Master works

A novelist and a poet produce two books of note.

By MATT NESVISKY
December 27, 2011 19:44
Painting

men at cafe painting 521. (photo credit: Avi Katz)

“Scenes from Village Life” shows the masterful Amos Oz working in a minor key. The scenes are a series of eight linked stories all set in a bucolic little Israeli community. Tel Ilan sounds an awful lot like Zichron Ya’acov – a revered pioneer settlement where most of the century-old farm houses have been pulled down and replaced by spacious villas and where most of the agriculture and vineyards have yielded to commerce (chic cafés, shops selling Asian tchochkes) aimed at the yuppie day-trippers who clog the streets on weekends.

The contrast between the idealistic pioneer past and the moneyed, materialistic present is only one thread in the overall motif that embroiders the stories. The village is beautiful, the residents comfortable and apparently placid, but of course all is not as well as it seems. In the distance gunshots are periodically heard (but ignored). Jackals howl. Farm equipment rusts in yards and gardens go to seed.

And mysteries abound. In “Heirs,” the first and most artfully provocative and parable-like of the tales, a stranger appears and cheerfully insinuates himself into the home of a Tel Ilan resident – and into the bed of the resident’s ailing mother. In “Digging,” a senile former Labor politician is kept awake at night by the sound of someone or something undermining the foundations of his house. In “Waiting,” the mayor’s wife goes missing. Elsewhere it’s estranged children, a suicide, a highly improbable case of unrequited love. Bits of description – of the village, of someone’s clothing or physical attributes – are repeated again and again, recalling the poetic devices in a medieval minstrel’s lyric.

Otherwise the prose, in Nicholas de Lange’s crisp translation, is as concretely precise as the plots are oblique. Consider the village’s only Arab resident:


“Adel walked with a stoop. He was a shy yet talkative young man, and wore glasses that were too small for him, as though he had taken them from some child or had kept them from his own childhood. They were secured by a string and had a tendency to mist up, so that he had to keep wiping them with the tail of his shirt that he always wore outside his threadbare jeans. He had a dimple in his left cheek that also gave him a shy, childlike look. He shaved only his chin and sideburns; the rest of his face was smooth and hairless. His shoes looked too big and too coarse for him, and they left strange, menacing footprints on the dusty courtyard. When he watered the fruit trees they made puddles in the mud. He bit his fingernails and his hands were red and rough as if from the cold. He was fine-featured, apart from his thick lower lip. When he smoked he sucked so hard on the cigarette that his cheeks caved in and for a moment the outline of his skull seemed to be revealed beneath the skin.”

Straightforward, sure. But note the contradictions: shy yet talkative, glasses – perhaps stolen, perhaps not – too small, boots too large, a face that only partly requires the razor, fine-featured but thick-lipped. And note those mysterious footprints, the skull beneath the skin.

Oz’s linked stories about Tel Ilan readily recall Sherwood Anderson’s similarly probing tales of Winesburg, Ohio, a book that Oz has said inspired him to become a writer. But lurking beneath the surface of his village Oz finds greater depths of heartsickness and loneliness, guilt and dread.

Very rarely do I include “wow!” among the notations I pencil in the margins of books I’m reading. Aharon Shabtai’s “War & Love, Love & War,” a collection of the Israeli poet’s new and selected work, inspired one “wow!” after another.

My enthusiasm was generated in equal measure by Shabtai’s treatment of both of his topics. When the poet writes about war (he’s against it) he thunders in the most viciously condemnatory manner imaginable. When he writes about love (he’s evidently obsessed by it) he speaks with aching, tender urgency.

In each instance, Shabtai (and certainly in Peter Cole’s serviceable English translation) Shabtai writes in blunt and even crude plain-speak. This is after all the poet who in reference to the 2001 electoral battle for the premiership between Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak famously published a poem in Ha'aretz likening the contest to a choice between “Peepee” and “Caca.” Yet despite Shabtai’s penchant for the coarse diction of the back alley his poetry is also rich in literary device and erudite allusion – this last often referencing Jewish sources but more often than not classical literature. (Shabtai is 72, has studied at the Hebrew University, the Sorbonne and Cambridge University, and is Israel’s most notable translator of ancient Greek drama.)

On war, for example, “culture” hammers the reader in this manner:

The mark of Cain won’t sprout
from a soldier who shoots
at the head of a child
on a knoll by a fence
around a refugee camp –
for beneath his helmet
his head is made of cardboard . . .

Numerous love poems likewise pound the reader with expressions of obsessive longing, eroticism and four-letter words, which will be as off-putting to some readers as the poet’s rigid left-wing ideology. Yet the poet also writes beautifully about love, and nowhere as movingly as in the sequence dedicated to his late wife, Tanya. “You’d like to Know,” for instance, given here complete, states dreamily:

You’d like to know
how it feels to live without you
like a man falling
from the hundredth floor
who sees, in a window,
a beautiful woman undressing

Along with meditations on love and war, Shabtai offers several poems of social commentary, the sort of verse that could well make him the laureate of Israel’s social justice protest movement. “The Reason To Live Here,” for example, begins: “This country is turning into the private estate of twenty families/ ...What the capitalist swine leaves behind, the nationalist hyena shreds with his teeth...”

Again, this is not the sort of verse (or propaganda) that will please every reader. And to be sure, along with my “wow” notations I occasionally penciled in a defiant “no” – notably by some poems on Gaza and the long paean to, of all figures, former rightwing prime minister Menachem Begin.

But Shabtai is obviously not out to please everyone. By turns fierce, funny, sweet, nostalgic, angry and a raft of other things, Aharon Shabtai is a man – and a poet – in full. Slim volumes of his poetry have appeared in english before, most notably “J’Accuse” in 2003 from the same publisher and translator. Having this generous selection of his work in english – along with the translator’s useful notes and Shabtai’s notes on being a poet – is most welcome.


Related Content