“Yet if a person is not to be a hodge-podge, there must be an organizing principle. Some things must matter more than others; most must be dispensable. And at least one, he must be willing to die for. It can be a friend, a love, a child, a value, a people, a country, a cause, a conception of honor or of dignity, but without it he is trivial.” – Hillel Halkin, Yehuda Halevi (Nextbook/Schocken, 2010), p. 291
A novel of rare delicacy, Melisande begins with a clutch of erudite New York teenagers in the late 50s’s and early ’60s coming of age amid its enticements literary, spiritual, political, and sexual. It’s the story of a narrator nicknamed Hoo; the nickname as well as the keenest emotional pulls of his adolescent years stuck with him, pulled at him still in middle-age and in ways he comes to understand, as novel unfolds, to have been good as well as bad. A book full of judgments, they’re wedded to a story sometimes achingly tough to read because of its wry, acute honesty, its wise, sad, but also strikingly hopeful attitude toward life’s demands and pleasures. When lived well, Hoo comes to understand, life is shaped by the smallest number of indispensable choices, most likely just one maybe two, with these defining who you are.
Halkin, the well-known journalist, translator, and essayist, has thus produced a fiction, his first, that is at its core a stab at understanding little less than what most matters. The questions at the book’s heart are essentially philosophical, but Halkin is convinced that these are best sorted out in the messiness of daily life, not abstraction; its narrator, a retired classics professor, has published but one book whose subject is the medieval Arabic tome, The Incoherence of the Philosophers.
The story begins with the narrator’s friendship with Ricky, a brilliant, muddled son of Communist parents whose emotional/intellectual trajectory will take him from a once-stalwart Marxism, soon tattered, to Dostoevsky, eventually to India and then tragically into the dank horrors of insanity. The times themselves are confounding, full of terrible, confusing jolts, often bizarre and discordant. Describing the late ‘60s, Halkin writes: “There were sirens all the time in New York. The city was full of ambulances, fire engines, police cars, muggers, purse-snatchers, pushers, psychopaths, demonstrators, beggars, Hare Krishnas, three-card monte players, people talking to themselves. The parks were more dangerous than Vietnam.” He follows Ricky — whose maladies seem no less spiritual than psychological, the byproduct of an inability to make decisions either of solidity or coherence – with great affection and empathy for his scattered, earnest quest:
“He bought a guide book to India and traveled by train to Aurangabad and from there to Varansai…. The land was flat, endless. It was the dry Indian winter. The dirt roads were packed hard by feet, hooves, the wheels of oxcarts. He bought sandals and gave away his shoes. He stopped shaving and let his hair grow long. He traded his knapsack for a blanket in which he kept his few possessions, wrapping himself in it at night. One night his money was stolen while he slept. After that he had to beg for food and lodging. Faster than he had intended, he had become the bhikshu of his imaginings.”
The book’s portrait of adolescent male friendship is sharp, but from its start Hoo’s consuming love is for Mellie, the Mellisande of its title. Hoo himself is, as noted in one of the novel’s more elusive passages, “shy, contrite, hungry, laughing, moody, blissful, capable.” Mellie, as seen through his eyes, is among God’s greatest gifts. Spotting her for the first time in class, Hoo recalls his wondering, “I ask: is she the bird or the branch it is sitting on?” Everything, even the way she moves mesmerizes him. “The other dancers had dropped out. You gave no sign of hearing anyone. It was twist music, but you weren’t twisting. You weren’t dancing to it at all. It was dancing in you. It ran through you like wind in a tree. It tossed you this way and that, wild but rooted.”
By no means is their love story uncluttered or straightforward. Halkin describes well Hoo’s late-adolescent meanderings, his hunger for sensation, not the least of which the oddly sweet sensation of rejection, of loneliness; his description of Hoo’s fits and starts, often fruitless and joyless, in steely beautiful but ever-inaccessible Paris, are astute. “I wanted to watch a million sunsets, love a million women, walk down a million city streets and lonely roads. A million lifetimes wouldn’t be enough for that.” What he learns is that Mellie has bored deep into him, her being enveloping him with a wholeness best described as love. Encountering her again in his 20s, both now in graduate school at Columbia.
