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Restless Souls

The novels of Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua create their own diaspora.

Ross Feld

More than occasionally the central characters in A. B. Yehoshua’s novels discover that other folks have the goods on them. Bit-players tend to know important things about the principals without having been directly told. Somehow, though, this foreknowledge-by-others has a way of inducing not suspicion or paranoia in the main characters but an odd sense of disarmament, even of well-being.

Happy passivity is charming in any novel, but in an Israeli novel it’s an especially winning note, running as it does so counter to positivist, action-oriented type. The contemporary Israelis of a Yehoshua novel, deeded at last, after hundreds of years of Jewish exile, live comfortably enough in a steadily modernizing world but remain reluctant to embrace status or permanent achievement. Out of whim or by accident of the heart, their situations and personal borders are permeable. (Maybe this provides a clue to the accommodative, dovish cast of Yehoshua’s domestic politics as well.) They’re never quite home, being continually on the move, as travelers or simply as expert backsliders. They are precisely the sort of people who’d miss the general buzz about themselves the first time around.

Yehoshua, through six novels now, can come off as an off-center, itchy, slightly immune writer. He has all the makings of the paradigmatic Israeli National Novelist, our sincere expectations for which he blunts over and over again. He’s a fifth-generation Jerusalemite, but unlike most of the Israeli intelligentsia not Ashkenazi but rather Sephardi. He’s urban, but it’s Jerusalem-urban, mysterious-urban, not Tel Aviv-jaded-urban. And, most of all, he’s also one of those faintly embarrassing novelists who spends a lot of time down close to his characters’ skinned knees, more at home with their failures than with their successes. This un-Olympian perspective earns him membership in what might be called the Big Baby school of literary genius, the masters of which--Cervantes, Gogol, Chekhov, Svevo, Kawabata, Philip Roth, Skvorecky, Martin Walser--tend to be writers for whose characters the experience of adulthood is wonderously unstable and reversible. Their people live best to blunder, or else to flee.

Another winningly uncool, even gauche, element to Yehoshua’s work is the spring of its formal energies, a bounding zeal to put a book together slightly differently each time. From the start his readers have grown accustomed to chapters setting out in a kind of shadowy mutter, to unassigned personal pronouns, to shifting subaqueous lighting. Yet as an experimentalist Yehoshua is never as daunting as, say, Robert Pinget or Arno Schmidt. In Pinget’s books, narrated by voices to which we never fix an identity, the muzziness pulls a reader so far back from the characters that you see them as through the wrong end of a telescope--the distanced effect Pinget guns for precisely. He prefers you to observe human behavior as though it were a choreography of ghosts blending into one another. But in Yehoshua we mostly get re-worked Faulkner: characters narrating their own individual chapters, a succession of stream-of-consciousness glue-pots simmering with feelings.

It’s Yehoshua’s often stated belief that the translation of Faulkner into Hebrew in the 1950s changed the psychic landscape of Israeli fiction. In a recent review of the Caribbean writer Edouard Glissant, Caryl Phillips noted that third-world writers often are drawn to Faulkner because he comes off as a writer of the plantation--"a twilight zone where black and white met and danced a strange, often highly artificial dance around the other’s presence." This led Faulkner "to the structural strategy that provided the foundation for the greater part of his finest writing. In such a world of vigorously and uncomfortably close relations, there can never be just one story, a master-narrative. There is always the disruptive truth of the other person’s presence, the other person’s story."

Is there something plantation-like about Israeli society, too? Left-wing international opinion would happily chime in with a yes, but I wonder if the resemblance doesn’t have less to do with historical Jew/Arab politics than it does with something indigenously narrower and locally unreplicable. The Israeli reality is clamorous ("The speed of it the honesty the crankiness the torrent of talk," a character comments in A Late Divorce) and Yehoshua’s realism loves to sink postholes into the annoyingness and annoyedness of Israeli life, the frustration, the in-your-face-ness. Late-period Isaac Bashevis Singer, those urban books set in Jewish Warsaw or New York, captures this same logjam of intention running head-on into neurotic compulsion and memory.

Americans have been tempted to read Israeli fiction the way the French read American novels, which is to say as the same single, but multi-tentacled, social document. Toward societies we worry about (and are worried by), we import a hunger for coherence. And since Yehoushua is extravagantly talented, his books can’t help but be taken as social barometers of a kind. Saul Bellow, in To Jerusalem and Back,quotes Yehoshua as once saying in an interview: "You are insistently summoned to solidarity, summoned from within yourself rather than by any external compulsion, because you live from one newscast to the next, and it becomes a solidarity that is technical, automatic from the standpoint of its emotional reaction, because by now you are completely built to react that way and live in tension. Your emotional reactions to any piece of news about an Israeli casualty, a plane shot down, are predetermined. Hence the lack of solitude, the inability to be alone in the spiritual sense and to arrive at a life of intellectual creativity."

