Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua: a master of reinvention
Even in his 80th year, acclaimed Israeli author A B Yehoshua believes it’s never too late to challenge himself – and he has certainly done so in his latest novel, The Extra. Yehoshua, described by critics as the ‘Israeli Faulkner’ says of his new book, which tackles love, family and artistic ambition: “It’s difficult for an old writer to invent something new each time, it’s not easy not to repeat myself.”
While he asserts that “this is the most non-political and non-ideological book that I have ever written,” he concedes that politics inevitably stray again into his work. “I thought I would be totally free of this – but I wasn’t free – because when I saw all the interpretations, I noticed people had still connected political and ideological theories to the story and its characters.”
The Extra revolves around Noga, who has returned to Israel to carry out a social experiment conceived by her brother to move their widowed mother into assisted living accommodation in Tel Aviv. Noga, a harpist in the Dutch Orchestra, agrees to house-sit the family apartment in Jerusalem for three months. On returning to her native Israel, Noga is confronted with her past and her controversial decision not to have children, a decision that saw the end her marriage and forces her to re-examine the deeper reasons for that choice.
The book is unromantic in its description of Israel, not heavily Zionist, but shows a normalcy to being Israeli and living in Jerusalem. Yehoshua, an award-winning author who has previously published 11 novels, says the critical reaction in Israel is of huge importance to him. “The real public for me is the Israeli public. This is the public that I have created an intimate relationship with over the years. They are the readers who follow my work the closest.”
He describes the greatest moment of pleasure in how academics have taken to his work: “They reveal things to me that I could not have seen myself, as the writer; they are touching on the delicate issues that I could not have, expressing some profound analysis in my work.” His wife Rivka, a psychoanalyst, and close circle of friends “were able to provide sharp insights into The Extra, which has given me immense satisfaction.”
However, Yehoshua confides that he did not start his latest novel knowing all the answers to the questions he poses within the narrative. “I threw away the easy answers during the writing of the novel and tried to go for a more profound explanation,” he says. In regard to Noga’s decision to forgo motherhood, he adds: “The mechanism of the novel was to penetrate indirectly, trying to crack her firm conviction that she is doing good by her decision not to have children and I dismissed from the beginning the easy excuse like career or because she didn’t believe in the future of Israel from a political point of view.”
Yehoshua explains that in his opinion, Noga’s decision not to have children is the exception. In his own life, he enjoys a large extended family of three children and seven grandchildren, so such a decision is certainly an exception in his life and the topic greatly intrigued him. He delves deep into Noga’s childhood in search of explaining her life choices and concludes: “There is a symbiotic relationship between her parents – as described in the first chapter – they have a bed that is anot big, but find themselves comfortable in this bed and they amuse each other and talk to each other.
“There is a feeling they are even dreaming the same dreams together and this is the reason why Noga doesn’t want to stay at home, because this symbiosis did not give her the space to develop herself as a separate human being. “In this sense only when the father dies and now the mother is separated, little by little she has the feeling of an extra, a superficial experience – she is in a scene where others are the main parts.”
Yehoshua continues: “The word ‘extra’ in English is so specific and accurate; by taking part in this kind of experience, she is unknowingly confronting something in her self-confidence.” Despite his international success, he admits that he does not see himself as an ambassador for Israel, but instead “as a writer and an intellectual” – and has deliberately chosen to veer away from the political situation for his latest work.
He adds: “I have to express myself as a citizen, to my family and friends about the major problems in Israel and the questions that surround the Jewish people now and historically, but with this book I maintain a non-political stance.”
The Extra is a fascinating novel that positions the issues and challenges of its characters at the forefront and for once, refreshingly places Israel as the extra and not the main focus of the narrative.
by Fiona Leckerman
© Jewish News, April 2016