Roger Brunyate's Reviews > Three Floors Up

Three Floors Up by Eshkol Nevo
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it was amazing
bookshelves: israel, top-ten-2017, stories

Three Super Stories
The Encyclopedia of Ideas helped me remember that the first floor, which [Freud] called the id, contains all our impulses and urges. The middle floor is the ego, which tries to mediate between our desires and reality. And the uppermost level, the third floor, is the domain of His Majesty, the superego, which calls us to order sternly and demands that we take into account the effects of our actions on society.
The original Hebrew title of Eshkol Nevo’s novel, Shalosh Qomot, apparently translates as “Three Stories,” which would have been a better title than the present one, assuming that the pun between “storey” and “story” still works. Literally, these are three novellas, each involving the residents of a given floor in an apartment building, in what one of them describes as “Bourgeoisville,” some way out of Tel Aviv. But this is indeed a novel, not just because of the minor references in each novella to the characters of the other two, but because of the moral themes running through all three. And between them, they exemplify Freud’s metaphor of the Id, ego, and superego, as in the quotation above.

On the lower floor, Arno, a father with poor impulse control, comes to believe that the husband of the elderly couple opposite, whom they exploit as underpaid baby-sitters, has paedophilic designs on his young daughter. In fact, the man is merely suffering from dementia. Arno tells the story directly to the novelist, who was apparently a college friend, under the assumption that he will exonerate him. It is painful to listen to, as he makes one appalling judgement after another, all in the arrogant conviction that he is in the right. But in the translation by Sondra Silverston, it is quite unstoppable.

The second story is also a confession, this time by a woman called Hani writing to a friend in America. While her husband is away on one of his many trips, she receives a visit from his long-estranged brother who is on the run from the law. She knows she should turn him in, but he immediately wins the love of her two young children and begins to arouse feelings in her too. At least, this is what seems to be happening, but there is a strong element of the unreliable narrator in play here too. Reliable or not, though, her voice is infectious, and you read on in bemused delight.

With the third storey/story, though, the novel opens out into a quite different dimension. The narrator this time, Devora, is a retired judge, dictating her confession onto the tape of an old answering machine that she has found among her late husband’s things. At first, she believe she needs him as her confidant, but as the story goes on it becomes clear that she is leaving behind, not only her judicial robes, but also the behavioral assumptions she had taken for granted in her marriage. Before long, she will put her apartment up for sale, become involved with a youth protest movement in Tel Aviv, meet a man of her age who appears to know a surprising amount about her, and travel to an isolated desert farm at the far reaches of the country. The outward journey towards a future also turns out to be a reckoning with her past, and especially the mistakes she and her husband made in bringing up their misfit son, Adar. The ending, though far from simplistic, is charged with hope and utterly satisfying.

I am sure that Israeli readers would pick up on all sorts of other layers to these stories, but their human values are obvious to anyone. Not to mention their sheer readability. Without question, this joins my list of contenders for Top Ten of 2017—remarkably so, since there are already two other Israeli novels on it: Judas, by Amos Oz and A Horse Walked into a Bar, by David Grossman. Remarkable year. Remarkable country.


My Top Ten list this year is selected from a smaller than usual pool. I really only started reading again in May, and even then deliberately kept new books to under 50% of my total. In compiling the list, I also did not exactly follow mu original star ratings, but rather the takeaway value after time has passed. In particular, there are two books, Lincoln in the Bardo and Go, Went, Gone) to which I gave only 4 stars, but which I recognize as important books, with more staying power than many that I enjoyed more at the time, but have since forgotten.

For some reason, three of the ten books (Forest Dark, A Horse Walks into a Bar, and Three Floors Up) are by Jewish authors, set in Israel. To those, I would add a fourth: Judas by Amos Oz, read at the same time and of similar quality, but actually published at the end of 2016.

The ten titles below are in descending order (i.e. with The Essex Serpent being my favorite). The links are to my reviews:

1. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
2. Autumn by Ali Smith
3. Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss
4. The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne
5. Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
6. A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman
7. Exit West by Moshin Hamid
8. Three Floors Up by Eshkol Nevo
9. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
10. Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

And half that number again that didn't quite make it, in alphabetical order by authors:

11. Souvenirs dormants by Patrick Modiano
12. All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan
13. Improvement by Joan Silber
14. Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
15. Rose & Poe by Jack Todd

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Reading Progress

December 30, 2017 – Started Reading
December 30, 2017 – Shelved
December 31, 2017 – Shelved as: israel
December 31, 2017 – Shelved as: top-ten-2017
December 31, 2017 – Finished Reading
January 2, 2018 – Shelved as: stories

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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Jill Roger, I, too, seized onto the id, ego and superego, although not quite as eloquently as you. I was totally enchanted with the stories, which have all remained with me. I agree that the literature coming out of Israel this year has been remarkable. While Judas did not engage me, the David Grossman book was marvelous...and so is this.

message 2: by Roger (last edited Jan 02, 2018 07:35AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roger Brunyate Thank you, Jill, for recommending this; it would have slipped right by me otherwise. I see, actually, that the Amoz Oz book was published in 2016, but it was on the 2017 Booker International shortlist, so I think of it as a 2017 book. You could also add Nicole Krauss's Forest Darkwritten about Israel and, though by an American writer, clearly one who identifies strongly with Israel—but I know you did not like that as much as I did. Roger.

Jill You're right, Roger. I admired Forest Dark -- indeed, I admired Judas -- but neither of them rose to the emotional symbiosis I so need in the books I love. And, even though Nicol Krauss does identify strongly with Israel, I don't really think of her as an Israeli writer. Our mutual friend agrees strongly with you on Forest Dark, by the way.

Roger Brunyate Thanks; I'll look for OMF's review in a moment. Right now, though, I'm composing a review of another 2017 book, Improvement by Joan Silber. Somewhere between 4 and 5 stars, depending on how the review clarifies my reactions.

After that, I'm going to rethink and annotate my Top Ten 2017 shelf. I think I am going to do is rather differently this year. There are certain books (such as Lincoln in the Bardo, which I know is close to your #1, and Go, Went, Gone, which may not figure for you at all) that I rated at only 4 stars at the time, but which have stuck with me where many of the 5-star books have been almost forgotten. I shan't change my original star ratings, which accurately reflect my reading experience, but I am coming to think that Top Ten could mean something a little different, more of a takeaway than the experience at the time. Roger.

Jill I felt the same way about Improvement. I read it a few months ago and gave it a low 5-star. I was impressed by it. Lincoln in the Bardo was my #1 book of 2017, with Essex Serpent nipping at its heels. A late entry for me -- which I just read two weeks ago -- was the Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing. I thought it was beautifully done. I agree with you about the takeaway. In fact, that's how I chose most of my Top Ten this year -- browsing through what I read in 2017 and recognizing if it still resonated...or not.

message 6: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Walters Thanks Roger! I’m going to add this. I read “Homesick”, by Nevo... with my temple book group ...
I’ll add this to read.

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