Reading Asaf Schurr’s Motti

Context N°23

Todd Hasak-Lowy

Israel is not the easiest place to live. Indeed, this country confronts its highly diverse population with a similarly varied set of difficulties. A very partial list includes national conflict, ethnic tension, and religious strife, all three of which are often described as intractable. But this almost unimaginable difficulty presents certain advantages to writers, even or especially writers of fiction. The world, after all, finds difficulty fascinating. At home and abroad people want to understand the difficulty that is Israel, want someone to give it all a name, want to read the words of a writer equipped to tie it all up with a poetic flourish. Readers from Korea to Brazil are searching for someone capable of positioning a few well-drawn individuals against that wide canvas of historical, political, social, and religious overabundance (also known as “the Conflict”), thereby making this overabundance a bit more intelligible. This is how the novel, as a genre, compensates for its fictional status, how it manages to constitute a form of knowledge despite never having happened: it takes the political and the historical and translates them into the personal and the biographical so that the individual reader can finally understand.
The global desire to understand this bottomless difficulty is remarkable. There are seven million people in Israel (depending on how you count—even the straightforward matter of counting inhabitants is far from simple over there), which is roughly the same number of people who live in Bulgaria or Honduras. But how many of their writers get translated into English? In the last twenty years over five hundred book-length works from Hebrew literature have been published in English.1

But this worldwide interest comes with strings attached. People read Hebrew writers primarily to get The Story. The big one. The national one. Or the religious-cum-national one. People read for the epic story, the one with all those wars fought over and against that possibly mystical two-thousand-year-old backdrop. Israeli writers can be critical, their stories can be ironic, tragic even, so long as they include The Story.

In this regard the book before you disappoints, or, more accurately, disobeys. Take Asaf Schurr’s Motti, change the names of the main characters, switch around another fifty words scattered here and there, and delete, by my count, a single three-sentence stretch (describing a dream of all things), and this novel could be set in any of a thousand cities around the world. Unless I’m way, way off here (or unless you’re one of those readers who thinks absolutely everything is an allegory2), I’d say that this book, despite the language and country in which it was written, is not about Israel. It just isn’t. This in itself is noteworthy. The very absence of Israel in this Israeli novel does tell us something about contemporary Israeli culture,3 but contemplating the presence of this absence only takes us so far. To understand Motti, one must look elsewhere.

So what is Motti about? Plot summary won’t really explain it. There’s a man (Motti), a dog, a friend, an object of affection, an accident, and an extremely difficult (there’s that word again) decision. Even for a short novel, not that much really happens. As such, some readers will dismiss Motti for failing to tell a conventional story (if they didn’t already dismiss it for failing to tell The Story).
But this book most certainly should be understood as a novel, and a novel tapping into one of the genre’s central traditions. Motti is a novel riddled with self-consciousness. Asaf Schurr—or Asaf Schurr as implied author—is everywhere in this book, reflecting on the story being told, interrupting the story no longer being told, and drawing attention to the contrived nature of the project of novel writing as a whole.

This approach to the form, this refusal to let the story simply be, this impulse to draw back the curtain, is a tradition stretching back to what may well have been the very first novel, Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Unfortunately, the gradual resurgence and apparent ubiquity of this gesture during the last half century—following a longer stretch that included nineteenth-century realism, during which period this narrative strategy receded—has lead many people to mistake it as a recent (and thus trivial or frivolous) trend. Nowadays the self-conscious novel is often identified, categorized, and then dismissed as “postmodernist” (or, even worse, as “po-mo”), and that’s that. Such thinking seems to believe that the “serious novel” and the “postmodernist novel” occupy mutually exclusive categories.

But identifying a strategy at work in a novel is not the same as explaining the meaning of either. In other words, not all self-conscious novels are created equal. Indeed, the technique is remarkably flexible, which explains, in part, why novelists have returned to it again and again throughout the genre’s four-hundred-year history. Motti is most certainly—to quote Robert Alter’s description of the self-conscious novel in general—“the kind of novel that expresses its seriousness through playfulness.”4 Though even this may be overstating Schurr’s interest in anything smacking of the antic. In contemporary American fiction, the appearance of the writer in his or her own plot, or even the mention of a third-person narrator’s self-awareness within a narrative, often operates as a distancing gesture. Through this move the writer flaunts a certain cleverness, demonstrates his or her mastery of the genre’s many incarnations, or simply compels the reader to recognize the underlying absurdity of fully caring about this illusion we call fiction.

