Husband and Wifeby Zeruya Shalev Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
“Harrowingly thorough in its cataloguing of marital defeat. . . . An acutely intimate portrait of a relationship.” –Donna Rifkind, Baltimore Sun
With Love Life, which The Washington Post Book World called “a brutally honest and often brilliant tour of individual and family psychology,” Zeruya Shalev achieved international literary stardom. In her newest offering, Husband and Wife, she takes us into the heartbreak and compromise of a diseased marriage that may or may not be capable of healing.
The quiet rhythms of the family life of Na’ama and Udi Newman suddenly screech to a halt when Udi, a healthy, active man, wakes up one morning unable to move his legs. The doctors can find no physical explanation for his paralysis, and soon it becomes painfully clear that it is a symptom of something far less tangible and far more insidious. This one morning sets in motion a series of events that reveals a vicious cycle of jealousy, paranoia, resentment, and accumulated injuries that now threaten to tear the small family apart. Na’ama, always intent on upholding the structure of her marriage regardless of its rotting foundation, is now forced to see it for what it is and deal with the consequences.
In a rush of hallucinogenic imagery, Husband and Wife brilliantly captures the vulnerability and deceptive comforts of lives intertwined, as well as the near impossibility of setting out to disentangle them without any casualties. With this novel, Zeruya Shalev is sure to gain the renown here in the United States that she already enjoys around the world.
“Zeruya Shalev takes the reader on a breathtaking narrative journey through the hell of a crumbling marriage. . . . Written with a cool eye and a big heart, this is a love story for the twenty-first century.” –Das Buch der Woche (Germany)
“Touching and persistent. . . . [Shalev] wastes no time plunging us into the mood and drama of her story. . . . What’s surprising about Husband and Wife is that the story is heavy but not slow or hopeless, and that Shalev can make us believe in the tenacity and goodness of these characters. . . . There is so much life in the writing, so much emotion, that the novel doesn’t bog down with the characters’ numbness.” –Jules Verdone, Boston Globe
“[Shalev] writes in a feverish stream-of-consciousness that is meant to reflect her character’s inner turmoil. . . . A novel that aims to dissect the marriage bond in minute detail, with surgical precision.” –Sarah Coleman, San Francisco Chronicle
“Harrowingly thorough in its cataloguing of marital defeat. . . . An acutely intimate portrait of a relationship.” –Donna Rifkind, Baltimore Sun
“Beginning with [a] Kafka-esque opening, Shalev paints a powerfully disturbing portrait of a couple whose codependencies are literally paralyzing them and their young daughter. . . . In unusually beautiful language, Shalev renders an ugly but by no means unique marital relationship, peeling back each layer like an onion.” –Nan Goldberg, The Newark Sunday Star-Ledger
“Shalev explores the breakdown of a marriage with astonishing insight and candor.” –Jewish Advocate
“Lyrical. . . . Shalev’s prose, somewhere between poetry and prophecy, flows like a gurgling country brook, free of stops and starts, settling into an almost rhythmic beat. . . . [Shalev] addresses so many issues–the questionable piety of the saint/martyr, the tyranny of love, the balance of sin. . . . She offers such incredible insight into the human condition that it becomes difficult to put down the book.” –Toni Fitzgerald, BookReporter
“A highly polished and deeply metaphoric account of a troubled marriage. . . . A beautifully written story that carries great weights of meaning.” –Kirkus Reviews
“Beautifully written. . . . [Shalev’s] language is hauntingly, painfully lyrical, and her understanding of the conflicted human yearning for connection and solitude astounds.” –Publishers Weekly
“No short quote could capture the orgiastic design of the prose. There is an irresistible frenzy in the language. . . . One puts the book aside convinced that no other novel could equal Zeruya Shalev’s masterpiece.” –Hanns-Josef Ortheil, Die Zeit (Germany)
“For anyone prepared to be taken on an emotional white-knuckle ride, to experience with almost hallucinatory vividness the complex and conflicting emotions of a modern woman dealing with a disintegrating relationship, there can be no finer opportunity. . . . Shalev is a writer of formidable emotional firepower.” –Jamie Jauncey, The Scotsman (UK)
“Shalev brilliantly captures the addictive power of unhappiness, the weary sniping of a couple who share nothing else. . . . She writes about the close connection between repulsion and desire, the erotic charge of conflict, dissecting the sexuality of a long-married couple in a way few writers have done. . . . Shalev [also] captures the textures, sights and smells of ordinary life, in a realism so intense and hypnotic it becomes hallucinatory.” –Scotland on Sunday (UK)
In the first minute of the day, even before I knew whether it was hot or cold, good or bad, I saw the desert plain of the Arava, flat and desolate, growing pale, bushes of dust, melancholy as abandoned tents. I hadn’t been there lately, but he had, he only returned from there last night, and now he opens a narrow, sandy eye and says, even in a sleeping bag in the Arava I slept better than here with you.
A smell of old shoes escapes from his mouth, and I turn my face to the other side, to the flat face of the alarm clock that chooses this precise minute to start ringing, and he grumbles, how many times have I told you to put the alarm clock in Noga’s room, and I sit up abruptly, sunspots dancing in front of my eyes, what are you talking about, Udi, she’s still a child, we’re supposed to wake her up, not her us.
