Darkness Lit From Within: On A.B. Yehoshua


Vivian Gornick in The Nation (image from Wikimedia Commons):

When I stumbled on the writing of A.B. Yehoshua, it was as though a fault line had opened in a hardened surface to expose me to an emotional insight that life on the Israeli street had denied me. Interestingly enough, I met the author before I read the work, and only later realized that it demonstrated beautifully the old chestnut about the best part of a writer residing in the work, not in the person. Yehoshua’s prose penetrated to a level of psychological understanding that moved me deeply, whereas he himself could have doubled for the bullying Israeli with whom I dealt daily.

I met him in Haifa, where he lives and teaches. A friend in New York had sent him a letter of introduction on my behalf, and one day when I was in the city, I called and was invited to come right over. He was sitting at his desk when I arrived: a man in his mid-40s with a bulky body, a powerful face and a mass of curly black hair. He looked up and said in a voice rising on a note of insinuation, “So why are you still living in the Diaspora? Why aren’t you living here where you belong?” I laughed. “You’re kidding,” I said. He told me that he most certainly was not kidding and went on to sketch a picture of my life in the States as one at risk in a Christian nation that, at any time, might turn on me; right now, at this very minute, I was standing on a narrow strip of beach with the sea at my back and the goyim, for all I knew, beginning to advance on me. The visit lasted an hour, during which I said little while Yehoshua harangued me.

When I got back to Tel Aviv, I bought a collection of his early stories and sat down in my rented apartment with its stone floors, shuttered balcony and long door handles to read the writing of this fiercest of old-fashioned Zionists. I began to read in mid-afternoon and continued straight through to the last page of the last story, whereupon I remained sitting with the book in my lap, staring into a room now shrouded in a darkness that, mysteriously, felt lit from within.

While Yehoshua’s conversation mimicked the national idiom, his writing was soaked in existential loneliness. The stories, all of them set in modern Israel, were uniformly tales of disconnect in marriage and friendship. At once timeless but of their Israeli moment, they were the work of a writer who, wanting to dive down into those psychic regions of loss and defeat common to all humanity, knew how to make metaphorical use of a sick, sweating man awakening in an empty flat in Tel Aviv on a hot summer morning sometime in the 1970s.