The Israeli writer Ronit Matalon, who died in 2017 at the age of fifty-eight, was the author of fragmentary but sweeping family novels. She was also a fierce advocate for the rights of Palestinians and for the advancement of Mizrahim—Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent, many of whom arrived in Israel in the 1950s and encountered discrimination and difficulty integrating into the nascent society, which was dominated by Ashkenazi Jews of European origin. How can her novels, which are seemingly compact, hermetic, and inward-facing, be squared with that public activism? Quite simply: when one is raised in a family of Egyptian immigrants consigned to the back pages of history, putting them and others like them on the page can serve as a moral act.
The Sound of Our Steps, Matalon’s third novel, opens with a child, up late, waiting for her mother to come home:
The sound of her steps: not the heels tapping, the feet dragging, the clogs clattering or soles shuffling on the path leading to the house, no. First the absence of steps, the creeping dread in anticipation of her arrival, her entrance, the loaded silence, measured by a twelve-minute unit of time, heralded by the next-to-last bus stopping, the 11:30 bus from which she would descend.
The anticipated entry of the mother—throughout the novel her children refer to her as “the mother” behind her back—inspires terror. She works two jobs as a house cleaner and as the caretaker of a youth center, and tornadoes into the family home (no more than a large shack, similar to the one Matalon grew up in) in various stages of rage. She throws a vase, or swipes a pot off the stove, “or she hit us, with a broom, shoe, mop, hammer, the base of a lamp, a kitchen towel, her hands. Or she screamed.” The narrator, who refers to herself as “the child”—in her family, she explains, she is “the eternal third person”—regards the mother with pity, believing her violence to stem from a perpetual state of being “not-home”:
Twelve hours of work, four hundred plates in the Rosh Ha’ayin school cafeteria, twenty-something cauldrons, three hundred chairs arranged in the student center in the afternoons, after the cafeteria, a few pounds, a few pennies, an ironed handkerchief doused with cheap lavender water, the kind she bought by the pint.
This opening distills Matalon’s concerns: a sustained examination of a single household with biographical similarities to her own, headed by a domineering and charismatic matriarch; a child, elsewhere depicted as a young woman, who is part of that family but outside it, cataloging their goings-on with longing and contempt; and the subtle ways in which the language of labor and politics—the “not-home”—can seep into the living room. Matalon once lamented that the stereotypical female writer is one who is “all womb and belly, who deals with family, with love—not with the public sphere.” Her novels nullify that distinction. Family is public, she shows us, and it can also be used to address broader issues of immigration and estrangement. There is a tender moment in that opening scene when the child observes her mother’s hands, which have been coarsened from overuse, and notes, “Femininity had been sacrificed to this rough place, to its new, rough, male humanity.”
That place of “male humanity” is newly founded Israel, where the child’s parents settled after leaving Egypt. They are put up in a township outside Tel Aviv, built on dunes surrounded by orchards. The description evokes parallels with Matalon’s hometown of Ganei Tikvah, an area of prefabricated homes that had been set up by the Jewish Agency for immigrants from Yemen, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Romania, and Poland—a “model of the melting pot,” as a newspaper article described it in 1960 (but one without running water or electricity in its early years). At night, the homes are indistinguishable from one another, sowing confusion, so the child’s father, whom she calls by his first name, Maurice, hatches a plan: he asks his male neighbors to each erect a flagpole on his roof and string to it one of his wife’s nightgowns. I can still visualize that neglected transit camp, with women’s garments fluttering in the wind to indicate who lives where.
This flicker of a story is among the few that the child possesses of her father. His political grievances had cost him a good job with the Labor Ministry, we are told, and also his marriage. Doesn’t home come first? his wife demands to know. “My principles,” Maurice replies. The biographical echoes are again unmistakable: Matalon’s father founded a Tel Aviv movement affiliated with the Israeli Black Panthers that protested on behalf of working-class Mizrahim; he was once quoted as saying that his wife divorced him because of this work.