By contrast, Asaf Schurr employs this strategy with almost deadpan candor. As I read it, this novel’s many self-conscious asides seem the product of pure, unadorned honesty and sensitive, lucid contemplation. Put differently, this novel is in large part an oddly humble reflection on writing, on imagining a world, and on trying to make sense of our real world through an extended exercise that relies on nothing but words. Schurr’s “playfulness” is perfectly sincere and thus raises the emotional stakes of the narrative. He might spoil the illusion that is his story, but this is a small price to pay for the multi-dimensional clarity and unlikely wonder this novel offers again and again. As he says at the end of his preface about the book to come, “everything is on the table and in midair the table stands.”
I suspect that this tendency toward self-consciousness reflects one of Schurr’s central motivations as a writer, but Schurr and/or his narrator are hardly the main characters in his novel. Motti revolves, as its titles suggests, around the eponymous protagonist. Schurr’s Motti is quite nearly a loner. He has a dog, a single friend, and an infatuation with his neighbor, Ariella. Beyond this we know virtually nothing about his external reality. No mention of family, no mention of his relationship to the city or country in which he lives. From a slightly different and uncharitably critical perspective, we could even say that Motti is an incomplete character.

But Motti comes to life for the reader through our access to his inner world, where we find him endlessly preoccupied with his possible futures. In particular, Motti thinks about his future life with Ariella, about the passion they’ll share, the difficulties they’ll encounter, the family they’ll make, and the inescapable end patiently waiting for both of them. Much of the events in Motti never happen at all, not even within the novel’s imaginary world. Instead, we learn about Motti’s life by learning about all the lives he imagines himself living in the future. Motti is hardly a hero in any conventional sense, but the reader identifies with him nevertheless, since we all live so much of our lives in the private ether of our endless speculations.

By casting as his protagonist a master of anticipation, speculation, and fantasy, by allowing possible futures to dwarf the immediate present again and again, Schurr reveals what it means to be a novelist in the first place. Or, from a perhaps more telling perspective, allows us to see the extent to which all of us are novelists of a sort: preoccupied with crafting our plot, overwhelmed by the burden of choosing from among the endless possibilities, and hard-pressed to come up with anything even approaching a satisfying ending. By portraying his protagonist in this way, Schurr both motivates his own asides and vindicates the frankness informing this playfulness as well.

I detect a certain inescapable melancholy at the center of all this, a feeling somewhere between despair and sorrow stemming from a shared failure to experience our external worlds as richly as we experience all the private events in our minds that never quite happen. The external real, it seems, will always pale next to the internal unreal. The main consolation, at least in Schurr’s case, seems to be expressing this last sentiment so poignantly. Motti’s ultimate achievement (and the reason I hoped to translate it) is its language, which is at once precise and daring, sober and inventive, self-deprecating and ambitious. In a book so small that covers so much novelistic territory that has apparently already been covered (and dismissed as not just covered, but as exhausted, too), the pitfalls are numerous. But by finding just the right word time after time, by establishing and maintaining a singular tone located somewhere between amazement and defeat, Schurr justifies his refusal to follow so many often-imposing novelistic rules.

None of this is to say, of course, that all Hebrew novels, let alone all novels, should be like Motti. We should continue to read Hebrew novels to get The Story, we should read Yehoshua, Grossman, and Castel-Bloom if we really want to understand what life is truly like over there. But we should make room for something else, too, something utterly different, something concerned with a rich inner world somehow prior to the great, messy world outside. That a person could maintain the sensitive faculties necessary for detecting and then transcribing the elusive and fragile language of this private territory, all while living in that overwhelming and difficult reality called Israel, is all the more reason to read Motti with a serious and generous eye.

 

Notes:

1 This figure—which includes fiction, poetry, and books for children—comes from Nilli Cohen at the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
2 The influential Marxist critic Fredric Jameson has advanced such an approach to so-called “third-world” literature (an obviously problematic category, especially in the Israeli case). In “third-world texts,” according to him, “the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society.” Jameson’s widely read article is typically rejected in scholarly circles, but I think it’s fair to say this allegorical shadow looms over much reading of, in this case, modern Hebrew fiction. See Fredric Jameson, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Social Text, No. 15 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 65–88.
3 It should be noted that Motti received considerable attention upon its publication in Israel, including a glowing front-page review in the Haaretz book supplement (more or less the Israeli equivalent of the New York Times Book Review or the Guardian). The Israeli reading public’s (and/or its critical establishment’s) readiness to accept and even embrace Motti on its own unconventional terms says something about the expansive sense of what constitutes Israeli culture within Israel here in the early twenty-first century. Anglophone reading sensibilities, I’m guessing, are rather parochial by comparison, as I’d more confidently recommend Motti to a fan of David Foster Wallace than to one who prefers Amos Oz.

4 Robert Alter, Partial Magic: The Novel as Self-Conscious Genre (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), ix.

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