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In Search of the Story

a Friendship between Critic and Writer

Partial Answers (2006), 4, 2, Pp. 257-280
The relationship between a critic and a living writer, these “opposite shareholders” of the same art, can lead to scenarios of all sorts. My long friendship with Shlomit Rimmon-Kenan was privileged, on-going interaction. In the core of our multi-layered relationship lies the shared belief in narrative structures as an unveiling of consciousness and as a powerful means of its shaping. The tumultuous Israeli reality, the loaded Jewish legacy, and not least the changing circumstances of life and disease all kept challenging our notion of narrative. In the intimacy of our “laboratory” I would bring my novels and my writing-dialogue with literary genres, with sacred texts, or with CNN snapshots, and she would be the ideal performative reader. At the same time, Shlomit Rimmon-Kenan’s deep theoretical considerations culminating in her revelatory exposure of illness narratives were for me a constant source of artistic inspiration, and a stirring reminder of the responsibility of narratives as an access to a changing self and world.

I. Blind Date

I first met Shlomith in the Fall of 1976 at café Savion in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Rehavia. It was a blind date arranged by a mutual acquaintance, who had for some reason insisted: “You and Shlomith Rimmon must meet.”

It was only a short time after I had returned from my doctoral studies in Paris. My surface agenda was to look for friends, for conversation. Underneath, however, what I brought to the meeting was a “disruption of the self” (to start borrowing from Shlomith’s conceptual framework). I had left my emotional and intellectual life, my loaded relationship with Europe and its buried legacy, in Paris. In an act of cultural rebellion, a complex move of betrayal-in-fidelity, and an urge to expose a repressed voice, whether individual, cultural, or communal, I had returned not to Tel Aviv, the city of my youth, but to Jerusalem.

On the way to the café my palpitations came from a still deeper source. At that time I had already chosen literary writing as a way of life. Even if this remained unsaid, in meeting Shlomith I was hoping to find a partner for a kind of a secret esoteric sect.

True to her notorious Yekke (German-Jewish) precision, the analytic star of the Hebrew University was already waiting for me at the café. To my surprise and delight, she was frank, direct, and humorous; she immediately legitimized the radical rebel in me. And the laughter that kept erupting from some intense energy would become a major part of the narrative that connects us.

We decided to continue meeting and to start a study group. A later meeting, this time including Dr. Moshe Ron, a colleague of Shlomith’s, took place at a coffee-shop near Jaffa Gate in the Old City. (Today, after two Intifadas, this would be an impossible venue. And our first meeting-place, Café Savion, eventually renamed Café Moment, would go down in history as the site of one of the most murderous terrorist attacks of 2002.) With Moshe Ron we “founded” a forum for reading and discussing critical texts: Poulet, de Man, and Derrida (before he entered our lives in person)…

The conversation with Shlomith has since turned into an intimate friendship of nearly thirty years. It has not been a dependent relationship, of any manipulative variety, between a critic and a writer but rather something of an alliance between two stone miners converging from two opposite directions in the darkness of their mountain-tunnels, on two sides of a blind spot. Or a “fruitful dialogue,” to use another of Shlomith’s expressions: “I endeavour to theorize through literature, to use the novels as, in some sense, the source of theory,” she writes in A Glance beyond Doubt, adding that this process “can be seen as a fruitful dialogue or interaction between literature and theory” (1996: 1).

Our dialogue always exposed a blind spot, a point of friendship from which we took each other by the hand and guided each other over extensive ground, the blind and the sighted as one. Today, too, I sense the quiver of the glance beyond the shroud, towards a blind spot. Is it mine? Is it Shlomith’s? Is it that of reading others in order to write the self? My words here will no doubt also contain such a spot, on which Shlomith’s gaze will shed light.

The conversation with Shlomith has since turned into an intimate friendship of nearly thirty years. It has not been a dependent relationship, of any manipulative variety, between a critic and a writer but rather something of an alliance between two stone miners converging from two opposite directions in the darkness of their mountain-tunnels, on two sides of a blind spot.

I shall not go into the details of the autobiographical “plot” beyond suggesting that it was a more or less linear “full life.” “Toute une vie,” as Beckett’s Mercier and Camier would say in the eponymous novel (1974: 66). Before casting off their shared coat they enumerate the contents of its pocket: “punched tickets of all sorts . . . the classic last tenth of a pointless pencil, . . . a few porous condoms, dust. Life in short” (66). For each of us there has been love and marriage, the birth of children, and the loss of parents, a continuous battle against the shortness of time, and against the body — with its fidelities and betrayals.

Talk of death, future and present illness, hopelessness, and failure has always been there, relieved by the spicing of Shlomith’s gallows humour, always directed (perhaps still in the Yekke tradition) only at the speaker herself. The imminence of the end enhanced Shlomith’s obstinate adherence to the nevertheless, her continuous struggle. As I shall show, this biographical touch has left a dent in the very basis of the master-narrative of her work.

Beyond the personal, there were the circumstances of time and place — the stormy years of the young state of Israel formed an integral part of the narrative. We were born on opposite sides of its birth, daughters of first-generation East European pioneers — Shlomith’s parents and my father, and a Holocaust survivor, my mother. These were years of the still ongoing Palestinian struggle for independence, years of wars, at least four of them (keep the score?) since the start of our friendship. And Jerusalem.

The times and the place made their sport of us and marked us, as did the language – Hebrew, even though the bulk of Shlomith’s writing is in English.

Yet precisely this background of a tumultuous history foils out Shlomith’s attitude as a critic. As a citizen, she is known for her dedicated and uncompromising political stand. When faced with a text, however, her commitment to the narrative as a structure of consciousness cancels ideological concerns — she listens to the individual voice of the text, or to its many voices. This unbiased reading remarkably contrasts with most of Israeli criticism which tends to be éngagé, with commitments to the left or to the right, to religious or secular interests, to the diaspora or the state, to Sephardi or Ashkenazi ethnicity, to peace or to land, to the struggle against the occupation or to the support of the settlers, to Jews or to Palestinians — para-religious commitments, where the crossing of ideological lines is akin to breaking taboos. I might perhaps compare Shlomith’s professional ethics to the Hippocratic oath, the obligation to treat the patient as a human being, regardless of who s/he is.

