The ProsenPeople

A Palace of the Arts Arising from the Ruins

Tuesday, December 22, 2015 | Permalink

My father was a businessman in Cleveland, Ohio. He and I loved each other deeply, even if we didn’t see eye-to-eye on so many things. Here is a typical exchange I remember quite vividly:

Me: Dad, the unexamined life is not worth living! (I had recently discovered the ancient Greeks, or more likely, I’d read a novel in which someone was quoting them.)

Dad: Who says? (He was late for golf.)

I sometimes resented, sometime envied, his easy-going attitude, while I seemed to add drama and complications to my life wherever possible. At the top of the drama-and-complications list has to be my move to Israel exactly thirty years ago.

Since then I’ve raised a family here, had several careers and a number of jobs, written and published a few novels, translated some of Israel’s great modern literature, and taught hundreds—oh, thousands by now—of students young and old. It’s been immensely fulfilling, sometimes frustrating, incessantly interesting and has provided a treasure trove of experiences for the writer in me.

My life and career in Israel have put me in touch with many remarkable people in the world of culture and the arts, something that has made me feel like an integral part of Israeli society, instead of an outsider. Yet one thing has persistently bothered me for a good chunk of my thirty years in Israel: the feeling that I am unable to do a thing about the country’s biggest stumbling block, the failure to achieve peace, or to become that “light unto the nations” that so many people expected would happen. I ache in sympathy with the way this beautiful, troubled nation makes such remarkable progress in certain spheres while getting nowhere in that one. I am mortified by my own ability to look away from the problem.

Then two years ago I purchased a decrepit, centuries-old Ottoman ruin in the predominantly Muslim Old City of Acre (Akko) on Israel’s northern seacoast. I had vague notions of turning it into an apartment for myself, a studio for my literary activities, and an extra apartment I could rent out. For the past year I have been engaged in a massive restoration and renovation project and have been watching the miracle of a palace arising from the ruins. What’s more, the purpose of the building has been evolving as I had the amazing experience of being welcomed by my neighbors and watching the workers—most of whom are local—pour their talents and much more (I’d cautiously call it love) into every stone and crevice.

In the end, this crazy dream has turned into Arabesque: An Arts & Residency Center in Old Acre (Akko), due to open in the coming weeks. My son Micha and our neighbor Maharan will be co-directors; Maharan’s mother, Khayet, is the house mother (em bayit, a term I love, as though she gathers the whole building in her arms and coddles it). And I am its artistic director. To me this is the embodiment of what could and should be in the Middle East: a place where all are welcome, all cultures and languages and religions are respected, all sides have a voice and a role, and art rules.

There have been obstacles along the way; there are more in store for us. There have been days when I’ve asked myself why I needed this. But I’m willing to wager that even with all the drama and complications, all the soul-searching and questioning that have gone into this project, my father would have been proud and pleased at what his son and grandson are trying to achieve. Inshallah, as we say in these parts, that we’ll succeed.

Evan Fallenberg is an award-winning novelist and translator and teaches at Bar-Ilan University. For more information about Arabesque: An Arts & Residency Center in Old Acre, please visit the project’s IndieGoGo site here.

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Making it “True”

Thursday, July 07, 2011 | Permalink

On Tuesday, Evan Fallenberg explored writing elaborate lies with convincing details. Today, he further explores how much of his fiction is “true”.

“How much of my book is true?” I could say ‘all of it,’ I could say ‘none of it,’ and both answers would be correct.

In order to create real characters that you, the reader, will believe, I must make them as true as possible. That does not mean basing them on anyone in particular, though I happily borrow snippets of stories and characteristics from friends, family and total strangers. But ultimately, the more I work with those characters, the more they evolve into themselves, which means they spin away from me, beyond what I knew or thought I knew about them to a place where it seems that they are in control of who they are and I am merely charged with capturing them on paper. If I seem mysterious about it, I don’t mean to be, but I myself cannot completely understand how it all works so I can’t expect anyone else to.

