The “religious-seeking novel,” as Ruth Franklin calls it, has been making a splash recently. Roland Merullo’s The Talk-Funny Girl, William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, and most recently Christopher R. Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder have found rich meaning and entertaining stories in the religious search.
One title that is rarely mentioned, however, is Hillel Halkin’s Melisande! What Are Dreams? (Granta, 213 pages). On its most obvious level, the novel is a unique and moving study of marriage, a love letter to conjugal love. But it is a lot more than that. At the age of 72, when most writer’s gifts have long since begun to thin, Halkin discovered the secret to great fiction—the creation of characters who are so interesting and complex, so full of life, they do not remain subservient to the plot. They shake their limbs and step out of it. Readers of his earlier books (Across the Sabbath River, A Strange Death, and especially his superb biography of Yehuda Halevi, the best Jewish book of 2010) know that Halkin has always had an easy way with narrative, and he has always had an uncanny ability to give a sense of felt life even to personalities he finds disagreeable (for an early example see his “Open Letter to Edward Said”).
But their love is not a menage à trois. Mellie sleeps with Ricky, but only because he asks first (Hoo is too shy). When she becomes pregnant, Hoo drives her to New Hampshire for an abortion. She lies to Ricky, telling him that she miscarried, but he barely notices, because he has begun to fight the demons of a schizophrenia that will first institutionalize him and then drive him to suicide. Mellie and Hoo are left alone to discover that, in her words, “we’ll always find each other.”
Their wedding day is filled with signs and wonders, and then they transplant themselves to the Midwest, where Hoo has landed a job in the classics department at the University of Illinois. To chronicle their marriage, Halkin hits upon the splendid device of Hoo’s collecting the scraps of paper that Mellie leaves for him over the years, love notes, “honey do” lists, phone messages, which he slips into whatever book he is reading and rediscovers years later. It is their own private Geniza, which is only fitting since Halkin wrote the definitive account of the Cairo Geniza in his biography of Yehuda Halevi two years ago.
And perhaps this small example will hint at the astonishing intellectual richness of Melisande! What Are Dreams? The Cuban missile crisis, Sixties radicalism, the religious pilgrimage to India, the tough-mindedness of Keats’s romanticism, Greek classicism, the New Criticism, the delight of scholarship and the odium of academic politics—Halkin has original and illuminating things to say about hundreds of subjects, which are effortlessly woven into his story of Hoo and Mellie’s marriage. The novel never bogs down, because Halkin has a knack for the unexpected example, which operates like a button. Push it, and a world of learning gushes to the surface.
It’s merely a coincidence and perhaps a shame that Halkin’s book was published during the same season as Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, with which it has much in common (a triangle of friends and lovers, three lives lined with books and plenty of conversation and ideas). I am a huge admirer of Eugenides’s novel, but Halkin’s has a distinct charm—and not only because it is half the length. The messages differ too. Despite its title, Eugenides’s novel ends by suggesting that, in an age of moral confusion like our own, marriage is a lesser problem. Halkin’s message is that marriage is the moral problem. For Hoo and Mellie, the problem is magnified by childlessness (after her abortion, Mellie is unable to conceive):
We were only a couple. . . .
What is death? A vain to-do.
The truth belongs to love alone,
And, always fair one, I love you.
Melisande! What Are Dreams? is addressed to Mellie—a rare novel written in the second person—but it is a book for anyone who loves literature and its power to transform ordinary lives into everlasting wonders.