Esther Peled is not like other Israeli authors. First of all, she is a woman. While the Israeli literary scene has its fair share of prominent and prolific female authors, the heavyweights of this industry — David Grossman, Etgar Keret, A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz — are undeniably male.
But for Peled, who last month won the Sapir Prize for Literature, Israel’s highest literary honor, gender just scratches the surface of her refusal to follow convention. “Widely Open Underneath,” Peled’s collection of linked short stories that stunned the Israeli literary community by triumphing as this year’s dark-horse candidate for the honor, traces the life and loneliness of a middle-aged woman, told over the course of 34 short stories that together build a complete puzzle of her emotional and romantic life.
“Widely Open Underneath” flies in the face of everything readers expect commercially successful literature to be: It centers on a female heroine, crafted by a female author. It delves into the sexual desires of an older woman without a trace of shame or inhibition. Perhaps most radically, it is a self-published work, emerging on the Israeli market without the blessing or guidance of a traditional publishing house and becoming the first ever such work to claim the Sapir Prize.
“The discourse this [book] might generate is much more deep and meaningful than the discourse that is related to prizes. It’s a significant milestone in current Hebrew literature,” Neta Halperin, a prominent literary critic in Israel, told Al-Monitor.
What makes “Widely Open Underneath” so significant, Halperin said, is that it offers a quiet yet forceful rebuke of the very string that stiches up the fabric of Israeli society — the idea that a woman should always, first and foremost, be a mother.
“The Israeli novel tends to deal with family. Family is the great metaphor,” Halperin said. “But Esther is choosing not to touch [that subject], almost at all. If you insist on seeing her story as a mother and a wife as the center of this piece, then it’s really overwhelming, the effort you’ll have to make as a reader. … The story is a woman choosing to live by herself and experience what life brings to her.”
In Israel Today, one of the nation’s largest daily newspapers, Halperin also described the book as “not only a refreshing breeze, but a liberating breeze.”
Peled herself was as stunned as anyone in her book’s immense success.
“Thank you for this incredibly surprising and joyous thing,” Peled said when accepting the award in January in Tel Aviv in an ad-libbed speech. She admitted when she arrived at the podium that she never considered she might actually win, and so she had no formal remarks prepared. “Thank you to all those who read my book. It was a big shock to see when it joined the bestseller lists.”
As seems fitting, Peled came to fiction authorship in an entirely unconventional way. A trained psychoanalyst, her early writing centered not on the stories of women but on the connection between the brain and the spiritual body. “Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: On the Human Ability to Know” was published in 2005 and is an academic work exploring the link between Buddhism and the Indian-born psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion.
Peled followed up that volume two years later with “To Enhance Good in the World,” another academic text that linked Buddhism and psychotherapy, explored as a primer on the basic tenets of the Buddhist religion.
She came to fiction only in 2012, releasing her first work of short stories, “The Light of Reality.” That project had shades of another great Jewish contemporary writer who cheekily inserts his own avatar into this literature, Jonathan Safran Foer, because Peled herself winks at her readers through the stories. She presents the character of Esti, a student of a teacher by the name of Dr. Esther Peled, who happens to also be the author of a book called “To Enhance Good in the World.”
“Widely Open Underneath” is Peled’s fourth work of fiction and her greatest commercial success. The Sapir Prize for Literature is sponsored by Israel’s state lottery and is considered the Israeli version of Britain’s Man Booker Prize. Peled first earned 20,000 Israeli shekels ($5,740) for making the initial list of 10 nominees, then another 40,000 shekels ($11,480) for her spot on the contest’s short list of five titles. As the winner, she received 150,000 shekels ($43,000) and her book will be translated into Arabic and another language of her choice.
Peled was the only self-published author and also the veritable newcomer on the shortlist. Shimon Adaf, nominated this year for “Tolle Lege,” won the prize in 2012 for his novel “Mox Nox,” and Noa Yedlin, nominated this year for the novel “Stockholm,” won in 2013 for the novel “House Arrest.” Fellow nominee Sami Berdugo, nominated this year for “Because Guy,” went home empty-handed for the fourth time in his career.
The judges of the Sapir Prize had no qualms about their selection of an unconventional author for this honor and wrote in their notes for the ceremony about their respect for her alternative viewpoint, both in terms of the aging, female central character and also the narrative structure that exposes us to her innermost emotional life.
Peled’s work “describes a woman’s journey on her way to a ‘room of her own,’” the Sapir Prize judges wrote in their official notes. “At its center is a mature woman who has to renegotiate her own way. … With an extraordinary combination of humor, wisdom and courage, Esther Peled challenges the narrative of the initiation processes of young women.”