Books Discussed in this essay

The Lover by A. B. Yehoshua (trasnlated by Philip Simpson), Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1977
A Late Divorce by A. B. Yehoshua (translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin), New York, Doubleday, 1984
Five Seasons by A. B. Yehoshua (translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin), New York, Doubleday, 1989
Mr Mani by A. B. Yehoshua (translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin), New York, Doubleday, 1982
Open Heart by A. B. Yehoshua (translated by Dalya Bilu), New York, Doubleday, 1996
Journey to the End of the MIllennium by A. B. Yehoshua (translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas De Lange), New York, Doubleday, 1999

Yet Yehoshua’s books still are never quite the ones we expect them to be. They have a certain way of compromising themselves by interruption, by a comedy of busyness chockablock with explicit auditory hints of lives being lived elsewhere at different pitches, that frustrates expectations. One repeated motif in Yehoshua’s work, for instance, is that of lovers overheard through thin walls. A sense of din, of overlap, of itchiness to bug-out and then only later return: these in Yehoshua’s best books put a leash on declarative statements, representative heroes, and Big Themes.


IN YEHOSHUA’S FIRST NOVEL, The Lover (1978), a small nuclear family untangles itself using individual combs of desire. Not least of these is the desire--noble or puppyish, take your pick--to please another, a Yehoshua commonplace. Dafi, a Tel Aviv high school girl watches her parents’ marriage dry out before her eyes. Her mother is a teacher, an intense woman, a passionara lacking an object of fascination. Her father, Adam, is a successful auto mechanic, owner of his own burgeoning garage. Could there be a less poetic/philosophical/religious/romantic/allegorical trade to give an Israeli character? With his long-beard and disheveled clothes, Adam may look like a chasid, but his eyes are on distributor caps--on the laws of mechanics, not God’s.

Into their lives--specifically into Adam’s garage--arrives a young Israeli, Gabriel, who has been living in France for years. He had mental problems overseas, and has now returned to Israel under the mistaken impression that his grandmother has died and left him her apartment and her beat-up car. (In fact, she lies suspended within a long-term coma.) Adam semi-adopts the stranger and installs him at home--and thereafter Dafi the daughter starts deciphering the smudged story of her mother’s affair with this boarder. In the meantime, Adam, having given his wife an adventure equal to her longing, feels entitled to some excitement of his own with a young friend of Dafi’s. An Arab boy who works for Adam in the garage is thrown into the mix, becoming a sexual mate for Dafi and a son-substitute for Adam.

But for all the charged secret insertions and different narrators, the book maintains a humorous obliquity: the lover Gabriel’s fiasco after being drafted into the Six-Day-War (and bugging out of it, too, when he gets the chance by dressing like an ultra-Orthodox haredi) is an anti-heroic set-piece in the best tradition of Fabrizio in The Charterhouse of Parma.The Lover also gives us first notice of a chord that, book by book, becomes impossible to ignore in Yehoshua’s work: wifeswapping--or, more precisely, wife-sharing, wife-adding-on, a kind of fluid-state polygamy. Though it’s never employed as an explicit subject, as Updike used it in Couples,the "Take-my-wife-please!" theme plays a crucial part in every one of Yehoshua’s novels. No one’s private life is so singular or original that it cannot sometimes be mirrored by plurality. The person you married yesterday isn’t the same one you’re married to today: she or he has become two wives, two husbands, then three and maybe four. Other people occasionally will enter into our domestic (and maybe also political) arrangements in order to testify to just that.

Yehoshua’s next book, A Late Divorce (1982), expands on that notion. Again, as in The Lover,the narrative is portioned-out to different characters who do the telling, and again the chosen circus is family life--a larger and older family, since the author now is more the experienced ringmaster. A father in late middle-age, Yehuda Kaminka, a college professor who has left a mentally-ill wife in an Acre sanitarium (she once had tried to kill him), has gone to live and teach in America, where he has met a woman and fathered a child with her. The novel, spaced out over nine days leading up to Passover, centers on Kaminka’s return to Israel, his attempt once more to have the gently mad, but mostly confused, institutionalized wife give him the divorce she’s resisted on grounds of either incompetence or ill-will. The old professor’s grown children are a mixed bag: a nervous wreck of a college lecturer and his pure-flame wife (they have yet to consummate their union); another son who is a blase hustler (trailed around throughout the book by a hopelessly lovestruck, wealthy, married Sephardi man); a daughter married to a buffoonish Sephardi shyster lawyer and the mother of a chubby school-age boy and infant daughter.

