This Thread of Life

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DG: When I write I want to be invaded by the people I’m writing about. What does it mean to be another human being? What does it mean to be you or to explore this filament, this thread of life and light and warmth that goes through another human being? I can reach it only through writing.

PA: Having worked in film a bit over the years I feel that writing is akin to acting — there is a similar psychological process. An actor is trying to embody another human being, to become someone else. The actor has his or her body whereas the writer has his pen. If you can do it successfully I think there’s a conviction that a reader will automatically feel. It’s a mysterious process, one which connects to the idea of play, of being a child again.

DG: Unlike actors we write the text, we try to understand and create the whole psychology and biography of this character. It takes a lot of identification and empathy to sympathise with a hostile character, an enemy. I once wrote about a Nazi commander of an extermination camp and it was important for me to write about him and become him and understand his thinking. I believe it was Paul Levy who said of the writing process, ‘I am the other’.

PA: I’ve never written a book that ended up the way I thought it would when I started. And that’s the adventure. It has to be a mystery and an adventure from day to day.

DG: If I know the ending of the book, the book will not surprise me. I want my books not only to surprise me but to betray me. In the sense that they will take me to places I feel unable to go. I write and re-write scenes up to twenty times, each time from another point of view, until I understand it.

PA: One can argue that in the US there is a civil war going on, not fought with bullets but with ideas and words. We are a very divided country and it seems that the two sides are unable to talk to each other. I thought it would get better after Bush left but now that Obama’s here the divide seems even greater. Our problems are not as great as here, but we have enormous problems in our country. I don’t fear the break up of the US but at times I wish it would happen, because it seems the different sides have nothing to say to each other, it’s as if the civil war had never ended. Arms were put down in 1865 and there is still tremendous division. I don’t know how it will ever be resolved.

DG: I listen to Paul and I hear so much that applies to us. The feeling of imminent catastrophe pervades our minds and informs our behaviour. When we think of the fragility of Israel, the dangerous developments, the extreme anxiety that most Israelis suffer, we shrink. We ignore reality, even when our survival instinct urges us to engage more fully with reality in order to save ourselves. Instead we shrink. Just listen to the news with all the catastrophes, all the murderous events in the last 24 hours. Listen to the way we treat each other! It is as if the violence that has consumed us for 100 years now has infiltrated into our most internal organs. This hatred can be explained — not accepted but explained — because each side of the political map, the left and the right, regards the other side as an existential danger. If we continue like this we are doomed.

PA: Every country has its problems, some very grave and some not so grave, but in Israel the discussion is not about how we are going to fix the problems but are we going to survive? I feel a much darker spirit over this place than I did thirteen years ago. I sense very little optimism about resolving the issues that needs to be resolved. And I was horrified to see the Wall — it sent me to the brink of almost inexpressible despair. This country seems to be split between despair and denial. Last time I was here it was about 14 months after the assassination of Rabin and people were still dealing with that trauma. But there still seemed to be some optimism that some progress could be made. Now it seems harder to find people who have a truly imaginative response to the situation; people seem tired, worn out from all this conflict for so many decades. It’s almost too much to bear. To live this way all the time everyday year after year. But something has to change.

DG:  I live here. I feel this sensation to surrender to whatever happens here, to collaborate with this apathy. I look at Israel and I don’t want to live in any other place. It’s the most significant place for a Jew to live and to explore his identity.There are still so many things in Israel that are miraculous. I feel we do not treat this privilege that we got from history with enough respect. And I look at us, a very ambitious, intelligent people, and I see how we are totally helpless in front of this situation; we see with open eyes where we are heading yet we continue to go there. What you see here is the suicide of our state, a state with all the potential to uproot itself from the situation. We collaborate with the distortion of the situation and we do nothing. Some people here will agree with me but many will not.

PA: It’s important to understand that to criticise a country does not mean that we don’t love it. Someone asked me the other day about Obama and his attitude towards Israel. People think he’s anti-Israel but it’s not true — he’s trying to push Israel into a position where it can enter negotiations to deal with what you’ve been calling The Situation. People like David are crucial; without  him there would be no conscience and it’s vital to have people like David speaking out.

PA: As long as you’re telling the story, the story has the power to exert its magic. Like Sheherezade in 1001 Nights: as long as she’s talking, there is magic in the air and the rest of the world disappears. As a reader, you’re inside the book and the world disappears. After you stop reading, other things intervene but as long as you’re reading the magic continues.

DG: In my latest book, Ora tells the life story of his son Ofer and she tells it with lots of details. The book has two levels: one is the big Israel story, with what we call hamatzav (the Israeli situation) but it’s a kind of euphemism — it’s not a true word because it means something not yet seen, but of course when we say hamatzav we refer to the constant bleeding of the last 100 years. This is one layer and the other is the layer of the family. I wanted to write about the minutiae of domestic life, the small details of bringing up a child; sitting for hours at the dentist and doing maths homework and all that because I always believe the most significant drama of humanity is the drama of the family. And the greatest, most important things in history did not happen in palaces or parliament or battlefields but in kitchens and bedrooms. Ora tells all these small stories and hopes that, in so doing, she will infuse life into her son and this will protect him when he’s on the battlefield. Of course it’s a kind of magical thinking — we cannot really protect life with stories but we can create some meaning, some logic amidst the chaos around us. It is amazing to see how, out of all the information that we absorb in one day, we are immediately able to recognize a story. And when we hear this story it’s as if there was a place prepared for it in our hearts and in our mind. It also immediately arouses the urge to tell it to others. We have this talent for story listening and story telling.

PA:When I was very young I thought poetry could change the world. And maybe poetry can change how somebody thinks about something sometimes. But finally I think what’s beautiful about art is its utter uselessness — it doesn’t serve any purpose: it’s not a political agenda, it’s not a bill in congress it’s just there to be read, listen to, seen, thought about. This is what makes us human beings: we can do things that are useless. Why would somebody work for years, practising the violin so that this music might give pleasure to other people? It’s such a sacrifice of time and effort to achieve nothing but what we call beauty or pleasure. And think of the world if there were no art or stories or music, we would be like animals but we’re not. And that is why I believe in art and the sublime uselessness of art.

DG: I don’t think it’s useless — it’s meaningful to people and formulates things within our hearts that we wouldn’t be able to formulate otherwise. It gives us identity and a place and in that sense it’s also a political vehicle. I don’t think one should write with the desire to change things; you don’t write for something but because of something. I write because of something unbearable, limiting, suffocating that needs to be expressed. We are products of our era, which we express in many ways, in relating to reality directly or ignoring it. You should not think about it when you write and most good writers that I know are tuned to the personal, intimate layer. The outcome can be different. In the beginning it was a youthful passion and desire, flirting with the option of being a writer. Now I realize that it is only through writing that I understand certain crucial things in my life that I would not understand otherwise. Unless I write about them I will not understand them. Writing feels increasingly like home, a place where I can decode life. Even when I write about terrible things. It is a way for me to be in this life, I know this more after the last years. It is a way for me to map everywhere I have been thrown to. Writing is a way of not feeling in exile, a way of reclaiming the individuality confiscated by the hamatzav. Like Paul I feel secure only about one thing —when I’m stuck it’s only because I’m not courageous enough. I’m afraid of what the story might change in my life. If only I can surrender to the story, I’ll get there.

PA: If a day comes when I don’t feel the need to write, I won’t. But I’ve always felt the necessity to do it. JM Coetzee once said to me, and I think he’s a great writer, I look at my books as little bags I’ve left by the road. I’m walking on, I’m not thinking about the past at all.

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