Meir Shalev: Preeminent Writer About Israel

From a Washington Post obit by Emily Langer headlined “Meir Shalev, preeminent Isreali writer, dies at 74”:

Meir Shalev, whose widely translated works of fiction, nonfiction, memoir and children’s literature established him as one of Israel’s most celebrated writers, a piquant observer who captured his country’s history without becoming mired in its politics, died at his home in the northern village of Alonei Abba.

Mr. Shalev was born in 1948, the year Israel became a state, and emerged as one of the nation’s most prominent men of letters, compared at times to A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, Aharon Appelfeld and David Grossman.

Although Mr. Shalev associated himself with the Israeli left, he stood out from many literary figures in Israel by keeping his distance from politics and in particular from the seemingly intractable conflict with the country’s Arab neighbors.

Mr. Shalev regarded peace talks and parliamentary coalitions as fine subject matter for newspaper columns, including the one he wrote for three decades for the centrist Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. But he saw literature — or at least the literature he wished to write — as a world apart.

“I am suspicious of political literature,” Mr. Shalev once told the Jerusalem Post. “In many cases it doesn’t seem honest to me and some scenes seem forced.”

After military service during the Six-Day War of 1967, Mr. Shalev spent the early years of his career in radio and television, including hosting a TV talk show. But his father had been a noted Israeli poet, and Mr. Shalev was ultimately drawn back into the literary world in which he was raised.

He wrote several children’s books, including the popular “Michael and the Monster of Jerusalem,” before his first novel, “The Blue Mountain,” was published in 1988, the year he turned 40. The book was animated by stories his grandmother had told him about her life on a moshav, or cooperating farming community, in the decades before Israel became an independent state.

Mr. Shalev “has departed from the compelling present and written a historical novel about the pioneering tradition that led to the birth of Israel,” journalist Herbert Mitgang wrote in a New York Times review. The villagers who populated the book, Mitgang observed, had “gladly traded one hardship for another: the fear of living almost as aliens in their native Russia for an alien wilderness in Palestine.”

With its epic qualities and flashes of mysticism, Mr. Shalev’s work attracted frequent comparisons to the magical realism of Nobel Prize-winning Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez. (Mr. Shalev, for his part, cited writers including Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Vladimir Nabokov and Sholem Aleichem as his greater literary influences.)

He had another bestseller with “A Pigeon and a Boy” (2006), a novel that received the Brenner Prize, the most prestigious Israeli literary recognition. The book intermingles the midlife crisis of an Israeli tour guide with a poignant romance between two homing-pigeon handlers during the 1948 Israeli war of independence.

“All the weapons fell silent for a moment,” reads an early passage in the book. “Ours and theirs. Not a single gun fired, no grenades exploded, and all the mouths stopped shouting. It was so quiet that we heard the bird’s wings beating the air. For a single moment every eye and every finger was following that bird as she did what we all wanted to do: make her way home.”

Mr. Shalev turned to memoir in the volume “My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner,” published in Hebrew in 2009, and widely read in Israel and beyond. The title referred to a gift that the matriarch of his family had received from a wealthy American relation, and which, to the amusement of all who knew her, she put away, lest it be dirtied by the dust of the as-yet-untamed land that was to become Israel.

Meir Shalev was born in Nahalal, Israel’s first moshav, located in the northern Jezreel Valley. To his great unhappiness, he spent much of his upbringing in Jerusalem — “a fanatical city, a difficult city, a bad city,” he said. “Its ruins are more important than its homes, and its dead are more important than its living residents.” He much preferred the Jezreel Valley and would later return there to live.

Mr. Shalev’s family included a number of writers and intellectuals in addition to his father. His mother was a teacher. He credited both his parents with challenging him in his reading but recalled reacting against his father’s political conservatism from an early age.

“He wrote a lot of political poetry,” Mr. Shalev told Moment magazine. “When I was 12 or 13, I began to argue with him about this. I told him that his lyrical poetry was much better than his political poetry. I like poetry that is about memory, longing and love — not politics. Similarly, when I read the Bible, the character of David as a father to his son is much more interesting to me than as a king to his people.”

During Mr. Shalev’s military service, he was badly wounded by friendly fire, an experience that turned him increasingly to the left. He studied psychology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem before embarking on his radio and television career

Mr. Shalev wrote more than a dozen works of children’s literature in all, among them the gently kidding “My Father Always Embarrasses Me,” drawn from his own experience as a father. His novels included “Esau,” “Four Meals,” “The Loves of Judith” and “Two She-Bears.”

He wrote several nonfiction books on the Bible, among them “Beginnings: Reflections on Firsts in the Bible.” He described himself as a secular person and quipped that he saw the Old Testament as a sort of Jewish family novel. “After all,” he told the German publication Die Welt, “only 400 generations separate me from Abraham.”

Mr. Shalev and his wife, Rina, were once divorced and remarried.

In his newspaper columns, Mr. Shalev wrote extensively about Israeli current affairs, advocating a two-state solution for Palestinian conflict and often bemoaning the state of Israeli politics. “Israel and I were born in the same year,” he observed several years ago, his pessimism tempered by wry humor, “but I look much better!”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She writes about extraordinary lives in national and international affairs, science and the arts, sports, culture, and beyond.
Also see the New York Times obit by Joseph Berger headlined “Meir Shalev, Whose Novels Found Humor in Israeli Life, Dies at 74.” The opening grafs:

Meir Shalev, whose novels affectionately satirizing Israel’s pioneers made him one of the nation’s leading writers, died on Tuesday at his home in the village of Alonei Abba in northern Israel’s Jezreel Valley.

Often compared to Mark Twain for the arch humor lacing his novels and to Gabriel García Márquez for his use of magical realism, Mr. Shalev focused most of his seven novels on the half-century before Israeli independence in 1948.

It was a period when Zionists, socialists and Communists migrated to Ottoman- or British-controlled Palestine to escape the alienation and pogroms of Eastern Europe. As captured most saliently in his first novel, “The Blue Mountain,” they soon found themselves breaking their backs farming a resistant landscape while grappling with mosquito-borne diseases and attacks by Arabs.

The scenes of intellectuals trying to live up to lofty ideals in these circumstances made for incidents ripe with poignant comedy. Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, professor emerita of comparative literature at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, described “The Blue Mountain” as “a comment on the noble but failed utopian experiment of the pioneers.”

“He didn’t just write about the pathos of Israel; he also wrote about its absurdities,” she said. “He almost invented Israeli satire.”

“His writing wasn’t just comic,” Professor Ezrahi added. “He had a soul. The tears would come through the laughter.”

Mr. Shalev, who also wrote eight works of nonfiction and 14 children’s books, was translated into more than 30 languages, according to Ms. Harris, his agent.

His novel “A Pigeon and a Boy” (2006), which weaves the story of a handler of homing pigeons killed in the 1948 war with that of an Israeli tour guide in a troubled marriage, won the Brenner Prize, Israel’s highest literary honor….

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