How come you always know the way things are supposed to be, he retorts angrily, when will you understand that there’s no such thing, and then we hear her voice approaching hesitantly, skipping over the notebooks thrown onto the floor, stumbling on the stacks of closed books, trying its luck, Daddy?
He leans over me, savagely silences the alarm clock, and I whisper to his shoulder, she’s calling you, Udi, go to her, she hasn’t seen you for nearly a week. You can’t even sleep like a human being in this house, he rubs his eyes resentfully, a child of ten who’s treated like a baby, it’s a good thing you don’t keep her in diapers, and here she is, her face peeking into the room, her neck stretched sideways, her body still hidden behind the wall. I have no idea how much she’s heard, her hungry eyes swallow the movements of our lips without taking anything in, and now they turn to him, hurt in advance, Daddy, we missed you, and he sends her a crumpled smile, really? And she says, of course, nearly a week.
What do you need me for at all, he tightens his lips, you’d both be better off without me, and she recoils, her eyes shrink, and I get out of bed, sweetheart, he’s just joking, go and get dressed. With angry fingers I pull the strap of the blind, opposite the bright light suddenly turning the room yellow, as if a powerful heavenly spotlight is being directed at us, surveying our actions. Na”ama, I’m dying of thirst, he says, bring me a glass of water, and I complain, I haven’t got time to take care of you too now, Noga’s going to be late and so am I, and he tries to sit up, I see him making tired rowing movements in the bed, his tanned arms trembling, his face reddening with effort and insult as he whispers, Na”ama, I can’t get up.
She hears this immediately, again she’s next to the bed, the hairbrush in her hand, holding out her other hand to him, come, Daddy, I’ll help you, trying to pull him toward her, her back bent and her lips pursed, her sensitive nostrils flaring, until she collapses on top of him, flushed, helpless, Mommy, he really can’t get up. What are you talking about, I say in alarm, does something hurt you, Udi? And he mutters, nothing hurts, but I can’t feel my legs, I can’t move them, and his voice dissolves into a puppyish whimper, I can’t move.
I pull down the blanket, his long legs are lying motionless on the bed, covered with down, under which his muscles are frozen, stretched out side by side like the strings of a musical instrument. I always envied these legs that never tired, guiding hikers in the Arava and the Judean desert and the lower Galilee and the upper Galilee, while I stayed at home, because walking any distance is difficult for me. You’re just making excuses, he would complain, the haversack grinning on his back like a happy baby, you just feel like being alone in the house without me, while I would stand there in embarrassment, pointing sorrowfully at my flat, always painful feet, separating us from each other.
Where don’t you feel, I ask, my fingers trembling on his thigh, pinching the tough flesh, do you feel that? And Noga, going too far as usual, slides her hairbrush to and fro, digging red paths on his legs, do you feel that, Daddy?
Stop it, leave me alone, he explodes, the pair of you can drive a person crazy with your nagging! And she sticks the bristles of the brush into her palm, we only wanted to see if you could feel, and now he’s sorry, I feel something dull, but I can’t move, as if my legs have gone to sleep and I can’t wake them up. With his eyes closed he gropes for the blanket, and I spread it over his body with slow movements, flapping it opposite his face, like my mother used to do when I was sick, cooling my forehead with the gusts of her love. His thin hair rises and lands back on his head, together with the blanket, but he moans beneath it as at a blow, what is this blanket, it’s so heavy, and I say, Udi, it’s your usual blanket, and he groans, it’s suffocating me, I can’t breathe.
Mommy, it’s half past seven already, Noga whines at me from the kitchen, and I haven’t had anything to eat yet, and I lose my temper, what do you want from me, take something yourself, you’re not a baby, and immediately I’m filled with remorse and I run to her, spilling cornflakes into a bowl and taking the milk out of the fridge, but she stands up with an insulted pout, I’m not hungry, hoists her book bag onto her shoulders and advances to the door, and I stare at her back, something strange peeps at me through the straps, bright childish pictures, teddy bears and rabbits bouncing gaily as she goes down the stairs, Noga, you’re still in your pajamas, I suddenly realize, you forgot to get dressed!
She climbs the stairs with her eyes downcast, almost closed, and I hear the bag slamming onto the floor, and the bedsprings creaking, and I hurry to her room and find her sprawled on the bed covered with teddy bears and bunny rabbits, what are you doing, I scold her, it’s already a quarter to eight, and she sobs, I don’t want to go to school, I don’t feel well. Her eyes trap me in an accusing look, watching my heart hardening toward her, contracting like a stone, as a fist of revulsion presses me against the wall. Aggressive crying takes hold of every curl on her head, and I scream, why are you making things even harder for me, I can’t cope with you, and she yells back, and I can’t cope with you! She gets up ferociously and it seems to me that she is about to open her mouth wide and devour me, but she pushes me out and slams the door in my face.
