A B Yehoshua has been one of Israel’s leading writers for more than half a century, since he and Amoz Oz and Aharon Appelfeld met as young students in Jerusalem in the 1950s. His recent novels have a wonderful restraint, an increasingly elegiac feel. But in person, Yehoshua is full of energy and passion, the words pour forth in fluent English.
He was born in Jerusalem in 1936, to a fifth generation Israeli family. “That is very important for me,” he says, banging the table in the room in the London hotel where we meet. My tape recorder bounces up and down. Why is it important?
“Because it was before Zionism.”
His father’s family came from Salonica in the mid-19th century. “Not because of pogrom, not because of antisemitism. Because of next year in Jerusalem,” he says.
His mother was Moroccan. She came with her father in 1932. He died four years later, the year his grandson, Abraham, was born. “In my DNA, the Zionist gene is extremely strong,” Yehoshua says.
Unlike most of the great Israeli writers, Yehoshua is Sephardi. The others were Ashkenazi. Shmuel Agnon, a huge influence, born in Galicia; Benjamin Tammuz, Russian; Yehuda Amichai, German; Appelfeld, from Bukovina. Oz’s parents are from eastern Europe.
‘I think about Arabs as cousins, with all the problems of family. We have to live with them'
Yehoshua comes from a very different world. His roots are in the Mediterranean. It is surely no coincidence that he lived in Haifa for almost 50 years. He has only just moved to Tel Aviv, to be close to his children and grandchildren.
Was that difficult for him growing up in Israel as a Sephardi Jew? Did he feel like an outsider?
What mattered, he says, was the Israeli context, not an ethnic context, though he concedes that his Sephardi roots gave him “another point of view. I think about the Arabs not as enemies but as cousins. Even when we are in a fierce conflict with them they are more of a kind of family — with all the problems of a family. We have to live with them.”
He orders an espresso. It comes with biscuits. My tape recorder stops bouncing on the table. Then he is off again.
Crucially, Yehoshua was part of the generation that grew up after independence. Generation is a key word for him. He comes back to it again and again. “I believe in generations,” he says.
In a fascinating piece he wrote some years ago, he said he was part of the “generation of the State”. This generation was important in helping “consolidate and mould the Israeli identity”. They were very different from the previous generation, “the generation of the War of Independence”.
“The nucleus of their experience was the creation of the state: from the land of Israel to the state of Israel,” he says.
His generation — Appelfeld, Oz, the poet Moshe Dor — were all born in the 1930s and grew up after independence, emerging as writers in the late 1950s. He adds others to the group — Amichai and even David Grossman. But isn’t Grossman much younger?
“Grossman’s like a schoolboy who skipped a year,” he laughs.
“We are the generation,” Yehoshua wrote, “which internalised very clearly the transition from eretz Israel to Israel, and this had great significance, since through this we acquired a grasp of frontiers and the security that comes from understanding frontiers.”
But there was something else. Many of these writers studied Hebrew literature at the University of Jerusalem. “The sense of continuity and commitment to Hebrew literature of our generation has permitted a more integrated attitude to the Jewish past,” he says.
There was an international context too. “World War II was a trauma that paralysed writers. It was something metaphysical, diabolical. To deal with this demonic reality, writers like Beckett, Ionesco, Sartre, Camus, turned to the absurd, the symbolic. And we, in Israel, we did too — for Israeli reasons and for world reasons.”
This was when Kafka was discovered. Kafka is hugely important for Yehoshua and he comes up a number of times in his new novel, The Retrospective, the story of an Israeli film director, in his seventies, who comes to terms with his past.
Which other writers influenced him? He mentions Beckett, Agnon and particularly Faulkner. “Faulkner’s a giant, combining history, drama, specific attachment to a particular place.”
Yehoshua and his wife, a psychoanalyst, spent some years in Paris in the ’60s. It was important, he says, not that they went to France but that they did not go to America. “Israel is too attached to America, too influenced by America. It should be connected to Europe.”
He pauses. “America is based on mythology — the free man, the individual, the open frontier. Europe is more conscious of history. Take Britain and Shakespeare. You shape your identity through history.”
He had a run-in with American Jews a few years ago when he gave a speech saying that Israeli Jews are more authentically Jewish than Jews in the diaspora. This did not go down well. He is more conciliatory now.
“My Jewish identity,” he says, “is total. Your Jewish identity — in America, in Britain — is partial. I pay taxes to the Jews, I go to war for the Jews. All my decisions are Jewish. It’s not a question of who’s a good or a bad Jew.”
It is hard to imagine a writer more rooted in his homeland. And yet, curiously, The Retrospective starts at a film festival in Spain and another recent novel, Friendly Fire, moves between east Africa and Israel. Why this movement between Israel and abroad?
“Moving from one place to another is important to the tradition of Jewish literature. There is this capacity to have a different angle, a different place.”
It is the second time he has mentioned having “a different angle”, first as a Sephardi Jew, then as a Jewish writer. No one could be more passionately Jewish or Israeli. But no one is less provincial or insular.
Yehoshua has just come from Paris where his new novel has won two prestigious awards. He is in London to speak at Jewish Book Week. In his seventies, he is as busy as ever, much in demand.
His Book Week event is due to begin shortly after our interview, but there is time for one last question. How would you like to be remembered?
“As an honest writer,” he says.