At a Jewish literary retreat I attended this past summer, at the height of the Gaza war, fault lines opened between those anxiously following news from Israel and others apparently indifferent or professing concern for the “suffering on both sides.” Asked to report on our current writing projects, one of the Israelis in the group admitted to being distracted by worry; he had not been able to write since the crisis began. But others balked at the intrusion of political concerns into a discussion about literature. Were writers obliged to shoulder public responsibilities, or did they serve society best by resisting political engagement?
Arguments over the proper relation of politics to literature will never be resolved through consensus, and those who practice the craft of writing have notably traveled in different directions. Take the plot device of a woman who is cramped by the expectations of bourgeois marriage. Gustave Flaubert used it inMadame Bovary (1856), a novel often upheld as the archetype of morally and politically disinterested fiction. Take, by contrast, Nikolai Chernyshevky’s Chto Delat? (“What Is to Be Done?”) (1863), built on a similar premise but providing an archetype of a diametrically opposite sort. The book’s heroine, Vera Pavlovna, escaping family constrictions and an arranged marriage, sets out to construct for herself a personally satisfying and socially useful life. In the answer it gives to the large question asked in its title, this novel changed the course of Russian history by helping to galvanize reformist sentiments that Lenin would later harness for the Bolshevik Revolution.
And now take a new novel by the Canadian writer Nora Gold, who uses a variant of the same plot device to address tensions of the kind that surfaced at our Jewish literary retreat this past summer. The heroine of Fields of Exile, Judith Gallanter, has returned from Israel, where she had been working in programs to foster mutual understanding between Jewish and Arab teenagers, in order to tend to her widowed father in his final illness. He extracts from her a promise that she will complete her education in Canada; and that deathbed promise, plus the presence in Toronto of a steady and steadying boyfriend, persuade her to register locally for an advanced degree in social work before resuming her determination to settle and make a life for herself in the Zionist homeland. The conflict of loyalties that this decision generates—what is home? And what is exile?—grows more acute when she comes up against anti-Israel hostility and must choose whether and how to engage it.