“I had never been anywhere you lived. At the time, I couldn’t have said what was so special about it. Today, I would call it the contentment of things. The hand-woven Navaho rug, the round table with the bowl of apples and its white rose in a thin-necked vase, the three crows in a painting on the wall done by a college friend, the rubber plant glossy in its corner, the wicker bookcase with its poets that he loved, Rilke and Neruda and Yeats and Dylan Thomas: everything was happy to be where you had put it. There wasn’t a single complaint.”
Halkin’s evocation of young love is masterful. He builds a brief, but evocative section of the novel out of notes, small, random shavings of daily life, one or two line scribbles of Mellie’s that Ho has stuffed into books. Moments, episodic yet nonetheless crucial loom in his memory: “Do you remember, Mellie? The cabin by the pond, the cold, cold water, our naked bodies warming by the fire?” And then there are his depictions of the loudest and the quietest moments of bliss:
“We made love like tigers. We made it like gulls, crying out over the waves. We made it like eels, wet and slippery after a shower. We made it like snails, slow and sticky in our own secretions. We made it like moles, burrowing through our dreams until we stumbled on each other in the darkness.
I loved watching you sleep….All I saw of you, turned to the wall with a pillow pulled over your head against the light, was your bare shoulder, from which the blanket had slipped as if the dawn had begun to undress you and stopped to stare in enchantment.”
It is the book’s middle section that is, no doubt, the most difficult to read when the realities of life seek to overwhelm the far brighter, grander expectations nurtured in adolescence and early adulthood: Despite her vivid intelligence, Mellie leaves her literature graduate program (unsurprisingly, her great passion is the Romantics). Hoo finishes his and takes a teaching job at Champaign that he assumes will be temporary but where he remains for the rest of his academic career. The small pleasures, mostly the mounting frustrations of faculty campus life in an isolated, insular slice of the country begin to weigh. Above all, there is Mellie’s infertility, the byproduct of a botched abortion (Ricky’s baby). The intrusive, pervasive presence of the small children all around them reminds Mellie of joys she is unlikely to enjoy; the humiliations, the ups, mostly the downs of fertility treatment and its eventual failure, fights small and large, these all contribute to a downward spiral.
They separate, although at the novel’s end it remains unclear whether this is permanent with Hoo convinced that whether permanent or not the love he feels is the same that he felt always. The novel even seems to suggest the prospect of something eternal about such love, transmitted across time, resurrected across the generations. “Love is stronger than death,” declares one of Halkin’s characters. Waiting for her now on a Greek island, retired early, living frugally, scouring a letter from Mellie with plans for a visit, he remains more certain than ever that “if I had a thousand lives to live, I’d want them all to be with you.” The book is itself a love letter written for the purpose of telling her just this.
This isn’t the first time that Halkin, who settled in Israel in his 30s, set out in book form to imagine how it might feel to have lived another life. He did this in his first book, itself arguably a fiction of sorts, his stark, precocious harangue of the late 1970s Letters to an American Jewish Friend built as an epistolary exchange between Halkin the new Israeli and a Jewish friend in the United States, likely an inner wrestling with what he might have become had he remained in the United States and then sought to justify the decision. Already then his was a voice melding the lyrical and street-smart with only contempt for sentimentality (“if … you care to call a culture at all [in Israel] that hodgepodge that prevails here of debased ethnic tradition, petrified religious orthodoxy, rootless secularism, and blind aping of every latest fashion to arrive from the West”) but emphatic regarding the essential linkage between conviction and behavior.
Uncontainable was his love for Israel irrespective of its failings which he always admitted were no less, but also no greater than anywhere else. Yet it was this place that he – and, as he saw it, all Jews — must call home: “…you have never been rained on by a single raindrop here, smelled an orange grove blooming in springtime, spied a cyclamen behind a rock or a hillside bright with anemones, or listened to the raging of a hamsin and felt its dusty breath in your nose…”
One of the more striking features of Letters to an American Jewish Friend — made as it was of medley of presumptuousness and subtlety – was its unequivocal insistence, the product of something different than mere dogmatism, of the need for the starkest of choices. “Either/or, my friend, either/or: sooner or later, today or tomorrow, you will have to decide – and if you decide in the end that you do not have to decide, then too you will have decided.” What was apparent already here, and made ever more clear over the years in Halkin’s several other books, is his belief in the necessity for such a choice as an antidote to anarchy, to a life aimless, rootless, at its worst like Ricky’s own descent. “Jagvahiri, the far-traveling one” is what Ricky is dubbed by his Indian master. Apparently, this was more a curse, than a blessing.