Matalon doesn’t pass judgment on which parent’s vision is morally justified, nor does she have to: Maurice is an unreliable presence, materializing every couple of years for several fitful days. He buys the child a copy of David Copperfield, telling her that “it’s the first book to read,” but leaves it on the bus he takes to see her. One day, the child walks into her mother’s bedroom to find Maurice, lying on his back with a cigarette in hand. Her mother, “in her better work clothes for the afternoon job,” is kneeling at the foot of the bed, her face buried in his stomach: “His other hand, the one not holding the cigarette, stroked her head, not stroke, dug, stirring her thick hair, into the skin of her scalp.”
This is as close to sexual as the novel gets. The plot, such as it is, is filtered mostly through the child’s eyes. Chapters are short—just the whiff of a memory—with copious hedgings: “I think,” “maybe.” (Of the mother’s shoes: “I think they were brown or maybe black.”) A scene’s concluding phrase or image often reappears as the title of the subsequent chapter, so that the form itself movingly enacts the process of recollection. One chapter ends with the mother dipping “yesterday’s bread” in a cup of tea with milk and, sure enough, the next chapter is called “Tea with Milk.” We’re on Proustian time: not so much moving forward as backward. Something as minor as the narrator writing out the word “once” can set off five consecutive scenes—titled “Once (1),” “Once (2),” “Once (3),” “Once (4),” and “Once (5)”—as loosely connected as the clippings in a scrapbook.
Not all of those clippings are vital. Matalon tends to repeat and digress—one gets the sense of journaling more than editing. Still, certain images lodge in the mind. One is of the narrator’s mother, days before her death, emptying the little metal locker next to her hospital bed, which had been overflowing with chocolate, cookies, and fruit. She asks the narrator for a small cup of oil. “‘What oil?’ I didn’t understand,” Matalon writes. “Any oil will do,” the mother says. She proceeds to dip a tissue into a plastic cup of cooking oil and rub it against the hinges of the locker door, to stop it from jamming.
After she is done, she turns to her neighbor, an Arab woman from the West Bank whose little children are huddled on her bed and regard the narrator’s mother with trepidation. The woman’s locker is empty; on it are four bottles of cola. “Come, I’ll oil yours, too,” she tells the woman. She places three of the bottles inside the locker and passes “her hand over the white surface, wiping away the rings.” If there is a better definition of grace than a dying woman making herself useful to a stranger in the one way she knows how, I have yet to see it.
In a literary culture awash with men of Ashkenazi origin, Matalon’s stature as a best-selling author whose works became mandatory high school reading in the last three years of her life was so atypical that Israeli critics were quick to classify her writing as “Mizrahi” or “feminist”—labels she bristled at. She once told an interviewer on television, “You said I object to ‘Mizrahi writing.’ That’s like saying I object to spring.” She went on, “I insist on not knowing what Mizrahi writing is.” Is it any work written by a Mizrahi author? Or a work written by any author about Mizrahi characters? Or are there some implied attributes of what such writing should look or sound like? (Vapidly condescending categories such as “women’s writing” or “urban music” prompt similar questions.)
One label she did not object to, however, was “Levantine writer,” a term she adopted from Jacqueline Kahanoff, a lucid essayist whose work influenced her immensely. Kahanoff, like Matalon’s parents, was born in Cairo to a French-speaking Jewish family. She immigrated to Israel in 1954 after spending a decade in the United States, and never grew fully comfortable in Hebrew. She wrote her books in English; they were then translated into Hebrew, and the originals were never published. Matalon considered this tragic—she called Kahanoff a “writer without an origin”—and much of her own work can be read as a silent dialogue with Kahanoff, who died in 1979.
Matalon’s first novel, The One Facing Us, features a writer named Jacqueline Kahanoff who had been friendly with the narrator’s uncle during their childhood in Cairo. It also reproduces an essay by Kahanoff from The Sun Rises in the East (1978), a collection of essays describing her “Levantine generation”:
In later life our paths sometimes crossed, and we could speak in our own voices: Greeks, Moslems, Syrians, Copts, and Jews, Arab nationalists, Zionists, Stalinists, and Trotskyites, Turkish princesses in exile, priests, and rebels. We talked of our youth, when our souls were so divided within ourselves that we feared we would never recover. Yes, we had mastered words, a language in which to frame thoughts that were nearly our own. Perhaps too late to make any difference, we discovered how close we had been to one another in our youth. Our choices had commanded other choices, and from those, in the adult world, there was no retreat.
