Tag Archives: Israeli fiction

Three Floors Up: Eshkol Nevo

Three Floors Up from Israeli author Eshkol Nevo takes a look at the lives of three residents of a Tel Aviv apartment building. The novel is split into three sections, each told by a first person narrator. While it may seem that the commonality here is proximity, gradually it becomes clear that all three narrators live on the fault lines of a fractured family. Each of the three characters are drawn, unwillingly, into moral dilemmas that will change their lives.

Three floors up

Arnon, a retired officer tells his tale to a writer, an old friend from the army. Arnon is married to lawyer Ayelet. There’s the sense that Arnon’s professional life hasn’t quite worked out as he planned, and he often recalls his time as a soldier. Tension exists and simmers in the marriage between Arnon and Ayelet. They have two daughters, Ofri and Yaeli. There are already indications that there were personality clashes between Ofri and her mother before Yaeli’s birth, but Yaeli’s ill health seals the divide in the family. Ayelet favours Yaeli, or at least Arnon sees it that way. Before long, the family unit is subtly divided into two, with Arnon and Ofri on one side and Ayelet and Yaeli on another.

Arnon and Ayelet are in the habit of leaving Ofri with their elderly neighbours, Ruth and Herman. Arnon has indications that perhaps this isn’t the greatest idea, but he goes ahead anyway, and when a crisis occurs, the fault lines in his family explode.

In every fight, there’s a moment when you say something you shouldn’t and there’s no turning back. Know what I mean? So that’s what happened. And what did I actually say to her? “If it was Yaeli, you wouldn’t be so calm.”

It isn’t a state secret, right? Just one of those little kinks that families have. Even in the bible, in the story of Jacob and Esau, it’s obvious that Jacob was his mother’s favorite and Esau was his father’s. The point is that it’s natural for a parent to prefer one child over the other. Even love him more. What isn’t natural-it turns out-is saying it out loud. Those little kinks are supposed to be transparent, invisible. But I just couldn’t control myself. She was sitting there in her prim lawyer’s outfit with her hair pulled back, talking to me in that patronizing way, like she was civilized and I was a savage. So I had to put her in her place. Every once in a while, you have to put them in their place.

The second narrative takes the form of a letter from housewife, Hani to her friend in America, Netta. Hani is known as “the widow” by her neighbours due to her husband’s continual absences. Hani, at home alone with the children, remarks to Netta that she married her husband thinking he would be a good father, but even when he’s home, he doesn’t get involved in family life.

Hani’s letter recalls the events that took place when her estranged brother-in-law showed up at her apartment. As a major embezzler, he’s on the run from the police, his former clients and even loan sharks.

The third narrative is told by a retired judge, Devora, whose husband, also a judge, died the year before. Devora’s tale is told by her to her dead husband, and she relates how she became involved in local demonstrations.

Of the three sections, Arnon’s is the strongest, possibly because we’re not quite sure how much is reality and how much is guilt. Plus an undercurrent of suppressed violence flows under his words, and this makes his side of things more complex (and epic as it turns out.)  Hani’s letter to Netta is also slippery, and the actions of her brother-in-law are highly suspect. Devora’s tale also presents a moral dilemma as she recalls a decision she and her husband made regarding their son.

The skill here is in the narrative, and the way each creates an intimacy with the reader, so that we become the listener to these confessions involving the most private moments. But even beyond that, as each story evolves, we ask ourselves what we would have done? What choices would we have made?

review copy

translated by Sondra Silverston

Marina Sofia also read and reviewed Three Floors Up

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Filed under Nevo Eshkol

The Retrospective by A. B. Yehoshu

A. B. Yehoshu’s elegant and compulsively ruminative novel The Retrospective examines the tricks of memory, the slipperiness of motivation, and the many versions of the ‘truth’ –all through the life of aging Israeli film director Yair Moses. Moses once had a solid, collaborative working relationship with screenwriter, Trigano, a former student, but this relationship was irrevocably ripped asunder during the filming of their seventh film,  The Refusal when the female star, and Trigano’s lover, Ruth, refused to perform a scene. Moses took Ruth’s side against the screenwriter, and Trigano never worked with Moses again. This incident, seemingly trivial in nature, marked a turning point in the lives of Moses, Trigano and Ruth. Now decades later, Trigano has vanished into obscurity, Moses has become an acclaimed film director whose style–without Trigano–is vastly different and more accessible, and Ruth has become Moses’s companion and sometime lover. The uproar over the scene that Ruth refused to perform is buried deep in the past, and yet it offers an apparently simple explanation for the rupture, and forms an established narrative for why Trigano, Moses and Ruth’s lives took a completely different direction. But there’s another person missing from Moses’s past, and that’s Toledano, the cinematographer who gave the films a branded look. While Moses mourns the fact that Toledano who died some years previously is absent from the festival, he only has painful memories of Trigano.

