Eshkol Nevo’s new novel takes place in an apartment building just outside of Tel Aviv, where the characters who live on the first three floors know little of the dramas just on the other side of their walls.
These are not the neighbors in Grace Paley’s urban stories who share their lives on the front stoop. These folks sometimes cross paths, and they occasionally muse about the others’ lives, but they barely make it into each other’s stories, as Nevo tells them in “Three Floors Up,” translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston (Other Press).
In English, we also refer to the levels in apartment buildings as stories, and this novel is very much about storytelling, and the connection between identity, memory and stories. The characters need others to listen to their stories and grant them a kind of truth. As a dream uninterpreted is like a letter unopened (as in the rabbinic saying), so too is a story unheard.
The three stories are told as confessions; the first in an urgent conversation with an old friend, now a writer, in a restaurant; the second in a rambling letter to an old friend now in the U.S.; and the third in short clips to an answering machine. The woman on the third floor is a widow who unexpectedly found an old answering machine with her husband’s voice, and she looks back at their life together and then explains how she is trying to stand on her own. For each of the storytellers, their listener, or anchor, is from a past he or she is no longer living.
Nevo, 46, is a talented writer, who unfolds each story with immediacy and emotional depth as well as humor. The author of four previous novels, a collection of stories and a picture book for children, he owns and co-manages Israel’s largest private creative writing school, and is a mentor to many young writers. Two of his novels, including “Three Floors Up,” have been adapted for the stage. He is named for his grandfather, Israel’s third prime minister, Levi Eshkol, who served from 1963 to 1969, when he died of a heart attack.
In “Three Floors Up,” Arnon, on the first floor, becomes obsessed with the idea that his young daughter may have been molested by an elderly neighbor. On the second floor, Hani, who is often called the widow, is mainly alone with her two children while her husband is traveling for work. In her loneliness, she worries that she is losing her sense of reality. She tries contacting a psychologist she saw at an earlier time, but learns that the woman has died. On the third floor, Devora, a retired judge who is estranged from her only son, gets caught up in the social protests in Tel Aviv.
When he was in New York last month, Nevo told The Jewish Week that it’s challenging to write flawed characters who may make wrong decisions, and not be judgmental about their moral dilemmas.
The minor characters in these stories include Arnon’s wife, a lawyer; Hani’s brother-in-law, who is being pursued by loan sharks; and the retired Mossad agent who mysteriously enters Devora’s life. The characters’ concerns are Israeli and also universal. Nevo says that this novel might be his most global. “You do not have to be an Israeli or a Jew to understand how dark parenthood can be, or the thin line between worry and obsessive worry.”
Devora mentions Freud’s model of consciousness, with the id, ego and superego, stages that relate to the inhabitants of the three floors. Each story has a beginning, middle and end, but does not necessarily conclude with clarity.
Nevo says that he lived in apartment houses for most of his life. Born in Israel, he grew up in many places, including Detroit and Princeton as well as Haifa and Jerusalem. He now lives with his wife and three daughters in Ra’anana, in a house.
His grandfather died before he was born, and he says that growing up as the grandson of a former prime minister was no big deal. “We didn’t grow up with being special. We were just kids. What was much more important is that,” he says, “my mother was his daughter and adored him. Through her, a set of values came though, like through a tube: the unquestionable connection to the land, to the country. It was a combination of love, caring and involvement. We went to a lot of demonstrations when I was a child, for Peace Now and for social issues. This is all part of me, also part of me as a writer, to always see what is happening in society.”
“My grandfather was a mensch, so different from the current leadership in Israel. He loved negotiating, loved the give and take. He used humor as a tool, and he opened up his home. It was a simple house, and my mother was married in the garden.”
The Jerusalem house is now open to the public as a museum, sharing the building with the Association for the Protection of Nature.
While growing up, Nevo always wrote, and imagined that he’d become a teacher — he was very much influenced by seeing Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society.” He studied psychology and advertising and then, on a whim, attended a creative writing workshop.
“I just started writing and didn’t stop,” he says. He wrote stories and published a collection, “Zimmer Be-Givatayim,” in 2001, released in English as “Bed and Breakfast Stories.” But he still didn’t think of himself as a writer, but as a guy who wrote one book. He then published a novel, “Arba’a Batim Ve-Ga’agua” or “Homesick,” in 2004, which became a bestseller in Israel, and, he says, changed his life. That novel and his subsequent novels were published in translation in Italian, German, French, Spanish and Polish, and some in Greek, Arabic, Romanian and Turkish. This is his fourth novel to be published in English. He also co-wrote the screenplay for the well-reviewed film “Is That You?”
Nevo has now been teaching writing for 17 years and running private writing workshops, Sadnaot Habait (which means Home Workshops), with his business partner Orit Gidali, a poet. They used to meet in private homes and now have a studio in Tel Aviv, where they try to maintain a sense of intimacy. So far, more than 1,500 participants have studied with them, including about 50 who went on to publish books and win some of Israel’s major literary awards.
Three years ago, Nevo founded a nonprofit organization to use writing as a form of national healing against the aggressiveness and intolerance so prominent in Israeli society. The workshops and public events all over the country bring together religious and secular, women and men, rich and poor, many of whom haven’t before imagined other experiences. He says that by helping participants to listen more deeply to others and to understand silence, they are helping them to become better people, not just better writers.