Novelist Ronit Matalon, a writer of dreamy, stormy fiction, dead at 58

Award-winning Israeli author wrote works that reflect her life growing up in an upper-class Egyptian family that immigrated to Israel and fell on hard times

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Ronit Matalon, an award-winning novelist, who died  December 28, 2017, of cancer at the age of 58 (YouTube screen shot)
Ronit Matalon, an award-winning novelist, who died December 28, 2017, of cancer at the age of 58 (YouTube screen shot)

Novelist Ronit Matalon, known for her dreamy, often stormy works of fiction, died Thursday after a battle with cancer. She was 58.

Matalon was born in Ganei Tivkva, outside Tel Aviv in 1959 to Egyptian Jewish parents who immigrated to Israel, leaving behind a pampered, upper-class life for one of drudgery and poverty in a suburban slum.

Matalon’s father, a communist, was appalled at the treatment of Mizrahi Jews by the Ashkenazi Israeli government, and abandoned the family while Ronit, one of three children, was still a young child.

Matalon’s mother worked as a house cleaner, supporting the family with backbreaking work, a painful situation that was mirrored closely in Matalon’s most autobiographical novel, “The Sound of Our Steps” (2008).

Her award-winning novel, ‘The Sound of Our Steps,’ was largely based on her own hardscrabble upbringing (Amazon screenshot)

Matalon studied literature and philosophy at Tel Aviv University and worked as a journalist for the Haaretz newspaper, covering the West Bank and Gaza in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

She published her first book, “Strangers at Home” in 1992, followed by the children’s book “A Story that Begins with a Snake’s Funeral” (1994).

It was “The One Facing Us” (1995) that brought her fame, depicting the rebellious reactions of the 16-year-old character juxtaposed with heirloom photographs in an exploration of family roots.

The New York Times called it a “difficult” novel, while commending Matalon for making “a strong case for the necessity of unearthing the past, even if it is in fragments — a case for the language of memory.”

Her acute, detailed observations continued in “Sarah Sarah,” (2000), “Reading and Writing,” (2001), “Bliss” (2003) and “Uncover Her Face” (2005), written while  Matalon was teaching at the University of Haifa, at the Camera Obscura School for the Arts in Tel Aviv and later at Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem as well.

She was known as an important feminist and eastern voice in contemporary Hebrew literature, and a liberal social and political activist.

She received the Bernstein Prize for best original novel for “The Sound of Our Steps” (2008), considered her most personal novel and featuring a fragmented, disjointed feel and short, abruptly ending chapters. It was written originally in Hebrew, like all of Matalon’s novels, but with bits of Arabic and French thrown in, much like the soundtrack of her childhood.

She told an interviewer for “World Literature Today” that she was “only preoccupied with my memories” in the novel.

“I tried to be a very faithful listener to my memories,” she said. “That is why the novel is so fragmented.”

Matalon followed that award-winning novel with “A Romance in Letters” (2012), written with Ariel Hershfeld, her partner since 2012.

She wrote a play, “Girls Who Walk in their Sleep” in 2015 and her final book was “And the Bride Shut the Door,” published in 2016.

Two years ago, Matalon famously told an interviewer that she only publishes a book when she has something to say, “even if two or twenty years pass between books.”

In 2016, she was the recipient of the $1 million Emet Prize for Art, Science and Culture, for Hebrew literature.

Matalon was married and divorced from psychology professor Emanuel Berman, and was the mother of two children.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed