- A Late Divorce by A.B. Yehoshua, translated by Hillel Halkin
Harvill, 352 pp, £8.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 00 271448 5
- Machine Dreams by Jayne Anne Phillips
Faber, 331 pp, £8.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 571 13398 3
Anyone who has had experience of the sad and subtle ways in which human beings torment one another under licence of family ties will appreciate the merits of A.B. Yehoshua’s A Late Divorce. The public for the book should therefore be large. Yehoshua is an Israeli writer writing about Israelis (the action of A Late Divorce takes place in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem one spring in the late Seventies), so only those readers with an intimate feeling for life in modern Israel will be able to measure fully the accuracy and depth of the book’s portraiture. But the reach of Yehoshua’s satiric talent extends far beyond his immediate subject-matter. If his characters are typically Israeli, they are also typically human. Whether they verge at times on being stereotypically so is open to argument. That, after all, is the great danger in writing satire, and I am not clear that Yehoshua has entirely avoided it.
When, after almost forty years of married life, Naomi Kaminka attacked her husband Yehuda with a kitchen knife, she was in two minds about why she was doing it. Her double, her ‘wandering wild other’, grabbed the knife eagerly, intending to kill him, while she, snatching the knife back, wanted only to cut him loose, to free him, to divide up his ‘stubborn mono-self’ into its original constituents. Yehuda dodged the blow, so that Naomi neither killed him nor freed him from himself, but merely grazed him with the knife, inscribing on his chest a lasting scar, ‘a hooked line like a reddish beak’. Two years later, as dawn breaks over Haifa on the first day of Passover, the last day of a nine-day visit to Israel during which he has finally and with much trouble divorced his wife, Yehuda sits on a rock near his daughter’s home and thinks to himself: ‘Sitting on this rock unbuttoning your shirt airing out your scar contemplating it pleasurably scratching it here by yourself in this lush moist brush’. Yehuda’s scar is as much a source of pleasure to him as it is a reminder of past pain. He is proud of it. It comforts him. He has adopted it as his personal emblem, a visible sign justifying to the outside world his sense of himself as victim. Groping for his shirt buttons has become a reflex, an automatic gesture in a drama of self-pity that he is compelled to re-enact for every stranger he meets.
Yehuda believes that he has come to Israel to divorce Naomi in order to be free, but his compulsive use of the occasion to dramatise his need to be loved shows how deeply attached to his prison he is. Not surprisingly, when he gets his freedom, he is at a loss to know what to do with it. Rather than accept it, he engineers his own destruction. There are other characters in A Late Divorce whose attachment to the conditions of their misery makes it difficult for them to develop happily and freely and without multiplying more misery around them. Dina, Yehuda’s hypnotically beautiful daughter-in-law, is still a virgin. She cannot break through her sexual inhibitions, consummate her marriage and have a child, because she needs her frigidity to punish her parents (who are desperate for a grandchild). Her husband Asa uses the anger he feels against his parents (Yehuda and Naomi) to power a brilliant academic career and to elaborate a highly serviceable image of himself as an intellectual subversive and emotional martyr. Tsvi, his older brother, has opted for a view of himself as degenerate and immoral, at once burlesquing the father he despises, and punishing him through the surrogate of a homosexual lover, the 54-year-old banker Refa’el Calderon, whose infatuation he mercilessly exploits.