- Light Fell
Evan Fallenberg is best known for his wonderful translation of Meir Shalev's novel A Pigeon and a Boy. Fallenberg's debut novel, Light Fell, is an ambitious work touching on love between spouses, lovers, and parents and children; the conflict between homosexual desire and adherence to halakha; and the impact of parents' decisions on their children's lives. Unfortunately, it is also a major disappointment: the novel is plagued by implausibility, underdeveloped characters, and writing that pretends to lyricism but more often falls into mawkishness.
It is 1996 and Joseph, a literature professor, invites his five estranged sons to Shabbat dinner in his Tel Aviv apartment to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. Twenty years earlier Joseph had precipitously left his modern Orthodox moshav and his wife, children, and elderly father after falling in love with Rabbi Yoel Rosenzweig, a famous Torah scholar. His love was requited, but Yoel proved to be irremediably conflicted by his obedience to halakha. After only four months, Yoel committed suicide. After twenty years, and despite living with another man, Joseph is still not over Yoel. Against this backdrop, the action shuttles between Joseph's preparations for the dinner and the lives of his ex-wife and sons, and culminates in the dinner party and its aftermath.
The events leading to Joseph's life-changing decision are unconvincing. Joseph falls in love with Yoel while hearing him give a talk, and Yoel is equally smitten before even speaking with Joseph. The author scrambles to establish an antecedent for Joseph's homosexuality by having him suddenly remember being aroused at furtively witnessing anonymous sex in a men's bathroom while a graduate student at Harvard a few years before. The episode comes off as both gratuitous and improbable: why is it necessary that Joseph's desire for Yoel not be his first homosexual urge? And if this incident was so important, and took place so recently, why had Joseph forgotten about it so completely?
Though Yoel agonizes over their scandalous relationship more than Joseph, both realize that they are moving into dangerous and uncharted seas in a time (the 1970s) and community (Israeli Orthodoxy) uncompromisingly hostile to homosexuality. Ultimately, Yoel cannot reconcile his adherence to halakha with his homosexual desire.
The love scenes between the two men are wrapped in gauzy film, as if Fallenberg is afraid to offend or arouse. For all their love's transgressiveness and heartbreak, the portrayal of their relationship lacks substance and even borders on melodrama. On their last day together, "they did, in fact, for the [End Page 199] first time become one [have anal intercourse]. Joseph felt as if the chasm at the very center of his being had been filled with Yoel's love, and he rejoiced in his newfound wholeness and contentment."
Fallenberg can certainly muster an elegant sentence. Following a rich description of Joseph's cooking prowess, the author writes: "His desserts are the talk of his circle, designed to leave his panting guests cursing themselves for poor pacing." However, the book is studded with passages of failed lyricism. For example, when Joseph first locked gazes with Yoel: "[ Joseph's] vision blurred, and all he could see were these two eyes, cannonballs hurtling through the murkiness of his mind. It was the first time Joseph knew for a fact that he had a soul, because these eyes had reached it, surrounding and assessing it. He at once sensed his own soul's shape and depth and density. He could hear nothing but the roar of the cannonballs, and his legs seemed to grow roots below the marble floor."
Even passages that do not strain for lyric heights ring false. Shortly after Yoel's death, Joseph visits Yoel's house unannounced and asks to speak with his widow. "My husband's lover and assassin. How odd to be meeting you," are the widow's first words to Joseph. "Don't look so surprised, Monsieur Licht. He told me all about you and your filthy relationship the day before he slashed his wrists. . . . This has all been terribly hard...