Close this search box.
Victoria Comella, publicist
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A conversation with Michal Govrin, author of SNAPSHOTS

1. Both Ilana’s father and your father were pioneers of the state of Israel, and Ilana’s father’s writings in the book are based on your own father’s work. How much of Snapshots is based on your own family relationships?

All during my adolescent years, my father was writing his memoirs. I, the only child, would come home from high school and all through lunch (my mother, who worked extra hours as a teacher would leave the meal on the burner) my father would carry me to his childhood, the Jewish shtetl in the Ukraine, his pioneering days in the Valley of Yzrael, the dream, the pathos. My father was a gifted storyteller. And my father was a dreamer, with all the freshness and naiveté involved. Pioneers of his generation willingly lived their lives beyond the individual, as part of a mythical and collective destiny. So, in the life of Aaron Zuriel, Ilana’s father, which is different in its details from my father’s, I still could draw from their common “archetypal” story.

At the same time, my mother, who survived the death camps, where she lost her first husband and eight years old son, lived her trauma in a loaded silence. All that exposed me to multiple realities, and the experience of life as an uncovering of the concealed.

Writing Snapshots also permitted me to address, for the first time, the lives of my elderly cousins (more than a generation separates us). I could never really assimilate into my cosmopolitan life their “hard core Israeli” stories, of the beginning of the Kibbutz, or of the tragic fate of my uncle and his grandson, both killed in the name of Israel. Writing about them, like bringing to print my father’s memoirs [We Were as Dreamers, Carmel Publishing House, Jerusalem. 2005] twenty years after his death, were a tremendous freeing gesture of admitting of my being part of the same large and complex story. 

2. How were the pictures in Snapshots created?

It all started with my making “verbal snapshots”. I went out with a tablet and created them in the landscapes that my life with my husband (the mathematician Haim Brezis) and our family carried me to: the NJ Turnpike, Manhattan, Paris, at airports, in subway stations, cafes, and then while walking on “the Hill of Evil Counsel” in Jerusalem. I wanted to capture the instant of meeting between landscape, consciousness and language. I was especially interested by the exposed look during traveling, when the memory of other places and times is juxtaposed with the concrete present time and place.

Like a photographer or a painter, I turned the places in which I lived and traveled into the bouncing board of Ilana’s consciousness. As we live more and more through traveling, moving, immigrating, our stories are told through these places—in them or against their background.

Meanwhile my daughter, Rachel Shlomit, then 17 years old, was revealed to be a sensitive photographer. I knew that with her eye and camera lens she would open those places in a new way. So I invited her to accompany me to the places of Snapshots and to take her own pictures.

The reader, I hope, will create another juxtaposition between the verbal and photographic snapshots, and his or her own personal image of the different locations.

3. What was the most difficult part about writing this book and assimilating so many elements—photographs, drawings, outside writings, etc.?

Being also a theater director, I loved the part of “directing” the book. The drawings were partly prepared while writing, to clarify Ilana’s plan. And then David Shapiro and John Hejduk invited me to give a guest seminar each Fall at the Cooper Union School of Architecture. It felt a bit like Ilana Zuriel was lecturing there, presenting her drawings to this international group of talented Architecture students. Their enthusiastic reactions were the best encouragement along the way.

As for integrating worlds and outside materials, the “snapshots” poetics enabled me to create a composition of voices and styles similar to our hybrid existence in the world. The techniques of the collage, the nature of the Talmud page, the writing of John Dos Passos and William Carlos Williams, among others, and clearly the voice of Don DeLillo were all sources of inspiration. In the end, I worked on the novel as on a long poem, where the rhythm and the timbre of the voice carry the reader on.

4. In your previous novel, The Name, your heroine Amalia dealt with questions of discovering her own identity while being overshadowed by the lives of her parents. Ilana in Snapshots asks herself similar questions. Is this a theme you find taking root in your work?

Politicians often speak in the name of a future without the weight of the past, as if this were possible. The 20th century’s legacy is a loaded one, especially for the Jewish people and Israel, where wars never stopped. I am part of a generation that inherited this past and has to find ways of integrating it in completely new circumstances. Rejection or dismissal will only lead to a return of the repressed. Zionism as a revolutionary messianic movement tried again and again to erase different layers of the past, that of the Diaspora, the Holocaust, or that of the Arabs living in the land of Israel. Yet the writer is like an archeologist, revealing the multiple layers of the story, and of reality.

Stop any person on the street in Israel and ask him or her to tell their story and that of their parents, and you’ll be spellbound by a saga. And always in these stories the private life is a toy in the hands of a common fate, lived in the shadow of “history that writes us all,” as Ilana says. This is often overwhelming. One wishes to run away, like Ilana in Snapshots or Amalia in The Name; you only want to run away, to betray in the most sacrilegious possible way, to embrace a fresh future. And then, you have to admit that this is part of who you are, for better or worse.

I myself left Tel Aviv in my 20’s to study and live in Paris. And it was there, in front of Europe’s culture and history, that I confronted, for the first time, my Judaism, my parents’ stories. I slowly understood that my life expanded beyond my own biography, from one side of the 20th century to the other, and beyond, and that I’d have to find a way to claim and integrate it. In parallel, my work evolved from an intimate first book of “short stories and legends” (Hold On To The Sun), to my recent books that have become more and more marked with history’s fingerprints.