The characters under the most stress are given long solos, such as the Jerusalem daughter-in-law’s:

Coffee and cake are brought in I’m in a daze I feel dizzy from this fantastical outburst. This sudden show of frankness. This violence. He keeps his eyes on me they’re Asi’s that split-level look but in light brown. The musical direct uninhibited speech that flows so powerfully. They wanted to murder him? My God, what can he be talking about? Did I hear right? Then he must be ill too. What kind of family have I landed in? Delicious tremor of fright. He bends over to sniff his cake sensually. He takes out two greenish pills and swallows them.

Farce lightly presides over the book. At the first meeting of the husband and the mad wife at the bucolic seaside asylum, with various grown children trembling at the sidelines, the old family dog (all this time kept unofficially by the wife at the hospital while everyone else thought he’d run away years before) bursts-in on the scene and wreaks havoc. The dog (and the lawyer son-in-law) may be the only non-crazy family members--but Yehoshua isn’t trying to corral a bunch of eccentrics as much as turning the special madness of family life this way and that. By virtue of its size and its people/religion/nation-configuration, Israel may come closer to being a family-state than any other, and an unavoidably allegorical by-product is the notion that family dysfunction shapes Israeli national life as well.

A Late Divorce,jingling with its crashing-plates burlesque, seems to me the best of Yehoshua’s overtly polyphonic books. The nation/family parallel runs through it liquidly, a sheen more than a pattern. But Yehoushua doesn’t always disdain explicit pattern. He has declared a fascination with the eccentric idea of personal psychology become generational, and this fascination seems to have required from him two overtly historical novels. Yehoshua is maybe best known for his fourth novel, Mr. Mani (1992), a time-machine that transports the reader through Jerusalem’s history, the history of the Sephardim, and the history of Zionism itself. There are six separate Mr. Manis in this book, each from a different era but each based in Jerusalem. (In a Yehoshua novel, "based" has the unusually transparent meaning of both drawn to and escaped from.) The novel is one of the great city portraits in modern literature. Jerusalem’s almost fantastic intimacy and interconnection sets the tone for a story of a turbulent, fascinating, passionate clan--the Manis--Sephardim who through two centuries have negotiated real historical time within a place touched by eternity. It is partly this disconnect which has given them over to dark depressions that color into madness every other generation.

Yehoshua’s design for Mr. Mani is a theoretically brilliant device: the halved conversation. Each section of the book consists of a long dialogue where we do not hear one party speak. Instead, we have to guess at what’s been said from that quarter solely by the free-speaker’s reactions and retorts. These half conversations start with a contemporary young girl recounting to her kibbutz-based mother how she met and ultimately saved her lover’s father, the first of the Manis we meet, from committing suicide. How and why Mani has come to this pass is the burden of the book. Mr. Mani’s childhood escape from the Germans on the island of Crete is nuggeted in the second partial dialogue, one conducted between a fatalistic German soldier ("Our German soul, whose deepest desire, to put it most simply, is to exit from history, by hook or by crook, if not forward, then backward.") and his aristocratic grandmother, who has come to visit him on Crete, where he’s hopelessly stationed during World War II. The third half-dialogue conversation outlines the treason arrest and then reprieve that British authorities devise for the World War I-era Mr. Mani, who has gone into Arab villages in mufti, reading to the Arabs the Balfour Declaration. Further back comes a weak young Jewish doctor from Auschwitz, Poland, whose sister’s departure from Jerusalem drove the previous Mani, Moshe, to suicide in 1899. And finally, in 1848, there is Avraham Mani’s confession to his muted-by-a-stroke rabbi that he had impregnated his widowed daughter-in-law so that the bedevilled Mani line could keep going.

