My intention is to write one or two things about contemporary Hebrew literature, but as a matter of fact I already have second thoughts about my subject. It’s the word ‘contemporary’ that baffles me. It occurs to me, really, that I should tell you some of the story of modern Hebrew literature, rather than pretend to sum it up for you and squeeze it into definitions and formulae: I am a storyteller, not a scholar. And stories of course are never ‘contemporary’, not even if they are set in the present time or told in the present tense. A story is bound, almost by definition, to relate the past. Storytellers are cripples, monsters really, born with their necks and faces turned backwards. So, although you may expect a report about the present, hoping perhaps to get a glimpse of the future of Israel and its literature as well, I am here to sell you nothing but old hats.

But just how far into the past do I go? Where does my story properly begin?

I could describe a number of significant recent Hebrew books – that would be the easiest thing to do – along with some plot summaries, and then put them all in a familiar context: so I could tell you who exactly is Israel’s Saul Bellow, who is Garcia Márquez, who resembles Günter Grass, who are the Frosts, the Ted Hugheses or the Solzhenitsyns in our little Israeli village. This is tempting and could be fun. In fact, I sometimes amuse people faintly familiar with Israel’s literary scene by telling them that it is much like a continuing earthquake, with various geological strata exposed that have to be watched simultaneously: if you hit the right café in Tel Aviv at the right time of day you would see – at least until a few years ago – the John Donne and the Lord Byron of Hebrew poetry, and the Walt Whitman and the T. S. Eliot sitting together at the same table with the local Allen Ginsberg, all of them alive (and kicking hard), all of them on speaking – or rather on screaming – terms with each other. All this results from the fact that literary developments that occurred in English and other European literary traditions over centuries have taken place within decades in Hebrew.


Italo Calvino
Excesses