Gail Hareven wrote one of the more intriguing pieces of short fiction published in The New Yorker last year: “The Slows.” Despite that, I didn’t rush into reading The Confessions of Noa Weber (She’ahava Nafshi, 2000; tr. from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu, 2009). However, when the book won Three Percents Best Translated Fiction Award I knew I’d be missing something if I didn’t read it. I have faith in the good opinion of that judging panel.
Like her short story, the book started out fresh:
The city of J lies at the top of the hills of J. That’s how I’d like to begin my story; at a calm distance, with a deep breath, in a panoramic shot focusing very slowly on a single street, and very slowly on a single house, “this is the house where I was born.” But you’d be making a fool of yourself if your J were Jerusalem, since every idiot knows about Jerusalem. And altogether it’s impossible to talk about Jerusalem any more. Impossible, that is to say, without “winding alleys” and “stone courtyards,” “caper bushes” and “Arab women in the market place.” And I have nothing to say about caper bushes and stone courtyards, nor do I have the faintest desire to flavor my story with the colorful patois of colorful Jerusalem characters, twirling their mustaches as they spin Oriental tales.
Noa Weber is a 47 year-old woman. She has single-handedly raised a successful daughter, Hagar, who is now 29. After years of activism, particularly for women, Noa has become a writer of detective fiction. Her central character is Nira Woolf, a strong female lead who finds no need to attach herself to a man. Noa might like to think she’s like her protagonist, but for the last thirty years she has been consumed by her love for Alek, the father of her child, her nominal husband. Perhaps finally feeling empowered by her female protagonist (“Your heart aches because of some man?” she would say. “Nonsense, darling, just hypochondria, a little twinge you’ve decided to blow up out of all proportion. But never mind, sweetie, if you want to feel sorry for yourself, you go right ahead. And I hope you never know what real pain feels like.”), Noa feels it’s time to “confess.” In the paragraph above, which is the book’s first, Noa gives a bit of context to her confession by taking it out of any preconceived context the reader might have coming in. There is no easy way to situate this story:
Not that I’m complaining, God forbid. The facts of my birth and upbringing have nothing to do with what follows here, and even if they did, you need calm and composure to distance the camra like that; calm and composure and a sense of historical perspective, and as far as my situation is concerned, I clearly suffer from a severe lack of both.
To her, her love just is. People don’t look at the context surrounding Romeo and Juliet — they just fell in love, and their love simply was. “Me and my love for Alek — which against my better judgment I experience as transcendence. Me with my dybbuk — which is the only thing that gives me a sense of space.”
The problem is that Alek has no interest in Noa. He never has. In the early 1970s they met as part of a group of young thinkers, people against the “traditions” of Israel. Alek himself isn’t from Israel and finds sees himself as a bit of a saviour. He roams around Europe looking for causes. In Noa he finds a woman who will have to serve in the military if she isn’t married. So, almost on a dare to see if he’s really serious about his beliefs, Alek says he will marry Noa to keep her from having to serve in the military. Noa knows Alek’s motives, but this is what she wants. Soon Noa is pregnant. Alek has no desire to be a father, though he’s not necessarily brutal about the fact. He says he’ll take her to get an abortion, but when she says no he says that a woman has the right to raise her child. He soon leaves the country. Noa realizes all along that one of the reasons she wants to have her baby is because the baby will be partly Alek. However, this “gasping confession without any perspective” isn’t for her daughter’s benefit.However, this “gasping confession without any perspective” isn’t for her daughter’s benefit.
In the years since Hagar’s birth, Alek turns up now and again, always nice but never allowing anyone to think he feels any differently than before. Noa also feels no differently. She continues to life her life as if he’s watching her and judging her every move.
She recognizes that this might not be that healthy. In the evenings Noa joins the “LAA — Love Addicts Anonymous” forum, though she sits silently as the other women in the world try to conquer their obsessive and hurtful addictions to one man or another. Noa has attempted to find ways to overcome her own desperate, visceral attachment to Alek:
I could have and could have and could have, but the problem of course is that I couldn’t. That is to say that from a chemical point of view there was simply no possibility of my detaching myself from him. Just as there was no possibility for me to change my soul, or to cut myself into pieces. I loved him. In other words, he had infiltrated my very depths and then spread through all my cells, and changed my being until I was no longer mistress of my love. It wasn’t “my” love. It didn’t belong to me, I belonged to it and was ruled by it. Or perhaps I belonged to him and was ruled by him. I don’t know.
It’s that last line that give a glimpse at the novel’s power. We have no reason to doubt Noa loves Alek. We also have no real reason to dislike Alek just because he doesn’t return the feelings. We might want him to accept responsibility and help support the child, but at least he’s been clear from the beginning. Nevertheless, Noa realizes that she has no idea who is controlling her life. Both Alek and Nira are absent presences feeding her thoughts.
In the background is Israel through the 70s and 80s. Sometimes those issues come up in the dialogue, though they are never central to the narrative. Still, the politics of that time pervade the way Noa sees herself, especially since it’s through Alek that she sees herself. I found that aspect very interesting.
Sadly, as much as I admired the book, at about the halfway point my interest began to falter. I started to feel like I was reading the same passages over and over again as Noa attempted to understand her love for Alek and explain the major periods in her life, in whatever order they came up. Passages like the following started to feel like they were placed all over just to be clever and not because they were particularly necessary to moving the narrative or building Noa’s character:
If there was any logic in the world, the radio would bleep every time the word “love” was mentioned. The censors would blacken the television screen and warn that the material in question is not suitable for children, that it is subversive, dangerous. That anyone who seriously succumbs to this madness is definitely not friendly to the environment. But nobody apart from me seems to see things this way.
We don’t really need that at the point it comes in the novel. We know how Noa feels. We’ve experienced her wit and unique perspective. The cleverness and unique voice, then, in the end became annoying to me and the book started to look flabby. The book, then, ended rather flat despite the fact that I continued to admire what Hareven was doing with the whole of the novel. And if we zoom back out to the whole, then, despite some of the flab, it is a magnificent book, a great look at an obsessive love from a political and unique narrator. I’m glad I read it, and if you find the passages above interesting, I think you’ll like it too. I can see why it won the Best Translated Book Award. However, of the four shortlisted titles I’ve now read I would have chosen The Twin, The Walsers, or Ghosts above it.