Our conversation has likewise reverberated polyphonically, beyond ideological positions. Hence, and despite Shlomith’s demonstrative atheism, I have been able to bring in my study of Jewish narratives. A discussion of the Palestinian narrative, with the Zionist narrative well in mind, was another challenge to intellectual freedom. The objective correlative of our friendship was a narratological quest — in the belief that narrative structures are a powerful means of unveiling and shaping consciousness. I shall show that, indeed, a narrative deep structure which both of us have been seeking, each in her own medium, eventually transpired through our dialogue. But first I shall attempt to sketch the portrait of Shlomith as a critic.

II. The Portrait of a Critic: “Speaking of Myself through Others”

What is a literary critic? What is a narratologist? How do their definitions change over time? These questions require complex answers. I shall here focus on two aspects of Shlomith’s portrait as a critic from the point of view of a writer. First, a consummate critic is the ultimate reader in that she combines the knowledge of language, rhetoric, and literary theory with a careful attentiveness to the specific text. In her conclusion to A Glance Beyond Doubt, Shlomith emphasizes the performance” shared by the writer and the reader as essential to the work (129).1

The reading of a great critic is on the level of the art of performance and of the signatory. It is thus, as a virtuoso performance of a musical piece or a great directing of a play that one must speak of Shlomith’s reading of Faulkner or Beckett. A performative reading blurs the conventional boundary between the writer and the critic. Turning to notions from the Jewish tradition, a performative reading is akin to the resurrection of the dead.2 As friends who meet after more than three months, having been, as it were, dead to one another (or at least to their former selves – to paraphrase Beckett’s Proust, 1970: 55), and greet each other with the blessing Baruch mechaye metim (“Blessed be He who revives the dead”), so too, a forsaken text is dead to its former readers. (The frontier of death encroaches on the margins of each reunion and each text). At the end of a learning session, yeshiva students part from the text with the Kadish, the prayer for the dead. The performative reading, study, and interpretation resurrect both the reader and the text — this is the afterlife to which Walter Benjamin refers in “The Task of the Translator.”

Throughout the years of our friendship, our conversations continued — on Borges, Grass, Beckett, Faulkner (see Rimmon-Kenan 1980, 1987, and 1996: 93-103 and 30-54). So did our heated interpretive arguments. For me it was a laboratory for the fine-tuning of my own poetics.3

Shlomith articulates the vital role of the reader anew in her lecture “What Can Narrative Theory Learn from Illness Narratives?” (2006). Here, following the onset of her neurological illness and the radical change of the terms of her research, she situates reading within a therapeutic process. If it is possible to speak of “therapeutic” writing, it is also possible to speak of a no less formative “therapeutic” reading. Unexpectedly, Shlomith explains the significance of such a reading in terms of crossing over from the view-point of the critic-reader to that of the writer — not the writer of fiction but the autobiographical writer, the patient. The patient is dependent on the reader for the shaping of his narrative, his identity, and his body. This dependence emphasizes the ethical dimension of the reading:

Writing about illness is often an attempt to share it with people who do or will suffer from the same condition, and often a testimony or an appeal for empathy. The reader consequently has a central role for the writer. However, the specific reader may find the identification with the empathic implied reader too demanding emotionally. Whether readers have a moral obligation to read such narratives is a complex ethical problem (the same applies to trauma stories, holocaust narratives, etc.) but writers must be aware that closing the book or withholding empathy is a potential reaction.

Typescript p. 12

A less discussed aspect of the portrait of a critic is his/her function as a meta-writer who finds expression not through fictional characters but through the worlds and the words of writers. This is a uniquely personal narrative (even if not explicitly so) that maintains a tension between the master-narrative of the poetics of critical discourse and an individual life-story.

The reading of a great critic is on the level of the art of performance and of the signatory. It is thus, as a virtuoso performance of a musical piece or a great directing of a play that one must speak of Shlomith’s reading of Faulkner or Beckett.

Yet, in order to understand the history of Shlomith’s writing and that of our friendship one needs to know about the crisis with which she had to deal, brought on by the onset of her neurological condition/disease which affects the eyesight, in 1998:

“A death blow” was my first reaction, followed by an “identity crisis.” In retrospect, it seems to me that the sense of a rupture was caused by three main aspects of the condition: reading and writing, a professional necessity as well as an existential passion, have become virtually impossible. The need to control, both an asset and a problem in my professional and personal life, has itself been controlled by the unpredictability of individual attacks as well as the course of the whole disease. Intensity, associated in my mind with experiencing things fully, fighting circumstances rather than succumbing to them, and an uncompromising “all or nothing” temperament, had to give way to an acceptance of life “on a small fire.”

Rimmon-Kenan 2002a: 10

For a long time after her illness began, our conversations revolved around survival — personal and professional. And then Shlomith handed me a copy (handwritten, as always) of her first text on illness narratives, a lecture written in honour of her friend and colleague, Shimon Sandbank.

I was astounded.

I shall not resort to the metaphor of the phoenix, which Shlomith uses ironically, but I must record my admiration not only of the force of her determination to get back to work but also of her redirecting her attention from her personal crisis to the very chasm in her being and turning it into a theoretical starting point for new, ground-breaking research — without the loss of astuteness, meticulousness, or even her irony and humour. Shlomith’s writing has since become increasingly autobiographical, yet it is still laced with the voices of others: the tension between the confessional and the intersubjective is still maintained. Her penetrating critical reading lets the other voices be heard and situates them within her own meta-narrative, which is thus both personal and polyphonic.

Shlomith’s achievement of creative continuity in the aftermath of her disease is notable not only for her perseverance, the vitally defiant “nevertheless” that led her to new personal and professional paths, but also for the deepening of the master-structure of consciousness and narrative, once put to a harsh existential test. The illness called for a reformulation of the narrative of rupture and polyphony and emphasized the commitment to the kind of coherence that does not deny polyphony and rupture but is, rather, built on them.

