Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 782
My Michael begins as an epistolary novel set in Jerusalem in the 1950’s, a place and time which constituted, as Amos Oz has said, “a Jewish anticlimax after the tragedies and achievements of the forties.” The novel consists of the journal entries of Hannah Gonen, a despairing Israeli housewife retracing the important events and aspirations of her young life. From the beginning, she tells the reader mysteriously that she is keeping her record specifically “because people I loved have died...because when I was young I was full of the power of loving, and now that power of loving is dying. I do not want to die.” Her power to love and to live becomes inextricably interwoven with her ability to separate dream from reality in her journal, an ability which fails her as the novel moves to its denouement.
What begins as a seemingly straightforward, dispassionate chronology of events soon devolves into an idiosyncratic, often fragmentary account of Hannah’s mental life as she walks through the ruins of her adulthood and her disintegrating marriage. Hannah attempts to forge a coherent pattern to her life. Yet she discovers not only “a sameness in the days and a sameness in me” but also “something which is not the same. I do not know its name.” Hannah begins her attempt at naming this vague discomfort by recording the facts of her marriage to Michael Gonen. Hannah had met Michael, to whom she constantly refers as “my Michael,” by chance, while an undergraduate literature student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His dry, pragmatic pursuit of a Ph.D. in geology contrasts with Hannah’s passionate and lyrical literary tastes. Michael is neither witty nor particularly imaginative, yet Hannah is drawn to his stability and settledness.
Their courtship and eventual wedding are described in precise but ironically unromantic terms as something inevitable, a relationship which neither exactly chose but which seemed somehow appropriate to them. The matter-of-factness and ambivalence with which Hannah recounts these events foreshadow her eventual estrangement from her husband and their mode of life. Hovering over their budding relationship is the brooding, divided city of Jerusalem, whose “villages and suburbs surround it in a close circle like curious bystanders surrounding a wounded woman lying in the road.” Thus, Jerusalem itself emerges in her imagination as a haunting presence and a competing rival for Michael’s attention and devotion.
From the concreteness of this early episode, Hannah’s narrative soon shuttles violently between her inner and outer life; reminiscence, daydream, and the banal details of her “real” existence coalesce, and she is increasingly unable to distinguish between sleeping and waking. She thinks often of her childhood, remembering fondly her bout with diphtheria, which offered “a state of freedom,” a dose of attention from her parents and doctors that gave her a sense of worth. Upon recovering from the illness, she felt “exiled,” and she carried away from her childhood a “vague longing to fall seriously ill.” Her most alarming preoccupation, however, stems from the innocent but problematic relationship she recalls with the twin Arab boys of her adolescence, Halil and Aziz. Her frequent reveries of sexual debasement at their hands temporarily distract her from the empty, unfulfilled life she lives with Michael but underscore her disturbing disengagement from the events of her everyday existence.
As Michael climbs the ladder of moderate academic success, the amiability that has characterized their marriage turns to mere tolerance, precluding true intimacy or friendship. Even the birth of her son, Yair, provides no meaningful entry into a more public world for Hannah; at an early age, Yair becomes enamored of his father and paternal grandfather, Yehezek Gonen, sharing his greatest confidences with them. In one incident, emblematic of their growing mistrust of each other, Michael childishly intimates that she is responsible for the disappearance of a cat he has brought home for Yair. Dishonoring Hannah in front of their obviously spoiled son, Michael implies that Yair may get his way by learning to bully and throw tantrums.
As his career is eclipsed by the discrediting of his geological theories and their money dwindles, Michael becomes a more sulking, insensitive partner. In defense, Hannah submerses herself in her private fears and secret dreams. Disengaged from her past by her father’s death and from the present by Michael’s aloofness, Hannah resigns herself to the death of their marriage (“without touching each other”) and resolves to find her release in sleep. The frenzied climax of the novel finds Hannah in a familiar daydream, her mind drifting to a now grown-up Halil and Aziz, whom she accompanies on a guerrilla mission to disrupt the daily lives of Jerusalem’s population.
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