“The Extra,” by A.B. Yehoshua (translated by Stuart Schoffman), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pp., $24
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In his collection of essays “Between Right and Right,” Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua remarks on “words that get worn down and have to be returned to the mint in order to regain their precision, to have the fine engraving that constitutes their meaning restored.”
In “The Extra,” his finely etched new novel, Yehoshua’s coin is the unquiet psyche of a 42-year-old Jerusalem-born harpist who plays for an orchestra in Holland. Noga, a pretty divorcée, resembles her musical instrument: unconventional, solitary, cumbersome and, under a touch as practiced and precise as Yehoshua’s, capable of sounding many tones.
We learn that Noga’s husband, Uriah, left her because she refused to bear children, and that she had secretly aborted a child they conceived. Noga felt his love as a confinement: “To enslave me,” she tells Uriah, “you wanted to be enslaved to me.” So she escaped from servitude into self-fulfillment, and has chosen to live elsewhere: outside her native Israel, and outside of motherhood. She senses that both choices are inadmissible to Israeli pieties.
“The Extra” (originally published in Hebrew as “Nitzevet,” also the name of King David’s mother) opens with Noga being called back to Jerusalem half a year after her father’s death. As in his novel “A Late Divorce,” Yehoshua brings his main character back to Israel after an absence to discover how much of herself, if anything, remains behind. At the urging of her younger brother, a secular media producer in Tel Aviv, Noga takes a three-month leave from her orchestra to house-sit her mother’s rent-controlled flat — and her own childhood home — while the recently widowed woman tries out "assisted living” in Tel Aviv. It’s an experiment: Where will the mother choose to live out her life?
“If it ends successfully, all well and good; I too will be reassured and happy,” Noga tells her brother. “If not, we will both hang our heads in humility, and reconcile ourselves to her desire to end her life at the same place where Abba ended his. You will be absolved of any guilt before God and man. That way you can also forgive me for leaving Israel.”
But this is also an experiment of dislocation for the daughter. Once in Jerusalem, Noga sleeps uneasily. Her father’s black suit still hangs darkly in the closet. Two ultra-Orthodox boys sneak in to watch television. She adds a bolt to the door, but she cannot lock out Mekor Baruch, a neighborhood much changed since she grew up there. “In the entire building, perhaps the entire street, this is the sole remaining bastion of secularism,” she says. The “black coats,” she fears, have taken over.
Noga has left her harp behind in the Netherlands and to pass the time, she takes work as a film extra: She plays a member of a jury that finds a young woman accused of killing her husband guilty; a wheelchair-bound cripple in a hospital drama; and a gypsy hauling a cart of children in a production of “Carmen” staged at the foot of Masada.
Noga inhabits the stories and imaginations of others. She finds solace in lapsing into a lack of agency. An extra, as her mother chides her, is someone “without a mind of their own or power of their own.”
Uriah, re-married but still “bleeding with love for his first wife,” mourns the past, mourns the child they never had, stalks Noga during her assignments as an extra and finally confronts her. He is a bereaved father, a type familiar to readers of Yehoshua’s early novella, “Early in the Summer of 1970,” and his novels “Friendly Fire” and “The Lover.” In Yehoshua’s novel “Five Seasons,” the main character remarks that, “the dead keep giving us orders.”
Here, the child never given a chance to live keeps summoning Uriah back to Noga, who after years of repression is awakened to the possibility of trying again. Her mother urges just that: “Listen to what a wise woman has to say to a beloved daughter; hear me out and don’t interrupt. Give [Uriah] that child, give it to him, and that way some real part of you will remain in this world, not just musical notes that vanish into thin air.”
But convinced she can no longer conceive, the beloved daughter must draw her experimental interlude to a close.
In the final dreamlike movement of Yehoshua’s novel, Noga’s mother chooses to return to Jerusalem, and Noga, desperate to perform again, returns to Holland, leaving behind her brother “in a country that never ceases to be a threat to itself, saddled with a demanding family and a lonely mother who insists on growing old in an old apartment.”
Noga’s much-anticipated first performance after her Israeli intermezzo is “La Mer” by the French composer Claude Debussy. She has not chosen the impressionistic piece, which includes a cresting and ebbing dialogue between two harps, but in a sense she feels that the piece has chosen her. The flowing plenitude of motherhood still engulfs her. She dreams of the landlady of the Jerusalem apartment where she was born, a woman who had died in childbirth.
She inescapably — almost compulsively — associates la mer (the sea) with la mère (the mother). “A symbolist composer like Debussy was undoubtedly aware of this and intended to make a connection between the two,” she says. Just before the concert, she is overcome with weeping. “It cannot be,” she tells herself, “that the mother who gave birth to me thinks I am lost.”
Smoothly translated into a lyrical English by Stuart Schoffman, Yehoshua’s style of calm control enfolds the reader in the strains and pulls between Israel and the Diaspora (what he elsewhere calls “the great debate between Israel and the Golah”), between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, between private decision and the social imperatives of “be fruitful and multiply” (a subject Israeli sociologist Orna Donath raises in nonfiction form in her compelling recent book “Regretting Motherhood”).
Out of such tarnished discontinuities Yehoshua has fashioned his art, and from them he has now minted a marvel of a book.
Benjamin Balint is the author of “Running Commentary” (2010) and co-author of “Jerusalem: City of the Book” (forthcoming from Yale University Press).