The project quoted above, “to theorize through literature, to use the novels as, in some sense, the source of theory” (1996: 1), already attests to the bond between the voices of others and her theoretical writing. At the end of her book Shlomith hints at a relationship between literature, the discussion of literature, and life: “I suggest that narration is the main mode of access in literature (and perhaps life). On the one hand, it destabilizes representation and subjectivity; on the other, it opens a way to a modified and qualified rehabilitation” (1996: 2; italics mine). Here “life” is still in parenthesis, yet in retrospect this statement emerges as prophetic. By the time the onset of the disease brought the struggle with disability to the foreground, it seems that Shlomith had already equipped herself, whether consciously or not, with the readiness and perhaps the aspiration to extend the critical endeavour into the realm of personal experience.

In “The Story of ‘I’: Illness and Narrative Identity,” Shlomith analyzes the tension in her work between the personal and the critical and defines it as an essential part of illness narratives:

The present text is an indirect working-through of my experience of discontinuity — indirect, because it is not a personal confession, but an exploration of the experience through a reading of other subjects’ stories about their illnesses. Without denying embarrassment as a possible motive for indirection, it (also) seems to me that this approach is particularly suitable for illness narratives, because what is problematized in the textual corpus I examine is precisely the “auto” component of “autobiography.”

2002a: 10; my italics

It is in Hebrew, her native tongue, in the literary journal Hadarim edited by Helit Yeshurun, that Shlomith explains the transition from personal writing back to the craft of the critic, to inscribing the personal into the meta-literary, through the voices of the others:

I have always said that academic writing is, to some extent, autobiographical. I have also said this when writing theoretical structuralist studies that were infused with the sense of their own neutrality, “transparency,” and objectivity. Naturally, then, this applies to my writing as a woman with health problems about the illness narratives of others. It is for this reason that I wish to dwell on the autobiographical background to this study — on the significance of writing for me as I perceive it today and on my choice to write myself through others.
At first, I found myself secretly making diary entries in what must have been an attempt to work through the experience of horror, loss, and mourning while seeking a way to reconnect with myself, to become accessible to myself. At the same time, I felt that I was unable to read literature or theory that was not connected to illness… I began to read obsessively stories that others had written about their illnesses. The more I read the more such texts I discovered. I found some solace in the correspondences between the experience of others and my own experience, and even a sense of having gained an insight that my healthy interlocutors occasionally lacked.

2002b: 96; italics mine

And then, with the force of an anagnorisis, a moment of discovery is described:

Suddenly I felt the need to connect a raw, confessional, and fragmented writing, a writing intended for my eyes only, with a reading of illness narratives. In a flash it occurred to me that these stories can be approached through research.

96; italics mine

As in a Greek tragedy, the anagnorisis is that which was buried in the recesses of the blind spot, awaiting discovery.

The very title of the essay, “Continuity and Its Disruption in Illness Narratives,” is an extension of the same deep structure that Shlomith had conceptualized well before it had to be brought to bear on illness narratives.

On the surface the “death blow” of Shlomith’s illness severed her past and her future and altered the subject of her research and even the tone of her writing. Yet her master-narrative remained the same. The mere insistence on continuity at this time in her life and her writing, despite the blow, was a performative act, the writing of the self driven by the same obstinate nevertheless, akin, perhaps, to the existential obstinacy of Jewish humor in the face of suffering, ridicule, and the absurd.

III. Despite the Ruptures – Continuity: Nevertheless (Perhaps Disruption Is the Rule, rather than an Exception)

Indeed, a chronological reading of Shlomith’s works reveals a unifying narrative in which early motifs anticipate later ones. For a novelist, the extent to which the narrative structures were there before the illness, as a kind of immunization, is fascinating, but here I shall dwell only on a few points. From the very beginning, disruption was regarded as an essential element of the story: a narrative was seen as revolving around the tension between severance and continuity. This pattern extended to our friendship, lodged within that same deep narrative structure which we kept applying in our discussions of ourselves and of the world before we realized its personal, historical, or mythopoeic consequences.

Explaining, in Hadarim, what propelled her to study illness narratives, Shlomith juxtaposes the search for “a sense (or illusion) of coherence and control at a time of [her] life that was dominated by chaos and uncertainty” with the awareness that “authentic autobiography became impossible when it was precisely [her] sense of identity that was disintegrating.” She continues: “in this situation autobiography was made possible only through a discussion of others’ stories.” She describes the duality of this process: “while the writing stemmed from a need for cohesiveness and control, it also allowed for re-experiencing the disruption and accepting its inevitability. One need not be Derrida to sense that a certain disruption occurs in the very use of language and that a story of myself is necessarily a story of myself as other” (2002b: 96–97).

However, the need that erupts here as a result of her own illness had already been formulated in A Glance beyond Doubt, through the analysis of the literary (and existential?) trajectory in works by Faulkner, Nabokov, Beckett, Brooke-Rose, and Morrison. One example of this is in Shlomith’s incisive discussion of the disintegrating self in Beckett’s Company (her emphases are italicized; mine are printed in boldface):

Up to now I have stressed the reductive, dehumanizing effect of the undoing of the traditional self. Company, however, is more complex. Even within the deconstructionist framework, this undoing can be seen as a celebration of plurality and freedom… One can see the lack of unity that defines the traditional self as a multiplicity of roles, characterizing a subject free from the traps of rigidifying conceptualizations in both language and philosophy. And the discontinuity between present and past can be interpreted as liberation from a pseudo-sameness. Thus, what was earlier interpreted as the subject’s disowning of his past memories can be reconceived as an emphasis on the independence of separate periods or moments. When the subject is imagined as acknowledging his memories, he also insists on the pastness of the past, on its non-unity with the present: “One day! In the end. In the end you will utter again. Yes, I remember. That was I that I then.”

