Nissim Calderon

speaks to Lily Michaelides

As published in In Focus Vol. 10, No. 3, September 2013

Nissim Calderon and Lily Michaelides speak over coffee in Nicosia.

Nissim Calderon and Lily Michaelides speak over coffee in Nicosia.

Nissim Calderon was born in 1947 in Tel Aviv to a Jewish family of Greek-Bulgarian origin. He served in the army from 1965 to 1968. He studied Hebrew Literature and Theatre at Tel Aviv University. From the same University he received a PhD in 1980. He has been teaching Hebrew Literature since 1970 at Tel Aviv University and the Ben Gurion University of the Negev. He has published three books about Israeli Literature, a book about Multiculturalism in Israeli Culture, and another book (2009) on Poetry and Rock-and Roll in Israel. He is an active participant in many cultural activities, and regularly publishes essays and book reviews.

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Q: What is your opinion about writers and their role in our times? How about Israeli writers? Do they react openly to what is going on in your region?

A: Not an easy question. In the past I was all for writers who are not only writing their personal literature but take a very active part in the political and cultural problems of Israeli society. As the occupation became a major issue, most writers reacted against the policy of occupation, and were strongly opposed to building settlements, which gave the Israeli peace-camp serious support. In fact, Amos Oz, David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua, and others are to this day considered important voices against occupation, and proponents of the mutual recognition of the Israeli and Palestinian rights for self determination, and for the two-state solution. These are meaningful positions taken by writers concerning millions of people suffering every day – first of all Palestinians under occupation, but also Israeli civilians exposed to rocket attacks.

I still believe that the participation of writers in public discussions on political issues is helpful, and I myself take part in them. But after a stubborn and bloody conflict that has not stopped for almost a hundred years (on both sides there is deep refusal to solve problems), I feel one shouldn’t put any pressure on writers about their political involvement. If it comes naturally for some, then fine. But if for others it is natural to write about the depth of human feelings in love, work, parenthood, in their relation to nature, then this is fine too. I am against exerting pressure on writers (though many critics do so) to become politically involved. I would say that there is a political need for a non-political literature. If we want people to get away from fanaticism, to see others as complete and complicated human beings, we need not only politics in literature, but also freedom from politics in order to make room for the whole spectrum of life, with all its nuances, with all its contradictions.

Q: I heard you saying that freedom of speech is totally respected in Israel. Do you mean freedom of speech for writers or generally?

A: Yes, for the Jews there is complete freedom of speech in Israel – for everybody, including writers. Theoretically, for the Arab citizens of Israel too. But practically they have less access to the press and the media. For Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation there are serious limitations of all human rights, political rights too, including limitations on their freedom of speech.

Q: You advocate for closer ties to the European Mediterranean countries. How do you see that?

A: For me, the Mediterranean countries are countries in which I love the climate, the atmosphere, the habit that one would never let a guest pay for coffee. This is nice but it can also involve sentimentality and a superficial attitude. It may make us forget that some of the cruelest wars were fought, and are still being fought, between two Mediterranean nations, or within one, e.g. Greece during the civil war.

There are not only good traditions in our area; there are also some very bad ones. Yet, for better or worse my culture and I belong to this area, and we share almost the same history. And one more important thing: the Mediterranean is a small sea; in the past it allowed close relations to be formed between cultures, languages, ideas, literature.

I like this plurality, this intimacy. (Not by chance, “Moby Dick” was written about the Ocean, not about the Mediterranean Sea. It is great book, but not my book.) I don’t want to lose this plurality, this intimacy, just because bad people in bad times exploited it to cultivate hatred and war.

Q: Do you believe that literature provides a kind of remote vision of what the Mediterranean really has to offer?

Does literature give us a remote (only remote but still precious) vision of what a Mediterranean vision may be? Yes, sure. I love many writers but I do feel a special affinity, a special “neighborhood feeling” to Camus, Montale, Seferis.

Will a “Mediterranean Union” exist one day as a political reality, like the “European Union”? Probably not. But we need literature, not only or maybe not mainly, for our political realities, but for our dreams, for our aspirations for beauty. So why not dream about “The Mediterranean Union” of poems, of stories, of music? Someday I may write a book, and name it, paying homage to Seferis, “A Levant Journal”.

Q: How do writers develop new perspectives? 

A: Different writers develop (or not develop) different perspectives, but I will talk about those writers I am personally impressed with, not only for their talent but also for their ability to change. Because change is a main source of gaining new perspectives.

I have great admiration for very talented writers who do not entrench themselves in their greatest achievement – because an achievement can be a cage: once someone writes a work that is really strong then he is tempted to rewrite this work (in endless variations) again and again. In this way one cannot develop a new perspective. Usually it’s worse than that: the writer becomes an imitator of himself, or a statue of himself (full of self-importance), or even a parody of himself. I agree with those who say that Salvador Dali was a great painter when he was young, but later on he just became a producer of “Dali paintings”. There is danger in developing a new perspective: one takes the risk of failure. But I think that it is worth the risk. Auden, one of my favorite poets, did not in his later years write poems as brilliant as the ones he wrote when he was young, but I read him with admiration for his wisdom, his humor, his refusal to be “The Great Auden”. He never stopped searching for new perspectives until his last days. New perspectives make us see things with fresh eyes, and make the world richer with new possibilities, new points of view and paths of life. Besides, it is a dignified way for a writer to get older.

Q: Do you believe in fate?

A: I can’t forget what I once read in a book of essays by the very wise Isaiah Berlin. I am offering a variation on his idea:

There are people who believe that fate is a door at the very end of a dark corridor, waiting for them to open it, even if they don’t know at the present where the corridor is, and what awaits them once they open the door.

He sees it differently: We are running along a corridor, half lit, half dark. Part of our corridor is lit because we know very clearly why it is our corridor (our parents, the time in history during which we were born, the fact that I am attracted to literature and totally unattached to mathematics, and much more). Parts of this corridor are partly or completely dark: do we understand all our decisions? Do we know why a hundred people mean very little to us and one suddenly means very much? Can anyone honestly say that he or she totally understands a son or a daughter, albeit being sure that they deeply love them? And in this half lit corridor there is no door at the very final end; if it exists it is the one door that is surely closed for us: the door of our death. There are many, though not unlimited, doors on both ends of the corridor. And what we are really doing is trying these doors. We open one door and find suffering; we open another and find banality; yet another and find a small love, or a big love; then another and find political hope or disaster.

Maybe the essence of this fate is that it is not something that is waiting for us and that happens to us, and we have nothing to do about it , like a card that a mysterious soothsayer reads for us at a romantic market. It is too easy to believe in this card. It takes from us the hard and risky work of opening one door after another. This is a fate that comes with being active, not passive. This is a fate that may cause us pain because some doors take us to painful places. But only by opening one of these doors do we stand a chance of finding real heaven on earth.

Q: What do you think about death? 

My uncle, my mother’s brother, was killed in the Independence war in 1948. I never met him but I have a strong, traumatic memory of my grandmother, his mother. She was young when he was killed, about 40, and she altogether lost the will to live. First she was committed to a mental hospital, then she came back home but didn’t speak, didn’t leave the apartment, could not even relate to me, her grandson. From then on, death by itself is for me a part of life. But I do live with the strong feeling that the death of a deeply loved person may take the value of life away from the living.

Q: Do you still carry moments from your childhood?  

A: Staying with my other grandmother who was full of life, I enjoyed long days with her, especially in the summer when I would spend the night there. She used to talk to me (in Ladino) about everything: sorrow, happiness, sex, death, money, her late husband, neighborhood gossip. She used to say that grown-ups should not hide anything from children and that an honest person had nothing to be ashamed of in front of children – life is not shameful. She died when I was 14. I would give a fortune for another evening with her, with a cup of black coffee for her, a cup of milk coffee for me, and a free chat with her, sitting by her window and looking at the street.

Q: What was the most promising wish that you ever pray for? 

A: The most promising wish that I ever pray for is peace in my country. Simply peace.

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