What is a novelist but a half-dialogist supreme, anticipating and guessing at a reader’s objections or satisfactions? And in a history-novel this narrative mode seems especially just, since the past is a mute Other we need to re-phrase and interpret always. Yet practically, in the actual novel, Yehoshua’s experiment fails. Guessing what the silent speaker is saying isn’t that hard to do, but the speakers we do overhear come to us robbed of the naturalness of speech. The necessity to backfill details in a narrative style proper to the different eras adds one additional layer of unnecessary starch. And, as if Yehoshua himself unconsciously recognizes that what we are getting here are more like corroborating testimonies than stories, all the speakers tell their tales to an older relative or authority figure. If in Yehoshua’s contemporary novels the characters unwillingly hear what’s being said or sighed through the thin walls of the next room, in his history-novels we his readers more purposively hear what’s pushed through the thick walls of time. And what we hear seems over-enunciated, even stilted.

The same problem disables Yehoshua’s most recent novel, A Journey to the End of the Millennium (1998). In the year 999, a Moroccan Jewish trader, Ben Attar, journeys to France to settle matters with his nephew and former partner Abulafia, who along with a third partner, Abu Lutfi, a Muslim, had been part of a great success. The three had been importers of exotic goods from North Africa to customers in medieval Europe, but Abulafia, the Europe-based agent of the trio, married a smart, strong, pious Jewish widow, who can’t condone the fact that Ben Attar has not one but two wives--an accepted Sephardi convention but frowned upon by the moralistic and, at the time, more primitive Ashkenazi culture.

Packing a ship with those two wives, plus a Spanish rabbi (whose scriptural opinion is hoped to be counteractive), as well as children and an Arab-slave crew, Ben Attar journeys across the sea and then down the Seine to neutralize the sexual/religious challenge to his business and way of life. It is a long way from the extravagantly clownish Sephardim of A Late Divorce to Ben Attar and Abulafia and the Manis, who bear a directed responsibility, you feel, to restore the Sephardic centrality to the story of Zion.

A steady quality of Yehoshua’s prose is its plummy, hypnotic cast (one of his translators, Hillel Halkin, has been able to render it wonderfully into English), and in the dialogue-less Journey there is a sumptuousness to the narration, a long unhurried stretching, that a reader can find very pleasurable. But here again the flowing comes off as consciously antique in manner, an unscrolling of a kind of illustrated manuscript. This kind of rich brocade fascinates for a hundred pages, but it too eventually falls prey to historical fiction’s great risk: that the novelist, having measured out how much ancient time and color he intends to use, will then be unable to leave any of it over; that he will wrap and overwrap until the final package turns unnaturally plump and shaped, something pre-cooked and then delivered. A novel that lands neatly at our doorstep, though, is somehow finally less wonderful than one that beckons us out into the possibly dangerous street.


AT EITHER SIDE OF MR. MANI NESTLE Yehoshua’s most uncategorizable, yet resolutely present books. Both novels are set in contemporary Israel while at the same time being not quite documentary; instead they resemble elongated dreams or huge clouds. One of them certainly is Yehoshua’s strangest book, the other his masterpiece--and both most definitely lead us out into traffic.

Open Heart (1996), the strange one, has a snaky, syrupy quality that either will annoy a reader to tears or steadily draw him in. It is a portrait of the Jewish doctor (a surprisingly rare one considering the depth of myth surrounding the figure); and just as Adam, in The Lover, is a success at the most un-Jewish of trades, the young intern, Benjy Rubin, plays counter to type by being the least promising physician imaginable. He sees himself as a surgeon while his supervisors view him as a mediocre internist at best, unbrilliant but attentively goodhearted. Anesthesiology is settled on, a compromise choice that isn’t really satisfying to anyone. The truth of it is that Benjy is such a mooncalf that getting him out of the hospital, period, is maybe the most useful thing that can be done with him. He half-volunteers and is half-drafted to accompany the hospital’s administrative director, Lazar, and his wife Dori, to India, in order to tend to, and bring back, Lazar’s sick daughter Einat.

In India, Benjy doesn’t fall for the mystical Ganges and the aura of karma but for the unglamorous, slightly dumpy Dori. (Another wife-trade.) She responds--but it turns into the most desultory of affairs; within its casual frame Benjy even has leave to marry someone else and have a child. After Lazar dies unexpectedly, following a routine bypass operation gone wrong, Benjy’s relationship with Dori waxes and wanes, but his love always has been so minutely incremental that he himself in the past has found it hard to credit. He understands that at the core Dori is simply a woman who "cannot be left alone," a kind of baggage a certain kind of man, like himself, will feel he must carry. Both of them therefore more surrender to the affair than prosecute it.

