Remembering the Woman

Combining the Macabre and the Everyday, One Writer Charts the Female Psychological Experience

By Naomi Sokoloff

Published September 19, 2003, issue of September 19, 2003.
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Small Change: A Collection of Stories

By Yehudit Hendel

Brandeis University Press/ University Press of New England, 142 pages, $19.95.

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Yehudit Hendel is being rediscovered. Hendel, born in 1926, first established herself as a major Israeli author in the 1950s, a time when very few female Hebrew prose writers gained wide recognition, and she has enjoyed renewed success. Her new fiction and memoirs have found an admiring public: Her novel “The Yard of Momo the Great” (1969) was published in a new edition in 1993 as “The Last Hamsin”; her first story collection “They are Different” (1951) was reissued in 2000, and in 2003 she won the Israel Prize for literature.

In part, the rediscovery of Hendel has had to do with a new receptivity to women’s writing in Israel. With its focus on mundane details of women’s private lives, some of her early fiction deviated from the norms of its era. In those days, nation-building and the Zionist enterprise held center stage in Israeli literature. In recent decades, though, women’s writing has come very much into vogue, and Hendel’s art has been more in keeping with the spirit of the times. Her work came to be appreciated for its portrayals of women, its narrative lyricism and her depiction of characters on the periphery of society.

Today Hendel is once again finding new audiences, this time in English translation. Previously her only book to appear in English was “Street of Steps” (1954, translated in 1963). Now a number of her stories have been gathered in the collection “Small Change.” Five come from the original “Small Change” (“Kesef Katan,” 1988), and three from the more recent “An Innocent Breakfast” (1996). The selections illustrate many of the author’s trademark qualities: her subtle rendering of inner worlds, her sensitivity to women’s perceptions and fluctuating emotional states, her attention to the minutiae of passing moments. Like much of her fiction, these stories offer explorations of grief and of the abiding power that the dead exert over the living.

Hendel’s writing often strikes a disturbing note as it combines a focus on mourning with assiduous observation of domestic routine. Beneath descriptions of ordinary activity there repeatedly emerges evidence of despair, unresolved conflict and wrenching pain. Take for example “The Letter that Came in Time.” In this story, a newly widowed woman earns accolades from those around her for her poise and strength during her husband’s funeral; a week later she kills herself. This is a typical Hendel story in that it lingers on descriptions of the protagonist’s fastidious housekeeping, the refreshments she serves after the funeral and her solicitousness toward her guests. The suicide, at first, catches readers off-guard. They will soon find, though, that even in death this character has made sure to get her house in order. She has meticulously labeled her belongings, indicating how the family should divide them up when she is gone, and she has timed her good-bye note carefully to arrive neither too soon nor too late.

This unsettling combination of the macabre and the everyday has significant parallels in “My Friend B’s Feast.” In this tale, a woman dying of cancer prepares a dinner party to bid her friends and family farewell. Hendel pays great attention to the decor, the food and the manners of the guests at the party, yet as dinner is served, it has become clear that the husband has already found a new lover to replace his ailing wife. In both stories, the surfeit of outward detail suggests the protagonists’ tenacious struggles to cling to dignity, to familiar certainties or at least to respectability. Their lives are driven by strenuous effort to maintain external appearances in the face of troubling entanglements.

Entanglements that involve a man with romantic ties to several women also figure prominently in a number of other tales. In “Late Revenge,” a man belatedly tells his ex-wife of his dalliance with her sister. In “Fata Morgana Across the Street,” a deranged woman clings fiercely and obsessively to her memento of a brief romance that meant everything to her and much less to her married lover. In “Low, Close to the Floor,” a man cannot decide whether to be buried next to his first wife or his second. Hendel’s female characters often suffer bitter betrayals. The title story, “Small Change,” is the angriest in protesting oppressive male behavior, though in this case the protagonist lashes out primarily against her father. For reasons not entirely clear, she resents his habit of counting coins. This outward quirkiness of his indicates a deeper, murkier problem and hints not only that he treats his family with contempt, but that he is capable of true brutality.

Very little here is distinctively Israeli, either in terms of overt thematic emphasis or even in terms of milieu and social atmosphere. The main exception is “Apples in Honey,” a story set in a cemetery that features a war widow visiting her husband’s grave. This is essentially a tale about private emotions, but it has special poignancy as it takes place in Israel, where so many women have lost husbands through war. (“Apples in Honey” was originally part of a novel, “Mountain of Losses,” which takes an extended look at bereavement and widowhood in a war-weary Israel.) Most of the selections in “Small Change” stress more universal concerns: loyalty and fidelity, the emotional struggles of women who are no longer young and the psychic burdens of protagonists haunted by past loves. Hendel’s tendency to focus on personal life and to shy away from national, political issues is part of a wider trend in Israeli women’s writing. For decades, concerns with collective identity predominated in Hebrew fiction, but in the late 1980s and 1990s — an era of increasing individualism in Israeli society — many writers broke out of those cultural conventions. Though female psychological experience had long been considered a trivial topic in Hebrew literary circles, it now became a privileged theme. Opening up a new world of possibilities by exploring women’s inner lives, writers such as Hendel, Amalia Kahana-Carmon, Ruth Almog, Savyon Liebrecht, Zeruya Shalev and others achieved great success.

Altogether, do not come to “Small Change” looking for a panoramic treatment of Israeli society, nor even for a slice of its life. Do read this fiction out of curiosity about contemporary writing by Israeli women. Above all, read it for Hendel’s distinctive storytelling. Her narratives are constructed around subtle shifts of perception that yield fragmentary, unexpected and sometimes jolting revelations of character. This challenging artistry requires the reader to weave together scattered strands of evidence in order to identify the underlying forces at work in the lives of the characters. Frequently that process takes place as the narrator listens to the protagonist’s confessions or observes events from the side. As the narrator/witness registers or shares new information, the reader, too, slowly catches on and gains understanding into the roiling emotions under the surface. The key to getting the big picture is to consider each detail judiciously and to wait patiently for new disclosures — in short, to stay with the moment in a world where human relationships are unreliable, insights are slippery and even routine events are peculiarly un-reassuring. When all is said and done, much is never fully explained. Why for instance, does the wife commit suicide in “The Letter that Came in Time”? Is it grief? Fear of being alone? Guilt over the first wife, whom she had displaced? We are ultimately left to ponder such questions for ourselves as Hendel creates impressionistic vignettes that are at once elusive and engrossing, provocative and touching.

Naomi Sokoloff holds the Samuel and Althea Stroum Endowed Chair in Jewish studies at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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