A case in point is Teo Levin, the eighty-five-year-old protagonist of my new novel, When We Danced on Water. He is a choreographer and former dancer, but even the company he directs – the Tel Aviv Ballet – is a product of my imagination. I provided him with a history, a career, lovers, a creative spark, a range of emotions and reactions, a face, a body, and in turn, he has kept me in line, checking some of my crazier or duller impulses. (He was originally far more cantankerous than his final, in-print version; but the grouchily perfectionist ballet master was too much of a cliché, and I am grateful to Teo for pointing that out to me.) To my delight and my frustration, however, people keep asking me to reveal on what real person he is modeled. That is delightful because it means I have made him real enough to believe, and frustrating because it should be of no consequence.

Similarly, I am flattered when people ask how long and where I danced. (I didn’t.) Dance, which is Teo’s medium and art form, takes a prominent place in the novel, and I had the task of describing it from without, as an observer, but also from within, from what Teo experiences when he moves his body to music. For the former I interviewed a marvelous dancer, dance teacher and choreographer, and for the latter I took dance lessons and learned the basics of ballet so that I could know what Teo was feeling when he stretched his toes into a sharp point or floated his arms above his head. I made the lie real for myself; only then could it be real for the reader.

Photo by Aliz Noy

It feels impossible to plot the course of my life, with all the reversals and vicissitudes and surprises and changes. But perhaps this one element – my joy of embellishing the truth – has its own continuum, from those detail-rich stories I made up for grammar-school classmates willing to listen, to the detail-rich novels I write for readers willing to read.

In my life as an adult I have tried to remain scrupulously truthful, largely, I suppose, as a reaction to all those childhood lies. And yet, when I tell stories that really happened, I cannot seem to control the impulse to elaborate, to add color and texture to the picture I’m drawing for my listener. It is an occupational hazard I can live with, and one that has served me well.

Evan Fallenberg’s most recent novel, When We Danced on Water, is now available. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Elaborate Lies with Convincing Details

Tuesday, July 05, 2011 | Permalink

Evan Fallenberg is the author of When We Danced on Water, a novel. He will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council‘s Author Blog.

I am probably a writer of fiction (as opposed to nonfiction) because from a very early age I loved to tell elaborate lies with convincing details. In the first grade I affected a British accent to tell the story of my birth in the back of a Volkswagen in London; in the seventh grade I concocted a potion of hand cream and food coloring to give myself a tan following a non-existent family trip to Hawaii, where our family (according to the extended version of my lie) was going to be relocating.

I was a child with curiosity and wanderlust and a colorful, lively imagination. My lies were not malicious and were only vaguely self-serving; mainly they existed to add glamour to a life that felt too ordinary. In bed at night I spoke to myself in faux French, puffing out my lips and making a lot of zh sounds. It follows that during the daylight hours I would wish to spice things up.

It is important to note that my lies never contained magical elements. No one ever flew or was transported in time machines. Instead, I took the everyday materials of real life (we actually had a little Volkswagen when I was six) and reworked the story, the surroundings. I took my real self and removed him from Ohio (and usually America), gave him the ability to speak many languages, dressed him in fancy clothes and then…well, then, my imagination could take me only as far as books and television had brought me by that time.

My lies brought attentive audiences, from whom I learned the art of brevity, and the need for credible plot twists and satisfying surprises. I was keenly aware of eyes glazing over or people wandering away, so I did my best to rivet them to where they were standing. My lies got me into trouble – one such lie caused my demotion from valedictorian to salutatorian of my high school graduating class – and out of trouble as well, as when, in the fourth grade, our substitute teacher found a nasty poem I had penned about her circulating in class, and in order to gain her sympathy I told her a horrifying story about cancer and death and sadness in our family, none of which was (yet) true.

I am lucky to have found a healthy channel for my need to invent. And like those early lies, much of what I make up for my books has elements of truth to it. Which is why I am both bothered and sympathetic when asked how much, or what, in my novels is true.

Come back all week to read more of Evan Fallenberg’s post. His new novel,When We Danced on Water, is now available.