Fic­tion

Three Floors Up

Eshkol Nevo; Son­dra Sil­ver­ston, trans.

By – October 1, 2017

The main thing is to talk to some­one. Oth­er­wise, alone, a per­son has no idea which of the three floors he is on.” The three floors, which also rep­re­sent the three stages in Freud’s the­o­ry of per­son­al devel­op­ment, are the frame­work for this live­ly tri­par­tite nov­el by Eshkol Nevo, a high­ly admired Israeli author. Each of the three sto­ries in the nov­el is set on one of three floors in a sub­ur­ban Tel Aviv apart­ment build­ing, and each one is told to some­one in some way — three mono­logues on three emo­tion­al­ly dif­fer­ent floors.

Arnon lives on the first floor with his wife and two young daugh­ters. Obsessed with the idea that his nine-year-old daugh­ter has in some way been sex­u­al­ly abused by an old­er neigh­bor, Arnon height­ens the ten­sion between him and his wife and dri­ves him­self into impul­sive bursts of behav­ior. To relieve him­self of his deep­en­ing prob­lems, he texts an old friend, a writer, and in a restau­rant blurts out his story.

On the sec­ond floor, Hani, a young moth­er with two chil­dren, has a hus­band who trav­els for busi­ness so much that Arnon and his wife refer to her as the wid­ow. Hani’s grasp on real­i­ty is weak­en­ing. When she calls a psy­chol­o­gist whom she went to years before, she learns that the psy­chol­o­gist has died. For lack of any­one to talk to, she writes a let­ter to a very close old friend who now lives in Mid­dle­town, Ohio, and pours out her fears that she is los­ing her­self and is no longer sure of what has real­ly hap­pened and what may have been imagined.

Devo­ra, a retired judge and recent wid­ow, lives on the third floor. Her hus­band had also been a judge, and their mar­riage was made even clos­er by their shared pro­fes­sion. But there had been dif­fer­ences over their son, a dif­fi­cult and trou­bled child with whom her hus­band had demand­ed they make a com­plete break. Alone in her apart­ment, watch­ing protests against hous­ing prices on tele­vi­sion, she decides to join the demon­stra­tions and, invig­o­rat­ed by the pas­sion­ate but chaot­ic young peo­ple, is drawn into the social protests. She feels com­pelled to tell her hus­band about the unrest in the coun­try and, more impor­tant, the deci­sions she is mak­ing that have put her total­ly in charge of her life. Hav­ing found an old answer­ing machine, she records her sto­ry in two-minute snatches.

The author, Nevo, cre­ates three com­pul­sive nar­ra­tors, three unspar­ing­ly can­did mono­logues, three sto­ries that expose the psy­ches of peo­ple caught at crit­i­cal points in their lives — each dra­ma­tiz­ing one aspect of Freud’s the­o­ry. The sto­ries are very loose­ly linked and progress up the three floors, each deal­ing with a sit­u­a­tion that comes clos­er to res­o­lu­tion as the nov­el goes up a floor. The read­er, the unac­knowl­edged lis­ten­er to these one-sided out­pour­ings, comes to know Arnon, Hani, and Devo­ra inti­mate­ly but can­not pro­vide the respons­es they so ardent­ly want. Per­cep­tive and com­pelling, Three Floors Up plays with the form of the nov­el itself and keeps the read­er absorbed in its sets of triads.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Oth­er Press

    • On page 11 Arnon says, Before peo­ple had ulte­ri­or motives.” Do you think he has any ulte­ri­or motives in relat­ing his sto­ry to his listener?

    • Both Hani on the sec­ond floor and Devo­ra in the third floor tell their lis­ten­ers that they need a wit­ness (pp 166, 201). On page 3 Arnon asks his lis­ten­er to promise not to put [his nar­ra­tion] in one of [the listener’s] books.” How do you as a read­er feel about being let into the con­fi­dence of Arnon, Hani, and Devo­ra, respec­tive­ly? Do you feel like a wit­ness or do you feel complicit?

    • Do you think Arnon is a reli­able nar­ra­tor? Is he any more or less reli­able than Hani or Devora?

    • Why do you think Arnon sleeps with Herman’s grand­daugh­ter? Why do you think Hani is attract­ed to Evi­atar? Do you think Devo­ra could have recon­nect­ed with her son if Michael were still alive?

    • How does Three Floors Up depict motherhood?

    • In Eviatar’s sto­ry to Lyri, the scor­pi­on felt that he had to sting the tur­tle. Oth­er­wise, he wouldn’t be a scor­pi­on” (p114). What are the urges of each of the res­i­dents of the apart­ment build­ing? Do they give in to all their urges? Do their desires define who they are?

    • What are the sim­i­lar­i­ties between Hani and Devo­ra? Do you think Hani would have a stronger grip on the con­fi­dence that [she] even has a self” (p 163) if she had cho­sen, like Devo­ra, to return to work after three months?

    • On page 174 Devo­ra asks Why not hitch a ride to the big city with a neigh­bor and join the demon­stra­tors myself?” On page 187 she asks, Didn’t those peo­ple have fam­i­lies or close friends they could talk to dis­creet­ly?” Do you think there’s any sig­nif­i­cance to the lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between the res­i­dents of the apart­ment build­ing in the nov­el? Do you think Devo­ra will speak more to her neigh­bors in her new apartment?

    • Which of the nar­ra­tors had the voice you liked best? Why?

    • After read­ing each of the inter­con­nect­ed sto­ries in Three Floors Up, does it seem like Arnon, Hani, and Devo­ra are liv­ing in the same coun­try? What are the sim­i­lar­i­ties that can be found in each of their sto­ries? What are the differences?