1996: 101

Retrospectively, our conversations then (on Beckett, Faulkner, Morrison, or on an early draft of my novel The Name) emerge as a laboratory designed to find a narrative and a poetics that would encompass the disrupted polyphony of the self and present its fragmentation as well as that of the world.4

After the onset of her illness, Shlomith begins to treat fragmentation not as an exception but as the norm; what she now subjects to doubt is not so much the coherence of the self as the very possibility of continuity. She claims that the radical change brought on by disease (or war, or bereavement) can liberate us from the illusion of continuity as well as from the suffering entailed by radical rupture. At the same time this new emphasis lends support to her earlier work (for example, on Beckett) — fragmentation empowers the self that accepts and celebrates its story’s and its own existential fragmentation:

During the long struggle to re-structure my own narrative identity both directly and through the reading of illness narratives, as well as theoretical studies about them, a rebellious voice within me kept asking, in the spirit of Virginia Woolf’s “Modern Fiction,” “Is life like this? Must stories be like this?” Perhaps the assumption of continuity, on which both the experience and concept of disruption depend, is not universal. Do all subjects assume that they are — in principle — the same today as they were yesterday, ten years ago? Perhaps somewhere in the world there are Heraclitans, implicitly or explicitly convinced that the same subject cannot enter the same river twice, because both the latter and the former constantly change. And perhaps subjects who do not assume continuity in advance are relatively free of the drastic effects of disruption on the occasion of illness. Moreover, even subjects who have tacitly conceived of their lives (and identities) in terms of continuity may sometimes discover, due to the extreme rupture entailed by a serious illness, that continuity has “always already” been an illusion. Such a discovery may lead to a retrospective interpretation, or re-narration, of illness as an intensification of existential disruption, rather than as a sudden massive split.

2002a: 19

Shlomith then defines the awareness of disruption and fragmentation:

Perhaps disruption is the rule, rather than the exception (Becker 1999). And perhaps this insight applies not only to the past-present axis, discussed so far, but also to the relations between present and future. Aren’t expectations for the future often replaced by a carpe diem attitude, and isn’t the “one day at a time” approach therapeutically valuable for subjects with terminal illnesses?
Beyond the experiences of ill subjects, misgivings also arise from a consideration of contemporary literature and thought. How is it that at a time when fragmentation is both prominent and valorized in postmodernist writing, illness narratives tend to preserve, even strive for coherence and continuity? Wouldn’t narrative fragmentation be the most suitable form for the experience of disrupted narrative identity?


Shlomith’s emphatic demand that medical institutions and society accept fragmented illness narratives (in a culture that allows fragmentation in artistic representation but condemns it in the patient and in the deviant) lends a significant ethical dimension to her latter-day writing. This demand simultaneously opens up — through a rejection of any false comfort — the turbulent core of tension between continuity and fragmentation, at once a source of pain and hope, like life in the shadow of death.

Shlomith’s achievement of creative continuity in the aftermath of her disease is notable not only for her perseverance, the vitally defiant “nevertheless” that led her to new personal and professional paths, but also for the deepening of the master-structure of consciousness and narrative, once put to a harsh existential test. The illness called for a reformulation of the narrative of rupture and polyphony and emphasized the commitment to the kind of coherence that does not deny polyphony and rupture but is, rather, built on them. The reacceptance of continuity after a personal disruption maximally sharpened her view of narrative as continuity-in-fragmentation, as a sequence of ruptures:

A fabula is abstractable from the text, although one may wish to argue that “the real story” lies precisely in the spaces between the events forming an ordered chain.
The tension between a thematization of disintegration and a writing that preserves qualities of narrative order may be a dramatization of the struggle between an acceptance of fragmentation and the need to overcome it by creating a coherent narrative… It may also reflect the oscillation in a patient’s life . . . between a strict order of daily routines . . . and an internal chaos . . . Autobiographical writing about illness may be an attempt to control the uncontrollable, hence a battleground between the two competing principles.

2006: 7

Shlomith concludes emphatically: “But beyond illness narratives, it also suggests a co-existence or, better, a collision between regularity and contingency in all narratives” (ibidem). She thus calls for extrapolation of the insights gained from the theoretically oriented study of illness narratives, “as they potentially constitute a rich corpus for a reconsideration of narrative theory” (20). As I have attempted to show, such insights are anticipated in her earlier narratological studies. This correspondence between a literary story and its manifold manifestations in human behaviour is yet another facet of the continuity in the narrative master-structure that underlies her writing.

IV. Mythical Echoes of the “Rimmon-Kenan Method”

Despite Shlomith’s disinclination to expound a “method,” her work presents an overt master-narrative driven by a commitment to the individual voice. Not unlike Bakhtin’s work on the carnivalesque or Derrida’s deconstruction, Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan’s perspective on the tension between disruption and cohesiveness forms a “method.” Like them, she offers, beyond the personal vision, an expression of the spirit and circumstances of her time and place.

As Shlomith has demonstrated, the tension between rupture and continuity is an essential element of twentieth-century Western literature. It is lodged in the Modernism that follows World War I and is exacerbated, following World War II and the Holocaust, in the literature of the end of the century.5

In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics Bakhtin explicitly links the circumstances of time and place with literary poetics:

The polyphonic novel could indeed have been realized only in the capitalist era. The most favourable soil for it was moreover precisely in Russia, where capitalism set in almost catastrophically, and where it came upon an untouched multitude of diverse worlds and social groups which had not been weakened in their individual isolation, as in the West, by the gradual encroachment of capitalism. Here in Russia the contradictory nature of evolving social life, not fitting within the framework of a confident and calmly meditative monologic consciousness, was bound to appear particularly abrupt, and at the same time the individuality of those worlds, worlds thrown off their ideological balance and colliding with one another, was bound to be particularly full and vivid. In this way the objective preconditions were created for the multi-leveledness and mutli-voicedness of the polyphonic novel.

1984: 19-20

On his second visit to Jerusalem, Jacques Derrida, a close mutual friend, spoke in a new tone of confession about “How Not to Speak” (1987) and on the dialogue between deconstruction and negative theology. The significance of Jerusalem in his writing was still hidden in the mid eighties. It was only later that the concepts of the Messianic, Jewishness, and the growing autobiographical tone intensified in his last writings; they first surfaced in more intimate meetings on his visits to Jerusalem.