Thoughts that were nearly our own. With one qualifier—that crushing “nearly”—Kahanoff manages to conjure the quivering existence of the immigrant. Levantine writing, for Kahanoff (and by extension for Matalon) meant a form that was constantly shifting and multiplying, one in which, as Virginia Woolf put it in To the Lighthouse, “nothing was simply one thing.” Matalon argued that this was what set Kahanoff apart from her compatriot Edward Said. “Where Said finds annihilation, humiliation, and bitterness,” Matalon said in an interview published posthumously in the Hebrew-language Granta,
Kahanoff finds a great life force, mutual fertilization among different ethnic groups, and the possibility of forming an identity that isn’t just lacking, damaged, and battered, but the opposite: rich, pliant, changing.
Matalon liked toying with the structure of her works, perhaps as tribute to this chimeric definition. Often this meant introducing some kind of external formal constraint. In 2012 she published, in Hebrew, Undue Influence, a lively epistolary novel depicting a romance between a female ghostwriter from Tel Aviv and a male musicologist from Jerusalem, which she cowrote with Ariel Hirschfeld, a literary critic who was also her life partner. Matalon wrote the woman’s part of the correspondence, Hirschfeld the man’s. They apparently decided that they would not share their letters in advance with each other and that nothing could be revised. (A cushy premise for them; less so for the reader.)
By contrast, The One Facing Us is arranged like a family album: nearly every chapter begins with an old photograph of the narrator’s relatives; at times a photo is labeled “missing” and instead we get a description of what it purports to show. This is followed by a close reading of the photograph with an eye toward the unintended detail, like the two men off to the side of a wedding party in 1954, pointing at the rug on which the newlyweds are posing. Walter Benjamin, in his 1931 essay “A Short History of Photography,” called such incongruities the “tiny spark of accident,” arguing that they made the viewer feel present in the image-making. (It is also an apt description for fiction that feels alive.)
Interwoven with these photographic readings is the story of Esther, the young narrator, who is summoned to Cameroon by her dapper Egyptian uncle to spend several months in his villa in Douala, out of some vague desire that she fall in love with his son. This is odd, as Esther is barely seventeen. Again there is a blurring of first- and third-person narration. And again the events described seem almost tangential to the portraiture of Esther’s family. Under a black-and-white photo of a seated man, there is this passage:
Father sits in a room, the time and place unknown: it could be any time within a twenty-year period, any of twenty different places or circumstances…. This photograph is not of “Father” but of “the father,” the universal archetype, the immutable image of “father,” divorced from time, place, circumstance. His slim signature of a moustache, his Omar Sharif smile, his shiny shoes vanquish the fleeting capriciousness of the moment…. The socks look tight; they seem to hug his ankles. A yellowish sheen on the left ankle troubles me; it might indicate the socks’ silkiness, their superior quality, or that the fabric is wearing thinner with each washing.
The more Esther lingers on the image, the more she begins to doubt it. Is her father wearing fine silk, or are his socks threadbare? Does she even know him?
The One Facing Us is a searching, at times exasperating book that is ultimately about the failure of biography and the unknowability of other people. I say “exasperating” because Esther’s stay in Douala at times falls into the most obvious contraptions, its language weighed down by cliché and lack of specificity. When she realizes that the man she is attracted to is sleeping with another man, she is said to cry “tears of laughter”; a jungle is described as a “thick, deep stretch of green.” These sections are filled with the conventional signaling of emotion without the real thing.
They are also surprisingly tone-deaf in their portrayal of the local people Esther meets: men with “bloodshot eyes,” a “magnificent brown chest,” a nose “broad and squat.” It is unclear if we are meant to read Esther as implicated in her uncle’s exploitative view of his Cameroonian “help” or if, as seems likelier, her view of the locals is meant to be perceived as somehow more nuanced, given that she scolds her aunt for being racist and develops a relationship with one of the servants.
