A. B. Yehoshua Yehoshua, A(braham) B. - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A(braham) B. Yehoshua 1936–

Israeli novelist, short story writer, essayist, scriptwriter, and dramatist.

Yehoshua is one of Israel's foremost contemporary fiction writers. He is a member of "the generation of the state," the first generation to come of age after Israel was proclaimed an independent state in 1948. Yehoshua's fiction treats concerns which have arisen in this generation: such political problems as the Arab-Israeli conflict; such moral dilemmas as the danger of clinging to the Zionist dream without facing the reality of Palestinian demands; and such social issues as the emigration from Israel of the younger generation and its loss of faith in the Zionist ideology which created Israel. Although much of Yehoshua's work is centered on Israeli concerns, certain characteristics give his fiction universal significance: his underlying theme of the alienation and isolation of humankind and the careful development of the psychological state of his characters.

Critics of Yehoshua's early story collections, Mot ha-zaken (1962) and Mul ha-ye'arot (1968; the latter volume published in the United States under the title Three Days and a Child), compared him to Franz Kafka because of the abstract and surrealistic nature of his stories. Many of these stories, which one critic called "modern fables," are not grounded in a particular time and place; instead Yehoshua uses allegory to comment on contemporary Israel and humanity in general. He makes extensive use of symbolism in these stories, a characteristic which some critics have found overwhelming. Yehoshua explained in an interview, "I am still not able, in dealing with reality, to be content with a spontaneous selection from the passing stream. I am compelled always to seek out the intellectual, symbolic aspects and to see reality as representing the general idea." More recently, Yehoshua has moved towards realistic modes of expression which deal more explicitly with Israel and in which the symbolism is less obtrusive.

"Facing the Forests," which appeared in Three Days and a Child, has evoked much critical discussion for its controversial subject matter. In this story, a frustrated and disaffected Israeli graduate student takes a job as a forest ranger. He ultimately acts as a silent accomplice when an Arab burns down the forest that had displaced his village. Critics have offered a variety of interpretations of this story. In the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, "Facing the Forests" has been seen as an illustration of the younger generation's ambivalence and lack of faith in Israel. On a more universal level, the story has been interpreted as a commentary on humanity's tendency towards unmotivated evil and isolation. In another story, "The Lengthening Silence of a Poet," Yehoshua again offers a dim prognosis for Israel's future. In his depiction of a formerly great poet, who no longer writes, and an imbecile son, who tries and fails to continue the father's work, Yehoshua portrays the impotence of the older generation and the lack of inner resources of the younger one. The other stories in this collection are similarly negative. The world Yehoshua portrays is sterile and oppressive; the characters are imprisoned and alienated. According to critic Jerome Greenfield, "In the existential despair, the pessimism, the sense of dislocation and alienation that pervade his work, Yehoshua establishes a bridge between modern Israeli writing and a dominant stream of some of the best Western literature of our age … without abandoning … the everyday reality of Israeli life."

As Yehoshua's work moved away from surrealism and towards realism, he turned from short stories to novels. His first novel, The Lover (1977), was followed by A Late Divorce (1983), which critics have compared to William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury as a family saga which employs a series of different narrators to explore psychological and moral questions. A Late Divorce concerns an Israeli who has immigrated to the United States and later returns home to obtain a divorce. The man finds his family in a state of decay, which some critics considered a symbol for the decline of Israel. Yehoshua explained, "I don't claim the family is a symbol of Israel, but there is a layer of allegory—the imbalance between the father and mother, which does not create proper relations for the health of the family. Like the father, who gives up his responsibilities and goes to America, Jews who leave Israel for America are escaping their responsibility."

Critical reaction to Yehoshua's work has often focused more on its ideological than its literary aspects, but both have been almost uniformly praised. Yehoshua is commended for his storytelling abilities, the psychological depth of his characters, his precise and evocative use of language, and his structural innovations. He is acknowledged as one of Israel's most important social critics. His political and social commentary appears both in his fiction and as essays in Israeli newspapers and magazines. He has published a collection of essays, Between Right and Right (1981), which Harold Bloom described as "a polemic against the Diaspora…. [These essays are] efforts to reformulate the terms of identity, Jew, Zionist, Israeli." Yehoshua's works have been translated into numerous languages and two of his books, Three Days and a Child and Early in the Summer of 1970, have been adapted as films.

(See also CLC, Vol. 13 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

Robert Alter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The following excerpt was taken from an essay which originally appeared in Commentary, June, 1969, entitled "New Israeli Fiction."]

