Friday, June 29, 2012

Truth belongs to love alone

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”).

The three main characters of Melisande! What Are Dreams? are the sort of people you fall in love with. Ricky Silverman and “Hoo,” the book’s otherwise unnamed narrator, meet in their sophomore year of high school on Manhattan’s West Side. Although Ricky’s parents are members of the Communist Party, the two friends don’t talk much about politics. They are bored with the constant repetition of the same arguments. (They wouldn’t remain for long on today’s Left.) After sharing the usual boys’ passion for sports, they happen accidentally upon books. Ricky devours Camus’s The Rebel (“The rebel is the one who won’t give up,” he explains. “The question is, is he a schmuck or not”). And after that, the deluge:Ricky threw himself into books as if sure of finding the answer there. I followed, not wanting to be left behind. We emptied the shelves of the Bloomingdale branch of the public library on 100th Street like shoppers at a clearance sale. There was no rhyme or reason to any of it. We read Plato, and Hermann Hesse, and The Magic Mountain, and Portrait of the Artist, and Thus Spake Zarasthustra, swallowing all we could get down. I started Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death because it was mentioned as "seminal," a word I had to look up, in a paperback on existentialism I had bought at a second-hand stand and gave up after the first sentence. I read Look Homeward, Angel in three days, cutting school to do it. I read Alberto Moravia's Bread and Wine, and Sartre's Nausea, and D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers.I don’t care what anyone says about them. Book lists are chapters in the history of a personality. The story of an intellectual awakening has been told before, but never better—Halkin tells the story of three awakenings, which are tied together and distinct, like the knots of the tzitzit. Hoo and Ricky are joined by Mellie Millgram when the three are selected to edit their high school’s literary magazine. The daughter of Jewish refugees from Nazi-threatened Belgium, Mellie is the most romantic of the three. Her tastes run to Keats and a belief in the soul. (She studies under Lionel Trilling at Columbia.) Each of them is an only child; they know they take themselves too seriously (and so don’t); they openly love one another.

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 fought often. We had sworn to stay lovers, to shut out all the rest. But it was all the rest that deflected the sting of the foolish remark, the thoughtless act, the uncalled-for criticism, the insensitive thought. Children turned a couple into a small country with a government, a populace, laws and enforcement agencies. Its cabinet had to go on meeting even when its ministers were feuding.
       We were only a couple. . . .
Halkin’s message is hinted at in his somewhat ungainly but appropriate title. It is from Heinrich Heine’s 1851 Kunstballade (or “literary ballad,” an imitation of a German folk ballad) entitled Geoffroy Rudèl und Melisande von Tripoli. Heine tells the story of two lovers whose passion is given eternal life in a medieval tapestry hanging in the “Schlosse Blay.” The tapestry was embroidered by the countess of Tripoli, whose story it depicts. But let Halkin explain:Melisande was a countess married to a Crusader lord. Geoffrey was a French troubadour so smitten by the descriptions of her beauty that he set out from France for a glimpse of her. He fell ill aboard ship and arrived in Tripoli on the verge of death. Melisande heard that a dying poet was murmuring her name and hurried to see him. She fell in love with him at first sight and he died in her arms.Their first kiss, Heine sings, was the kiss of both greeting and goodbye; they emptied the chalice of highest joy and deepest sorrow. Every night, now, while everyone else is asleep, the lovers come alive, shake their limbs, and step out of the tapestry, continuing their never-ending conversation. Halkin, who is one of literature’s great translators, turns the central passage into English poetry:Melisande! What are dreams?
What is death? A vain to-do.
The truth belongs to love alone,
And, always fair one, I love you.
Sly and allusive, Halkin quotes the German line that occurs immediately before Geoffrey’s speech on dreams and death, but obliges the reader to hunt down an English translation. "The loving God performs this wonder!" Melisande marvels. This is the key that unlocks the mystery of the entire novel. Melisande! What Are Dreams? is a meditation on the theology of resurrection, the ultimate wonder of a loving God. The Christian doctrine of resurrection is quietly criticized here, and a spellbinding midrash on resurrection is told (or retold). But Halkin’s message is homelier, and belongs to this world instead of the next. A man earns resurrection by faithfully loving his wife, and perhaps by bringing his marriage back from the dead if he fails the first test.

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.