Benjy--and Yehoshua, in the novel--allows matters to spread out lazily, to go past their logical or dramatic knots. Events swell and course, people bob not unpleasantly upon them. Moments of emotional crescendo are constantly undercut by small slides into placidity and stasis. Open Heart for these reasons seems to me the most Oriental of Yehoshua’s books, the two historical novels notwithstanding. India and its gauzy truths is an arresting sociological irony--the decadence that sent American kids there in the 1960s now infects Israeli kids, too--but the book operates more as a low-key meditation on the essences of action and rationality. Benjy longs to be a surgeon, a man of action--yet ends up numbing patients to sleep. The hospital’s chief of internal medicine has himself been hospitalized for depression, cogitation having literally sickened this old Jew. There is a Levantine relaxation, even a slackness, to the technique of the book as well. Just as Dori doesn’t want to be left alone, sentences and actions in this book don’t want to be left alone, either: they drift and pile up. Yet towards book’s end, the metaphors have begun to slip like blocks into the making of a hauntingly solid form--heart/sleep/flight/travel/love/reincarnation--and you realize that the book has been about the restlessness of souls.

Five Seasons (1987), his masterpiece, indicates how adhesively and accumulatively Yehoshua can get his music--and restless souls--to perform. A low-level tax-bureau manager named Molkho wakes up at home one Tel Aviv morning to realize that his wife, lying next to him but slightly higher in a rented hospital bed, has died during the night of the cancer that afflicted her for years. Molkho moves about the apartment in the dawn light as much noticing his emotions as having them. The minutes that go by are almost astoundingly peaceful, unbearably touching. After being an attendant to death for so long, he realizes that the living of his own life now has come up all over him like a rash:

After the funeral was over and he had cried a bit, the mourners filed by to shake his hand. He could tell that they wished him to remember their presence, and trying not to sound too doleful, he had even perfected a sad nod that was at the same time not so grief-stricken as to suggest only Death, for as drained of vitality as he felt, he needed to demonstrate that he was someone still worthy of love.

Molkho never dissolves into grief or anything else. In his eccentric, practical, frugal way, he is a born saver, mostly of himself. He expects to re-use things as well as people. Within weeks of the death, for instance, he finds a buyer for the painkillers he’d stocked up for his wife. He can’t bear to just throw them out; they were too expensive and they still seem to him like magical substances, not to be blithely discarded. With his children grown or almost, Molkho usually is alone--although, he finds, not exactly lonely. There are too many fresh mysteries to consider. On the toilet:

His pants still down around his ankles, he was a little fat boy again, his parents’ only child, his thirty years of married life vanished like a dream. Had she, he wondered, been taken by, or given to, someone else by now? Was her spirit finally at peace, quiet and resting somewhere, her compulsive criticizing over at last? Or was she still carrying on in the heavenly spheres, going from one to another and finding fault with each? Was the universe not good enough for her even now? Did she remember him?

Because Molkho the untermensch feels no one and no thing as beneath him--not even death--he is capable of thinking any thought, no matter how uncomfortable. When sent on business to check on the shoddy bookkeeping of a northern town he finds himself stymied: the town’s administrator clearly is hiding from him. But that’s all right too with Molkho. He meets townspeople, he takes a nap, he becomes smitten with a girl-child, he develops a taste for a disgusting organ stew, he admires a waterfall. He has no contempt whatsoever--nor, as a writer, does Yehoshua, whose novels happily forfeit the right to act like imperious seducers. They stay interested and accepting of just about everything in life.

In un-seducer Molkho this porous but unsentimental openness--to know you know nothing about women is to know everything about them--not surprisingly sends women constantly into his path. Every woman Molkho encounters he thinks about variously as a replacement, a continuation, a gift, a booby-prize, a trap, a consolation. Picking up a group of four hitchhiking girl-soldiers, Molkho figures it’s simply a good way to get his flirting skills limber again. But it begins to rain and all the girls fall asleep jammed together in the back seat:

He felt as if he were transporting a single, giant woman, a sleeping, shallowly breathing, tetracephalous female pudding whose separate heads kept banging against the windows, opening and shutting pairs of eyes until Haifa, when suddenly it awoke and squirted off in four thin tentacles that quickly vanished beneath the street lights into the wet night.

