Forgetting

Nicholas Spice

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.

Neurosis is the solution, not the problem. Part of the brilliance of A Late Divorce lies in the way it articulates this commonplace of psychoanalytic lore. At the same time, it demonstrates that the problem to which so much neurotic behaviour represents the solution is the problem of division, the chief propagator of division being the family. The Kaminka family has eight members, nine if you count Tsvi’s lover. Yehoshua gives equal attention to the divisions within each of these nine characters as well as to the divisions between each and the rest, so the complexity and density of A Late Divorce can be imagined. The fact that it is at all readable is the result of Yehoshua’s formidable technical command. Like someone writing a nine-part fugue, he marshals his material within the tightest of formal frameworks. He rations time, place and action with a parsimony that is reminiscent of Neoclassical theatre, and rejects the expansive perspectives of conventional storytelling in favour of various techniques designed to simulate direct transcription from the life. A large part of the narrative is conducted through internal monologues in which individual characters give a running commentary on the action as they experience it. Other methods of presentation include long stretches of dialogue where one side of the conversation is missing, and a verbatim record of a session in psychotherapy.

Yehoshua is a highly conscious technician and everything he does has a point. For example, the technique of thought transcription allows him to represent the gap between his characters’ self-awareness (which is considerable) and their ability (which is low) either to communicate what they know about themselves or to act upon it. And, by varying the intensity with which his characters talk to themselves in the second and third person, he suggests where there might be a continuum between sanity and madness. Naomi’s periodic conviction that she is actually two people may rightly count as mad, but it is only a particularly open acknowledgement, Yehoshua seems to imply, of divisions that are seminal in all of us, and in some of us well-developed.

A Late Divorce embodies a remarkable understanding of the reasons why people behave as they do, as well as enacting that behaviour precisely on every page. Technically, it is superb. Yet for all that, it left me feeling vaguely dissatisfied. Both times I read it I was gripped, amused and instructed by it, only to find it go dead on me when I put it down. This failure of the book to resonate beyond itself seems to have something to do with the control Yehoshua exercises over his material. It is as though he had custom-built the book to accommodate his insights, rather than simply created it for itself. The chapter devoted to Tsvi’s hour of psychoanalysis aptly focuses this peculiarity. As in every other chapter of A Late Divorce, we are plunged straight in:

‘I wonder if I should confess that today I actually felt a twinge of impatience to see you. I wasn’t late this time either, did you notice?’

   ‘Of course.’

Tsvi has been under analysis for several weeks, yet he remains hostile to the enterprise. He launches into an aggressive tirade against it, downgrading it to ‘a fifty-minute beauty treatment for one’s dried-out ego’, and deploring its constitutional sophistry – ‘the automatic incorporation of all opposition to a system into the system itself’. From here he moves crabwise to a speculation about his analyst’s supper – he thinks he smelt cauliflower on the stairs. ‘Why cauliflower?’ muses the analyst: perhaps because it ‘resembles a brain’, perhaps because Tsvi wishes to portray him as ‘a man who eats brain all the time ... a person who is all cerebral technique’. And so it goes on. Reflections on Yehuda’s visit and the history of the Kaminka family situation lead to a dream and an interpretation. Things begin to fall into place and by the end of the session Tsvi’s resistance to the exercise has collapsed. ‘We still have a long way to go,’ says the analyst. ‘I can’t wait,’ says Tsvi.

As usual, Yehoshua’s sense of what is appropriate to a character cannot be faulted here. Fixated on himself, elaborately narcissistic, possessed of a rich gift of the gab (‘his graphic much too clever tongue’), Tsvi is exactly the kind of person to bloom in the psychotherapeutic setting. And bloom is what he does, shooting up and opening his petals like a flower in Fantasia. Charm, extroversion, wit, banter, self-assurance, insecurity, childishness and fear: by the end of the chapter we see it all. We also have an admirably balanced look-alike of a session in psychotherapy. As a piece of fiction, however, the chapter is unsatisfactory, perhaps fundamentally misconceived. Since the essence of psychotherapeutic dialogue is its waywardness (the unconscious thoughts of the patient revealing themselves unpredictably through free association), any attempt to represent it as though verbatim will by definition defeat itself. Tsvi’s session with his analyst inevitably seems artificial and staged. It unfolds its surprises with as much uncertainty as a Platonic Dialogue, or a TV advertisement for soap powder, or one of those kids’ drawings that materialise when water is washed over them.

