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The Substance of Life: Fragments

Yitzhak Livni

Each one of the 29 short chapters in this unique novel-in-fragments is a self-contained narrative in its own right: a short story, a parable, a word-picture, a discreet memory, a confession. Together, they form a whole that eludes precise definition or easy classification. A more-or-less realistic novel in the “life writing” tradition, ostensibly autobiographical albeit largely fictionalized, The Substance of Life: Fragments (a stand-alone taken from a longer, as yet unfinished work) also reads as a series of posts in a personal blog that was never actually uploaded to the Internet. In meticulous, deceptively matter-of-fact language that’s nevertheless rich, nuanced, sensual and exceptionally insightful, it captures individual episodes and moments of being, rescuing them from the jaws of the perpetual-disappearance monster that swallows up daily, relentlessly, the irreplaceable moments of our lives. In Livni’s telling the ordinary takes on an extraordinary aspect, the quotidian becomes wondrous. Life in its minuscule variations, tiny surprises, ugly gruesomeness and its everyday, heartbreaking glory, is magically transformed into powerful, exquisitely beautiful literature.

It begins thus:

 “A donkey lay at the side of the road, with a broken back, apparently after being hit by a vehicle or because of a too-heavy  burden. It was on King George Street, near our home, on a sweltering day during summer vacation, in the afternoon. The stores were closed and there was little traffic. We’d finished lunch and mother and father were taking a nap. I came downstairs to sit on the concrete wall next to the house facing the scorching street, swinging my legs in the short pants against the shaded, rough concrete, letting the gusts of hot khamseen wind dry the sweat off my face with smooth dabs just at the moment of its ticklish appearance, enjoying the pleasantness of the meeting point of the smoothness and the tickle and the pleasant scratch of the concrete against my legs, lifting the cracks of my eyes up to the street, allowing the bright strokes of light to penetrate them. And then I saw the donkey.”



The language, the richness, the precision, the sensitivity of observation and of insight, the harmonious contrasts, the splendid and gripping profundity that reverberates powerfully within its pages - reading [this] book gave me genuine satisfaction and pleasure. The substance that makes up [Yitzhak Livni’s] life  is the best of its kind: creative, fantastic, dream-like, spiritual, allowing imagination free rein, but also getting-things-done, courageous, daring, innovative, risk-taking, path-breaking in both life and literature ... an inspiring book.

Former President Shimon Peres

The literary event of the year.


A wonderful writing talent … Each line is a gem … Magnificent literature!

Poet Ory Bernstein


The Substance of life: Fragments is a literary miracle … No Hebrew text since Preliminaries by S. Yizhar and Bernhard by Yoel Hoffmann has thrilled me as much as this book by Yitzhak Livni … These are tales that expose reality, the world in its nakedness. They expose the bone marrow of human existence in a way that only the surgery of literature can … Stories like those you will read in The Substance of life: Fragments can only be written by a great writer … A masterpiece … Livni is simultaneously superbly personal and superbly objective, managing to shock his readers … Sometimes while reading you think: “There is nothing else like this” … Throughout the book, he almost never leaves his childhood neighborhood, which comprises four Tel Aviv streets. Here he compresses the world in all its fullness. This perimeter is enough for him to define the meaning of being Israeli, of speaking Hebrew, of living in Tel Aviv, of Diaspora life, of childhood and of existence in general … A marvelous book.  

Eyal Megged, Haaretz


A very special book … I have never encountered a genre such as this, which defies all definition. The naturalistic, detailed descriptions which turn every experience, every act, every sight, every musing, into a verbal film-clip, in which the reader sees and feels the writer’s experience tangibly, with every fiber in his or her body, make each and every passage part of the reader’s life. A genre that manages to make the reader a full partner in the experience … A magical concreteness of the delicate textures of life’s substances imbues the fragments, written in precise, rich, replete language, neither recoiling from descending into the depths of the most repulsive nor afraid of soaring to the most elevated heights. The blunt naturalism becomes limpid by some strange and marvelous alchemy of the art of writing and turns into nectar and honey, to lyricism at its best … Life and death wantonly intermingle in this superb book … full of parables and humor and irony and infinite, captivating honesty. This is an Israeli, Jewish and universal autobiographical collage, and hopefully further fragments of this work in progress will be published in the near future.

Nitza Ben-Dov, Makor Rishon

Livni is a master of proportions, of games of close-ups…The transition between the miniature and the gigantic, between what is nearby and intimate and what is enormous and mysterious, makes many of the collection’s fragments breathtakingly spectacular, in the way that the plastic arts can be breathtakingly spectacular … Livni supplies each of the scenes he observes with its requisite interpretation, and it is intimate and profound … Livni’s literature – particularly the beautiful and intimate fragments that deal with his childhood – is magnanimous.