5. You were born in Tel Aviv, which is relatively a much “safer” city to live in than Jerusalem. Why do you choose to live in Jerusalem?

Tel Aviv, which I love, is a very sexy city, but Jerusalem is the place of Eros – and danger is an inherent part of it. After my studies in Paris I hesitated to return home, or to stay in the City of Lights—and only then Jerusalem was an irreplaceable choice. Since then living in it was an on-going love story, an exhilarating and painful adventure. As a writer, living in Jerusalem means confronting daily the heart of what this place is made of, living in the eye of the storm. And at the same time being surrounded with exquisite beauty that permeates each moment.

6. What do you think the prospects for peace are now? Have your views on that changed in the five years since you first started writing the novel?

All along it was a vertiginous experience of the cross between history and fiction.

I started the writing in July 1993, and with the scene of Alain telling Tirtsa about Ilana’s death in a car accident. A month later the Oslo agreement was signed. In the following period, writing toward the death of Ilana, the peace activist, I felt in moments like a prophet of doom in the midst of great hopes for peace. And then the second Intifada erupted like a recurring nightmare, and later 9/11. When the book was published, in the spring of 2002, during one of deadliest periods of terror of the Second Intifada, Snapshots changed its meaning completely: Then the end of the novel—with Ilana’s dreaming about her Peace monument in Jerusalem while lovingly carrying the baby of either Alain or Sayyid—became an audacious gesture of hope.

Now, in a period of disillusionment, I find that my role as a writer is to believe, and to imagine another architecture, beyond the walls of hate and the walls of separation, beyond the violence and the extreme intolerance, to believe and to imagine how this region can one day find a way to live in peace.

7. How did you come to choose the first Gulf War as the backdrop for the novel?

In 1990-1991 the world changed, with the fall of the USSR and the Berlin Wall, the beginning of the global village. The Gulf War was the first to have CNN global coverage, and with it the inauguration of contemporary war-news-entertainment show. In Israel, the Gulf War was the first one not fought in the battlefield but lived in the sealed room. It exposed the limits of the state’s military power in a war aimed at the civil society, shattering myths of war and bravery. And later this scenario became the prevailing experience in ex-Yugoslavia, or in the war of terror that changed our way of life. So, I immediately sensed an urgent need to document this experience, especially from the point of view of a woman and a mother. 

8. How did you develop the characters of Sayyid and Alain? Was it harder to write male characters?

It’s difficult to trace the secret of creating a character, layer by layer. I can only say that while doing it I identified with each of them individually, with his complexity and contradictions. I felt that this is what a novel is about: the freedom to live multiple lives, destinies, affiliations, as one can never live in the world. Actually, Snapshots, being told by a woman narrator, is very much a book about men, old and young and from different origins, and the way they are revealed in their relationships with women.

9. Snapshots raises the uneasy question of how much we ever really know those we love. How well do you think we can ever truly know another person? How much can we come to know them after they are gone?

This complex question touches, I believe, at the heart of what Eros is. Seen in the Hebrew context, where the verb “to know,” ladaat, is a synonym in the Hebrew Bible for sexual intercourse, the question is even more loaded. And let us remember how much the desire to know is also intimately linked to the desire to possess, as again in Hebrew this verb constitutes the status of the husband as ba’al: the one who possesses, while the wife, isha, means simply, woman.

In writing Snapshots I wished to shake the notion of Eros as the desire to know and possess, always fueled by the anxiety to face the unknown in the midst of intimacy. A fear that, I would suggest, is deeply male, touching at the basic uncertainty of fatherhood.

I suggest instead a portrait of Eros as the desire for precisely that which we can never possess or contain, the desire of the mysterious unknown. Look at the incredible final verse of the Song of Songs, where the maiden says to her beloved: “Make haste [berach – run away], my beloved, and be thou like to a gazelle or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices”. As if she says, from beyond jealousy: stay un-possessed, unattainable, be unknown, for the sake of love.

In my work I also know, that when writing about a character, in all its complexity, if it still stays mysterious and surprising, I might have come close to creating a living character.

This attitude emerges from the core of motherhood. The mother, who knows her child profoundly, yet is marveled by what stays unknown and beyond her hold. She also knows that beyond all her care and hope and support for the child, she has to let go and encourage his or her advance towards an unknown future.

And no, he conversation with our beloved ones does not cease with their death. It continues leading the relationship through changes, transforming us (and not less the deceased person) along this posthumous relationship. And now the dimension of “the unknown” has another presence. The death of a person creates a semblance that we posses his or her “whole story” with a beginning, middle, and end. Hidden stories emerge, aspects we could not or did not dare to face during the person’s life. We easily fall into an illusion that now we can finally know this person, possess or even cannibalize his or her story. But now, even more, we have to admit how much we do not know, and accept and respect his or her mystery in the core of our love.

In Snapshots, the characters’ love is constantly confronted with their desire to know and possess, with their jealousy, and with the border of loyalty and betrayal. The novel aims at these taboos, and tries to open another space, as fragile and utopian as the Sukka, the hut. A temporary structure of confidence in the midst of the threat, and fear of the unknown.