What Is Good in Man Is Love: An Interview with Elias Khoury
By Tom ZoellnerFebruary 18, 2019
This is an unusual novel for many reasons. It begins with Adam’s death by suicide in a New York City apartment, followed by a note by the character “Elias Khoury,” who claims to have found Adam’s unpublished novel and is presenting it here for the reader. But it is a strange document. Adam begins with a lengthy study of the poet Waddah al-Yaman, whose worked awakened “the Arab asleep” inside of him, even as he throws out asides about his frustrating love life, his job in a falafel shop, and his musings on his tangled life back in the Middle East. By chance, he meets a scholar named Ma’moun at a university lecture who tells him some new and devastating information about his childhood. In the midst of a personal crisis, Adam begins reimagining the capture and suffering of Lydda. The result is a masterpiece of structure, vision, and imagination — a novel that fits no classic forms, but opens a window on suffering and memory.
Khoury speaks about his work with an appealing exuberance, as if he is on the edge of making an unexpected joke with his listener. He spoke to LARB at a coffee shop at the edge of Sassine Square in Beirut.
TOM ZOELLNER: Adam begins this book again and again. This is a novel of many false starts.
ELIAS KHOURY: One hundred percent. There is the silence. You are interrogating silence and you are trying to begin. Which is impossible.
Doesn’t everyone who writes fiction struggle with this: the proper beginning, and the advancement? Every novelist I know has a fear of false starts.
I think there is no beginning. Which for me made writing possible when I realized there is no beginning because there is no end. You finish a novel not because it ends. You finish because you cannot write anymore. But the novel continues outside you. And the novel began before you. The beginning is how to search for a beginning. This is how I formulate my approach toward fiction.
The novel ends: “And now I find myself at the threshold. The story awaits and I have to set off.” That’s no ending.
It’s impossible to find an end. Novelists are the most severe creatures. They kill their heroes in order to finish. They have to kill. I love my characters. First, I believe they exist. And I love them. Really, I love them. So separation with them is very tough. Not that they become part of my words. I become part of their words. Once there was a critic who called me and told me, “Now I understand, Adam is speaking like you.” I told him, “No, I am speaking like Adam.” I am under his influence; he is not under mine.
How can you be so cruel to someone you love?
This is why I hate endings. Adam died in the beginning of the novel, so the end is not his death. I’m sorry for him. He was very aggressive toward me. He wanted his student to hate me, because he thought I was having an affair with her. We both ended in failure with the girl, and actually, afterward, I began loving him and was fascinated by his story. I think he is a tragic personality.
He is obsessed with his age.
He says when you enter 50 you begin turning the carpets of your life in order to finish. I don’t know why. I am 70 and I don’t feel like that. We give meaning to our age, except when the body collapses. Life is beautiful, and every age has its beauty. Being able to write a book is something very generous from life, and I’m indebted to life and not the contrary.
Adam must also be the most reluctant novelist I’ve ever seen in literature. He keeps insisting that he isn’t writing a novel.
He was serious about not writing a novel. And he didn’t, in the classical way we think a novel is to be done. The first draft was about X who died in the box. And then he met with an Israeli filmmaker, and he thought the filmmaker didn’t tell the whole story about a soldier who committed suicide. And then he met with Ma’moun, a blind man, whom he knew when he was a kid. At that moment, he decided writing fiction was meaningless and he had to tell the real story. In figuring it out, he had to put many things together, literary criticism, contemplations, jumping from one subject to another. He was writing in a free way because he never thought it would be published. This structure takes us back to the beginnings of the novel, before the naturalists and the realists and Émile Zola and Flaubert. Don Quixote is a mélange of things. And it takes us also to the beginnings to the Arabic novel, which is not considered in the canon, Leg Over Leg, by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq. He put memoirs, poems, literary criticism, all these things in one story. So in this sense, it’s an attempt to go beyond the formal structure of the novel. This takes us back to the major book in all literature, which is The Arabian Nights, which are stories, of course. Put together many elements and it opens one narrative to another as if you are putting two mirrors in parallel.
Adam has a strong dose of the scholar in him. He keeps citing journal articles, for example.
Because he was a scholar — an Israeli citizen who finished a master’s degree in Hebrew literature in Haifa. He was a music journalist for a publication of art similar to the Village Voice. He was part of the Israeli left, the intellectuals. So it is natural.
Why do you begin with the extended critical reading of Waddah al-Yaman and then end with a series of scenes like a movie screenwriter?
