An international conference dedicated to the works of Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk was held at Cambridge University from March 29-31. Participants in the conference, sponsored by The Centre for Modern Hebrew Studies at Cambridge and the Department for Hebrew Literature at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, included professors of literature and other academics from Israel and abroad.
At the opening ceremony Kaniuk was awarded the Irving and Bertha Neuman Literary Prize for Excellence in Belles Lettres in Hebrew Literature,
administered under the auspices of Bar Ilan University.
Paradoxically, this is the first conference, either in Israel or abroad, dedicated to Kaniuk’s literary works. “It is strange that a man who has written dozens of books and whose influence on Israeli literature is enormous has only now become the subject of such a conference,” said Professor Yigal Schwartz, one of the conference organizers.
Ahead of his time
According to Schwartz, the reasons for this are varied, but they are connected in part to the difficulty of placing Kaniuk and his works in the normal frameworks. “He is a writer who is not domesticated, and in many ways he is ahead of his time, forging a path that became the dominant one only some time later.
David Grossman's "See Under: Love" justifiably made enormous waves, but it looks completely different against the backdrop of Kaniuk’s "Adam Resurrected" and of course "The Last Jew," which opened up the topic of the Holocaust to entirely different directions.”
Schwartz wrote the epilogue for the new book published by Yedioth Ahronoth Publishing House, which contains two novellas, Eagles and Villainy, published by Kaniuk in the 1970s. Each in its own way and from the perspective of different time periods, the novellas deal with the dissolution of the ethos of the Palmah and the sabra.
“Kaniuk is a very substantial writer. What distinguishes his writing is its experimentalism and his ability to change and to write from a different place each time.
"'Eagles' is one of the best war stories, not just in Hebrew, but in any language. It attacks the subject of death in Israeli culture from an angle that only Kaniuk could use. It is existential writing that deviates from the Israeli consensus on such subjects, writing that sends the reader to places like War and Peace and especially to Camus’s writing,” says Schwartz. “The style, as in the entire corpus of Kaniuk’s works, is a bit wild, not always easy to assimilate, and very universalist.”
Can’t be pigeonholed
According to to Schwartz, the difficulty in fathoming and categorizing Kaniuk is the reason that his work has been pushed unfairly from its natural place in what is considered canonical Israeli literature.
“It is impossible to pigeonhole him easily,” says Schwartz. "(His work is) very different from others of his generation, and his path in life, which has ranged from Tel Aviv to Paris to New York, from studying drawing to moving over to literature, is what marks him.”
Schwartz notes that “this is all because the man refuses to be categorized or to follow the well-trodden path, and he avoids what is safe and serene.” He adds that Kaniuk is a writer with a clear voice whose writing and personality are marked by clarity and a lack of hypocrisy, which is why, Schwartz believes, Kaniuk “fell between the cracks and to a large extent has not received what he deserves.”
Schwartz, who was one of the judges for the last Israel Prize in Literature, also said he would like to see Kaniuk win the prize.
“I was very sorry that he did hasn't won it yet, and I hope that he will, eventually,” he says. “On a personal level, this conference repays a debt of gratitude to Kaniuk for what he has contributed to my life. He helped me to express life experiences, which is what great literature has the power to do. He is one of the big guns, and I definitely owe him a debt.”
A Different Face
Although the conference was the first to focus on Kaniuk’s works, it was not the first of its kind to celebrate top-Israeli authors.
Similar conferences have been held in recent years for Amos Oz (University of Pennsylvania), A.B. Yehoshua (University of Venice), and for Aharon Appelfeld (Cambridge). Next month there will be a conference in Naples dedicated to modern Hebrew literature, with an emphasis on Etgar Keret’s works.
“These conferences provide feedback on Hebrew literary works from academics and the public abroad, and they show a different face for Israel,” says Schwartz.
“Academics and intellectuals abroad form impressions of Israel mostly from security issues. It’s important for us to increase the volume of literary works, which are excellent ambassadors. It isn’t hard to market Hebrew literature abroad simply because it is excellent. The proof of this is that Cambridge, which is hardly considered a university sympathetic to Israel, has held two big conferences in the last two years on Israeli writers.”
Poetry, jazz, myths
The opening session of the conference was chaired by Professor Risa Domb of Cambridge’s Centre for Modern Hebrew Studies. Poet Ronny Someck spoke on “Solo Yoram - Jazz Notes Scale in Kaniuk's works” and Professor Yitzchak Ben-Mordechai of Ben Gurion University spoke on “Jazz, Kaniuk and Charlie Parker.”
The conference sessions in the following two days touched on subjects such as the narrative in Kaniuk’s writing, the historical context of his works, the various influences on his work and its place in the literary dialogue, the dissolution of myths, the ideology behind the writing, Kaniuk’s autobiographical work, and the political aspects of his writing.
The second session, chaired by Dr. Tsila Ratner of University College, London, was entitled “Translation, Imagination and Influences,” and the participants were Barbara Harshav from Yale University, Moacir Amancio from the University of Sao Paulo, poet Miron C. Izakson, and Dr. Yael Poyas from Oranim College in Kiryat Tivon.
Also participating in the conference were Dr. Nitsa Kann from Dickinson College in Pensylvania, Tali Argov of the Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Oxford, Gershon Shaked, Ruth Kartun-Blum, Yuval Benziman, and Tamar S. Hess of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Professor Uzi Shavit and Dr. Iris Milner from Tel Aviv University, Professor Avidov Lipsker and Dr. Moshe Goultschin of Bar Ilan University, and Dr. Ziva Feldman from the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel.
The closing session included a screening of “The Kaniuk is Still Galloping,” a film created by Ilana Shachaf and Omri Lior especially for the conference, and a lecture by Yoram Kaniuk.