Was there ever such a relationship as that between the author and the critic? Some have likened it to the parasitical tick feeding from a host body, the one being completely dependent on the other for its existence. For, if not for the writer, what need would the world have for a literary critic? Of course some would argue that the world has no need of literary critics anyway, but as it's mainly writers who make that argument it is not without bias.
To justify their existence the literary critic claims that someone must "interpret" for the layman an author's place in the world of letters and how he or she measures up to their peers and predecessors. Unlike the reviewer giving the casual reader a quick overview of a book's readability, the critic sees him or herself as the guardian of their era's standards, holding authors accountable, when, if unchecked, they would publish with no regard to their place in history.
We're of course not talking about the world of the novel, mass-produced best sellers read by the hoi polloi, but those seminal works of literature that when published sit on the shelves of bookstores awaiting the discerning reader's hand and eye. Perhaps not even appreciated in the author's lifetime, it will survive because of its contribution to the world of letters either through some stylistic innovation, or its insights into the human condition.
But how will the public find out that this work of art awaits them on the shelves of their local bookstore? Who is there that will assure this masterpiece its place among the pantheon of the great? None other than the critic of course, who through dint of his or her academic studies and position in society has been arbitrarily judged worthy of making such judgments.
It's in the close confines of Israel's world of Hebrew literature that Aharon Megged set his novel The Flying Camel And The Golden Hump. First published in Hebrew in 1982 and now available in English from Toby Press, it takes the reader on a part satirical, part historical trip into the world of Hebrew literature dating back to the 19th century.
The protagonist is a young Israeli author with aspirations towards literary greatness. His family had immigrated from Romania and he spent his early years overcoming the stigma of speaking and writing the archaic Hebrew that his father had taught him. In spite of this handicap, Kalman Keren is able to achieve some modest literary success, and stay removed from the snake pit of infighting between factions that have arisen in the Israel's short existence.
In fact when our story opens he is able to keep body and soul together through his writings and the occasional translation of classical French literature into Hebrew, and his confidence level is such that he has begun what he considers to be his magnum opus. However, he has only reached the beginning of page 23 when to his horror he discovers his new upstairs neighbour is none other than Naphtali Schatz, the critic who is every writer's worst nightmare. The one critic of any import who didn't even deign to review Kalman's most recent novel, The Flying Camel And The Golden Hump.
Kalman is immediately rendered incapable of writing another word. How can he with that infernal presence looming over his head in the apartment above? Listening to his footsteps overhead is bad enough, but the sound of his typing freezes poor Kalman's blood. Who is the fiend eviscerating with words over his head? It could even be himself currently being mangled under the relentless pounding of those keys.
Through Kalman's insecurity and anguish Aharon not only launches a wonderfully funny, satiric attack upon both the critics and the writers who inhabit the literary scene in contemporary Israel, but he gives his reader an introduction to the world of Hebrew literature and criticism. We meet the famous and the infamous who shaped 19th century Hebrew thought and letters.
The one who comes in for the most attention is Avraham Uri Kovner, a mean-spirited critic of the 1800s. He took it upon himself to prick pins into what he thought of as the over-inflated egos of early traditionalists from the period in Hebrew literature known as the New Enlightenment. Eventually he became so eaten up with his own vindictiveness that he first lashed out at society by becoming a thief and embezzler, and then at his own people by converting to Christianity and writing anti-Semitic tracts.
The inclusion of Kovner in this tale underlines that although Aharon has chosen satire and humour as his means of dealing with the subject of literature and the relationship between critics and writers, he does not take it lightly. He makes you begin to wonder why, when they both claim to be so passionate about the written word, do critics and the writers seem to be constantly working at cross purposes?
One answer, and I think a highly plausible one, is revealed in the relationship between Kalman and his upstairs neighbour. All the while that Kalman is paranoid about Schatz, the critic is equally certain that he is the object of Kalman's ridicule. Schatz is convinced that Kalman's previous book was an allegorical attack upon him and the work that he does.
If one were to take their relationship as being indicative of what our author, Aharon Megged, has observed to be the association between author's and critic's in Israel, then it's no wonder they are constantly at odds. What basis for a relationship is there if neither the author or the critic trust each other? How can either of them claim to be serving anything but themselves if they are constantly feeling so defensive they continually attack the other from positions of fear and insecurity?
Of course, not only do they risk ending up like Kovner, so tangled up in bitterness they betray their own soul, they are also not the ones who suffer the most from this mutual mistrust. The literature they claim to serve, and the people for whom the words are written, the readers, end up neglected in the titanic struggle between two such fragile egos.
The Flying Camel And The Golden Hump by Aharon Megged is on the surface a humorous attack upon the pretensions of the literary world of contemporary Israel. Underneath it all lies the genuine concern of a man who cares deeply about his art, and a commentary on the sad state of affairs when those who claim to care about something, be it art, people, or even their country, are more concerned about their egos than anything else. Not only do they end up suffering for it, but so do all those around them.