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Light Fell, a novel by Evan Fallenberg. Or, How not to host a family reunion

12/15/07

Reviewed by Lila Hanft, Cleveland Jewish News, 12/28/07

Light Fell. By Evan Fallenberg. Soho Books. New York. 2008. 229 pp. $22. (Read about Fallenberg here.)

In Light Fell, the debut novel of Cleveland native Evan Fallenberg, a 30-year-old Israeli scholar named Joseph Licht is blessed -- and cursed -- by an electrifying encounter with his soul mate. An immediate affinity occurs between Joseph and rabbi and scholar Yoel Rosenzweig, a tzadik (righteous one) renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge and depth of understanding: “It was the first time Joseph knew for a fact that he had a soul, because (Yoel’s) eyes had reached it, surrounding and assessing it. He at once sensed his own soul’s shape and depth and density.”

Joseph, a professor of literature, lives in a state of alienated irritation, though not misery, with his wife Rebecca and their five sons in the moshav where he grew up. When Yoel begins to tell him about his most recent research “passion,” the obscure phrase nafal nehora which translates as “light fell,” it’s a natural segue into a discussion of beauty, attraction and “true friendship.” Yoel has found the phrase in several “strange and wonderful stories” in the Babylonian Talmud about rabbis and sexual desire, including one which speaks of Rabbi Elazar’s love of Rabbi Yohanan’s luminous beauty.

“I don’t believe that the sages condemn the particular brand of attraction that existed between these two rabbis,” Yoel explains to Joseph. “They treat it as natural, a divine beauty whose eventual disappearance is really something to weep for.”

And so Yoel and Joseph embark on a highly romantic affair -- a marriage of true minds as well as bodies. But on the day Joseph leaves his wife and sons, Yoel, overwhelmed with guilt, kills himself. This leaves Joseph alone with his “shameful” sexuality (it’s 1976; he’s religious) and the painful fallout from his decision to abandon his family.

Fast forward 20 years: Joseph, turning 50, has arranged a birthday dinner party for himself and his five sons and one daughter-in-law in the elegant apartment he shares with his longtime lover, Pepe, a wealthy Brazilian who “keeps” Joseph in a state of luxury and privilege no college professor could afford.

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The interplay of desire, duty and identity is compellingly complex.
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It’s the first time Joseph and his five sons have been together in almost 20 years, although he has sustained varying degrees of closeness with all of them. The boys have grown in very different directions: The oldest, Danny, is a resentful, underachieving plumber. For Ethan, a career soldier, the structure of military life protects him from life’s uncertainties. Noam, secular and cosmopolitan, has long since made peace with his father’s sexuality. But Joseph’s “perversion” makes the religious son, Gidi, “damaged goods” in the eyes of his Orthodox community; his twin brother Gavri, the least mature of the sons, is a follower of a charismatic settlement leader with whom he suspects he may be in love.

The weekend they spend together is full of hostility, sadness, and criticism -- with a handful of redeeming moments in which the characters manage to connect to each other.

Fallenberg’s prose is spare but lyrical, and his handling of the narrative elements elevates the book beyond the clich├ęs of love stories or even coming-out stories. The interplay of desire, duty and identity is compellingly complex.

The characters’ preparations for the party, particularly Joseph’s orchestration of the meals and sleeping arrangements, brings to mind Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. In Light Fell, as in Mrs. Dalloway, the past is more than background to the present; it is an active force in the present.

But I wanted more for Joseph -- and more from him, as well. The promise of emotional intimacy in his relationship with Yoel is never fulfilled: he’s ambivalent about, if not downright resentful of, his relationship to Pepe.

Nor is he comfortably situated in the gay community -- he’s embarrassed by promiscuity, his aging body, and his sexual needs. Though the action takes place in 1995, Joseph still endures overt homophobia from his building’s doormen and his own children. The older, wiser Joseph may be more content and insightful about himself than the young, married Joseph, but he remains an isolated figure, outside the intimacy shared by his sons.

In this sense, Light Fell, although written in English by an American author, is quintessentially Israeli. It takes place, as does much contemporary Israeli fiction, in a world of constant argument and frustration, where everyday life is fraught with disappointment and every personal decision could -- and probably will -- set off unanticipated clashes with other people’s cultural, religious or economic realities. In a world where disappointment and loss are seen as constants, resignation is the philosophical stance these characters prefer.

At the end of Light Fell, Joseph does manage to save his life story from the most tragic interpretations by tearing up a crucial letter and tossing the pieces off his terrace. “‘You see, son,’ he shouts (to Danny) over the roar of wind and sea, his arms spread wide, ‘sometimes you just have to let go!’”

Booksigning: Author and translator Evan Fallenberg will be at Joseph-Beth Booksellers at Legacy Village, Mon, Jan. 7, at 7.
Sponsored by the Cleveland Jewish News, Soho Press, and Joseph-Beth Booksellers
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