There is definable line — better described as sensibility than conviction — connecting his seemingly disparate works. In a remarkably candid closing chapter to his recent biographical study of Yehuda Halevi, the medieval poet and philosopher from whose masterpiece The Kuzari Halkin cites in the frontispiece of Letters to an American Jewish Friend, Halkin acknowledges that the impulses at work in the biography were much the same as those of the Letters. He speaks of a high school and college life, after an education in modern Orthodox schools in New York, where his dearest friend, much like Ricky, was the son of Communists, where the others with whom he was closest were enamored by Keats, Donne, and Martin Luther King but distant from the rhythms of American Jewish life: “Nothing seemed duller, thinner, more blandly institutionalized….Reading a history of it was like reading the minutes of a board meeting.”
He followed a girlfriend to Tuskegee in Alabama, later to California where after their breakup he lived amid redwoods with two Irish setters; he met his wife and they bought 150 acres in the woods of Maine where they lived in a tent and planned to build a Thoreau-like haven. “Today, when Israel has felt for so long like the only possible home for me, I could almost be writing about another person.” Seeking to live deep in the depths of America, he found himself scanning the Banger Daily News for news of Israel that he had visited before and that he couldn’t expunge from his mind. Two years after the ’67 war he and his wife moved, and never has he stopped looking back. Letters to American Jewish Friend, little less fascinating, rhetorically tart and aggravating now than it was at the time of its appearance was his first, by no means his last, salvo. “We are not a stupid people, but we are sentimental one, and we have a tendency to see things as we would like them to be rather than as they are. This weakness might be excusable, or even quixotically charming, if our circumstances were more comfortable; but in the case of a people faced with the question of to be or not to be, it is not a little pathetic.” Essentially, this is how the book ends.
Sentimentality he loathes, but like Mellie — whose name Melisande is drawn from a poem of Heine’s — Halkin can’t have enough of the Romantics. And this is perhaps the most salient reason why he has remained intrigued with Yehuda Halevi for so long: “[His] friends miss the point when they urged him not to run the risk of travel to Palestine. The risk was the point. It was an expression of ultimate commitment, the putting in place the final brick of the pyramid of self.” True, Halkin is at odds with leading Yehuda Halevi scholars who understand the motivation for his voyage to Zion in a rather different context. But Halkin’s Yehuda Halevi is Jewry’s first romantic hero and this clinches it for him:
“Yehuda Halevi belonged to a new kind of love poetry that, diffusing from its epicenter in Bagdad, spread like contagion through the vast area between India and Spain, from Spain to southern France in the verse of the Troubadors; and thence to northern Europe in the medieval romance. Everywhere its themes were similar: the overwhelming impact of love’s onset, the devotion of the lovers; their love at love’s consummation, their grief at separation, their steadfastness in the face of it, their unshakable hope for reunion, their refusal to accept any consolidation short of death. It marked a sea change in the culture of Europe: in art, in literature, in music, in religion, in taste, in values, in fashion, even in commerce and politics. It was as if a point had been reached in history at which the human self, more proudly aware than ever of its irreplicable [p. 307] uniqueness, had also grown so conscious of its insupportable aloneness that it desired only to lose itself in the beyond-itself: in the arms of the beloved, the embrace of God, the service of the nation of humanity.
“This pride and desire are part of what we call romanticism, and Yehuda Halevi is the first great romantic figure in Jewish history. He is so in the quality of his longing; in his preference for immediate experience and intuition over cognition and intellection; in his craving for wholeness.”
In Halkin’s beautiful, haunting Melisande much like in the Yehuda Halevi biography there is the acknowledgement that marital love, no less than the decision to move, as Halkin did, to then-rusticated Zikhron Yaakkov requires a leap of faith, a belief in the permanence of at least one thing in life in the midst of the impermanence of nearly all else, a commitment to the ever-perilous notion of commitment that may well be the most romantic of all decisions one is likely ever to make.
Steven J. Zipperstein, a professor of Jewish history and culture at Stanford University, is the author of, most recently,Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History.