What of the specific circumstances of the time and place, of Israel and Jerusalem, transpires through the master-structure of Shlomith’s work, through the unmediated ethical commitment to rupture, a commitment based on the nevertheless of a faith in continuity? And what part of the Zionist myth or of the Kabbalistic origins of this myth did she engage (whether consciously or not) in her work? A myth that revolves around the Tsimtsum (contraction) of an infinite God; a story that opens with the Breaking of the Vessels yet is followed by an attempt to pick up the Sparks (Nitsotsot) of the Divine Light still captured in the Shards (shells, Klipot) of the Broken Vessels — a process that, despite future violent ruptures and holocausts, seeks a cosmic Tikkun (repair). What is the nature of the synthesis of the penetrating insight into the personal story, the profound reading of stories of others, and the time and place that nourishes Shlomith’s method? Here, I can only ask these questions, not answer them.

V. Friendship and Literary Writing

In order to determine the influence of my long-standing friendship with Shlomith on my writing I would need sustained introspection. Peering at the blind spot is not an easy task. Hence the sketchiness of the account below.

The palpitations that accompanied our first meeting have since recurred in each of my conversations with Shlomith on my own writing, each anticipation of her reaction to my manuscripts. First it was the novel The Walled Garden, an experiment in polyphony, still to be completed. Then came a collection of short stories, Hold on to the Sun: Stories and Legends. In retrospect, the link to Shlomith can be felt in the carpe diem motif of its title and in the ruptures in the life of its protagonists (to quote the blurb, “a number of disruptions in the continuity of their reality exposes the protagonists of Hold on to the Sun to the experience of being”). In this collection, genre shifts (indicated by the sub-title) reflect the changing thematic concerns; this too was in the spirit of our dialogue and our faith in the power of genre and style to unveil and shape consciousness (in my terms, “each story dictates its style”). Her accepting, constructive reading and the dialogue with Moshe Ron, the editor, were major stages towards the final form of the book.

The writing of the novel The Name lasted over twelve years. It is the story of Amalia, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and it is written as her confessional prayer.6 Amalia violently rejects her parents’ past and escapes to a Bohemian life in New York. Her commissioned-photography tour of Poland ends in a nervous breakdown. Her final, radical escape is to a Yeshiva for the penitent (ba’alei tshuva), in Jerusalem. The novel opens with a crisis: the climactic moment of Amalia’s decision to commit suicide. In her words, she wishes to offer expiation to God through an act of self-sacrifice. In a slow process of weaving and writing, through discovery of flaws in the world, in the Lord, and in herself, she finally gains the ability to accept rupture and incompleteness.

I chose to write The Name in the first person, working through the tumultuous trauma of the heroine’s body and soul. The novel invites the reader not only to read but also to perform the text, as an actor who experiences the narrator’s interior monologue at first hand and prays along with her. I think of this as “organic writing,” a laboratory for enacting a spiritual and physical experience which should leave both physical and cognitive traces in the reader.7

I attempted to discuss this with my friends among literary critics; they claimed that a book that did not shelter the reader from such a radical consciousness through narrative distancing or the third person was too demanding. Only Shlomith accepted my choice as natural and necessary. In her recent work, “What Can Narrative Theory Learn from Illness Narratives?” I found a concise formulation of this narrative possibility: the telling is “putting the reader in a position where s/he has no choice but experience illness [trauma] as part of life.” A pertinent passage also relates to the loaded communicative situation, the “delicate balance between having ‘to create’ the reader and knowing that s/he has the freedom both to comply and to resist, the knowledge that the reading contract cannot be taken for granted, nor is it made once and for all, and the awareness of its being inhabited by risk, in need of constant renewal and change” (2006, forthcoming).

The trauma of the Holocaust that the narrator has inherited is expressed not only in her rejection of her parents’ past but also in her self-repression and her fear of the resurgence of memory. The technique that I chose for presenting the rejection of the self was the splitting of the pronouns in the narrator’s discourse. Speaking of herself in the present, the narrator uses “I”; speaking of her recent past she turns to “you,” and in the threatening visions of the past as well as in childhood memories she takes recourse to “she.”

I sought a method for dealing with the mystical-religious dimension of Nazism and the extermination of the Jews on the one hand and the theological rupture experienced by Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust on the other. It is for this reason that I imagined a narrator who returns to the faith. This also justified the choice of prayer as the genre model. The borrowing of this literary-religious form entailed appropriate rhetoric and a thematic complexity.8 The interlacing of the text with verses of prayer revealed the power of liturgical poetics and of the poets behind the prayers or psalms to express inner turmoil or crisis, of grief or joy. One of the prominent features of this poetics is the frequent shifting of pronouns both in relation to the speaker and in his or her address to God.9

I brought to Shlomith the opening pages of the novel, on which the rejection of the self and the splitting of the pronouns are most pronounced — the reconciliation of the self in a unified “I” that contains the different voices is achieved only at the end. Shlomith’s performative reading of the multiple voices of the narrator was as intimate as her reading of Beckett’s polyphonic Company (see pp. 265–66 above). From within a reading that was keenly aware of both the articulated and the muted she honed in on the weak points. I returned to my desk for a series of further drafts perfecting the rhetorical device of splitting pronouns which developed throughout the novel:

One year ago. Exactly. You came back from Frieda Schmidt’s store that afternoon … All of a sudden, a vein seemed to explode in your temple . . . That night you avoided lying down … Twice, by the nightlamp, you reread that passage you know backward and forward from Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance, but the letters didn’t come together in words. . . .
As if stung by a scorpion, I left the papers and stood at the window a long time, trying to quiet down. . . .
To take strength, to go on now. In spite of this fear —
Please, Holy Name, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O Lord.
You woke up at one. . . . You tried to raise your head from the pillow when you noticed your cheeks burning with the heat of the lamp that was left on, and recoiling, almost with hatred, your eyes followed the vault of the black window, which shook and slipped in time to her gasping that grew shorter as the taxi rounded the mountain curves in the dark. You shrank in panic.
Once again Emily suddenly clasps her arms around the driver’s seat and gasps as if she, and not the car’s motor, is climbing the winding road at night. She with her tempestuous breathing, the red summer dress that has been hanging on her limbs for days now exposing her back, her red purse shining insanely like her pupils wide in the travelling darkness; she clasps the driver’s seat and gasps, her long hair crackling with electricity. . . .  “I’ve got to sleep in the Old City; no, I didn’t reserve a room anywhere, but I’ve got to.”
You pulled the sheets over your face, and its sweaty folds blocked your nostrils. You decide to wait like that, without moving, until dawn, murmuring in a choked whisper, “I’m different, I’m different, different,” but the driver dashes out of the hotel and blurts through the window of the cab . . . he impatiently unloads her things. . . . And she, alone in the nighttime alley in the red dress, facing the looks flickering from the café, holds on to her suitcase. And she doesn’t even feel the sharp pain in her wrists, not even the awful pain. . . . (Is it only now, when everything is ready and I am purified, that the pain seems so awful?)