Omri Herzog, Haaretz

The book contains moments that are full of beauty, power, insight and subtlety …The story entitles “Tel Aviv, Summer 1942: The Mouse” … is superb! It is superb because of the accurate plastic description …  Sensually capturing in words the captive mouse trapped in the cage … The fragment, “Father’s Night Voyages” … impresses with its meticulousness and detail … All of the fragments are written in splendid Hebrew. Parts are aglow and immaculate, and all of them … contain winning moments.

Arik Glasner, Yedioth Ahronoth

Livni does not relate childhood moments as a banal succession. There’s no account in his book of the self-evident or collective experience. We have here harsh moments, the adult contemplation of which dissociates them from the mass-production mold in order to find in them what is unique, individual, to establish their essence and to nail it to the board of eternity. The reader is exposed to intimate observation, unexpected and direct … details that a sensitive eye discerns and a wise heart boldly interprets.

Talma Admon, Maariv

A gifted writer … The book contains some of the best descriptions ever written of the Tel Aviv cityscape.

Avraham Balaban, Haaretz


Surprisingly absorbing … An aware and attentive soul, alert and inquisitive, observing itself and its close surroundings with the fidelity of a sensitive magnifying glass, and able to create out of all this a wonderfully lyrical prose. Because in the last analysis this is what this book is – poetry in prose. Thanks to the singular voice of the narrator, the autobiographical fragments are so stylistically individualistic and precise, penetrating to the inner core of everything described, but nonetheless written in a tone that is almost nonchalant, natural and unforced, that it seems as though the stories arise by themselves from the author’s breast, with an intimacy that is all unreserved trust in the reader. The first fragment already grabs the reader by the throat and pulls them into a deeper and deeper acquaintance with the soul that is writing it; and the subsequent passages do the same … And although this is ostensibly a memoir, the descriptions are as lifelike as if they are taking place right before our eyes while we read, and thanks to their special language all of them are equivalent, in my eyes, to vivid, intriguing, enduring poetry. A book that will please lovers of Hebrew wherever they may be, including those who appreciate contemporary literature and poetry … A splendid gift. 

Atara Ofek, Marmelada


The Substance of life: Fragments is what its name implies: an attempt, and a successful one, to identify the matter from which life is made up … Everything is described from very close up, penetrating the nooks and crannies of being, pinpointing all of the details, even the most minute ones, scrutinizing them as with a magnifying glass, almost with a microscope even, and documenting them. “Tel Aviv, Summer 1942: The Mouse” observes meticulously, in stunning, immeasurably cruel but nevertheless thrilling detail a mouse caught in a trap and the torment it undergoes. It is hard to stop reading, and it is hard to continue. The writer’s ability to see the variety of emotions of the mouse astonishes … The text arouses the pity and fear which, according to Aristotle, are the components of catharsis … The book also abounds with love … In one enchanting, persuasive and touching fragment, the writer attempts – and convincingly succeeds – to penetrate and comprehend the consciousness of his days-old baby girl.  

Ofra Offer Oren, Literary blog


There is a whiff of another era to these fragments … Words were more abundant then … Yitzhak Livni, we want more!

Nurit Gertz, 103 FM


This is a marvelous book in my opinion … it attempts to affix on paper things that are no longer.

Rivka Michaeli, 103 FM


I read it avidly.

Dan Margalit, Channel 1


A splendid book.

Kobi Meidan, IETV


Luminous, warm and wise, and of human proportions - in the most sublime sense.

Yigal Schwartz, e-vrit


I read it with great excitement. I have not read such exceptionally beautiful writing in Hebrew for many years.

Dori Manor, e-vrit

Personal fragments, as clear as crystal, magical moments of this thing called life marching past.

Yehuda Nuriel, Yedioth Ahronoth

A work of collage made up of gleaming and beautiful fragments of prose.

Tahel Frosh,

Roaming around the streets of Tel Aviv, and also along the twisting length of the sentences on the page, is reminiscent of the writings of Yaakov Shabtai … Livni aspired to transcribe precisely the texture of The Substance of Life. He has done this by the choice of words, their placement within the sentence and its twisting and turning length, which insists on imitating the length of life, the length of writing, and the length of reflection about these things … A powerfully expressive, jolting book.  

Esti Adivi-Shoshan, Haaretz

Title The Substance of Life: Fragments
Author’s Last Name Livni
Author's First Name Yitzhak
Language(s) Hebrew
Genre novel
Publisher (Hebrew) N.B. Books
Year of Publication (Hebrew) 2015
No. Pages 128 pp.
Book title - Hebrew (phonetic) Kta'im Mi-Toch Chomer Ha-Chayim
Representation Represented by ITHL
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