February 24, 2004

Novelist Speaks on New Book

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Israeli novelist Ronit Matalon delivered a talk entitled “Writing, Desire and Two Billion Hungry People” yesterday in White Hall to a packed room of Cornell students and the general public. After an introduction by Prof. Deborah Starr, Near Eastern Studies, Matalon perched on a desk at the front of the room to speak about her latest novel Bliss.

She discussed the novel’s opening, in which her protagonist Sarah lays bleeding on the living room sofa while discussing with her husband their dissolving marriage. Matalon described Sara as having a sense of justice bordering on self-righteousness, as being arrogant and haughty, a woman who doesn’t brush her teeth, a figure she called both “intriguing and upsetting.” The book, which depicts the story of two women, Ofra and Sarah, and the conflict of deciding between one’s desires and one’s convictions, is set against the backdrop of national conflict. In trying to describe her work, Matalon remarked, “It is harder than explaining quantum physics . . . When I describe my work, I end up describing the book I wish I had written more than the one I had to write, the copy in your hands . . ..”

Her work, Matalon said, is marked by a kind of “existential nervousness.” Her novels “rarely allow blissful forgetfulness,” yet she is compelled to write them. “I cannot claim a writer’s life is easy, or always pleasurable, but dealing with the elusive magic of language . . . is easier than being one of the two billion starving persons mentioned in my perplexing title.”

Matalon said that she loves nineteenth-century literature, such as the works of Henry James, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. “I love the total form of a novel . . . my novels, alas, are not like that . . . I like a heterogeneous text with different levels of slang, Biblical . . . I don’t like purism in literature,” she says. She added that the books she writes are different from those she loves to read. Her own novels “move in time, forward and backward without rational explanation.”

Matalon does not romanticize her relationship with her characters. Alluding to a recurring dream of trying to drown Sarah in a flooded cave, she remarked how Sarah gave her “such a hard time and yet refused to go.” She acknowledged the “sickness of the novel’s universe” but implied that this is a necessary component of her story.

“My main project is the language. The form is the most important thing,” she said. On writing the book in Hebrew, she admitted that it is “a tough language, not flexible, yet very dynamic. Language is the material and the tool at the same time.”

“I cannot read my work,” she continued. “Not even in English. It’s insane to read yourself. Reading while writing is another way of reading . . . but I cannot read myself and enjoy it.” Matalon has not read the English translation of Bliss, but believes it to be good.

Responding to an audience member who asked about her experience with poetry, Matalon remarked, “I love poetry, but I’m really a prose writer, a novelist. There is a great difference between prose writers and poets.”

“I read The One Facing Us [Matalon’s first novel] for class, so it was interesting to hear about her other novel and to learn more about the process of writing,” said Rachel Butt ’06, who attended the lecture.

“[Writing] every book is an adventure,” Matalon said. “If it’s not an adventure then it’s not writing. It has to be a risk of style, being, language . . . this is literature.”

Archived article by Maya Rao