- The Freedom to Write: The Woman Artist and the World in Ruth Almog’s Fiction
“A while ago they were giving away stipends for writers. They could have bought a cannon with this money. Bread is enough for us,” comments the female protagonist in a short story by Ruth Almog, published as part of her first collection, Ḥasdei halaila shel Margerita (Margerita’s night graces, Tarmil, 1969). This ironic, powerful remark seems to determine the tone of The Freedom to Write: The Woman Artist and the World in Ruth Almog’s Fiction, Rachel Feldhay Brenner’s important contribution to research on Almog’s oeuvre specifically, and to the study of Israeli literature and culture more generally. Feldhay Brenner’s innovative research looks at subversive, ethical and political aspects of Almog’s writing, all of which are explicitly present in the above quote. Curiously, despite this and many comparable motifs appearing in Almog’s work, previous critics have presented her work mainly as lyrical and romantic, focusing mostly on unresolved Oedipal conflicts and on the female protagonists’ yearning to be loved. By contrast, Feldhay Brenner reveals its intellectual component, which challenges the Israeli reality with political, anti-institutional ideas. Almog’s fiction, she argues, is written as littérature engagée in the spirit of Jean-Paul Sartre; her literary work is engaged in the political world and obligated to an ethical commitment.
In taking this approach, Feldhay Brenner is herself engaging in subversive writing, destabilizing common scholarly opinion about Almog and undertaking some broader feminist tasks—those of evaluating literature written by women within its socio-historical and political context; of redeeming it by challenging the patriarchal approach that regards literature written by women as minor and confined to intimate personal accounts; and of making that literature reverberate in the social and political spheres, viewed as belonging primarily to men. Yael Feldman’s No Room of Their Own (1999, Hebrew 2002), with its innovative observation of the mothers of feminism in Hebrew literature in the context of gender and nation (analyzing, inter alia, a novel by Almog), shares a similar scholarly-ideological stance. These efforts are especially important within Israeli society, where debates over politics and security issues often [End Page 183] neglect to take culture in general, and specifically the social-political contributions of women artists, into account.
The Freedom to Write is divided into four parts: Portrait of the Growing Artist; Art and the Post-Holocaust World; Determinism and Freedom in the World of Ideologies; and Artistic Emendation: the Young Artist in Search of Redemption. Feldhay Brenner portrays Almog’s typical protagonist as an artist struggling for the freedom to write, for the autonomy to create. The literary motif running through Almog’s writings is a combination of art and social commitment. Thus, according to Feldhay Brenner, Almog consistently portrays the artist’s attempts, by executing a work of art, to change a world drowning in violence, militarism and suffering. The incentive for art is, therefore, an attempt to repair the violent, painful reality shaped by Israeli history. The protagonist-artist portrayed in Almog’s literature is consistently a woman acting in the margins of society and culture. She confronts men who represent violent ideologies in Israeli society, both in their professions and in their behavior towards women. Thus, argues Feldhay Brenner, Almog’s literature only pretends to tell stories of unfulfilled love. In effect, the struggle for love only obscures Almog’s real focus on ars poetica: The woman artist—regardless of the content of her art—is engaged in the ethical struggle of artistic survival. Accordingly, even as the artist attempts to influence the world, and even as she explores art’s potential to change reality, in patriarchal society—represented by brutal lovers—her art itself is an ethical deed.
Almog’s focus on art is also explicated through her extensive intertextual references, as her protagonists find inspiration in great works from many cultures. This strategy of poetics, compellingly analyzed in The Freedom...