There is a sense in which all novels are “state of the nation” novels, because the state of the nation is what we have come to think of as our communal consciousness. As a form that instinctively wishes to claim authority the novel has become more and more absorbed in pronouncing on the changing nature of such consciousness. Nationalisms and local awarenesses now lie there close together, replacing in some degree the mass ideological consciousness once associated with fascism or communism.
The state of Israel is virtually a test-tube for observing and experimenting with the process. The great advantage for an Israeli novelist is that he has a topic vital for his art ever ready at hand. An Israeli novel is bound to be about Israel, its problems and its destiny. At the same time this very privilege lays the novelist under a curse. Writers as talented as A.B. Yehoshua and Aharon Appelfeld must often reflect, and probably with a certain wryly old-fashioned ruefulness, on the case of Ibsen or Joyce, of Proust, Hemingway, or Thomas Mann. All those novelists in their different ways were able to ignore or set aside the problems and identity of a particular national enclave. However much it may be locally enriched, or nourished by special outlooks and values, their work has an unself-conscious and universal validity: their fiction is a currency accepted everywhere. Ibsen and Joyce may have employed a certain deliberation in internationalizing themselves, while Tolstoy and Dickens did it spontaneously, but in all such cases national identity seems to be something their creative imaginations can shrug off without difficulty, in its shaping of personal and suprapersonal worlds and myths.
To do this can be increasingly difficult for the novelist. Israel and the Israeli situation may perhaps be the reductio of a more general dilemma. We are all nowadays trying to find out who we are and where we are going; and the novelist is there to help us. One of the most effective and most striking things about the work of today’s highly talented Israeli novelists—Yehoshua, Appelfeld, David Grossman, Amos Oz—is their exact and attentive feel for what has befallen individual persons. The tears are in the bottle; the hairs on the head are numbered. And this gives a strange comfort to the reader, as if he too were intimate with the process, himself recording and recorded. The history of the Jews, and the horror that lies behind the creation of the Zionist state, gives a kind of inevitability to this process: but—this is the really important thing—it is one in which we can all involuntarily share. Who does not wish the hair of the head to be numbered somewhere? In this knowledge, which steals over the reader before he knows what is happening, the novel from Israel has found its truest, because least intentionally sought, universality.
Of course a novel may make as general and as genuine an appeal by revealing an opposite truth. The …