Bliss tells the story of two thirty-five-year-old Israeli women called Sarah and Ofra, who live in Tel Aviv and have been best friends since they were eleven. Any fears that the book may be a familiar celebration of women’s friendships are overcome by the depth and unexpectedness of its insights and the wit and bite of its prose, especially the dialogue, which is extremely well translated. Ofra is the first-person narrator. She worships Sarah, but also disapproves of her, as well as sometimes taking on the role of her minder. They quarrel quite often and stop seeing each other, and then Ofra misses Sarah almost unbearably: “The foolish notion that I would be able to make do with myself paled next to the awful, nightmarish hunger [for Sarah’s company].”
In her gloomier moments, Ofra sees herself as the traditional lonely spinster, a mere chaperone to her friend, in spite of the fact that Ronit Matalon has given her quite an eventful life of her own, even with sex now and then. But Sarah is the heroine as well as the bad girl of the novel. She is wild, disorganized, ruthless, passionate, gifted, and idealistic. “She was obsessed with doing the right thing,” Ofra says in the opening sentence. Sarah also “savored words like a winemaker, letting them do their work, turning metaphor into reality with one daring leap, and forcefully ripping them from their ordinariness.” The description fits Matalon’s prose as well.
Not that Sarah is a writer. She becomes a photographer after writing her MA thesis on Emily Dickinson. Ofra’s thesis is on American Abstract Expressionism; she becomes a teacher of art history. The story begins in their childhood, but not with it: the text is divided into untitled, unnumbered chapters, and the chapters are divided into short and very short sections, which jump back and forth between Tel Aviv and Paris, and between different years from the mid-Eighties to the mid-Nineties. This restless arrangement produces a sense of tension and confusion: you need to adjust to a new scene every few paragraphs. But that is surely deliberate. Tension and confusion make up the atmosphere in which Sarah and Ofra live.
It hasn’t much to do with the situation in Israel, though of course that is always there in the background. Sarah is the only character with strong political feelings. Obsessed as she is with “doing the right thing,” she becomes committed to the peace movement and keeps going to Gaza in order to make a photographic record of Israeli soldiers “beating the crap out of [the Arabs].” With one exception, none of the other characters seem to be interested in Arab–Israeli relations at all. As for Ofra’s endearingly outspoken Egyptian-Jewish mother, she can’t stand the Israelis: “Don’t you know our people, Henri?” she says to her French brother-in-law. “They’re a very strange people, very strange. I can’t explain to you the nature of this people—stupid, full …