To a lesser extent, this is the drawback to the book as a whole. Yehoshua’s wish to represent the family as a set of seamless Möbius relations necessarily dictates his absence from the narrative. And by letting his characters speak for themselves he has made the symbolic point that no one in such matters has the right or is in a position to judge. In this, he has adopted an attitude to his characters similar to that of an analyst to his patients: cultivated negative capability. But negative capability, as John Bayley has frequently pointed out, cannot, by definition, be cultivated. Absence consciously striven for becomes conspicuous. A Late Divorce has no controlling narrator, but Yehoshua is present on every page of it: as the man performing the vanishing trick. His presence, like the presence of the analyst in the therapeutic relationship, cannot be outflanked by his characters (I almost said patients), whose freedom consequently comes to seem like the frantic freedom of someone trying to get out of a cage. Moreover, their spontaneity appears contrived to a specific end. The random ceases to be random. There is no smell of cauliflower on the stairs.

Yehuda Kaminka’s flight back to America, to his new life, his new wife, leaves at midnight on the first day of Passover. As the day advances, and the last rites of family farewells drag elaborately to their conclusion, his mind keeps wandering to what lies ahead, what lies behind. In the middle of a specially ludicrous and tense lunch party (his ‘divorce party’) he reflects: ‘But I was leaving everything behind. Out there the land of frozen lakes was lit by a fiery dawn now, the red-bulbed trucks were thundering down the turnpikes like flying Christmas trees.’ Momentarily we glimpse another world – northern, romantic, mysterious, vast – antipodean to the one in which Yehoshua’s characters are trapped where shadows have sharp edges and every corner is lit by the bright sunlight of an Israeli spring. This other world is the world of Jayne Anne Phillips’s Machine Dreams, a novel in which Yehuda and Naomi Kaminka would have been temperamentally much more at home.

Like Yehoshua, Phillips shares out much of the responsibility for telling the story between her main characters. However, the narratives of Jean and Mitch Hampson and their daughter Danner are not blow-by-blow accounts of the action as it happens, but reminiscences uttered from some point outside the time-span of the novel. They are supplemented by stretches of conventional narrative, as well as sequences of letters and transcripts of dreams. Reminiscence creates imaginative depth, and Phillips makes full use of the memories of her older characters, Mitch and Jean, to deepen the perspectives of Machine Dreams from its outset. Their tales of childhood in West Virginia, and the remembered fragments of what their parents told them, push the story’s origins back into a penumbra sometime around the beginning of the century, creating a sort of resonating chamber for the main action of the book, which takes place between 1942 and 1972. ‘Action’ is perhaps the wrong word, because not a great deal happens in Machine Dreams. Not much, that is, beyond the routine dramas and catastrophes that fill an average life: birth, marriage, divorce, war, disease and death.

Mitch serves a couple of years in the Far East fighting the Japanese. As labour foreman with units in New Guinea and the Philippines, he gets off lightly. By the standards of that campaign he experiences unexceptional horrors: shovelling a pile of rotten bodies into a mass grave with a bulldozer, shooting a man dead. Back in Bellington, West Virginia, after knocking about for a bit, living with aunt Bess and uncle Clayton, dating girls, Mitch marries Jean Danner and they start a family. Mitch and Clayton set up in business together, but when Clayton drops dead ‘Mitch Concrete’ has to be sold and Mitch goes back to selling plant for a larger company. His career and his marriage deteriorate in tandem.