I take a few stunned steps backward, staring at her closed, thunderous door, and his silent door, and go on walking backward until my back encounters the front door, and I open it and go out and sit down on the cold steps in my nightgown, and look at the beautiful day, wrapped in a golden light, with a gentle breeze shaking tender little leaves and gathering up bright remains of flowers in its train, and honeyed clouds caressing each other yearningly. I have always hated days like this, walking through them like an uninvited guest, on a day like this sadness sticks out more than ever, there is nowhere for it to hide in the great glory, like a frightened rabbit caught in a sudden light on the road it scurries this way and that, slamming again and again into the shining wheels of happiness.
Behind me the door opens, heavy sneakers descend the steps and above them Noga, dressed and combed, and I raise my face to her in surprise, suddenly she seems so mature, bending down and kissing me on the forehead without saying a word, and I too say nothing, watching the receding book bag with burning eyes. A huge, overripe navel orange suddenly drops onto the pavement below, almost hitting her head, and lies squashed in an orange puddle. Who gave it the last push, surely not this barely perceptible late spring breeze, soon children will step into the puddle and their footprints will rot on the pavement until they come home in the afternoon, and Noga too will come home, tired, her pale curls drooping, one sentence on her tongue, a sentence that will begin on the stairs, and I will hear only its end, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.
I get up heavily, it seems to me that the day is already over, I am so tired, but there are still too many hours separating me from the night. On tiptoe I return to the bedroom, stand silently next to the bed, inspecting the beautiful body lying on it in perfect openness, a body that has nothing to hide. From our youth I remember this body, when it was still smaller than mine, narrow as a bud, and I would walk on the road while he walked on the pavement so we wouldn’t have to be ashamed of our common shadow, stooping out of consideration, my eyes fixed on the gray meeting place of the street and the curb, before my eyes I saw him stretch and mature, until one evening he pulled me up to the pavement next to him and put his hand on my shoulder, and our shadow reflected a perfect picture, and I was filled with pride, as if I had succeeded, with stubbornness and faith, in prevailing over the facts of life. With a sinking heart I inspect him, looking for a movement in his limbs, the light blanket lying rejected at his feet, above him the reading lamp bowing its head innocently, as if we didn’t quarrel over it night after night. Put the light out already, I would say, I can’t sleep with it on, and he would say irritably, but I’m still reading, I can’t go to sleep without reading, and I would curse the lamp silently, wishing it a fatal short circuit, and sometimes I would leave the room demonstratively, hugging my blanket and pillow, falling like a refugee onto the living room sofa, and in the morning he would always get his complaint in before mine, you ran away from me again, every little thing makes you run away from me.
His thin legs are still, but his mouth cracks in a sigh, the taut lips of an aging boy lost in his wilted face, swallowed up in the caverns of his cheeks, under the precise lines of his eyebrows looking down sorrowfully at the face whose beauty has dulled overnight, everything exactly the same sandy color, a uniform yellowish gray, like livery that cannot be removed, a uniform of sun and dust, and I try to heal him with my look, anxiety crawling over me like a hairy caterpillar, is this the moment I always knew I would not be able to escape, the moment that breaks life in two, after which nothing is the same as it was before, but like a distorting, mocking reflection, is this the moment, is this its smell, are these its colors, the moment in which all our previous lives would seem to me bursting with happiness, like the orange when it fell, as opposed to this loneliness, crippled, shamed, bedridden forever.
An imaginary hand, long and warm, reaches out to me from the bed, a huge maternal hand, seducing me to sink down beside him, to let him infect me with his paralysis, and I shudder, I can feel my life being drained out of me, gently, drop by drop, collecting in a puddle outside this room, and weightless and airy I try to hold on to the open window, surveying the room as if I am a spring bird which has landed up here by accident. Here is the big wall closet, only yesterday I stood on a ladder and took down the summer clothes and hid the winter clothes, pushing them deep inside, as if winter would never return, and Noga rushes urgently out of her room, always in the middle of a sentence, when’s Daddy coming home, she asks, and immediately after that, when are we going to eat, and I say, he’ll come home tonight, when you’re asleep, and you’ll see him tomorrow morning. And will he take me to school, she asks, her nostrils vibrating, and I say, why not, always after an absence of a few days it seems to us that only the lack of his physical presence stands between us, and the moment he returns the void in our home will be filled.
Here’s the red rug, the rug of my childhood, with the little threadbare hearts, and here’s the bed we bought, hesitantly, years ago, from a divorced couple, and next to it his backpack, dusty and empty, and on the wall a picture of an old house with a tiled roof and clouds sailing over it, and I try to find salvation in the inanimate objects, look, nothing’s missing, nothing’s changed, and therefore nothing will change in the living either. In a minute he’ll wake up and try to pull me onto the bed with his edgy aggressiveness, I know exactly what you need, he’ll inform me, why aren’t you willing to accept what I want to give, and this time I won’t begin to argue like I always do, I won’t present him, earnest as a fledgling curator, with the catalogue of my disappointments, I’ll take off my nightgown and jump into bed as if I’m jumping into a swimming pool, all at once, without testing the water, why not, we’re husband and wife, after all, and this is our only slice of life.