband left you; you'll get over it, you have to move on," says Gelbetz, "but the reality is much, much harder.
"I am amazed at how this book has touched people. People have responded to it on a very intimate, personal level."
For the interview in a Rehov Dizengoff cafe' she is dressed in black, and her enormous red-rimmed sunglasses never budge from her nose.
Your heroine is a fascinating combination of both strong and weak. On the one hand, she knows what she wants and she knows herself, but on the other hand she is emotionally dependent on her husband and falls to pieces when he leaves.
She's only seemingly weak, I think. Her husband decides to leave her and her life falls apart. It was important for me to make that clear, that for this heroine, her life is broken, the world is destroyed. I didn't want people to read this book and say, "So what, so he left," because for this heroine, it is disastrous. You read all these women's magazines that seemingly empower women and say, "Get a grip," "In two years, everything will be OK."
But two years is a long, long time, and it's a terrible situation, awful and terrible, and someone has changed your life irrevocably, has decided for you what it will look like. And when faced with that, this heroine decides she will do anything she can to have him back.
As the novel continues, there is a certain self-irony that develops, a dialogue with herself over who she is and who she should be for him: the perfect wife, the woman who cooks, cleans, brings flowers, behaves like an elastic band in bed. I wrote this with a heavy dose of feminist awareness.
A lot has been written lately about sex and the seasoned woman, most recently by women like Nora Ephron and Gail Sheehy. As the 40-something heroine's life is crumbling, her sex life picks up with her husband and her sexual appetite hits the roof. Is it this feminist awareness that made you write about sex so frankly in your novel?
Well, part of it is just the world of fantasy. I could create this character who is totally wild, explores all her options, so I did. But I think that sex in Israeli literature is very complicated, and yes, I think that there is some feminist impulse here. The tradition [of female authors writing about sex] has always been one that discusses longing, emotions, and not desire. Zeruya Shalev's books are one of the only exceptions.
On television and in the press there's this "girls' talk" that's totally the other extreme. There, it's as if all women ever do is think about their next orgasm. For me it was important to find the right words. To retain that graphic, explicit element within literature. I wanted to prove you could put those words in prose and still continue to live.
The couple's sex life takes off as their marriage dissipates.
Yes, the heroine muses how similar the end of their relationship is to the beginning: animal, sexual, extreme, with everything painted in strong colors. All the years that they are together, days slip by. They take the girl to school, they take her home, they wash, clean, cook, carry out chores and whoops, another day passes. It's as if they're half asleep on duty. And then suddenly, everything awakens.
Together with sex comes the issue of aging. How will the heroine date, stay up until two in the morning, wear sexy underwear, all when she's that much older. She hasn't done it for 20 years and she doesn't necessarily want to start.
Yes. You know when I was young, grandmothers who could well have been my age were allowed to sit with slippers and bifocals. Then it became that you had to be a cool grandma, and now we're all meant to be eternally youthful sex symbols running on the beach with our IPods, SMSing with our grandchildren. But what happens if you don't want to wear skinny jeans at 50? Technology has made all of this possible, so now they're saying, "Well, now go do it."
There's a constant monologue about food in your book: its purchase, its preparation. What the heroine will cook for her estranged husband, what she will feed her daughter. She herself fantasizes about food, but eats almost nothing.
Every woman I know has an issue with food. One eats too much. Another eats too little. A third eats, but feels guilty about it. I think it's just the way it is with woman.
What does one do with that pressure to be thin, to be perfect, to be eternally youthful?
Firstly, talk about it and make people more aware. The world has got more wonderful for women, but also much harder. Everyone loved I Don't Know How She Does It [Allison Pearson's book that discusses the impossibility of juggling work with motherhood and homemaking successfully], especially those women who do do it all; put the pot on the stove before they go to work etc, etc. But you don't need to obey all the rules. And you don't have to aspire to be the director of a bankâ€¦
You know, for years when I worked in an office, I was ashamed of the fact that I got up late. I would unplug the phone so people thought it was busy, just so they wouldn't know. Now, after cancer, and after gaining some maturity, I think, who cares. I leave my mark on the world, I do my work, what does it matter when I do it.
The book has a rather unusual structure, a very loose plot.
Intentionally so. There is a scene about four pages within the book in which the heroine reflects on a family holiday in Crete. It's one of the last good times together. And that would have been a typical place to start. A classic beginning.
But I didn't want to start there. The traditional options for book openings were less challenging for me. You know, there are writers like A.B. Yehoshua who weave these great, sweeping plots; it's a skill, but here I wanted to dig and dig at that particular point in time.
The period that I'm describing is very compressed, with a lot of emotional extremes. For some, that same period of separation is much longer and the emotional aspect weaker, but here there was more than enough to write about.
All your characters are nameless: the daughter, the husband, even the heroine. Why?
Again, I liked the challenge. I think there's something about their anonymity. It's very easy to give names and allow people to slide into the story. This is much more challenging, and at the same time more Everyman. It could be any woman's story.
Your use of the Hebrew language has attracted a lot of attention. You renew biblical terminology but are totally up to date with slang and even create some of your own words.
I am the mistress of my words and it's one of my greatest pleasures. I give myself total freedom with language. I did so in the first book, and it became even more sophisticated here. Everyone talks about how Hebrew has become poorer, more "diluted." I don't buy it. Hebrew is reorganizing itself, expanding, contracting.
I'll give you an example. It used to be that you would say "gamarti" (I finished). But now everyone says "siyamti," (I finished or concluded). The word "gamarti" has totally exited the Hebrew language unless it's used for its sexual connotations. Over that kind of thing, and people who say shalosh shekel ("three shekels") [instead of the masculine shelosha shekalim], I used to say oy vavoy. But it passed.
You worked in the world of journalism for so long. Do you miss it?
Not at all. I did it because I knew I could earn a living in that way, but I don't think I ever really enjoyed it. There's a sense in journalism that you're living on the side and watching and writing about other people's lives.
Yes, although there is no word for that in Hebrew, interestingly enough. I did it for many, many years, both as a writer, a critic and an editor. I used to procrastinate terribly, write only when asked, write as short as possible, get distracted. Literary writing is much more engaging. You need to love yourself much more in order to write in a literary sense. You build a world that you believe others will want to read.
Are you planning on translating either of the two books?
I really, really want to. With the first book, I was just establishing myself in the literary world, but now I want to invest time and effort into it.
Any new projects in the offing?
Not yet. I'm now going around, presenting the book, interviewing, which is hard. To write again I'll need to go into hiding once more. Turn the key on the office door and bury myself.