The Crumbs of Companionship


By Gail Hareven
Translated by Dalya Bilu
330 pages. Melville House. $16.95.

While reading Israeli writer Gail Hareven’s Sapir Prize-winning Confessions of Noa Weber—her first book to appear in English, although she has been publishing in Hebrew since 1988—I found myself thinking of Matvey Levenstein’s 2005 series of paintings, which portray the interior of his New York apartment. The works, which depict reflective, black-lacquer furniture and dramatic shadows, have a shiny finish, making it impossible, even close up, to make out individual brushstrokes. They seem hermetically sealed, as if Levenstein had intended to portray rooms drained entirely of oxygen.

I was reminded of the paintings because Alek Ginsburg, the anti-hero of Confessions, has precisely that effect on Noa Weber, the novel’s protagonist. That is, over 30 years, and in spite of great gaps of time and distance, not to mention what might easily be termed bad behavior, Alek still exerts an all-encompassing, oxygen-sucking effect on Noa. In his presence, nothing else exists; in his absence, too.

To say that Alek treats her unkindly is an understatement. When she gives birth to Alek’s baby, for instance, he does not visit her in the hospital; he forms relationships (and starts another family) with other women; 10 years go by and he doesn’t call. As a result she seems, on first blush, a member of that all-too-familiar sisterhood, with a Middle Eastern twist: a smart, independent feminist, who also happens to be a writer, but whom, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, won’t give up on what appears to be an imbalanced, if not unrequited, love.

Yet, Noa goes to pains to distinguish herself from other women in her position, like those in the Internet-based group Love Addicts Anonymous. While they, she says, are preoccupied with such “practical sins” as “throwing acid at the legal wife” or “subsidizing their man’s drug habit by prostitution,” she is interested in what she terms “metaphysical sins”: loving “something I should have loathed.” A few pages later she clarifies that her “devotion to Alek doesn’t give rise in me to any consciousness of sisterly solidarity.” And then again, this time speaking about herself in the third person: “Noa Weber doesn’t have even a drop of empathy for the romantic folly of her fellows.” One can’t help but read these lines, which come so early in the book, as Hareven’s acknowledgment of the novel’s superficial similarities to Chick Lit. At the same time, through Noa, Hareven is telling us to adjust our expectations. This is not Bridget Jones in the land of milk and honey.

And it truly isn’t. In conventional fiction, Noa’s condition is one to overcome. After epic battles of humiliation and loneliness, the narrator finds a nice guy who likes her, accepts her for who she is, and teaches her to love herself. Noa Weber, by contrast, never wins Alek, or anybody else. Instead, for the 30-odd years she and Alek are acquainted, she collects the crumbs of companionship he offers, if you can call them that, and dissects them to find out what they reveal about attachment and love.

But the question that applies to the Carrie Bradshaws or Bridget Joneses of this world still applies to Noa: What is it about Alek to which she is, frankly, addicted? The answer, I think, is the other quality that differentiates Noa from the pack. Her feelings toward Alek are characterized as holy and sacred. She does not want the regular, earthly love of a normative relationship. That’s why, although she craves Alek in his absence, her cravings aren’t sated by his presence. Lying in bed together in Moscow, for instance, she muses, “Perhaps he is only matter through which to see beyond matter. Perhaps he is only a stair to another love which no longer needs anyone.” Her desire for Alek isn’t really for him, then, but for the connection he engenders within her to the depths of her soul, and to transcendence—“the touch of heaven” she feels he leaves on her skin.

The analogy begging to be drawn, between Noa and Alek, is to one’s relationship to God. Like any religious devotee, Noa endeavors “to be worthy in his [Alek’s] eyes, equal in power to his imaginary power.” In his absence, she summons Alek’s gaze as motivation; beneath it she “couldn’t be a floor rag.” (One is reminded of the tools of observant Judaism, like yarmulkes and tzitzit, which are worn to remind oneself that God is always watching.) After not seeing or hearing from Alek in a decade, she wonders, “What does it mean to love someone who isn’t there?” Her question might be asked by those who love God, a force that cannot be seen. Her conclusion, too—“Alek gave me strength”—a common-enough answer.

Indeed, the novel’s very structure—many short chapters whose titles are the same as their first lines—recalls the Psalms, which are traditionally recited on holidays, Rosh Chodesh, during times of sickness, or to incur God’s favor or give praise. Other aspects of the novel further amplify the sanctity of Noa’s emotions, such as the inherently religious backdrop of contemporary Israel; Noa’s daughter, who moves to the U.S. to become a rabbi; and the novel’s title (Confessions).

None of this is to suggest, though, that Alek and Noa’s relationship is in any way celibate or virginal; quite the opposite. (“Alek really loves the body” is the most G-rated way to put it.) In fact, the book’s blend of the religious and the erotic is reminiscent of The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Bernini’s 16th-century marble sculpture that shows Teresa of Avila in the throes of religious—or is it orgasmic?—ecstasy. In that sense, and perhaps most powerfully, Confessions is heir to a very particular, and iconoclastic, mode of art, one that operates on a far deeper level than does secular-minded Chick Lit.

Of course, Noa herself would likely reject this interpretation, not being one for religiosity. Yet for all of her secularism, in her devotion to Alek she nevertheless resembles any fervent believer, insisting on the freedom inherent to an arrangement that, to the outside observer, simply appears as entrapment: “The paradox of love is that it enslaves you to one person, and by so doing liberates you from other things.”