Assaf Gavron: I’m not the Israeli Jonathan Franzen

Assaf Gavron
Assaf Gavron

Assaf Gavron is an award-winning Israeli novelist, translator and former journalist. The author of five novels, a collection of short stories and a collection of non-fiction Jerusalem falafel restaurant reviews, Gavron has had his fiction translated into 11 languages.

His latest novel, The Hilltop (2014), is about a group of Jewish settlers living in the West Bank. On June 5, the New Israel Fund of Canada (NIFC) hosted an event at the Toronto Reference Library featuring Gavron in conversation with Canadian writer and filmmaker David Bezmozgis. On June 6, the NIFC held an event in Ottawa at the Carleton University Art Gallery featuring Gavron in conversation with Daniel Bezalel Richardson, editor of Foment magazine. The CJN spoke to Gavron, 47, about the so-called next generation of Israeli novelists, being compared to Jonathan Franzen and why he chose to set his novel on a settlement.

You’ve been heralded as being part of a new era of young Israeli novelists whose writing is fit for North American consumption. According to a review in Tablet magazine, you belong to a generation of writers who diverge from the old guard Israeli novelists who’ve been popular amongst North Americans – namely, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman – because you and your peers are less elevated, less literary and less engaged with the Jewish past. Do you identify with this characterization?

I don’t know about the generation part. I’m one of the writers who are younger than the names often mentioned and who are slowly getting known both in and outside of Israel, who are getting translated outside Israel. I don’t know if, aside from age, you could group us together. Each one of us has his own style, his own interests. And if you could group us, then I don’t know if it can be said we’re less engaged with the Jewish past. I definitely couldn’t say that about the others. For myself, I don’t know what it means to be less engaged with the Jewish past. I’m Jewish and Israeli – that’s part of my identity. My writing is very much engaged with what’s going on in Israel, which is a continuation of the Jewish past.

I think as for style and language, our generation is maybe a little less poetic than the older writers you mentioned. I don’t know if that means not serious. We are serious writers, I think, all of us. Maybe because the language is sometimes more colloquial, it’s considered less poetic or literary. But some of us write do write more poetically. For example, Etgar Keret, who is a good friend, we write very differently from each other. He writes only short stories, only fantasy. I’m very much a realist. I think it’s difficult to make generalizations about a generation.

What are some of the names that come to mind when you think about younger, up-and-coming Israeli writers?

There are many, but I’ll mention some of those who are translated, which is obviously a little bit arbitrary. I mean, not entirely, because those who do well in Israel are usually translated, but it’s not always the case. Etgar Keret is the most successful and known Israeli writer in my generation, meaning under 50. There’s also Nir Baram, who will have work out in English next year. There’s Dorit Rabinyan, who’s been around for a while. There’s Sayed Kashua, an Arab-Israeli writer. Then there are genre writers like Dror Mishani, who writes detective novels that have been published in many countries.

What is it about your writing, do you think, that is considered palatable to an English-speaking readership?

I hope, firstly, that there’s literary merit. This is what people are telling me, that people like the stories, the style. They’re entertained. I think I combine dealing with serious subjects like the conflict in Israel with a style that’s funny, comical, light. I think this combination is appealing to at least some readers around the world.

What are some of the notable changes in Israeli culture and politics over the past decade or so that you’ve seen younger Israeli novelists exploring?

In the last decade the county has been in a kind of downward spiral of violence and intolerance, a growing resentment between the right and the left. The left wing is increasingly pushed out of the debate, and the younger generation is becoming more right wing and more aggressive. This is a very worrying phenomenon. Also, young people today have less of a chance to make a decent living and buy a house. You usually start to see fiction written about big events like wars a few years after the fact. Regarding recent events like the 2014 war in Gaza, for example, I think we will soon start to see this portrayed in literature.

You’ve been referred to as the “Israeli Jonathan Franzen” insofar as you employ comic realism to comment on society. Does this comparison resonate with you at all?

This is something I talked about with David Bezmozgis in Toronto. It’s very flattering to me. I think Franzen is an incredible writer. Bezmozgis told me he actually thinks my books are better than Franzen’s. I guess if you compare The Hilltop to Franzen’s Freedom or The Corrections, I talk about Israel the way Franzen talks about America. All three are works of realist, contemporary fiction that tell a story of a place at this time through stories of a cast of characters. In my opinion, he’s a much better writer than me, but I am flattered. We also have in common the same agent.

The Hilltop focuses on a fictional community of Jewish settlers, yet it’s been written that you are politically opposed to the settler movement. What compelled you to set your novel on a settlement?

I find the settlers to be the most fascinating group in Israeli society. They’re a very small but passionate and ideological group united behind an idea that’s bigger than them. They’re very influential on my life and on Israel. I’m interested in them as human beings. I didn’t write this novel from my political perspective. I wanted to know who these people are, about their families and jobs and relationships, failures and successes. They’re living in this very tense, violent area that’s like a frontier. They keep grabbing more and more land. It’s a bit like the Wild West. So I wanted to put my political opinions aside and explore them.

Are you satirizing them?

There is always some satire involved, but I’m not satirizing the settlers. I’m satirizing the mechanism, the bureaucracy, the system that allows them to thrive. Because it’s an absurd system. The settlers deal very cleverly with taking advantage of the complete mess that is the West Bank and the inability of the different authorities to manage it.

Did you spend any time living on a settlement as part of your research?

I didn’t live on one, but for two years I mainly went frequently to this one settlement that was the inspiration for the one in the book. It’s called P’koa Daled. I had this arrangement where I could use a cabin there to write in when the woman renting it wasn’t there. It’s in Judea, in the southern part of the West Bank, about 15 minutes south of Jerusalem.

By contrast, the anthology you co-edited with Keret in 2014, Tel Aviv Noir, looks at the seedy underbelly of Tel Aviv society. What did you envision North American readers getting from this collection of stories?

Tel Aviv Noir is part of a larger series of noir books set in cities all over the world. Most of the books are American, but about one-third are from outside the United States. I didn’t have time to read all of them, but I’m definitely interested in reading about cities I don’t know, and I love crime stories. So I think that definitely people will want to know more about Tel Aviv and its specific take on crime.

What trends do you see emerging in new Israeli fiction?

I must admit I probably don’t read enough. I’ve been in the United States for the past two years, and I’m not that big into the scene in Tel Aviv. But from what I have seen, poetry seems to be getting really big. The most talked about literary phenomenon in Israel in the past couple years has been this poetic Mizrachi group called Ars Poetica. They’re getting a lot of attention. The leading name there is Roy Hasan. They’ve been making a lot of noise and discussing Mizrachi ideas about being discriminated against by the Ashkenazim all these years.

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.