THE END OF A DECADE offers critics and observers the chance to generalize, label and categorize anything from pop-music to fashion trends and literary movements. Decades per se never meant much in Israel. We count our blessings and sorrows using national events -- mostly wars -- as landmarks.
Thus, we have the pre-war of independence era, the post-1948 generation, the '50s cut in half by the 1956 Sinai campaign and the distinct division of 'before and after the Six-Day War.'
The seven short years between 1967 and the 1973 Yom Kippur War are a separate loaded entity, and now we are in the post-Yom Kippur period, highlighted by the peace treaty with Egypt last year. A letter from Tel Aviv can only give an idea of a given moment in the literary life, bearing in mind that this moment was created by powers and circumstances that have little to do with pure and detached cultural development.
To write about Israeli literature, one must introduce comparisons. Whatever is happening now has to be judged and appreciated against our state a few years back.
The founding of the state in 1948 and the few years that followed were the domain of the Sabra, the native born. The myth of the suntanned, moralistic, puritan Sabra was the center of early Israeli literature. A conscious breakaway from the Diaspora Jew, from the religious and haunted Jew, it was a naive and beautiful literature re-establishing Hebrew as a live modern language written by Guri, Yizhar, Mosensohn and others.
The enormous victory of 1967 opened eyes and horizons. A sense of self confidence produced writers who could afford challenging deeper grounds and readers who were ready to explore them. A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, Amalia Carmon tackled the symbolic, the metaphysical. A slight liberation from reality -- still attached to time and place but daring to exit the cow-sheds of the ideal kibbutz -- these writers sought depths of emotions and existence. Even the realists of this period, like Moshe Shamir, in A Dove in a Strange Courtyard and Ytzhak Ben-Ner in Village Sunset broke the ring of puritanism. Sex and eroticism were introduced, people turned out to be bad at times; frightened, bitchy women appeared as well as jealous petty men, human and ordinary rather than faultless heroes. There was no compulsion to "present" Israel; one could simply write it the way it was, or wander into further domains of no definite time or place. The engage literature seems to have died, and the result was a wider range more in line with world literature and less in need of self-explanation.
The depressive Yom Kippur war has turned us all inwards. Young talents are no more messengeres of national truth, and the last few years have produced introverted, confessional literature, like Ben-Amotz's best-selling Screwing Isn't Everything, a sexy -- if not pornographic -- account of every busy night in the talented author's life, and serious novels by Yotam Reuvemi (In Favor of Hallucination), Yaacov Buchen (Jacob's Life Years) and David Shitz (The Grass and the Sand), which are ego-centered, self-exploratory and could have happened anywhere.
Recent, too, are books by writers who originated in Arab countries. Best of these is A Handful of Fog, by Sami Michael from Iraq. The Sabra myth gone, the Jewish past no longer something to hide, immigrants feel free to write in their new language about their old countries and are well received. The national motifs are still in the background -- Arab-Israeli relations, echoes of the Holocaust, fear in and of wars, a minority surrounded -- themes one is unable and unwilling to discard. But the individual voice is no longer in debt to a national cause and is free to wander and wonder inwards.
New fiction and poetry sell well, but most writers have to work as teachers, journalists, editors or take odd jobs for a living. This limits the time they devote to social life, as a group. For a few decades Cafe Cassit on Diesengoff Street was a famous meeting place for the literati. In December the owner and silent inspiration, Hatskel, died, and in the sidewalk cafe one meets today mostly actors and onlookers and an occasional artist who sits there out of nostalgia or inertia.
Many writers are involved in politics, anti-establishment naturally, and the week-end supplements offer writers like Amos Kenan or Hanoch Bar-Tov a weekly column on current affairs -- Kenan using it to advocate Palestinian rights, nostalgically seeking the beautiful Israel of past years, Bar-Tov meekly attacking government policy.
Publishing depends heavily on nonfiction and translations. There the national-historic age is still dominant. Books by Abba Eban, Golda Meir, opposition leader Shimon Peres, Yigal Alon, ex-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan are perennial sellers. So are books on local archeology, Judaism, geography and history, dictionaries, translated Time-Life series and "bar mitzvah" books.
Three of the biggest publishers are part of the labor movement. Am-Oved belongs to the trade unions, Sifriat-Poalim and Kahibbutz-Hameuchad to the kibbutz movement. Massada and Keter publish encyclopedias as well as other things. Three large daily papers -- Haaretz, Maariv and Yedito-Archarnot -- have their own publishing setups, forming a kind of book-club system among their readers. Zmora-Bitan-Modan, as well as Am-Oved specialize in good quality paperbacks, translated or original. Cookbooks are moneymakers for all publishers.
Juvenile literature is a very active scene. Television is not time-consuming; comics never made it here, and our children are great readers of both original and translated literature, from classics to science-fiction.
What is greatly missing is humor. One expects the famous Jewish humor to be present but strangely it exists and flourishes mostly overseas in the diaspora. We have been conditioned to take ourselves too seriously, and the subtle endearing self-reproach of Agnon, Singer or even Bellow is yet to come, as a sign of self-confidence and maturity no doubt.
Even spring, usually during the Easter-Pesach vacation -- weather permitting -- Tel Aviv enjoys a book fair in its central square. All publishers set up stands displaying their recently published books, and writers autograph their works. Thousands of avid readers of all ages swarm through the area purchasing for the year. It lasts a week and is a delight both to watch and to participate in. The production and the consumption are proof that "The People of The Book" are not detached from books because of attachment to the land.