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Nurit Zarchi | from:Hebrew

Madame Bovary from Neveh Tsedek

Translated by : Mirjam Meerschwam Hadar

Like at other periods of metaphysical ardor, at this time too, the body (that of a woman, to be sure) wasn’t taken very seriously.  This may be why even the dockworkers in the port that day didn’t notice a woman disembarking from a dinghy in the port of Jaffa, whose legs, below her dark, collared dress, were without feet.  These were, as said, times of metaphysical ardor, and we must understand the lack in that very spirit, and include this woman in the family of creatures that culture has crossbred between fantasy and biology: the unicorn, the child immaculately conceived, ministering angels, Mephisto, and the Loch Ness monster.

She was assigned a house on the beach of Tel Aviv. It did not take long before she was joined there by a well-known editor of matters of public and spiritual interest, at a paper in which she published her stories – stories that charmed him greatly. As was to be expected, in the deep sea tradition, he was doomed to drown. But before this came to pass, the woman gave birth to his daughter, a regular girl in all respects, and so as soon as she stood on her own two feet, she was put in charge of looking after her mother, whose only nourishment was grains and grasses which the girl collected from neighbors’ gardens and from the beach. And claiming that her mother was her teacher, the girl never visited school.

When the father crossed the sea to collect money from Diaspora Jews for building up the country, the girl and her mother stayed in this wooden house by the sea, as though they were living on an island, and other than the writers and poets who wrote for the paper, and who got together in their house once a week, no one came in. Like buzzing flowers, they circled the figure of the hostess, slim like a black wasp, who lay in bed, all covered, her hair tied together, exposing her dark, heart-shaped face, the white collar of her dress accentuating the hue of her eyes that burned with a black fire, part evil and part mournful.  The girl too hovered like a dark butterfly with one damaged wing, pouring tea into tin mugs for the guests. They were all men, except for one English woman, who got herself into trouble with a man who brought her here and then ditched her. She did not return to her own country, her parents’ home, maybe out of pride, or for other reasons.

Because it was dark, those who looked through the window could not make out the sea, but the waves’ tumult entered the room, rising and falling, by turns, as if the little house were a shell or an ear whose depths the boom was supposed to drown out, to reveal something, to conceal completely, and get in the way of making any sense.

Meanwhile, the visitors sat and discussed Hebrew literature and what made it stand out, about its connection to the renewal of life here in this land. Lisbeth, the English poet, who in the yishuv was called by the name Elisheva, tried to raise her voice above the sea’s din and the others’ voices and said that literature needs its conceit, much like poetry, whose truth is at the same time its lie, that is, the attempt to catch hold of the stream of nothingness, the void, above which everything hovers, the absence in the very belly of words; being before the first day. The gentlemen seated around the bed protested vigorously: It’s sinful, they said, to think of poetry as a kind of hovering over the abyss. After all, we find ourselves in this life for the purpose of confirming it and to create a new world, to write new literature which replaces zero by one, and all this, in order to create the New Man. For what is literature if not a looking glass which reflects to man asleep his image fully awake.

“I drink to the life of contemporary man,” said one of the gentlemen and raised his empty tin mug, and all the gentlemen raised theirs and called out: “Here’s to the community, the individual’s salvation!” And this is how the evening came to its end.

“Will you be writing to Rabinovitch?” asked the visitors, as they were taking their leave, one after the other – S.Czaczkes, 1 S. Ben-Zion, 2 A. Siskind, 3 and Y. Zarchi 4 – adding, before stepping out onto the sandy path, “Give him our best regards and tell him we’re keeping our eyes open.” And Lisbeth too, a little embarrassed, sent her wishes so it wouldn’t seem that because of one man’s offense she was now holding a grudge against all the men in the world. 

The hostess however felt no need to justify the letters she did not write. Privately she believed that every husband is nothing but his wife’s hangman, and also the other way around.  She had a personal memory of a garden full of wild raspberry bushes which covered the riverbank, the river whose waters set her father’s flour mill into motion. That was where she and her brother played before her mother died, and also, after some time, where she joined him to study from his books by night what he studied during the day. Though that room held no more than a small table, one chair and a bed, she lacked for nothing.  It was only after his death, when she arrived at the coast and disembarked onto this land, that she felt her feet had remained there, and maybe  she had never had any in the first place.

Now the sea’s din abated. She turned down the oil lamp, whose shadow fell onto the tense face of the girl asleep in the chair – she who was born to a sorrow not produced by her life’s experience but which was nevertheless beyond her power to keep at bay. She returned to the table, opened the window, and looked out. The sea was utterly quiet. No one passing could have known that this expanse of dark continent was nothing other than the sea. She pondered what the gentlemen and the lady had been talking about.  What is this here and what this now, she wondered, and what is the manifold, if only one sorrow always enfolds all wars, epidemics, and disappointments, because what you are able to suffer is necessarily the greatest suffering you can experience in this world. And time, what is time if it isn’t small links of pain that keep emerging every moment. She dipped the quill in her ink and began to write.

But tonight more than at other times, perhaps because of the gentlemen’s words which still lingered in the room, she felt the impotence of tales of the past: the small town, her father’s flour mill, her grandmother the rabbi’s wife and her spotted cow. She obviously must be wary of these gentlemen and stay safely in the little house, keep intact her world which was so fragile, so transparent that it took just one word to burst the bubble. Not an incessant nothingness, she thought, but an incessantly flickering electricity with which the brain hit the word, or the other way around, and one dead word would do to remove its root of fire and turn it into a mummified part.

She knew that those little stories would come back to her,  but not tonight, and she felt how her gray brain lay orphaned from itself, heavy and lifeless, in the crown of her head, like a stone or a dead fish. Then she opened the door and sat down on the bench on the porch.