Jean marries Mitch three weeks after first meeting him. She is 20, he 35. She is attracted to his patience, to his being a ‘perfect gentleman’, but she marries him because she is scared, scared of what will happen to her when her mother, who is in the last stages of cancer, is dead. The marriage never really works. As Mitch grows sullen, withdrawn and violent, Jean turns away from him to her children. When they are old enough, she divorces him. ‘I only kept going,’ she tells Danner, ‘to make you safe. It turned out I couldn’t keep anyone safe. Not you. Not Billy.’

Half-way through Machine Dreams attention shifts from the parents to the children, from Jean and Mitch to Danner and her kid brother Billy. The story of their growing up together, and of their deep mutual love, is picked out in a sequence of scenes and incidents (a radio parade, a high-school dance, a clandestine trip to a rural aerodrome before a summer airshow), rather than developed through a continuous narrative. It culminates in 1970, when Billy, who has dropped out of college and drawn a bad number in the draft lottery, gets sent as a helicopter gunner to Vietnam. There are letters home, then a telegram from the US Army, then a letter from Billy’s mate, Robert Taylor: ‘We had no word of a hot zone but we came in very hot ...’

In my view, Phillips would have been wise to end her novel here, omitting the thirty pages which stand between the letter from Robert Taylor and the book’s brief dream coda. The poignancy of Billy’s loss is the more unbearable for the way we, like Billy’s family, learn of it: through desultory messages received from ever more distant places, telling of stranger and stranger experiences, until the sudden cut-off and then silence. Nothing more needs to be said. But instead of ending here, Phillips starts the book again: ‘My father owned a concrete plant. He wore khaki shirts and work pants ...’ It is Danner speaking. Her recapitulation is like a sort of keening. It enacts the autism of grief (as if Danner didn’t know we’d already heard the story once) – the desperation of bereavement which seeks through telling a story over and over again to extract an explanation or alter its outcome. But at the same time it interrupts our own grief, and hands the book over to Danner, who has hitherto been only one of the main characters, not the main character, and, if anything, the least interesting figure in the book. Danner is also the character we are most likely to identify the author with, and her distress and bitterness at Billy’s disappearance gives an autobiographical feeling, which is otherwise wholly absent from Machine Dreams. What Phillips does best – and it is a measure of her quality as a writer – is not the description of states of mind and feeling which could plausibly be her own, but the description of those which are most unlikely to be.

Implicit in A Late Divorce is the recognition that the dispensation ordering man’s condition is a harsh one. But it is the misery that man hands on to man, not the arbitrary cruelties or indifference of the gods that immediately concerns Yehoshua. The opposite is true of Jayne Anne Phillips. Indeed, in its prevailing mentality, Machine Dreams could scarcely be more different. Its deepest aversion is to Freudian materialism and its off-shoots, to that view of man which makes him chiefly the dupe of himself rather than of providence. Explicitly, this erupts only once within the story, when Danner assaults the psychiatrist who has been counselling her on the loss of her brother. But it is implied everywhere in the novel, from the opening sentence – ‘It’s strange what you don’t forget’ – to the final haunting dream that brings it to a close. While Yehoshua’s characters are fluent in the language of psychologists, quick with explanations (‘You’re a small boy, angry because I left you,’ ‘I identify with whoever comes close to me,’ and so on), the characters in Machine Dreams are inarticulate and perplexed. When Yehuda’s daughter Ya’el cannot remember something, she asks herself, ‘What was I trying to repress?’ and soon comes up with an explanation. Jean Hampson, trying to understand her life, simply draws a blank: ‘None of her questions had answers.’ ‘What journey was this, and where were we all going?’ asks Danner, echoing the book’s constant refrain a few pages from the end. But no answer is forthcoming. Behind Bellington Main the interstellar spaces fold upon fold retreat into silence. This fundamental inexplicability of things is compounded for Phillips’s characters by their uncertainty about what it is exactly that needs explaining. Emerson’s dictum ‘Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion’ might aptly stand as the motto of the book.

Machine Dreams repudiates psychodynamic certainties by declaring that forgetting is the rule, remembering the exception; by constantly questioning the primacy of the rational over the merely intuited; and by suggesting that the obscure significance we sense in our memories and dreams points outwards to the cosmos, not inwards to our personalities.