Thursday, May 21, 2009

From My Bookshelf: The Confessions of Noa Weber, by Gail Hareven (translated by Dalya Bilu)

From the back cover of Gail Hareven's new novel (translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu), The Confessions of Noa Weber: "This award-winning novel of one woman's quest to understand her obsessive love for a mysterious man is by turns funny, self-mocking, and brutally honest."

Well, this reader couldn't resist that description, especially when it was complemented by this enthusiastic NPR review and book excerpt (but shame, again, on NPR for not crediting the translator, to whom I also owe my first encounters with such excellent Israeli writers as Aharon Appelfeld and Orly Castel-Bloom). Bonus: I have a recurrent weakness for novels and stories about writers. Noa Weber, the eponymous protagonist, is a writer (and a successful one!).

It happens, as we all know, that book jacket descriptions don't always deliver on their promises. This one does--sort of.

That is to say, the book is, indeed "by turns funny, self-mocking, and brutally honest." But I can't say I think that the first-person narrator--that self-same Noa Weber--is all that interested in understanding her obsessive love for the itinerant, Soviet-born Alek, the father of her child, a man for whom, despite a nominal marriage, Noa is, in truth, more of a mistress than a wife. Talking about it with the reader (note, not with a psychotherapist), yes. Understanding it, I'm not so convinced.

Because, despite the occasional (rhetorical) question, Noa seems remarkably self-aware. She seems to understand and accept the situation.

Further, as a writer, she knows what is an interesting story, and what is not:
For the record I'll simply mention here that I was favored by the luck of the draw. I grew up well fed and protected, and that's another reason why where and how I "came into the world" is not a matter of public interest. People who've survived a holocaust, who were born into a world that no longer exists, they can begin their biographies with "I was born," my heroic father can begin his story with "I am born." Not me. My early history is too boring, it fails to provide any explanation for what happened to me in later years, and I have never felt the urge to examine it or whine about it. Nor do I now.

In any case, it's no great loss, and if the right to say "I was born" has to be paid for in dire catastrophes, stepfathers, orphanages, and picking pockets in the marketplace, I say , "No thanks," and choose to enter this story at the age of seventeen, where the real me begins:

Me and my love for Alek--which against my better judgment I experience as transcendence.
In this case, I'm not sure the lack of an explicit, sustained quest for understanding (if I'm right) is such a flaw. The book works so very well without it.

Especially for this American reader, who considers herself woefully under-read in Israeli literature, who appreciated the book's Israeli setting and context, who is grateful to be able to read the work of a writer who has won the prestigious Sapir Prize, and who, quite simply, looked forward to reading the next chapters for all the recent evenings the book has rested on her bedside table.

Further resources:

--Gail Hareven's profile on the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature Web site.

--An interview with Gail Hareven in The Forward.

--The Complete Review's review of The Confessions of Noa Weber. Much more articulate than anything I've attempted to write here. Really captures the book.

(cross-posted on My Machberet)

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