Iton 77 at 31 Gets C+

Haim Watzman

Back in the 1980s, when I was still a relatively new reader of Hebrew, I picked up an anthology of short stories that had been published in Iton 77, a literary magazine that had commenced publication a year before my arrival in 1978. The journal had a good reputation and this book, I assumed, would help acquaint me with a spectrum of the writing talents of contemporary Israel.

I was sorely disappointed by what I read. While there were three or four gems, most of the stories seemed to me bland, self-consciously literary, and short of plot and character development. Nearly all were ponderously serious; few displayed any sense of humor.

But I was well aware then that I was a novice in my new language and suspected—indeed hoped—that I was missing something.

I’ve perused Iton 77 every so often since then, and picked up the latest issue to read on my recent trip to the U.S. The magazine is now Israel’s most venerable literary forum, but I’m sorry to say that, when it comes to prose, it hasn’t changed much. And it’s not my Hebrew.

First, the good side. This, the May-June 2008 issue, offers some fine poetry. Particularly notable are translations from the Arabic, including Sasson Somech’s rendering of a long poem, “Visit,” by the Egyptian poet Iman Mersal (“And time disappears, as it will / At the moment of crossing the doorstep”), who graces the magazine’s cover. And I referred in a post last week to a set of poems by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Shmuel Reguland and Ofra Bengio.

The literary criticism and profiles are more uneven. Some informative reviews of recent Israeli fiction are accompanied by disappointing polemic by Yair Mazor about the question of when precisely modern Hebrew literature began. Do we have to set a definite date? Is it really that important whether a given work or author from the 18th century counts or does not count as modern Hebrew literature?

I haven’t yet read, but look forward to, the extract from Haim Gouri’s literary autobiography.

But the short fiction disappoints again. The characters in Rivka Granot’s “Hands of Winter” failed to engage me, and its style seemed wooden. And the editors print, as a literary offering, a social science experiment by Sam S. Rakover, a psychologist at the University of Haifa. His story, “Zohar, What Will Be?”, offers us some stilted dialogue and a couple one-dimensional characters. Zohar, a scatter-brained lawyer who drives from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to visit her critically ill father, seems to have less than a full grasp on reality. She doesn’t remember what she’s done and not done at the office, she seems oddly uninformed of her father’s condition, and her personal life is a mess. In the second half of the story, contradictions of time and place pop up, seemingly to illustrate her increasingly tenuous hold on sanity.

But it’s a shaggy-dog story. In a long note at the end, Rakover tells us that what we have before us is the material of a psychological experiment. The three final sections are three alternative endings to the story—hence the contradictions. He had students read the story and offers us a statistical analysis of the proportion who tried to read the story chronologically despite the contradictions, and those who preferred one or the other of the endings.

This belongs in a magazine that is supposed to give us the best modern Hebrew writing?

Maybe, after three decades of publication, it’s time for Iton 77 to look for a new fiction editor.

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