Govrin 1999a: 6-11

As the years went by, the dialogue and the reading continued. I anticipated with trepidation what Shlomith would say about the final draft of the novel and its overall architectonics. After reading it, Shlomith called me. Then, in a momentous conversation, she led me past the blind-spot that had remained at the center of the novel. I had thought that the passage of blunt blasphemy in which Amalia hurls her accusations at God had broken down all boundaries, but Shlomith pointed to the narrator’s inability to look at herself and at the rupture within her, to see the threatening disruption not only in the murderers, not only in the scarred survivors, not only in the betraying God, but also in herself. She pointed out my own helplessness or, more accurately, my fear of allowing the narrator to take the responsibility for her own failing. In other words, it is precisely when she can finally address herself in the first person that she must see herself in the third person, from a distance. This conversation left me dazed. The manuscript was already being prepared for the press. But Shlomith was also my Virgil, and the dialogue with her was like an outstretched hand. I took the path that she lighted up for me.

Yes, nothing was redeemed then.
Only, the old disease was renewed, ripping in its violence. As always. Never succeeding in breaking through the warm black circle around them, unable to cling to their wretchedness, rejected from the crookedness of Mother’s and Father’s body, always a pariah, in my roughness, an alien with my long hair, with the guitar, and now with the modest sleeves of the long dress in that fleeing leap. Always alone. Ripping with tyrannical flutter of dread. Alone, alone.
Please, HaShem. . . . Why didn’t You turn away from me Your curse that bursts out anew, and this time in your dark madness, that all this is my sacrifice of soul to save You, to repair Your weeping — that lunacy that only to You am I fleeing like that, that You are waiting for me, sanctifying me and my sacrifice, me, Your black bride? . . . (and how could I hope, believe at all.)
Now, after everything is over, after the weight of the Torah Curtain is removed, when everything is cut. To write now with hands and hours free of weaving, with the effort after hours of weaving, in the emptied room that has suddenly become spacious, broken open. From such a distance. How crazy everything looks. To write outside the net of webs that trapped me inside it — like a madman who peeps for a minute and sees honestly, with absolute sobriety, the sight of his ridiculous hop.

Govrin 1999a: 401-402

Once again, Shlomith had a clearer view of the consequence of this process, a view which she presented at a symposium celebrating the novel’s publication. She spoke of the moment toward the end of the novel when the veil is lifted from the narrator’s eyes. Here, for the first time, the narrator perceives and accepts material reality, whether it is the slope of the Ben Hinom Valley which her window overlooks or the poplar branch for which she had reached through the window of her childhood. In my terms, it is thus that she attains the Sabbath. In Shlomith’s terms, she thus accesses the real.

While working on The Name, I wrote The Making of the Sea: A Chronicle of Exegesis, which is presented as a Gemara page. As opposed to the expression of trauma through polyphony and fragmentation, here the plurality of the self, of language, and of the segments of the page turn into a celebration of creative eros. In the spirit of the Jewish tradition, fragmentation is accepted as an integral element of the theological narrative — the tradition accommodates the intertextual plurality of the human voice (the polemic) without reverting to a monolithic hierarchy. Thus, a textual plurality (the seventy faces of the Torah) that acknowledges the (sacred) infinity of language and a plurality of the divine (its qualities and its ways) is seen not as a threat to the unity of God but rather as part of the shifting, dialogical, malleable transcendental dimension that writes the cosmic “story” in partnership with man (see Govrin 1976, 1984a).

The joyful avant-garde spirit of Jacques Derrida’s Glas lent me support in writing this literary manifesto. Yet it took the Israeli publishing world ten years to accept my (“all too Jewish”) book.10 Once again it was a formative exchange with Shlomith (when I brought her the A3 pages with the Talmudic collage of texts) that sustained me in editing this book in accordance with its own unusual poetics. The fragmentation of the voice and the graphic format, as befits a Gemara page, did not intimidate her. She was the ideal reader who could, through the narratological perspective, perceive different textual layers as a unity. She helped me to conceptualize the poetics behind the book, which, in a letter of recommendation, she explained as follows: in The Making of the Sea “the ‘postmodern’ components, which have always been present in Judaism, are accentuated. The juxtaposition of Judaism and of experimental literature sheds a new light on both. An additional interesting combination in the book is that of meditation and plot, two genres that usually appear separately.” Beyond and through the fragmentation, Shlomith’s reading also reflected the tale of death and love that underlies the book (“the aging of parents and their death, sensuous imagery, . . . flashes of an erotic love-story”).

The writing of the novel Snapshots followed a dialogue with Shlomith concerning another kind of fragmentation, one that ruptures the small corner of the Middle East that is to contain the Jewish-Israeli, the Muslim-Palestinian, and the Christian-Western narratives (see Govrin 2002 and 2004). These conversations took place during the first intifada and the Gulf War. We spoke of our parents, the Zionist pioneers, of the “Palestinian narrative,” and of Europe and its complex attitude (to put it mildly) towards the Jews and Israel.

Snapshots, too, is written in the first person. Its narrator, Ilana Zuriel, is an architect and a political radical who has many lovers and whose life challenges the accepted norms of betrayal and fidelity. The painful fragmentation of her story is literally embodied in her turbulent life as a woman, a daughter, a wife, a mother, and a lover. After years abroad, Ilana returns to Israel with a utopian plan to erect a (rickety Sukkah-like) monument for peace in Jerusalem. She is driven by her identification with Jerusalem, a city desired by all those who lay claim to it. The ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone, with the participation of the “Al-Quds” Palestinian theater group, is postponed, however, due to the outbreak of the Gulf War. Ilana spends the war with her two small sons in a sealed room in Jerusalem.

