"Thoughtful, self-assured and highly sophisticated, full of the most skillful modulations of tone and texture. A modern Israeli Madame Bovary.”—New York Times Book Review
Set in 1950s Jerusalem, My Michael is the story of a remote and intense woman named Hannah Gonen and her marriage to a decent but unremarkable man named Michael. As the years pass and Hannah’s tempestuous fantasy life encroaches upon reality, she feels increasingly estranged from him and the marriage gradually disintegrates. Gorgeously written, profoundly moving, this extraordinary novel is at once a haunting love story, and a rich reflective portrait of a place.
"A dazzling, very beautiful, splendidly conceived and composed book." —New York Review of Books
I AM WRITING this because people I loved have died. I am writing this 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.
I am thirty years of age and a married woman. My husband is Dr. Michael Gonen, a geologist, a good-natured man. I loved him. We met in Terra Sancta College ten years ago. I was a first-year student at the Hebrew University, in the days when lectures were still given in Terra Sancta College.
This is how we met:
One winter's day at nine o'clock in the morning I slipped coming downstairs. A young stranger caught me by the elbow. His hand was strong and full of restraint. I saw short fingers with flat nails. Pale fingers with soft black down on the knuckles. He hurried to stop me falling, and I leaned on his arm until the pain passed. I felt at a loss, because it is disconcerting to slip suddenly in front of strangers: searching, inquisitive eyes and malicious smiles. And I was embarrassed because the young stranger's hand was broad and warm. As he held me I could feel the warmth of his fingers through the sleeve of the blue woolen dress my mother had knitted me. It was winter in Jerusalem.
He asked me whether I had hurt myself.
I said I thought I had twisted my ankle.
He said he had always liked the word "ankle." He smiled. His smile was embarrassed and embarrassing. I blushed. Nor did I refuse when he asked if he could take me to the cafeteria on the ground floor. My leg hurt. Terra Sancta College is a Christian convent which was loaned to the Hebrew University after the 1948 war when the buildings on Mount Scopus were cut off. It is a cold building; the corridors are tall and wide. I felt distracted as I followed this young stranger who was holding on to me. I was happy to respond to his voice. I was unable to look straight at him and examine his face. I sensed, rather than saw, that his face was long and lean and dark.
"Now let's sit down," he said.
We sat down, neither of us looking at the other. Without asking what I wanted he ordered two cups of coffee. I loved my late father more than any other man in the world. When my new acquaintance turned his head I saw that his hair was cropped short and that he was unevenly shaven. Dark bristles showed, especially under his chin. I do not know why this detail struck me as important, in fact as a point in his favor. I liked his smile and his fingers, which were playing with a teaspoon as if they had an independent life of their own. And the spoon enjoyed being held by them. My own finger felt a faint urge to touch his chin, on the spot where he had not shaved properly and where the bristles sprouted.
Michael Gonen was his name.
He was a third-year geology student. He had been born and brought up in Holon. "It's cold in this Jerusalem of yours."
"My Jerusalem? How do you know I'm from Jerusalem?"
He was sorry, he said, if he was wrong for once, but he did not think he was wrong. He had learned by now to spot a Jerusalemite at first sight. As he spoke he looked into my eyes for the first time. His eyes were gray. I noticed a flicker of amusement in them, but not a cheerful flicker. I told him that his guess was right. I was indeed a Jerusalemite.
"Guess? Oh, no."
He pretended to look offended, the corners of his mouth smiling: No, it was not a guess. He could see that I was a Jerusalemite. "See?" Was this part of his geology course? No, of course not. As a matter of fact, it was something he had learned from cats. From cats? Yes, he loved watching cats. A cat would never make friends with anyone who was not disposed to like him. Cats are never wrong about people.
"You seem to be a happy sort of person," I said happily. I laughed, and my laugh betrayed me.
Afterwards Michael Gonen invited me to accompany him to the third floor of Terra Sancta College, where some instructional films about the Dead Sea and the Arava were about to be shown.
On the way up, as we passed the place on the staircase where I had slipped earlier, Michael took hold of my sleeve once again. As if there were a danger of slipping again on that particular step. Through the blue wool I could feel every one of his five fingers. He coughed drily and I looked at him. He caught me looking at him, and his face reddened. Even his ears turned red. The rain beat at the windows.
"What a downpour," Michael said.
"Yes, a downpour," I agreed enthusiastically, as if I had suddenly discovered that we were related.
Michael hesitated. Then he added:
"I saw the mist early this morning and there was a strong wind blowing."
"In my Jerusalem, winter is winter," I replied gaily, stressing "my Jerusalem" because I wanted to remind him of his opening words. I wanted him to go on talking, but he could not think of a reply; he is not a witty man. So he smiled again. On a rainy day in Jerusalem in Terra Sancta College on the stairs between the first floor and the second floor. I have not forgotten.
In the film we saw how the water is evaporated until the pure salt appears: white crystals gleaming on gray mud. And the minerals in the crystals like delicate veins, very fine and brittle. The gray mud split open gradually before our very eyes, because in this educational film the natural processes had been speeded up. It was a silent film. Black blinds were drawn over the windows to shut out the light of day. The light outside, in any case, was faint and murky. There was an old lecturer who occasionally uttered comments and explanations which I could not understand. The scholar's voice was slow and resonant. I remembered the agreeable voice of Dr. Rosenthal, who had cured me of diphtheria when I was a child of nine. Now and then the lecturer indicated with the help of a pointer the significant features of the pictures, to prevent his students' minds from wandering from the point. I alone was free to notice details which had no instructional value, such as the miserable but determined desert plants which appeared on the screen again and again near the machinery which extracted the potash. By the dim light of the magic lantern I was free too to contemplate the features, the arm, and the pointer of the ancient lecturer, who looked like an illustration in one of the old books I loved. I remembered the dark woodcuts in Moby Dick.
Outside, several heavy, hoarse rolls of thunder sounded. The rain beat furiously against the darkened window, as if demanding that we listen with rapt attention to some urgent message it had to deliver.
Copyright © 1968 by Am Oved Publishers Ltd.
English translation copyright © 1972 by Chatto & Windus Ltd.
and Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or
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Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should
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Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
PRAISE FOR MY MICHAEL
"Slow, thoughtful, self-assured and highly sophisticated, full of the most skillful modulations of tone and texture. A modern Israeli Madame Bovary . . . distinguished by its warmth, its lyricism and remarkable technical control."--The New York Times
"A dazzling, very beautiful, splendidly conceived and composed book."--The New York Review of Books
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