It’s August, and whether or not you have the good fortune of heading over to a beach somewhere soon, you deserve to take a few days off from the grim portents of reality and enjoy a good book. Thank the publishing gods, then, for their good graces and impeccable timing, as one of the most thrilling Israeli novels of recent years is finally available in English, masterfully translated to boot.
It’s called An Egyptian Novel, and it was written by Orly Castel-Bloom, who, as I’ve argued before in these pages, is one of the greatest literary talents Israel has ever produced. In a more perfect world, she would be the one reaping the laurels while lesser lights like David Grossman or A.B. Yehoshua gave thanks for the occasional scrap of praise. When so many Israeli writers either stupidly stumbled into reality—producing mirthless works so heavy with bathos you could barely lift the page to turn it—or, just as stupidly, ran away from it and pretended like they were careless creatures roaming the Mitte or the Marais, Castel-Bloom committed herself to the novelist’s real task, namely the compassionate interrogation of human emotion.
Her early books, especially the sublime Dolly City, did so with sharp, absurdist humor. “I discovered a new type of phobia in Dolly City,” her mad heroine confesses, referring to the city that exists half on earth and half in her mind. “Arabophobia, fear of Arabs. I once read somewhere that you should tackle fear head-on. Fuck Arabs, if you’re afraid of them. You fuck them—and you see that the devil’s not as black as he’s painted, they’re just like everybody else.” Anyone who could manage both a joke, a reference to Dante, and a dig at the canon of overwrought, erotically charged, politically motivated hokum that literary lions like Amos Oz have churned out for decades deserves a slow clap and our unbound admiration.
But as Castel-Bloom matured, her insights and her talents grew both milder and deeper, like single malt scotch with a few uninterrupted years in the cask. She moved further away from the grotesque and closer to the sublime, and she reached the height of her powers in her new novel, which won Israel’s Sapir Prize, the nation’s top literary honor. To the extent that the plot matters, it loosely follows an Egyptian-Jewish family, the Castels, whose oldest daughter, referred to simply as The Oldest Daughter, bears more than a passing resemblance to the novelist herself. The family, Castel-Bloom writes, was “the only household not spoken of in the annals of the people of Israel—those who in the great exodus refused Moses and stayed behind in Egypt as slaves.” When they finally arrive in Israel, the Promised Land hits them with all of its might, to each generation its own affliction. The older generation finds heartbreak and disillusionment as their kibbutz is ripped apart by ideological infighting, and their children stumble to find magic and meaning in a society now careening towards American-style commercialism. And all, regardless of historical circumstances, struggle to connect with each other and with world around them, a quest that, being human, often proves treacherous. Todd Hasak-Lowy, the book’s translator and himself a fine novelist, did a remarkable job of capturing both Castel-Bloom’s cadence and her ideas, making all those missed connections and soured hopes and lovely little random encounters all the more moving.
“The book,” I wrote in my review of the Hebrew edition, “is rarely gloomy and never hopeless. It is, to quote another wise writer, a manual for living with defeat, a book about life under the weight of a thousand shattered dreams and soured ideologies, about finding grace and sweetness and real satisfaction among the ruins of a fallen Eden, which is what life in Israel in 2015 is and what life as part of a family, any family, has always been and shall forever be.” It’s now August, 2017, and not much has changed. Castel-Bloom’s is still the book we need to read right now.