The writing began as an address to Jacques Derrida, whose response was supposed to treat the subject of Zionism directly for the first time. However, a different and even more charged tension caused the replacement of the addressee by the narrator’s pioneer father, to whom she writes during the year following his death. (In creating the father’s voice I used excerpts from We Were As Dreamers written by my father, Pinchas Govrin). The turn inward led to a further fragmentation (and the possibility of humor) — in the monolithic “orthodoxies” of both Zionism and Anti-Zionism.

The novel included details of our lives in Jerusalem, a city divided into neighborhoods and communities; a city exposed to war. I was reminded of Shlomith’s experience during the Gulf War — how she ran to lay the wet rag beneath the door, how she climbed on a stool in order to reset the adhesive tape around the door frame, with her partially functioning leg. My writing was a committed witnessing of the experience of women and children in the rear that, in the age of modern warfare, was suddenly transformed into the world’s ubiquitous front-lines. Meanwhile, the men on reserve duty along the border were sunbathing watching the Scud missiles flying by, and everything was turning into a hallucinatory flash on the TV screen. As in a continuous nightmare, I concluded the novel after the assassination of Rabin and the failure of the peace talks, a time of heightened terrorist attacks in the second intifada, between 9/11 and the second Gulf War. In the midst of it all, Shlomith fell ill. Her sparse reading hours were too precious for me to burden her with drafts of a novel. During our meetings I read passages out to her. I therefore experienced her reactions ex tempore — turbulent, passionate, with laughter or tears, a perfect response to the specific features of the narrative. Before presenting her with the printed book I examined it with some trepidation. Am I not burdening her with the book where fonts keep shifting in order to stress the fragmentation? Will she be able to handle the small font reserved for the narrator’s inner voice? The guilt is still there, despite the depth of her acceptance which surpassed my hopes and which, as always, led me beyond the blind spot.

IV. Conclusion: The Place

Recently, on the eve of the symposium “Snapshots – Jerusalem as Utopia” inaugurated by Shlomith’s lecture (“Plurality, Giving up, and Unification as both Utopia and Poetics in Snapshots by Michal Govrin”), I fulfilled an old promise. One afternoon we set out to the “location” — the Hill of the Evil Counsel, where Ilana Zuriel, the protagonist of Snapshots plans her “Sukkah colony” monument. The stunning diversity of the Jerusalem view was spread out before us: three hundred and sixty degrees of a densely sculpted view of communities, cultures, eras, strife, holy sites, the Old City wall, and the greatest chasm in the world, the Syrian-African Rift.

We stood overlooking the view in the twilight breeze, with all the intensities of conversation, gaze, laughter. We spoke of the Sabbath, of Sukkah and Shmita (the Biblical Sabbatical year in agriculture and finance), of the flow of water that smoothens the rough and unites the fragmented. We spoke of plurality as a challenge, as fate, as a Yiddish joke, as freedom.

The space of our friendship encompassed this freedom, this access to life, the carpe diem of the life-force and of the joy that we were still there, standing before the juncture where the hope of the eternal and the awareness of the brevity of time come together.

The space of friendship contains contradiction. Like laughter, like the Sabbath, it contains and it unravels.

This aporetic tension is best summarized — without conclusion — in Shlomith’s words:

Turning  back upon myself, I realize that the foregoing defense of fragmentation as well as the essay of which it is a part are written in a non-fragmentary, coherent, systematic way (too systematic, some would say), appearing to belie the argument presented.  However, it is precisely this seeming aporia that manifests the interplay . . . between alternative narratives at different points of the illness, and even at the same point.  On the one hand, the very writing of this paper, no less than its structure and style, can be taken as a much needed affirmation of continuity in my professional identity (obviously going beyond the professional). On the other hand, I have allowed myself to introduce the personal and have chosen a subject closer to the bone, not strictly within the formal areas of my expertise. These are aspects of a transformation-narrative I occasionally like to tell myself about my experience of illness.  At the same time, periods of disintegration do return, and my defense of fragmentation is at least partly motivated by the desire to legitimate and respect them. Whether the construction of continuity or transformation is an attempt to control the anxiety of disruption, or — conversely — the emphasis on fragmentation is a defiance of the constraints of mastery is not for me to say.  All I can say is that by analyzing similar processes in the narratives of others, I hope I have done something toward a mutual illumination of their predicaments and mine.

2002a: 24; Translated by Yael Levin


* The photo is taken from an interview between Michal Govrin and Shlomit Rimon-Kinan that was published on the YouTube channel of the National Academy of Sciences, see. “Interview with Prof. Shlomit Rimon-Kinan, a member of the Academy” (in Hebrew).

