Dear­est Anne: A Tale of Impos­si­ble Love

Judith Katzir; Dalya Bilu, trans.
  • Review
By – January 27, 2012

Love it was. Impos­si­ble, cer­tain­ly! Israeli nov­el­ist Judith Katzir has writ­ten a stir­ring tale about a rela­tion­ship — secret, love­ly, intense, and sen­su­ous — between a four­teen-year- old stu­dent and her twen­ty-sev­en-year-old lan­guage arts teacher. Rivi and Michaela, love starved and needy, attract­ed to each oth­er with a mag­net­ic force, share some­thing that shep­herds one through ado­les­cence and lasts a life­time for both. Their love is des­tined to expo­sure, but not to obliv­ion. The sto­ry is saved through the won­der­ful, inti­mate entries in Rivi’s diary. 

Dear­est Anne, the con­fi­dante of the diary is, of course, Anne Frank. Like mil­lions of oth­er read­ers, Rivi iden­ti­fied with and hon­ored the yearn­ings and iso­la­tion of the young Anne. The attic Michaela and I made for our­selves is my real life, and all the rest is like some movie…” 

Although the trans­la­tion is a bit dense, this com­ing of age sto­ry has real stay­ing pow­er. After­ward, notes.


by Mar­garet Teich

Best-sell­ing Israeli author Judith Katzir has pub­lished two col­lec­tions of sto­ries and novellas,three children’s books, and two nov­els, Matisse Has the Sun in His Bel­ly (1995; Eng.translation, 2006) and Dear­est Anne (2003; Eng. trans­la­tion, 2008), which is receiv­ing agood deal of crit­i­cal atten­tion in the U.S. Katzir stud­ied lit­er­a­ture and film at Tel Aviv University,where she now teach­es cre­ative writ­ing. Spe­cial thanks to the Israeli Con­sulate of NY and the Insti­tute­for the Trans­la­tion of Hebrew Lit­er­a­ture for mak­ing the trans­la­tion of this piece pos­si­ble.

Mar­garet Teich: The title Dear­est Anne refers to the pro­tag­o­nist Rivi’s let­ters to Anne Frank. The web­site of the Insti­tute for the Trans­la­tion of Hebrew Lit­er­a­ture has Here I Begin” as the title. Why is that?
Judith Katzir: The Eng­lish title, Dear­est Anne, was sug­gest­ed as an option for the for­eign-lan­guage trans­la­tions. That’s what it’s called in French, where­as in Ger­man and Dutch the title Dis­cov­er­ing Love was cho­sen. The Hebrew title, Here I Begin, is a quote from Anne Frank’s diary. With these words she opens her first let­ter to her imag­i­nary friend Kit­ty. It has mul­ti­ple mean­ings — the begin­ning of writ­ing, of ado­les­cence, of start­ing out in life.

MT: How does this book com­pare to oth­er nov­els of yours in terms of theme, narrator’s voice, and for­mat (let­ters)?
JK: Dear­est Anne is my sec­ond nov­el. Apart from it I’ve writ­ten novel­las, short sto­ries, children’s books, and a play. My first nov­el, Matisse Has the Sun in His Bel­ly, was pub­lished eight years before Dear­est Anne. Rivi Shen­har is its pro­tag­o­nist too. It, too, is a bil­dungsro­man, a com­ing-of-age nov­el, describ­ing Rivi’s twen­ties. In it the teacher, the instruc­tor, the beloved, is a mar­ried man many years old­er than Rivi. Like Michaela Berg, the lit­er­a­ture teacher in Dear­est Anne, the man in Matisse is eru­dite and cul­tured and enrich­es Rivi while encour­ag­ing her to write. An addi­tion­al stra­tum in Rivi’s grow­ing up described in the ear­li­er book is her cop­ing with her mother’s ill­ness and death. Matisse cor­re­sponds with works from main­stream lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture that were writ­ten main­ly by men. In Dear­est Anne the teacher, the instruc­tor, the beloved, is a woman, Michaela Berg, and the nov­el cor­re­sponds with the pri­vate, under­ground canon” I col­lect­ed dur­ing my own ado­les­cence. In our lit­er­a­ture lessons at school we stud­ied works that were, in the main, writ­ten by men. As a girl who wrote, I need­ed to paint myself a por­trait of the woman writer, and I did it through the works of women writ­ers and poets like Sylvia Plath, Vir­ginia Woolf, Eri­ca Jong, Mar­garet Duras, and Israeli writ­ers like Leah Gold­berg, Zel­da, Dahlia Ravikovitch and oth­ers. So for me the two nov­els are two pil­lars of the same house. One rep­re­sents the father tongue” and the oth­er the moth­er tongue.”

