Americans are surely familiar, to a point, with Israeli literature. Go to your local Barnes & Noble and you’ll find titles from Amos Oz, David Grossman and Aaron Appelfeld well stocked on its shelves.
But these are established writers, the equivalents of Philip Roth and Toni Morrison in America. To argue that they represent the best of contemporary Israeli fiction would be like forgetting to mention younger writers like Colson Whitehead or Jonathan Safran Foer in a similar discussion about American letters today.
So it’s with some relief that, this week, New Yorkers will get to know Alex Epstein, a rising star in Israeli literature who remains virtually unknown in America. Epstein, 38, has been invited to the PEN World Voices Festival, which takes place this week and brings together leading authors from all over the globe. Epstein will be joined by two other Israelis — Assaf Gavron, 42, and Eshkol Nevo, 39 — all of whom reflect a more accurate picture of what Israelis are reading now.
“It’s a very big honor,” Epstein said about being invited to the PEN festival. He will not only discuss his work on Monday, April 26, but will do so on a panel that features several bold-face names: Claire Messud, Lorraine Adams and Norman Rush. Then, on Friday, April 30, he joins a panel that includes Yiyun Li and Aleksandar Hemon, the latter of whom Epstein is particularly fond. Hemon “is definitely on my list of top five writers in the world today,” Epstein said. “It was a great honor to be put on a panel with him.”
Epstein shares many traits with Israeli writers of his generation — a surrealist, often playful touch; a less homogenized and momentous view of Israeli life than their literary predecessors. But in other ways he is strikingly different. The first thing any reader will notice is his brevity, with stories often no more than a single sentence long. Here’s one, from start to finish, that’s included in a newly translated collection of his work titled “Blue Has No South”: “Once again the time traveler discovers that his wife has changed the locks.” The end.
Extremely short fiction is not unknown in Israel. Perhaps the only internationally recognized writer of Epstein’s generation, Etgar Keret, writes in this vein too. But Epstein’s stories are distinguished by their philosophical lyricism, with the narrative often seeming beside the point. What stirs you most is not what happens but the ideas and impressions that get conjured as the stories unfold.
When, in the paragraph-long story titled “Gibraltar, a Love Story,” an elephant escapes an African zoo and shows up a week later at a subway in Madrid, you think: odd. But then when the elephant last appears at an entrance to a zoo in the Spanish capital, having leapt “with the steps of a giant in love,” your heart goes soft. The story could speak for any animal in love, including you.
“There are two main types of short-short stories in Israel,” explained Moshe Ron, an emeritus professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who edited the original Hebrew collection of “Blue Has No South.” “The realistic short story,” he said, exemplified by Raymond Carver, noting that these aim to capture a broader view of the world through a very suggestive short scene.
The other type, he said, was the “philosophical, or allegorical short-short story,” which presents a particular view of the world, but through a more abstract, poetic style. Epstein embodied the latter camp, he said, putting it this way: “Alex is no Carverite.”
Epstein is unique in another way too. He was born in the Soviet Union, and only immigrated to Israel with his family when he was 8, in 1980. Unlike most Russian Jews now living in Israel, who came after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Epstein’s family left relatively early. Still, Epstein said, the reasons were not much different than those who left earlier: a persistent, low-burning anti-Semitism and his father’s deep-seated Zionism.
A keen awareness of anti-Semitism and the pangs of immigration are, in fact, recurrent themes throughout much of Epstein’s work. His own experiences growing up in the former Soviet Union are responsible for that too, he noted. He remembers his father, a doctor, telling him how he did not get into a university because the school had met its Jewish quota. When he was a child in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), he remembers asking his parents where his grandfather was going every Saturday morning — “church,” they would tell him, for reasons he did not then understand.
Now, the reason for his parents’ obfuscation are clear to him: “They didn’t want people to know we were Jewish.” And, strangely enough, when he first came to Israel he wasn’t aware it was a place where Jews lived either. “When we first stepped off the plane, I saw real palm trees for the first time in my life and thought we were moving to Africa,” he said. “All the scenery around us looked like some kind of legend.”
The language was entirely new as well. “I came to Israel not knowing a single word of Hebrew,” Epstein said. But he immersed himself in it immediately, and soon gave up on Russian altogether. “I almost completely stopped reading Russian,” he said, adding that it may have been, in retrospect, a harbinger of his future career: a life in Hebrew letters.
Still, his career ambitions were not hatched in adolescence. It was not until he was in his early 20s that he published anything at all, and even then, it was poetry, not prose. But by the time he was 23, a premier Israeli publishing house, Zimora-Bitan, who worked with writers like Etgar Keret, offered him a contract. Since then, he’s published three novels, an equal number of short story collections, and appears regularly in weekend newspaper and magazines.
And translations of his work are increasingly common. Though his work has been translated into Dutch, Spanish, French and Russian, among other languages, English translations are finally appearing in America. To be certain, his first exposure here came at least three years ago, when Zeek, a Jewish literary and intellectual journal, began publishing his work in translation. “I liked it immediately,” said Adam Rovner, the Hebrew translations editor at Zeek and an assistant professor of English at the University of Denver. “It was elusive, and he was economical, even though there were some postmodern gaps.”
Most of the English translations are by Becka Mara McKay, who is responsible for Epstein’s new book, “Blue Has No South,” released by Clockroot Books earlier this month. McKay said she had come across Epstein’s work at a conference for international writers at the University of Iowa a few years ago, and approached him about translating his work. “I had just finished translating a long novel, so I was really happy to be translating these really short stories,” she added. But, critically, it was his poetic voice that struck her most. “I’m a poet and I think the poetic quality of the work really attracted me,” she said.
Despite the poetic and philosophical strain in his work, Epstein says he does not prefer either label. “I’m not a philosopher,” he says, “I’m a writer.” He puts a good deal of thought into the narrative structure of his work and pointed to Borges, Chekhov, Kafka and Julio Cortazar as influences. But he said he was probably indebted to many more authors too: “A lot of the times you mimic writers without even knowing. You start imitating a lot when you’re young, but eventually you start finding your own voice.”
In any event, he said, once he sits down to actually compose a story he forgets about influences, plots, themes and styles altogether. “When I’m writing, I’m not thinking about that anymore. I’m just thinking about writing.”
Alex Epstein will appear at three events at the PEN World Voices Festival: Monday, April 26, 7 p.m., at the WNYC Jerome L. Greene Performance Space, 44 Charlton St., with Lorraine Adams, Norman Rush and Claire Messud. $20. (212) 352-0255; Friday, April 30, 3:30 p.m., at the Scandinavia House, 58 Park Ave., with Preston Allen, Aleksandar Hemon, Yiyun Li, Martin Solares and Deborah Treisman. Free; Friday, April 30, 8 p.m. Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery, $10 at door. Visit www.pen.org for more information about festival.
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