For Amos Oz, and in a more restricted way for A. B. Yehoshua, there is something uncannily semantic about Israeli reality. Topographical, architectural, even institutional actualities allude to things beyond themselves, and though both writers have been guilty on occasion of symbolic contrivance (Oz much more glaringly), one gets some sense that their cultural predicament has made symbolists out of them. One of Yehoshua's narrators in fact comments on the temptations of symbolism which the setting offers: "For everyone here is addicted to symbols. With all their passion for symbolism the Jerusalemites imagine that they themselves are symbols…." There is, patently, an acerbic ironic perspective here on the excesses of symbol-hunting and symbol-making; the ironic intelligence points to the admirable artistic restraint with which Yehoshua, in his second volume of fiction, Opposite the Forests [also translated as Facing the Forests] (1968), develops a distinctive mode of symbolism that is quietly suggestive and for the most part not obtrusive. (pp. 216-17)

The work of both Oz and Yehoshua raises an interesting question about Israel's peculiar cultural situation. Their concerns, as I have already intimated, are if not quite apolitical then metapolitical, seeking to come to grips with the ultimate facts about human nature and social existence which issue in political events, institutions, and conflicts. But given the explosively charged nature of Israel's political situation, it is not surprising that a good many readers should see directly political, even "subversive," implications in this new kind of Hebrew fiction. (pp. 218-19)

Yehoshua writes a much cooler, more understated kind of fiction than Oz, sometimes arranging his narrative materials in generalizing designs that place them almost at the distance of parable from the reader; but there are certain affinities in theme between the two writers. Several of Yehoshua's protagonists, like those of Oz, bear within them a deep sexual wound that humiliates them, drives them to acts of hostility. Without a trace of Oz's mythopoeic imagination or his interest in an erotic underworld, Yehoshua also often sees lurking animal instincts beneath the facade of the civilized self; his educated, ostensibly pacific, ineffectual personages frequently harbor a murderous impulse to destroy whatever stands in their way or whatever is associated with those who have given them pain. (p. 225)

Also like Oz is Yehoshua's fascination with destruction for its own sake, the desires civilization breeds in people to escape its imposed order and rational framework. Yehoshua treated one variant of this condition in an early story, "The Tropville Evening Express" [also translated as "The Evening Journey of Yatir"], about a quiet little town that is pitifully de trop in a world of vast wars and so its citizens conspire to cause a trainwreck simply to make something happen in the dead air of their empty existence. More memorably, this time using materials from Israel's political situation, Yehoshua deals with the same problem in the title story of Opposite the Forests. (p. 226)

The political application of the story is transparent, and for anyone accustomed to thinking of Israel in official Zionist terms, it may seem more comprehensively "subversive" than anything in Oz. Yehoshua, let me emphasize, is unswervingly committed to Israel's survival and to the constructive development of...

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Hugh Nissenson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "Three Days and a Child," Yehoshua's] talent is immediately apparent. He has been influenced by Kafka and, like him, has managed to convey, by the specifics of objective reality, a unique inner world. He is a fabulist; his characters inhabit a familiar but mysterious universe in which meaning and emotion are expressed by many esthetic elements: leitmotif, counterpoint, and, when he is in full control, over-all structure.

"Flood Tide" is the one story in the collection that doesn't make it at all. It is too abstract, too remote from the natural world (the landscape of Israel) to be convincing. The title story, however, is fascinating; too diffuse, like some of the others, but an extraordinary study of what the Bible, the great Talmudists and Hassidic masters called "the evil impulse."

Anguished by jealousy, the narrator wants to kill the child of a woman he once loved. It takes place in Jerusalem, where, "after nine in the evening, you'll be walking through a city of the dead." The empty streets, a thorn, a viper accidentally loosed in an apartment fill the story with the same menace that seems to emanate from the protagonist. He is an alienated intellectual, a type who appears in almost all of Yehoshua's stories: the rational man, sundered from his roots, who is confounded by his impulse to do evil….

Yehoshua is immensely popular in Israel, particularly with the young. It speaks well for them to recognize and respond to such a writer. I hope that Americans will also respond….

Hugh Nissenson, "Evil, Muted but Omnipresent," in The New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1970, p. 56.

Jerome Greenfield

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is a depressing vision of the human condition that Yehoshua projects in [Three Days and a Child]. In each of its five stories attention is focused on a protagonist trapped within the prison of some inner despair and alienation that constantly threatens to break out—and sometimes does—into some kind of disaster. Everywhere there hovers the smell of danger, the nuance of menace….

Yehoshua's many talents come through powerfully…. His observation of the details of Israeli life—its cities, its implacable summers, its landscape—are done with deftness and vivid simplicity. (p. 27)

In the existential despair, the pessimism, the sense of dislocation and alienation that...

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Harold Fisch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the most serious Israeli writers of the present generation … is A. B. Yehoshua, who is fortunately also a most competent storyteller. Yehoshua lacks as yet the epic range, but the remarkable gift displayed so far in his short fiction holds within it a brilliant promise. The title story in the present collection, "Three Days and a Child," reads at one level as though it had been written as a model for the delectation of structural analysts. It opens on a note of dilemma. The narrator, Dov, a research student in mathematics at the Hebrew University who has long loved a kibbutz girl but has failed to win her, cannot solve a quadrilateral equation on which his university thesis depends; and the story, constructed...