Put all this aside (if you can) and you will find early glimpses of the skillful character sketches that Matalon came to trust more in her later work: brief and assured sentences about hardened women, slightly askew, doing their utmost with the scraps they are given, like the woman who, upon meeting her son’s new girlfriend, a doctoral student who has decided “not to bring children into this disastrous world of ours,” deadpans, “Do you know of a better one?” Or the two middle-aged sisters who dawdle at real estate agents’ display windows, gawking at the large mansions with swimming pools but “worried about the upkeep and the cleaning.” Or the dissociated new mother who unwillingly puts her baby to her breast and, cradling the back of his head, whispers, “Eggshell.”
The thwarted life of women is also the conceit around which Matalon framed her last completed novel, And the Bride Closed the Door. (An unfinished work, Snow, appeared in Hebrew last year, two years after her death.) At 128 pages, And the Bride Closed the Door reads like a novella or a comedic set-piece, complete with brief asides that could pass for stage directions: “Nadia hurried over to him (her thighs got a little tangled up in the dress’s satin slip).” The language is straightforward, breezy, conversational. And Jessica Cohen’s translation makes it highly accessible, though something of Matalon’s poetic pacing in Hebrew—an almost forensic treatment of slang and phonetic class signifiers—is sadly lost in most of her translated work. But it is weightier than it seems.
The novel begins when a young bride named Margie locks herself in her room on her wedding day and refuses to come out. We never see her; we only hear about her from others as Matti, the groom, and her parents attempt to cajole her. Margie is the blank canvas on which their own anxieties are blotted. (Her mother: “What are we supposed to tell people? Five hundred people in that wedding hall four hours from now with the food and the band and everything!” Matti, whispering through the door: “Could you maybe explain to me what that fight was about?”)
Margie’s reasoning remains a mystery. We learn only that the previous evening, she and Matti had watched a television film about the Israeli poet Leah Goldberg, and Matti had commented that had he known Goldberg he would have tried to save her from her difficult life. (“Goldenberg, Goldberger, Goldberg, Goldenberger—those names of theirs will be the death of us,” a cousin of Margie’s says. It becomes clear that her family is Mizrahi; of Matti’s family we know less, though it is implied that they are Ashkenazi.) After watching the film, Margie, who is said to write poems herself, withdrew.
Matalon leans a little too much into whimsy. At one point, the family phones a service called Regretful Brides that specializes in cases like Margie’s. The senile grandmother (who else?) turns out to be the only one with clarity. But another development that seems at first a little labored gains heft: Matti’s father calls in a favor from a friend, who sends a truck driver from the Palestinian Authority’s electric company to extricate Margie from her room with a ladder. “Why Arabs? Don’t we have our own rescue forces?” a neighbor asks. How will they recognize the truck, someone else inquires: “Does it have that flag of theirs?” As unlikely as the setup seems, it’s not hard for an Israeli to imagine: the called-in favor, the hushed cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian utility companies, a kind of frenetic mobilization that has to do with the near-sacred status of weddings in Israeli society. All of it coheres.
Confettied throughout the novel are Matalon’s well-chosen details: the relatives who gradually start to shed their wedding clothes, looking “not unlike a family gathered for a cookout on a traffic island on Independence Day.” (That traffic island vivifies the image.) Or the grandmother’s closed-in balcony, filled with the broken lampshades and debris left behind by the previous tenant, who she is convinced will be back for them one day.
And then there is Margie. A question mark. An absence. Because the title of the work revolves around a missing figure, and because the novel is constrained to a single location, unfolding in surrealist fashion, parallels to Beckett are unavoidable, as Margie serves as a kind of latter-day Godot—with an important distinction. “Margie demands something that masculinity has taken for granted,” Matalon said after the novel’s release. “The right to hole up in a room, to be the master of time and silence.” For years, men have had the luxury of getting lost, she added. “Why don’t we have the right to be lost, too?”