First of all, Mourad refused to speak, and Adam pushed him. He spoke in scenes. He couldn’t talk in a sequential narrative. He grew angry with Adam, because he never wanted to remember them. The ghetto of Lydda is a black hole in Palestinian memory. It was one of the toughest experiences of the nakba of 1948. How they lived was never to talk about it. The research I conducted was so long and so difficult because people refused to speak in the beginning. You have to collect small things from everyone to create this puzzle of the ghetto. In the Israeli literature, the only mention of Lydda was the exodus, this long march that I will write about in the third volume.
There are no references to Yitzhak Rabin or David Ben-Gurion in the novel.
No. They were in the leadership and not on the ground. I’m not a historian; I’m not writing a history of Lydda. I’m writing what the people witnessed. So it is meaningless to mention Rabin. In the perspective of the novel, this is not seen. What the novel is telling is what these people saw and how they experienced the fall of the city with wires all around. They have chosen groups of youngsters to clean, to collect bodies, to steal. These are all testimonies, which were recreated in the novel. The whole atmosphere is there.
I notice a recurrence of flies. Why?
In the massacre of Shatila in 1982, the writer Jean Genet noticed flies. In the testimonies of the people of Lydda, they spoke all the time about flies. The city was full of corpses. It took two months to clean in July. You can imagine what would happen. Flies create an atmosphere. I was trying to imitate symbolism. Adam is told he is a metaphor for Palestine, and he gets angry. But we are all metaphors. Who put the limits on ways of writing? I don’t think there are limits.
Adam says: “The memory of pain is more terrible than pain itself.” Is that a general statement applying to all humanity, or does it apply only to the nakba?
There is nothing specific to the nakba. It is the human experience. The trauma of the nakba can be compared to any trauma. Silence is a major hero of this novel: the silence of the victims, and not just the Palestinians. The Jews also were silent. There is nothing special about trauma. We are all human beings, we went through a tragic moment. The real pain was that of the peasants separated from their land. They did not know what to do. This pain is the pain of anyone who was separated by force. The important thing about literature is that we’re not telling the ultimate truth, and I don’t think there is such a thing, by the way. The truth of the moment speaks to everyone and can go beyond time. This has been true since Gilgamesh, and the first epics: the truth of the moment still speaks to us. Greek mythology, for example, is not “true.” We don’t believe in these gods any more; gods die through history. But still their truths speak to us.
Adam describes his Manhattan apartment as little more than a window full of snow. He also calls it — not without some fondness — a city without history. What does New York mean to this character?
A refuge. He went to New York because he needed to escape. All his attempts to become an Israeli citizen failed. In New York, he discovered his true story when he met with Ma’moun. The second level of New York is, of course, he had a small restaurant and he was using New York to write his major work about the poets. He was trying to tell the Palestinian story in a great metaphor, and instead of that he was forced to plunge into his own story. That’s why New York is a window. For me, it was the big openness. I used to go a lot to Paris, but for me New York was the great openness. For Adam, it was a window full of whiteness because he was forced into his own story. He wanted to change his life, change his name, and become an intellectual who made falafel. New York was the window that opened into his life.
You come from a Christian family?
I’m Christian. I’m a total atheist, but I love the Byzantine music a lot. I think it is heaven. Religion is very interesting. In literature, there is a spiritual aspect. Literature is a spiritual action. Religion has great works of literature, also. Not only the Qur’an, but there are some suras that are fascinating. If you take the Old Testament, you have the tales of Solomon and Job, which are masterpieces of literature. The problem of religion is that it puts together spirituality and power, and spirituality cannot work with power. We in literature are more spiritual because we are totally liberated from power. In religion, they put this great literary heritage, all the myths of the Orient, in the Old Testament, but the spiritual aspect is destroyed by the “do that, don’t do that.”
Can you separate one from the other — the spirituality from the institution?
As literature, religion is fascinating, and I use it a lot. The beginning of this book is a sentence from the Qur’an. When you put it in relationship with power, then you destroy the spiritual aspect. This is what the church is doing. We forget spirituality and speak about details. And spirituality is a human need. In Christianity, there is a disappeared sect: Nestor believed that Jesus was a man who became divine, not the divine become man. This is the best version of Christianity. In this sense, Jesus is a beautiful literary and spiritual figure. The divinity is what is good in man, profoundly, what is love. What is good in man is love. Nothing else. Jesus in this sense is a great figure. In my earlier novels, I spoke a lot about him this way. From time to time, I go to church because it is beautiful. But not to pray.
Tom Zoellner is the politics editor for LARB.
Tom Zoellner is the author of five nonfiction books, including Train: Riding the Rails that Created the Modern World. He is the co-author of The New York Times bestselling book An Ordinary Man, and his book Uranium won the 2011 Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, Time, Foreign Policy, Departures, The Wall Street Journal, Men’s Health, the Oxford American, and many other places. A professor of English at Chapman University, he lives in Downtown Los Angeles.
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