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Anat Feinberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For someone familiar with Yehoshua's short stories there is hardly any surprise in the fascination the theatrical medium has for this writer. For in each of his stories,—for instance in such a multi-symbolic story as "Mul Hayaarot" ("Opposite the Forests") as well as in the more intimate expression of a complex relationship between a man and the family of a long-loved woman ("Three Days and a Child")—there is always a strong dramatic kernel, a striking and unmistakable focus of tension and struggle which dictates the development of plot and simultaneously serves as the climax of narration. Moreover, the dramatic culmination—this artistically contrived turning point—very often takes the form of a catastrophe,...

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Curtis Arnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Regardless of the specific plot, there is a great deal of consistency between the early stories and Yehoshua's later work. In each of the stories [included in the retrospective collection Ad Horef 1974] there is the theme of withdrawal from the surrounding society and the isolation of an individual, usually self-imposed. This underlying idea is skillfully handled by the author and in some cases adds a considerable amount of tension to the narrative of an ostensibly banal story. While in many cases there is a stressed allegorical-political element to a story, the underlying theme of isolation turns it into more than merely sophisticated polemics. This element is added subtly to each work but in each case is...

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William Novak

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To live in Israel is to live with unremitting tension unremittingly; private life is intruded upon 24 hours a day by the real world in the form of hourly news broadcasts, which come into the home, the office, even the public buses.

Such is the psychological climate facing the Israeli writer, and no one has dealt with it so directly as Avraham B. Yehoshua….

The schoolteacher in the title story [of Early in the Summer of 1970] was to have retired in 1967. But three years later he is still working. At the time of his scheduled retirement, most of the younger teachers were called up to fight in the war. Now, in 1970, there is a different kind of war—a war of attrition. It...

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Alan Mintz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nostalgia for an idealized past, the frenzied search for a transcendent future—it is one of the marks of A. B. Yehoshua's achievement as a writer that he refuses to give way to either of these temptations. In his new collection, Early in the Summer of 1970, as in a previous collection, Three Days and a Child, Yehoshua sticks resolutely to the harrowing confines of the present, even though, within those confines, he often works with the touch not of a realist but of a fabulist. The stories in the new collection take place in the period between 1967 and 1973, a time of wearying stalemate between Israel and its Arab neighbors, punctuated by random, sporadic death. In Yehoshua's imaginative reconstruction...

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Nili Wachtel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Of the vast amount of critical commentary that followed publication of A. B. Yehoshua's latest work, The Lover, the majority dealt not so much with the literary merit of the work, or with any great truths it might have revealed, as with its political and social implications.

Increasingly Yehoshua's writing focuses on situations in Israeli life; it might appear that he is becoming increasingly parochial. But as with others, so with him: the situations he chooses revolve around certain recurring themes—universal human themes—and it is they that constitute the essential Yehoshua.

These themes were evident even in his first published work, The Death of the Old Man, a...

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Harold Bloom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The question of the Golah (Exile) is the most important and profound question a Jew must pose to himself when trying to probe the essence of the Jewish people." Whether that is true or not, it is central to the art and thought of the Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua. The quotation is not from the admirable novel under review ["A Late Divorce"] but from Mr. Yehoshua's polemic against the Diaspora, "Between Right and Right" (1981), which deserves more attention than it has received. In his fiction, Mr. Yehoshua is subtle, indirect and sometimes visionary, even phantasmagoric. His polemical essays are fierce, hyperbolic efforts to reformulate the terms of identity, Jew, Zionist, Israeli.

Reading "A...

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Joseph Cohen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Faulkner's presence is everywhere felt in this remarkable novel ["A Late Divorce"]. It is a presence that both exhilarates and depresses, so sustained is the emotional intensity of the story, not just recalling but indeed being structured upon what many regard as the Southern writer's single most important work, "The Sound and the Fury." Not simply derivative, "A Late Divorce" is a Faulknerian tour de force, with enormous power in its own originality, enabling it to function organically and soundly in its own right….

[The] sheer lyrical quality of Yehoshua's prose [is] a poetic accomplishment which was also a noteworthy feature of Faulkner's writing. Though both books are fiction of an...

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Leon Wieseltier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The most important decision that a writer must make is probably not the decision about subject. It is the decision about scale…. Scale, in this sense, is the measure of a writer's seriousness. Also, of his ambition, which in the best instances consists in a shocking belief in the possibility of greatness. (p. 38)

[A Late Divorce] is, in its subject and its scale, a large novel. [Yehoshua's] subject is the fate of a family, or more precisely, the family as the instrument of fate. Rarely have the crippling consequences of the extraordinary closeness in which all lives begin, the banal derailments of fathers and mothers and sons and daughters and sisters and brothers and husbands and wives by...

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