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Authors: Nell Zink

Private Novelist

BOOK: Private Novelist


For Avner Shats


Beatles; I am a devoted fan. This is just one of the many things we don't have in common. We come from radically different backgrounds and might have never crossed paths were it not for Zohar Eitan
a musicologist and poet
and a rather unlikely chain of events involving his sabbatical, a fictitious poet named Elad Manor, and the Swiss writer Robert Walser.

How then, you might ask, did I become the sole, exclusive reader of this now-celebrated author, a job I kept for so many years? (It took Jonathan Franzen nearly fifteen years to jump on the bandwagon!)

Sheer blind luck, of course; but what made Nell Zink decide to become my Private Novelist was probably the fact that we do, after all, share a few common penchants: coffee drinking, atheism, a fondness for obscure and dubious scientific theories and certain prog-rock bands from the '70s, and a general admiration for the natural world
enough to spark a long-term epistolary affair, lasting to this day. It gave rise to at least two novels (that's all I'm allowed to disclose at this time), now made available to the general public.

Like an astronaut landing on Venus with insufficient gear,
stunned by the heat, glaring sunlight, and native manners, Nell landed in the land of Israel near the end of the last millennium; she roved the country, transmitting to her few carefully selected readers insightful and beautiful passages pondering her experience. Naturally, at some point it became apparent that she should write a novel. And so she did. She named it
as explained in the novel itself
by referencing my own novel, published in Hebrew shortly before,
Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats
. She addressed it to me, a chapter a day, and my curiosity and amusement soon turned to awe and astonishment in the face of her writing: so much so that I felt compelled to translate it into Hebrew, thus creating the monstrosity titled “
Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats
by Nell Zink, translated by Avner Shats.” It should, however, be made perfectly clear that the two novels have nothing in common. Well, almost nothing.

Nell, as the world now knows, is a formidable writer, and her English is out of my league. I had the unique privilege, which not all translators enjoy, of being able to ask silly questions regarding common American idioms that were Greek to me. Nell halfheartedly toyed with the idea of publishing what became known as
but the one agent she turned to, as I remember, said it was “unpublishable”; in the years that followed we came to have another thing in common: dormant literary careers (see chart). Sometime in 2005, Nell suggested she accept a challenge: I was to name a setting and a list of items and characters, and she would write a novel incorporating them, because “I have nothing to do and need some practice writing English.” This might strike some people as odd, but only those who do not know Dr. Zink. (Yes, she holds a PhD in something or other. You don't really know her.) The result was
European Story for Avner Shats

I am of Jewish-Polish descent, traditionally a guilt-ridden tribe, and so I feel guilty about not having done enough
to let the world know of Nell Zink. Shamefully, even after her work was discovered by my betters, I tried to lower her expectations. To calm my conscience I can dig up this old e-mail:

Admit it: you're amazing . . . at least consider publishing it on the net. It's not fair to keep it inaccessible to other readers.

There it is.

—Avner Shats, Haifa, December 16, 2015

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