Non­fic­tion

Art and the Artist in the Con­tem­po­rary Israeli Novel

Joseph Lowin
  • Review
By – October 15, 2017

Art and the Artist in the Con­tem­po­rary Israeli Nov­el by Joseph Lowin | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

In this crit­i­cal study, Joseph Lowin care­ful­ly exam­ines eight exam­ples of the con­tem­po­rary Israeli nov­el, aim­ing to elu­ci­date the images of art and artists in mod­ern Israeli cul­ture. The select­ed nov­el­ists are Aharon Appelfeld, A.B. Yehoshua, Meir Shalev, David Gross­man, Amos Oz, Ronit Mat­alon, Aharon Megged, and Zeruya Shalev. Accord­ing to Lowin, what joins these writ­ers is their shared ded­i­ca­tion to the nov­el as a refined, self-aware, and deeply lit­er­ary form. Lowin aims his sophis­ti­cat­ed exe­ge­sis at seri­ous read­ers of lit­er­ary texts” who are espe­cial­ly moved by an aes­thet­ic view of life.”

Start­ing with the imme­di­ate aspects of Israel’s dai­ly and polit­i­cal life, each of these authors reach­es high­er – to anoth­er part of the coun­try, where art dwells.” Lowin des­ig­nates this lofty area as Aes­thet­ic Israel.” The spe­cial qual­i­ties of Aes­thet­ic Israel” emerge through detailed analy­sis of of such well known nov­els as Appelfeld’s The Age of Won­ders (1981) and less pub­li­cized ones such as Ronit Matalon’s The One Fac­ing Us (1998). Lowin explores the way craft­ed com­plex­i­ty and ambi­gu­i­ty priv­i­lege the very idea of the art of nov­el, or even more direct­ly the art of art itself.”

Tan­gi­ble inter­ac­tions and events give way to a sto­ry about sto­ry­telling” as each nov­el moves to the styl­ized, self-reflex­ive realm of metafic­tion.” Lowin fur­ther con­tends that such aes­thet­ic strat­e­gy has a pro­found Jew­ish res­o­nance –as relat­ed to the Midrashic mode‑a mode of writ­ing that involves rewrit­ing and adapt­ing pre­vi­ous texts.” Meir Shalev’s nov­el, Esau (1994), for exam­ple, requires slow, delib­er­ate read­ing” as he chal­lenges the read­er with a myr­i­ad of allusions.”

Lowin gives expert atten­tion to the spe­cial, arcane” lit­er­ary devices dis­played in these nov­els. Read­ers will find fre­quent men­tion of such eso­teric terms as alter­nat­ing frameworks,”“interior dupli­ca­tion,” locus amoenus,” dop­pel­gänger,” mis en abyme,”and ecphra­sis.” To his cred­it, the author always explains and illus­trates such spe­cial­ized nar­ra­tive meth­ods. For exam­ple, in his chap­ter on Matalon’s The One Fac­ing Us, Lowin shows how the author makes use of the ecphra­sis tech­nique to describe a work of art with­in the pages of her nov­el. Dis­cussing Yehoshua’s 1989 nov­el, Mr. Mani, Lowin points to the novelist’s use of locus amoenus,” the desired, idyl­lic place, as cen­tral to the novel’s struc­ture and move­ment. Like the oth­er nov­els, Mr. Mani emerges as a com­pli­cat­ed labyrinthine piece of work” designed by an author immersed in the Jew­ish tex­tu­al tra­di­tion.” Lowin includes very help­ful foot­notes illu­mi­nat­ing Mr. Mani and Yehoshua’s cre­ative aims. The book’s very thor­ough index also aids read­ers’ under­stand­ing of the tech­ni­cal aspects of all eight novels.

Lowin is always alert to such nar­ra­tive fun­da­men­tals as plot, his­tor­i­cal con­text, set­ting, char­ac­ter, and con­flict. In this way, he grad­u­al­ly draws his read­ers into the exis­ten­tial flow of the nov­els. He invites con­tact with the orig­i­nal text and fur­ther work of each nov­el­ist. How­ev­er, in his con­sis­tent con­cern with nov­el­is­tic nuance and com­plex­i­ty, Lowin guides read­ers into the dis­tinct land­scape of Aes­thet­ic Israel.” Amos Oz, one of the book’s select­ed nov­el­ists, has recent­ly remarked that Jew­ish con­ti­nu­ity [is] pri­mar­i­ly tex­tu­al.” In this thought­ful book, Joseph Lowin fur­ther traces such con­ti­nu­ity by link­ing each of his cho­sen Israeli nov­els to the great chain of the Jew­ish tex­tu­al tradition.”

Peter E. Korn­blum holds a Ph.D. in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berkeley.He taught Eng­lish in the High School Divi­sion of the New York City Depart­ment ofE­d­u­ca­tion from 1981 through 2007.

Discussion Questions