  1. Reading is a performance that concretizes the text (see Iser 1979). The notion of reading as performative is based on the belief that literary narratives belong both to their time and place and to other times and places; they allow the projection of the reader’s mind into the text regardless of cultural and spatio-temporal difference; they can reveal the state of the reader’s soul and be instrumental in its changes. The objective existence of the text is complemented by the individual readings that can lead to a proliferation of interpretive perspectives. Recalling Walter Benjamin’s argument in “The Task of the Translator” (1977: 69–82), the performative aspect of the reading can be seen as highlighting the meanings that the text points to but that may dissolve in the flow of the language and elude the writer’s own awareness.
  2. The Jewish tradition knows a dynamic relationship between the text, exegesis, innovation, study, and prayer — as opposed to the clear-cut Western demarcation; see Shapiro, Govrin, and Derrida 2001 for a discussion of the bond between prayer, writing, and reading.
  1. I brought my experience of directing Beckett’s plays into our conversations on Company — especially, my stage adaptation of the novel Mercier and Camier (The Khan Theater, Jerusalem, 1979). Here, an invisible omniscient narrator accompanies his fictional characters. Seemingly poised at a controlling distance, the narrator is implicated in the fate of his characters and is drawn by them to his own fate.
  2. I came to appreciate the extent to which polyphony was ingrained in the art of storytelling from its very origins due to the research that I conducted at the time with Tamar Alexander on “Storytelling as a Performing Art” and on the intensity of its shifting rhetorical games (see Govrin and Alexander 1989) for which we borrowed terms from Shlomith’s classic Narrative Fiction (1983).
  1. Beckett’s oeuvre which has long been perceived as belonging to the tradition of the Absurd and Existentialism (their denial of the circumstances of their origins would merit a separate discussion) reverberates directly with the rupture of World War II that split open the Western-European self. In my 1997 essay “I Form Sentences, Therefore I Am,” I discussed the manner in which Pozzo’s torture of Lucky in Waiting for Godot echoes the torture of Alfred Peron, Beckett’s close friend and first translator. Toni Morrison’s Beloved can also be linked, if indirectly, to the corpus of Holocaust literature.
  2. When I began writing in the late seventies, the term second-generation literature did not yet exist, at least not in Hebrew literature. The Jerusalem Syndrome, which afflicts Amalia, the narrator, likewise had yet to be diagnosed by psychologists. Convergence of the ideologically secular Modern Hebrew literature and the literary legacy of Judaism was considered taboo, and the Orthodox world still vehemently rejected the subject of the Holocaust, repressing the sense of guilt and self-doubt and giving rise to it among those returning to the faith. The official, national, one dimensional, conscripted forms of memory only exacerbated the trauma. At home, too, the subject was not to be brought up. My mother, Rina Govrin (Laub, Poser) had lost her first husband and her eight-year-old son in the Holocaust. She had survived the death camps but had to fortify her immense vitality for the new start in life by an absolute silence (see Govrin 1999b). The repression that I had inherited was so severe that I refused to undergo analysis. However, my refusal even to read psychoanalytic literature “so as not to be contaminated by its narrative” — there was an underlying faith in the power of the literary narrative, the story, to offer the needed method of expression. It was a story of myself through the other — in the case of Amalia, the protagonist of The Name, a radical other.
  1. This technique was influenced by the work of Artaud, Grotowski, and Beckett. I discuss the proximity between the faithful Jew and the total actor in my study “Hassidic Ritual as a Genre of the Sacred Theatre” (Govrin 1984a).
  2. It led me into the age-old depths of the Jewish voice, especially the female voice that cries out against the violence of institutions and the harshness of God. It was an exciting journey into the voice hidden within Jewish tradition, one that resonates with trauma narratives in its stormy relationship between the believer and God against the background of history full of ruptures (see Shapiro, Govrin, and Derrida 2001). At the beginning of the novel a passage from Hilchot Teshuva (Laws of Repentance) by Maimonides, in which the penitent is requested to deny his past and change his name, becomes a mantra for the narrator, a justification for her saying “I am a different person and not the same one who sinned.”
  1. Thus, in the course of the same sentence, different pronouns are used for the speaker or for the addressee. For example, in the main statement of faith, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God the Lord is One,” Israel is first addressed in the second-person singular, which immediately turns into the first-person plural. In the blessing “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe” the addressee is referred to first in the second and then in the third person.
  2. When published, it was accompanied with Liliane Klapisch’s engravings.

Works Cited:

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1984. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Becker, Gay. 1999. Disrupted Lives: How People Create Meaning in a Chaotic World. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Beckett, Samuel. 1970 [1931]. Proust. London: John Calder.

———–. 1974. Mercier and Camier. New York: Grove Press. Benjamin, Walter. 1977. “The Task of the Translator.” In Illuminations. Glasgow: William Collins, pp. 69–82.

Derrida, Jacques. 1987. “Comment ne pas parler.” In Psyché: Inventions de l’autre. Paris: Galilée, pp. 535–95.

Govrin Michal. 1976. Contemporary Sacred Theatre. Ph. D. Dissertation. Université Paris VIII (in French).

———–. 1984a. “Hassidic Ritual as a Genre in Sacred Theatre.” In Judaism and Art, ed. David Casuto. Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, pp. 243–65 (in Hebrew). English version in Conservative Judaism 36/3 (1983): 15–34.

———–. 1984b. Hold on to the Sun: Stories and Legends.Tel Aviv: Siman Kria/Hakibutz Hameukhad (in Hebrew).

———–. 1997a. “I Form Sentences, Therefore I Am.” Haaretz October 8, Books 1.

———–. 1997b. The Making of the Sea: A Chronicle of Exegesis. Jerusalem: Har’el (Art Book in Hebrew, with original etchings by Liliane Klapisch). 2000 (larger circulation). Jerusalem: Carmel.

———–. 1999a. The Name. Trans. Barbara Harshav. New York: Riverhead Books of Penguin Putnam.

———–. 1999b. “The Journey to Poland.Partisan Review 4: 555–73.

———–. 2002a. “Martyrs or Survivors? Thoughts on the Mythical Dimension of the Story War [Life in Jerusalem].” Partisan Review 3: 274–97.

———–. 2002b. Snapshots. Tel Aviv: Am Oved/HaSifriya LaAm (in Hebrew). Forthcoming in English translation by Barbara Harshav.

———–. 2004. “Jerusalem vue d’une colline.” Les Temps Moderns 5: 311–15.

Govrin, Michal, and Tamar Alexander. 1989. “Storytelling as a Performing Art.” Asaph C5: 1–35 (in Hebrew).

Govrin, Pinchas. 2005. We Were As Dreamers. Jerusalem: Carmel (in Hebrew).

Iser, Wolfgang. 1979. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. 1980. “Doubles and Counter-Parts: Patterns of Interchangeability in Borges’s ‘The Garden of Forking Paths.’” Critical Inquiry 6/4: 639–48.

———–. 1983. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London: Methuen.

———–. 1987. “Narration and Repetition: The Case of Günter Grass’s Cat and Mouse.” In Discourse in Psychoanalysis and Literature, ed. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan. London: Methuen, pp. 176–87.

———–. 1996. A Glance beyond Doubt: Narration, Representation, Subjectivity. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

———–. 2002a. “The Story of ‘I’: Illness and Narrative Identity.” Narrative 10/1: 9–27.

———–. 2002b. “Continuity and Its Disruption in Illness Narratives.” Hadarim 14: 96–103 (in Hebrew).

———–. 2006. “What Can Narrative Theory Learn from Illness Narratives?” Literature and Medicine, forthcoming.

Shapiro, David, Michal Govrin, and Jacques Derrida. 2001. Body of Prayer. Ed. Kim Shkapich. New York: The Cooper Union.