Book Review | A Writer Who Opened Doors

Book Review | A Writer Who Opened Doors

November 11, 2019 in 2019 November-December, Arts & Culture
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And the Bride Closed the Door
By Ronit Matalon
Translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen
New Vessel Press
2019, 128 pp, $15.95

How tragic that we recently lost one of Israel’s great writers—Ronit Matalon—who died at the young age of 58. And how poignant that the day before succumbing to cancer, she learned that she had won the Brenner Prize in Israeli Literature for her last book, the novella And the Bride Closed the Door, published in Hebrew in 2016. Since we will have no more books by Matalon, we should be grateful that New Vessel Press has just brought out Jessica Cohen’s stunning translation of Matalon’s final work, an outrageously funny, perplexing and perhaps universal story.

Four hours before her wedding, Margie, the invisible protagonist of And the Bride, locks herself in her room and refuses to speak to anyone. Matalon may have identified with this fictional bride who said “no”—to her wedding and to everything else. Perhaps, in writing the story, Matalon was trying to say “no” to death.

Although she was a prolific journalist and writer of fiction, praised extravagantly in the Israeli press, recognized with numerous prizes and widely translated (although only belatedly into English), Matalon’s writing has not been well known in the United States except among scholars of Israeli literature. I admit that she was new to me when the translation of And the Bride reached my inbox. I had not yet read her seven other books (including one for children), from Strangers at Home (1992) to Uncover Her Face (2005). I had not known of Matalon’s work as a journalist, reporting from the West Bank and Gaza for Haaretz, nor that several of her books were made into films.

In addition to numerous published interviews, Matalon’s autobiographical The Sound of Our Steps: A Novel (2015), translated by Dalya Bilu, enables the reader to understand her particular emotional and economic roots. In Matalon’s works, one gets to hear the voice of a Mizrachi, or Middle Eastern, Israeli woman. This shouldn’t be a novelty, but it is. The short lists of Israel’s greatest novelists typically focus on Amos Oz, Meir Shalev, David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua. The American audience knows these writers but may not realize that what they have in common—other than being Israeli men, with all that that implies—is their yiches, or elite lineage. Amos Oz was born Amos Klausner—an Ashkenazi Jew in Jerusalem—and his story resonates broadly with European Ashkenazi immigrants to Israel. Meir Shalev was born in the iconic Nahalal moshav, founded by members of the highly influential Second Aliyah. The son of Jerusalem poet Yitzhak Shalev, Meir did his military service in the elite Golani Brigade and fought in the Six-Day War. (Shalev had what I’d call a surfeit of yiches.) Grossman, an Ashkenazi Israeli, is very well known not only for his novels but for the tragedy of losing his son, Uri, when a missile struck his tank in the final days of the war in Lebanon. And Yehoshua, a Sephardi man of letters, has explained that although he began writing in his 20s, he didn’t explore Sephardi culture until he published Mr. Mani at the age of 54, because “when you are a minority writer—and the Sephardis are considered a minority—people expect you to write in a kind of folkloric way.” 

As a Mizrachi woman whose parents came from Egypt, Matalon does not represent a gender or ethnic category teeming with yiches. This is one reason that The Sound of Our Steps is an important book for American Jews to read. This forceful autobiographical work describes the life of an upper-class Egyptian family who descended into poverty after immigrating to Israel in the 1950s. Ronit’s mostly absent father was a social activist, a Communist and a verbrente pro-Mizrachi advocate with a huge chip on his shoulder. Her mother, embodying the downtrodden victim of downward mobility, is called “the mother” in The Sound of Our Steps. “The mother” was a kitchen worker and cleaner for the municipality of Petach Tikva, which kept her on her feet at least 12 difficult hours a day. Her life was filled not with self-pity, however, but with rage and fear. Ronit came into this world only because “the Nona,” her grandmother, begged “the mother” not to abort that pregnancy, as she had done frequently with other pregnancies. It should come as no surprise that as a youngster, Ronit moved in with her grandmother. She grew to be a strong woman, of striking physical beauty, with political opinions shaped by her parents’ lives and beliefs, to which she added her own. 

Matalon identified and commiserated with fellow Mizrachis, carrying on her father’s views, but she also embraced the Palestinian cause. Her statement in Le Monde that Israel was an apartheid regime and her accusation that “the fundamental characteristic of the Israeli society is denial” were deemed politically incorrect. She also believed that Israel “is a prisoner of its own rhetoric on security and sacrifices” and that the country was in danger of losing its democratic identity.

Although And the Bride Closed the Door is ostensibly a Neil Simon-style comedy (in the mode of the 1970s Plaza Suite), several of Matalon’s political concerns are packed into it. The novella makes fun of contemporary upper-middle-class Israeli society, which seems to require a special purchase for every occasion, combined with an obsessive need to diet and a professional service provider to manage every conceivable problem or need. Thus, as the paralyzed wedding day wears on, the family finds a psychology practice specifically designed to push recalcitrant brides into their marriages—a not-so-subtle reference to Israel’s unforgiving pro-marriage, pro-natal culture. Matalon’s family descriptions, which form the bulk of the story, make clear that Jewish in-laws, expensive caterers and gay relatives are more interesting than the stubborn bride. Scenes in which an Arab worker is called to extract the bride through her window are simultaneously hilarious and extremely painful to read. Predictably, neighbors rush in to misinterpret Arab assistance as terrorism. 

Matalon’s appealing language is notable for extravagant, outrageously funny similes and metaphors. There are generous slapstick elements, as when the grandmother mishears, misunderstands and “mistakes,” and pathos galore because her family doesn’t know if they should threaten, cajole or guilt-trip Margie to come out. Or should they just get a locksmith and break down her door? Should they call in the Marines, so to speak—that is, the IDF?

But best of all, Matalon pays attention to bodies—body parts, especially hair; blood pressure readings; body excretions, especially sweat and tears with their unfortunate impact on mascara, not to mention drools, stomach rumblings and related object spills; and clothing, especially dresses that are too tight and hats that are wrong. She writes about rapping fingers, stomping feet, quivering nostrils, heavy damp eyelids, sneezing fits, runny noses and spitting. 

Matalon manages to squeeze into this very brief story several of Israeli society’s easily recognized blemishes: conspicuous consumption run amok, out-of-control weddings (this one includes 500 guests), marital and in-law relations and more. How does it all end? There is a hint that the bride will come out and the couple will go through changes, though society probably will not. It is also possible that the family’s ethnicity is revealed at the end when the grandmother begins to sing. But Matalon resolves very little; the story is cut off precipitously, as was her life.

Shulamit Reinharz is professor of sociology emerita at Brandeis University and founder of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

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