the retrospectiveWhen the story begins, Moses is invited to a retrospective of his films in Spain to be held in the pilgrim city of Santiago de Compostela over the course of a few days, and Moses and Ruth arrive tired yet ready to perform for the audience and hosts.  Oddly, and Moses begins to suspect it’s no coincidence, a painting which hangs over the bed in the hotel room depicts the same sort of scene that was cut from The Refusal and led to the rupture between Moses, Ruth and Trigano. Moses is initially surprised that only his first films, now dubbed in Spanish, are represented at the festival–after all, some of these films he’s almost entirely forgotten and he considers them his early work–not necessarily his best. 

For part of the novel, the story seemed, for this reader, to be about Trigano–a man whose absence creates an abyss in the lives of Moses and Ruth. Although he is not present, we see slivers of his talent, personality and his trademark “mystical and symbolic touches” through the films Moses watches during the 7-film retrospective. But there’s yet another intriguing aspect of this novel, and that’s the way three men: scriptwriter, Trigano, director Moses, and cinematographer Toledano all love Ruth in their own fashion, and make her the centre of their lives even as they fail to see her as a human being but as a “character” to be fashioned (by director Moses), worshipped (by cinematographer Toledano), and even to be a representation of ideas (by her lover, screenwriter Trigano). Moses has buried his damaged relationship with Trigano and its painful memories in the past, but now for the film retrospective, he’s forced to remember their working relationship, and he even finds himself forced to explain some of Trigano’s more obscure symbolism to an audience of enthusiastic film lovers.

And even though many years have gone by with no contact at all between the two, Moses still feels the stump of amputation, and he believes the screen writer feels it too, even if he is too proud to admit it.

After all, once they parted ways, Moses continued to make feature films, first from screenplays written by others and later, as success favored him, from scripts he wrote himself based on original ideas or adapted from books. Whereas the screenwriter’s output was confined to short esoteric films, and then, when his new collaborators proved incompetent and saddled the productions with financial problems, he stopped making films altogether and went into teaching.

Sometimes Moses feels a vague desire to get back in touch, but he never does. Reconciliation after a serious breakup is harder than smoothing feathers after an argument. when they ran into each other at public events, at festivals or symposia, they barely exchanged more than a few empty words. Moses had at first believed that Trigano left him because of the affront to his professional dignity, but when he saw that the writer had left his friend and lover too, Moses understood that Trigano’s pride was injured not only be a director’s excessive indulgence of an actress repulsed by a twisted script but also by the extreme kindness of another man to a distressed woman whom Trigano regarded as his own.

This is the established narrative of the events that took place many years ago, and it’s this narrative–honed to perfection–that helps Moses makes sense of the events that took place during the filming of his 7th and last film made with Trigano. During the retrospective, however, as Moses watches his early films, he’s forced to confront the artistic endeavors that he’s all but forgotten. In the very deliberate selection of the early films (the “marvelous ones,” according to the priest who organizes the retrospective) Moses “cannot shake off the suspicions that this retrospective was engineered by Trigano to compel him to defend the writer’s fantasies.” Moses senses the hand of Trigano at work, and after the festival concludes, he seeks answers through retracing the crucial moments in their collaborative careers.

As a film aficionado, for this reader The Retrospective was both an unusual and riveting read. We are taken slowly through the retrospective as Moses rewatches all seven of his early films and replays scenes from his past. Forced to confront an uncomfortable relationship he’d rather forget, he begins to question his version of events, and gradually his established narrative of what happened is dismantled. 

Memory, the ‘Truth,’ and motivation are not the only elements to be examined in this complex novel as through the lives of Trigano and Moses, we also see the destructive power of artistic differences and the role and responsibility of the artist in society. Rewatching and later retracing the early films, Moses comes to realize just how deeply intelligent Trigano was, and just how much of the symbolism and political content placed in the films by the screenwriter he initially missed. The book’s conclusion seems a little anticlimactic and disappointing–can’t say too much without giving away the plot. Luckily the ending didn’t undermine the power of the rest of this complex,  contemplative novel, but perhaps just how much we like or dislike Trigano and Moses and which one seems to be the worst, more difficult (insufferable) egomaniac may impact how we feel about the final scene.  This is a book that’s liable to generate a lot of lively discussion in book groups.

Review copy. Translated by Stuart Schoffman.

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Filed under Fiction, Yehoshu A.B