A tiny fishing boat, it must be Arab, cast a very slim ray of light which entered through the eyelashes like a net.

“Bon soir!”

Someone approached from the sea and sat down by her side. It was a woman, a lady, and she introduced herself:

“Je suis Madame Bovary”.

Worried, the owner of the house looked to her sides. Madame Bovary, of all people, who the yishuv members, and the editorial board, considered the epitome of vacuity, of the corruption of feeling, was it she of all people who had to appear and sit down here by her side on the bench? In fact, even though the owner of the house felt a mixture of fondness and revulsion for her, she had always believed that if she ever got the opportunity to meet her, she might give her some useful advice. First, that the men she had decided to love, this Madame, were chosen neither intelligently nor in good taste. Even had she not been one of those women possessed by the dybbuk of having children, she might definitely have done with a little more imagination and delight in her genius for falling in love, and understood, after so much experience, that true hunger is a hunger never stilled; yet now that she actually emerged from the sea and sat next to her and she moreover had the chance to say it, she wondered whether there was any point left to it.

Madame was sitting there, wrapped in her black hood, like a Capuchin friar, but the owner of the house did not immediately say what was on her mind; instead she said: “Madame, what are you looking for here, at my place?”

Her coarse intonation made Bovary shiver, an intonation of the kind they used, in the yishuv-under-construction, with those women who were considered useless citizens, those who yearned for flirtations on nights when the hot desert wind deprived them of their sleep, for salons bathing in shadow, for pianos and for the touch of silk on a white, smooth thigh, for wild senseless weeping; but Madame did not reply and did not even remove from her head the dark hood which hid her face. The sound of the sea rose momentarily, blotting out this malicious remark to the visitor: “What was this mythology of love such that, in your foolishness, you assumed your role was that of a goddess, and to make it worse, alongside those who were many times cleverer than you, foxes of a minor existence?

“And on what intuition?” she continued with a lowered voice, because in those days that substance was not really recognized. “And if dramatic theater was what you were after, what kind of heroes did you come up with –  some village apothecary and a bank clerk, and then that pathetic finale you arranged for yourself?”

“L’amour,” spoke Madame, and the word quivered, lifting briefly above the smooth Jaffa sands before being swallowed: “Who can even imagine a life without love?”  Having said this, she held her head high like a heroine facing the guillotine. “I had to fall in love with one idiot or another. How could I have left it to the writer?! How could I trust him to give me a decent hero who would be able to make use of everything he himself, the writer, had put into me, all my gifts, my power, my will; so what if I used my own imagination a bit to help him along? The heroine, too, after all, has some responsibility for the story.”

The sea crashed, its sound like the wind blowing through corn stalks. The two women looked each other straight in the eye. Madame was the first to lower her head and she whispered: “And if you want to know the truth, all this didn’t depend on me.  It was Gustave who took me for a ride.”

“It’s hard to blame another person when you’ve allowed him to live in your stead,” said the owner of the house, her voice harsh,  “But letting him get away with dumping you  just because his imagination had run dry, that’s overdoing it. Nobody told you to. And you should have known that, being a man, he was never on your side.”

Now the little boat near the beach could be made out. The lights on its deck swung in the wind making it hard to tell in what direction it was heading, or whether it was coming or going.

“What did you want me to do?” asked Madame, “We’re all actors performing the dialogue we were given, whether by nature, culture, the times, or God above, you might call it catechism, apology, karma, fate. It’s like when that nun confesses to the priest about the man who appears in her erotic hallucinations, and the priest answers her mockingly: “All you need is to wake up, dear lady. The dream, including its heroes, are the products of your sleep.”

She’s right, thought the owner of the house, without admitting it, of course we cannot wake up from our dream. Only the convinced, priests and the like, they are the ones who pretend, moronic enough to believe it. For the dream is our true nature – and how can we escape it?  She was at a loss.

The two sat there in silence.

“But anger?” the owner of the house suddenly said, remembering somewhat hopefully. “Isn’t anger even more powerful than the imagination?” She turned to with renewed vividness, “You should have taken your revenge on that feeble fat man La Bovary who took his pleasure from you as if you were him, when he pretended that your deceit rather than his own inability led to your end. Why didn’t you revolt?”

Madame rose from the bench, her figure darker even than the darkness.

“I never could,” she said and lifted the hem of her dress, exposing her feetless legs – and then she vanished.

The owner of the house remained seated as she was for a long time, until the dark air grew thinner, like aluminum foil children smooth with their nails, and turned transparent until the morning’s white light pierced it.

Still, she said to herself, as she got up from where she had sat, I won’t allow anyone, not even fate, to pull me along like that as though I had no anger. I will stand within my anger like Honi the Circledrawer who drew a circle around himself. And as for the foot, even if it’s only in our imagination, even then we must dedicate ourselves to it lovingly, no matter to whom it belongs – the writer or the hero of the story – for no one can tell us that the foot on which we stand in our imagination, against the story, exists more, or less, for real than the story itself.

She entered the house, picked up the book she was reading from the table, got into her bed, rested the book against the slate she held on her knees, and began to pour the sentences from French into Hebrew: “That wonderful spectacle that was so deeply engraved in Emma’s memory, seemed to her more beautiful than anything a person could imagine.”


4
  1. Shmuel Yosef Halevi Czaczkes was the birthname of the Hebrew writer S.Y.Agnon (1888-1970).
  2. Simhah Ben Zion. pseudonym of Hebrew and Yiddish author Simhah Alter Gutmann (1870–1932.
  3. Writer Alexander Siskind Rabinowitz, 1854-1954.
  4. Writer Israel Zarchi, 1909-1947.
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