But three women eventually do separate from the crowd in Molkho’s life to test his ambivalent readiness for them. A woman lawyer in the office he works in seems to him like an inevitability, a feeling reciprocated by her. Platonically they go to Berlin (of all places) together--and then, still platonically, they leave: she hurts her ankle and, receiving (at his suggestion) the same painkiller Molkho used to give his wife, sleeps through their whole stay in Berlin. The infertile wife of an old acquaintance, next up to bat in his life, presents Molkho with a greater challenge. All but pre-leased to him as a second wife (her husband, having turned pious, feels it is incumbent upon him to make a little Torah scholar with a fertile woman), the barren Yeara spends a sexless weekend with Molkho as a kind of tryout. She’s more than slightly a drip, this Yeara, someone even more out of it and immune than Molkho is, but she also exudes a strange peace. Thinking to kindle a little enthusiasm in her for anything other than the next cigarette she’s always smoking, Molkho takes her shopping--the blind leading the blind:

He led her past racks of dresses, pants and shirts, stopping now and then to check fabrics and prices in the hope of arousing her interest. "The ‘in’ look today is the wide look," he said, sounding more mystified than informed. "Anything goes--and usually with anything else."

And ultimately, after things go nowhere with Yeara, there is the young little Russian lady, an emigrant not happy in Israel, the daughter of one of Molkho’s mother-in-law’s friends. Molkho is quite fond of his mother-in-law, but exactly why he is going to the trouble of escorting the miserable young woman to Vienna and then Berlin in order to help her find a way back into Russia he is not absolutely clear about himself.

As readers, though, we do begin to know why, and we develop a fix. It is Molkho’s second trip to Berlin--his wife’s birthplace--made within a year. Five Seasons,we start to sense, is a rubbery fugue upon the more deadpan aspects of repetition and substitution. Places are revisited, people doubled, situations recast. Both times Molkho’s Berlin is a place of gently funny misadventure. There he enjoys none of what his German-Jewish dead wife would, in her critical way, enjoy, such as the opera and the culture. Molkho likes the more homely (and punished) realities of the city, such as the Wall or even the extant rubble: "They crossed over some boards laid over the trench (the dirt from which, Molkho noticed, pleased to see that the city was built on its own ruin, was full of smashed brick, rotted sacking, rusty iron, and bits of broken glass)." In East Berlin they receive day-visas (the little Russian lady plans to just lose herself in an Eastern block crowd and get back to Russia that way) and emerge "into a quite ordinary street no different from the one they had left: the same cobblestones, the same people, the same strips of grass and flowers, the same stubborn drizzle that failed to distinguish between East and West."

Even Molkho’s hotel is a nexus for doubling, for experience squared. The room first offered to Molkho "turned out to be tiny, almost prisonlike in its dimensions, as though it were the original cell from which the rest of the hotel had grown." And he wonders how the hotel staff judges his showing up twice in the same year with different women: "They must think I’m some sort of eccentric, Molkho thought as he stepped into the street. First I bring them a sleeper, and then a vanisher, although the truth is that the sleeper brought me."


CANCER CELLS DIVIDE AND GROW TWICE THEIR NUMBER. Destinations rhyme. Drugs are re-distributed. Sex is deferred identically. Travel means back as well as forth. There is a liberating philosophical comedy of regrowth here. Svevo’s As A Man Grows Older is the only novel I know that’s quite like it. Five Seasons ends with this Chekhovian paragraph:

It’s been nearly a year, he thought sadly. One I was sure would be full of women, freedom, adventure--and in the end nothing came of it. Why, I didn’t even make love; it’s as though I was left back a grade too. And it all comes from being so passive, from expecting others to find someone for me. Lovingly, he tried thinking of his wife, but for the first time he felt that his thoughts grasped at nothing, that each time he cast their hook into the water it bobbed up light as a feather. Am I really free then? he wondered. And if I am, what good is it? Somewhere there must be other, realer, women, but for that a man has to be in love. Otherwise it’s pointless, he fretted. A man has to be in love.

Yehoshua has publicly agonized over the scattering fate that has split the Jews into a people as well as a religion. Zionism, he feels, given the opportunity to re-blend the two, has for the most part fumbled the job so far. Yet while Yehoshua’s intellectual self laments the Diaspora, his high-comic art in Five Seasons has in fact enacted a diaspora of its own, a travel agency that sends its restless souls voyaging to nations near and far with news that they dream up in strange beds but can only understand at home--a distribution that demands an in-gathering but also again a sending-out. This wonderfully rich, open version of psychoanalysis-with-a-passport ends up being more persuasive and unforgettable than the trans-generational, or meta-historical, task Yehoshua may sometimes believe he’s been called to accomplish.

Ross Feld’s latest novel is Zwilling’s Dream.

Originally published in the Summer 2000 issue of Boston Review



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