MT: At one point in the nov­el, the pro­tag­o­nist is explor­ing her sex­u­al­i­ty and admits being com­fort­ed by Anne Frank’s bisex­u­al inter­ests. What else bridges the two char­ac­ters to one anoth­er?
JKThe con­nec­tion between Rivi and Anne Frank is com­plex — for Rivi, as it was for me and my gen­er­a­tion, Anne Frank’s diary was the first, soft­ened, aper­ture to the Holo­caust. We knew numer­ous Holo­caust sur­vivors but they didn’t talk. Up until the ear­ly 1980’s the sub­ject was kept qui­et. There were Holo­caust Remem­brance Day cer­e­monies at school, and as opposed to the for­mal cer­e­monies Anne Frank’s diary pro­vid­ed the read­er with a per­son­al, first per­son expe­ri­ence. Anne, like Rivi, is a girl writer who aspires to become an author. Rivi iden­ti­fies with Anne’s need to doc­u­ment every­thing in her diary, with her sen­si­tiv­i­ty, vital­i­ty, and curios­i­ty, includ­ing erot­ic curios­i­ty about girls and boys alike. Rivi, like Anne, has a com­plex and ambiva­lent rela­tion­ship with a harsh, judg­men­tal moth­er. Both Rivi and Anne have tur­bu­lent souls. In the nov­el Anne’s hid­ing place and the hid­ing place with­in the hid­ing place, which is the per­son­al diary, becomes a metaphor for Rivi and Michaela’s for­bid­den love, and for Rivi’s secret diary, which has its own hid­ing place. Rivi buries it in the ground and res­ur­rects’ it and reads it twen­ty years lat­er, when she is already an adult.

MT: The pro­tag­o­nist is an aspir­ing writer. When you were young, were you like Rivi and if so, which writ­ers did you most admire?
JKIn a pre­vi­ous response I wrote about the women writ­ers from whom I’ve drawn inspi­ra­tion. But from a styl­is­tic stand­point the main influ­ence on me is that of the Israeli writer Ya’akov Shab­tai who died in the ear­ly 1980’s. He wrote long stream of con­scious­ness sen­tences, start­ing in the present, slid­ing into the past, and back to the present — in the same sen­tence with­out peri­ods, some­times over sev­er­al pages. In my ear­ly twen­ties I dis­cov­ered Shabtai’s two nov­els, Past Con­tin­u­ous and Past Per­fect. I felt as if some­one had tak­en my hand and pressed a key into it. I told myself that if one day I wrote a sto­ry (up to that point I’d writ­ten main­ly poet­ry) that’s how I’d write it, because it was the rhythm of my con­scious­ness too. That was how my first sto­ries and parts of the nov­els were writ­ten. After­wards I also wrote in dif­fer­ent ways, in short stac­ca­to sen­tences, because not all con­scious­ness­es are the same…

MT: How per­son­al is this nov­el? Is that ques­tion asked a lot?
JKThe ques­tion of the novel’s auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal ele­ments has been asked direct­ly or indi­rect­ly on numer­ous occa­sions. The curios­i­ty is under­stand­able, but I always reply that I am not in the habit of con­duct­ing orga­nized tours around my lab­o­ra­to­ry, where I con­coct the sto­ries from atoms of mem­o­ry, imag­i­na­tion, oth­er people’s sto­ries, inspi­ra­tion from oth­er books, and so forth. The bio­graph­i­cal con­nec­tion between writer and work is irrel­e­vant. Far more rel­e­vant is the con­nec­tion between the work and the read­er. Does he or she man­age to iden­ti­fy with it? Find him- or her­self between the lines? One of my aims as a writer is to recon­noi­ter the soul’s hin­ter­lands,’ the dis­tant, extreme places trod­den by human beings in their sub­con­scious or a dream, and only infre­quent­ly — in real life.
Pen­ny Metsch, MLS, for­mer­ly a school librar­i­an on Long Island and in New York City, now focus­es on ear­ly lit­er­a­cy pro­grams in Hobo­ken, NJ.

Discussion Questions