“What does it mean to love someone who isn’t there?” So asks Noa Weber, narrator of The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven (Melville House, $16.95), in her novel’s sober recounting of unrequited love.
Noa is 47 and living in modern-day Jerusalem when she tells the story of her one-sided love affair with the Russian journalist Alek. “Me and my love for Alek — which against my better judgment I experience as transcendence. Me with my dybbuk — which is the only thing that gives me a sense of space,” says Noa. She first meets Alek at the age of 17, at a leftist political gathering in his apartment, and in a sense Noa never leaves him or his apartment, where she remains long after he abandons her and their daughter.
Outwardly, Noa is the paradigm of the successful woman: a single mother who puts herself through law school, becomes a well-known activist and later the bestselling author of a series of feminist thrillers featuring the indomitable Nira Woolf. But secretly she is consumed with Alek. Although he eventually marries and starts a new family, he occasionally beckons her, and she rushes to him for trysts that she conceals from her daughter and her friends.
So is Noa Weber a feminist? An anti-feminist? A little of both? “I knew that Alek didn’t love me… . And nevertheless I wanted something, I longed for something. To be significant in his eyes. To be important to him. To be woven into his heart in a way that could never be unraveled,” says Noa.
This begs the question of why — for almost 30 years — a smart woman would “love something [she should] have loathed, and [not] love what was worthy of being loved enough?” The answer, it seems, is that Noa has no choice. Her love for Alek surpasses reason or understanding. Not surprisingly, such complete and utter abdication of self for a man who perpetually abandons Noa is difficult even for the reader to endure. Saving Confessions, however, is Hareven’s cool, graceful prose, carefully preserved in Dalya Bilu’s translation.
The novel is set in Israel, where “however far you went you’d end up meeting someone who knew your cousin’s cousin,” a place where wars are a part of the landscape and where politics seeps into everyone’s daily life.
Hareven is a well-known author and journalist in Israel, and the daughter of canonical Israeli author Shulamit Hareven. Her short fiction was recently published in The New Yorker, and Confessions, the winner of the prestigious Sapir Prize for Literature, is her first book to be translated into English. The novel’s Hebrew title is, “He whom my soul loves,” a verse taken from the Song of Songs — perhaps a more apt title, as it speaks to Noa’s total devotion to a love is larger than herself. As Noa says, “By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth. And perhaps it is not him whom my soul loves that I am seeking, but simply my soul.”
Abigail Pickus is a writer living in Jerusalem.