These are the facts: Rachel Shihor is an Israeli writer. She is a professor of philosophy and an accomplished academic. Two of her novels, The Tel Avivians and Yankinton, have been published in Israel. Days Bygone, a series of excerpts from Yankinton, is her only work to date that has been published in English. (See this profile of her in The Quarterly Conversation.)
Up until April of this year, that was about all I had been able to discover about this remarkable writer. Meanwhile, everybody I talked to about Shihor’s work had confessed to being captivated by her language, and expressed his hope, to a man, that more would be available to read soon. The verdict is clear: Shihor’s fiction is one of those rare gifts readers may encounter once every few years: writing to linger over, to discuss, to share.
I contacted Rachel in April and was delighted when she agreed to meet me in Tel Aviv, both to talk about her work and to learn more about her life. This interview is the result of that meeting and an ensuing email correspondence.
It is also my great pleasure to announce that her collection of shorts, Stalin is Dead, will be published by Sylph Editions in November 2013.
— Mona Gainer-Salim
Many of your novels are set in Tel Aviv. Of course, there is The Tel Avivians, and inDays Bygone the narrator remembers her childhood in Tel Aviv. Did you grow up in here too?
Well, I was born in Poland, in 1937, two years before the war. I remember the day the Germans arrived. My family was on vacation at a well-known resort, Zakopane, popular with Jews and non-Jews alike. We were in a dining room, a very large one, when we heard a cry, “The Germans are here!” All around me I heard chairs falling to the ground. Everything was in uproar, and first of all we just wanted to go home, because we were in a strange city and we needed to be at home before we could decide anything. My family and I spent a year under German occupation. I remember my mother knitting the yellow star to my coat. We came to Israel, then Palestine, in 1940: nobody could believe it when we told them that we came in 1940. I was three years old when we arrived, so yes, I did grow up in Tel Aviv. I remember it all in so much detail … many, many details. As a child of two, the sight of Zakopane – the world returned to chaos – influenced my whole life.
Most of my writing is about this connection between being peaceful and being frightened to death at the same time. It is a riddle, an absolute riddle, how the people who survived the Holocaust are still able to live. My writing is about trying to understand this.
When did you begin to write?
I began maybe 15 years ago. I always felt that I wanted to, but I did not start properly until I was near the end of my professional life. At school I was always good at writing compositions, but I was also interested in philosophy, so I made teaching it my profession. But through all that time I always felt the impulse to write fiction.
I know you have written academic papers about religion and the philosophy of religion, and your fiction too is often concerned with questions of God, belief, and the implications of belief. It seems to me that many of your characters are suspicious of belief and tend to see it as a delusion. Am I correct in this assessment?
God fulfills a very important role. And of course this topic always resurfaces in literature. You cannot read Kafka and remain ignorant of religious thought and theological questions. You cannot read The Castle, for example, and escape the idea that the human race is ensnared by hierarchies. Religion depends on these hierarchies. It depends on the fact that there are people who want to reach the castle, and their idea that reaching it will fulfill some deep and persistent need. But actually the castle is not so sacred and important; it is nasty and corrupt and disgusting. It is savagery behind closed doors.
However, the quest for the castle is not unequivocal: not everybody is trying to reach it, not everybody has the same view of it, though they are all riveted by it in some way. And those who represent the castle (the messengers) can be very surprising figures who defy our expectations and hopes. The concept of the castle, so it seems, avoids clarity.
It is the same in “Before the Law”. Year after year, the traveller begs to be admitted to the Law, while the gatekeeper denies him. The gatekeeper appears to have incredible power, but actually the gatekeeper is also just a man. When the traveller is finally at the end, lying on the ground and almost blind, and wants to ask one last question, the gatekeeper leans down to him and explains, “This gate was just for you. Now I am going to close it.” There is no such thing as a law that is only for one man. When we see someone on the street who has his own law, we put him in a madhouse. That is the condition you find yourself in: that you continue always to struggle, to wait, to grieve, all the while knowing that you won’t get there.
I want to ask about the allegorical element in your stories. In Stalin is Dead, the stories often very powerfully illustrate a concept: for instance, you sometimes use animals to illuminate a characteristic of humans. Why are animals so well suited for this?
For a while I wrote many stories about animals. Animals are a parable, a reflection of society. Animals represent the social part of humans – the weakness, the passion, and also the destiny. They represent the things humans are often afraid of in themselves.
One of my pieces, “The Mouse”, is a visual poem in the shape of a mouse’s tail. Or the trail of a mouse scurrying back and forth, restless and unable to find repose. The shape of this story pleased me so much that I went to Steimatzy and bought a book on how to draw animals. When I was young it was my dream to become an artist – a painter – a big dream, that I did not tell to anyone.
Often your characters are outsiders, either because they are refugees, or old, or even dead. Even within families they often position themselves as observers rather than participants. The narrator in Days Bygone/Yankinton is like that.
Yes, but you must also remember that the young girl in Yankinton is perhaps an old woman, too.
She is looking back on her childhood. Who knows how she saw herself when she was a child? All she has now is what she can remember. The part where she visits her grandmother in the hospital is an example. The nurse shows the young girl her grandmother’s flesh by opening her upper coat, saying, “Oh, her skin is so nice. I hope that when I’m your grandmother’s age, my skin will be like that.” It is the nurse’s job to be cheerful and positive, but it is not a good compliment. For the grandmother, it is a terribly painful thing to hear, even more so because the nurse does not address herself to her. You cannot fully understand this pain when you are young, but you can feel that something is wrong. Only later can she understand why.
The people I write about are refugees in one way or another. People who came here after the Holocaust may seem to be free now, to live their lives, but they are still refugees. Often my characters are also introspective and ambivalent. They don’t always know the answer. But at the moment I am writing a novel about a different sort of character. It is about a woman who is very emotional, passionate, not an intellectual. She is very young and full of contradictions. A simple heart, like Felicité in Flaubert. She is living in Poland at the beginning of the war, but she does not leave in time. She has just married, but her husband is killed soon after.
Is it very different writing about such a character—a simple heart, as you say?
There are characters like that throughout my fiction, but usually they are not the main protagonists. In a way they are funny, these characters who always know what is right. In Yankinton, the mother always stands next to the radio when they play the Hatikva, at rigid attention like a soldier. They used to play the hymn every evening at the end of the radio program. And the whole time she is standing there, the mother is filled with the conviction of being right, thinking how wrong her family is not to join her in this patriotic act.
These characters are so comical because, of course, we seldom know what is right. Often we know a lot about what not to do: we must not kill, we must not wound, we must not steal. But what to do is a more ambivalent question. At first, the woman in my novel – her name is Eva – does not have this ambivalence either, but as the story goes on she becomes more skeptical, she looks inwards more.
Will this novel be published?
Ornan [Rotem, who translated Days Bygone and Stalin is Dead into English] said he thinks he knows why publishers are often not interested in my work: people expect a story to have a plot: a beginning, a middle, an end, with some kind of moment of revelation: they expect that something changes. My stories are not like that. In life there is rarely that kind of moment, that is so common in fiction: insights seep into you slowly, over time.
I don’t know if this novel will be published, but that is not my concern at the moment. The important thing is to write. I write every book as though it is my last.