Five Seasons

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Early in Five Seasons there is a reference to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), where harried Mr. Bennet has the problem of disposing of five marriageable daughters. Assuming the mantle of an Israeli Jane Austen, A. B. Yehoshua in Five Seasons portrays a middle-aged widower with an even more difficult problem: disposing of himself. For Molkho, a husband’s fantasy comes true: His wife dies of cancer, leaving him free to pursue other women. And why not? While caring for his wife during the seven years of her illness, he has faithfully abstained from sex. Nevertheless, in his encounters with five different women in the five seasons after his wife’s death, Molkho’s efforts to be wedded or bedded come to naught, although abetted by most of the women themselves, not to mention various hard-working matchmakers (including his mother and former mother-in-law) and even the state of Israel. Along the way, like Jane Austen, Yehoshua prolongs the suspense with shrewd character studies, cunning observations of manners, and deadly satire—all served up with post-Freudian psychological insight. (Not incidentally, Yehoshua, a literature teacher at the University of Haifa, is himself married to a psychoanalyst.)

In an opening reminiscent of Albert Camus’s L’Etranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946), Molkho’s wife conveniently dies in the novel’s first sentence, and soon other women are sizing him up at her funeral, eyeing him over her open grave. During the customary week of mourning, as visitors stream by to console the unshaven Molkho, a lot of hugging and kissing is going on. Before a month is up, an amateur matchmaker telephones Molkho to propose a match. Even his mother urges him to stay in circulation, though not to attend any movies or concerts: “You know what people will think. You’ve done the right thing until now.” Later on she offers him the following nugget of motherly advice: “For my part, you can have all the sex you want. Just don’t get involved too quickly. Try them out first. Try out a whole lot of them before you make up your mind.”

Thus, from the start, Five Seasons is animated by the perennial conflict between the letter and the spirit of the law. The characters are experts at knowing what is right but using what is proper to get around it. One does not know whether to be disgusted or to admire them for their honesty. At his wife’s deathbed, Molkho does “his best to mark the moment forever” of her 4 a.m. “passing.” In fact, he thoughtfully plays her some stereo music to die by—though he is not sure whether “the breathless, staccato hunting horns in the Mahler symphony ... were really the most suitable.” When she breathes her last, loving husband that he is, he goes outside to get some fresh air, savor “the exclusivity of his knowledge,” and muse, “Soon he, too, would be free.”

Yet, like Camus’s hero, Molkho is a stranger to himself: “His wife had often accused him of harboring unconscious motives.” Molkho assumes that everyone will admire him for sticking by his wife to the bitter end; therefore, he is astounded when his first girlfriend, the widowed legal adviser, accuses him of killing his wife. Yet why is he so upset if the accusation is not partly true? Has he not unconsciously wished his wife dead?

Indeed, Molkho is revealed as all too human in his weaknesses, his quirks. He inspects people’s bathrooms, examining the contents of their medicine cabinets and packed suitcases, and he peeks into the dying ward at an old people’s home. He conceives a lust for an eleven-year-old Indian girl at a kibbutz, where he also enjoys, among other things, eating lung-and-liver stew, watching a pornographic movie, and “inhaling the aroma of chicken dung.” He is petty and grasping about money, has atrocious tastes in food and music, and—no doubt summing it all up—works as an auditor for the Israeli government.

Still, Molkho is perhaps no more warped than the average person, and he does gradually gain the reader’s sympathy. This process is helped by the narrative point of view, restricted third person throughout, so that the reader is privy only to Molkho’s thoughts and activities. Indeed, if their innards were on display, some of the other characters might be seen as much worse than Molkho. For all his nosy curiosity, he is incredibly naive, the product of a sheltered and dull existence. He simply fails to recognize the full range of human depravity available around him. When the legal adviser makes a rendezvous with him in Berlin, is it only...

(The entire section is 1897 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Booklist. LXXXV, January 1, 1989, p.753.

Chicago Tribune. February 12, 1989, XIV, p.5.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, November 15, 1988, p.1638.

Library Journal. CXIII, December, 1988, p.135.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 26, 1989, p.2.

The New Republic. CC, February 27, 1989, p.34.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, January 29, 1989, p.1.

The New Yorker. LXV, March 6, 1989, p.111.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, December 2, 1988, p.44.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 6, 1989, p.1103.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, February 5, 1989, p.7.