Another Slight Chapter in the Story of Exile
Raymond + Hannah: A Love Story
By Stephen Marche
Harcourt. 212 pages. $14.
One of the oldest old saws about Jewish dislocation is attributed to Yehuda HaLevi, a physician and Hebrew poet who lived in medieval Spain. “My heart is in the east, and I am in the furthermost west,” he wrote, and over the centuries this line of verse has been echoed, appropriated, twisted, and alluded to by Jews in every corner of the globe to express their feelings about exile and home.
Stephen Marche’s debut novel, Raymond + Hannah, offers the latest spin on this classic plaint. Its eponymous lovers, like HaLevi, endure the separation between Israel and the west—in this case, Toronto, Canada. Raymond is a doctoral student in English literature at the University of Toronto, and a certifiable WASP (note that one of the many subject areas under which the book will be classified in libraries, according to its copyright page, is “WASPs (Persons)—Fiction”); Hannah, meanwhile, is Jewish, though she doesn’t at first know what that means for her.
Raymond and Hannah meet at a party, click, and dive into bed within hours. The one-night stand develops into a multiple-night stand, and, as days pass, the excitement of their budding relationship is undercut only by their knowledge that at the end of a week, Hannah will decamp to Jerusalem for a nine-month stay. Once she departs, they communicate by email and struggle to keep their flame alive. Raymond sinks deeper into the depression that, if novelists can be believed, accompanies every graduate student’s attempt to compose a dissertation. Hannah, meanwhile, is delighted to be on the receiving end of a hearty dose of kiruv (a.k.a. Jewish outreach), as part of “a program for North American almost-assimilated Jews… who are messed up about their Jewish identity and want to deal with it.”
Marche relates the development of this relationship through a series of brief chunks of prose, each with its own title positioned in the margin like the gloss in an old book. The tiny sections present the streams-of-consciousness of the characters, the text of their emails, or stylized third-person descriptions of their interactions. The resulting form makes for quick reading, and, in its brevity, calls forth an expectation of what Marche refers to as “semantic precision”: as most poets would tell you, if you work with few words, you had better be exact.
For the most part, Marche’s language is, in fact, admirably precise. His descriptions of Toronto streets are—take it from a native of that city—perfect: we follow the couple through “neighborhoods in which each house tries to be more ordinary than the next”; Raymond observes that “It’s funny how snow doesn’t make Toronto white. The whole spectrum from pale straw to charcoal first, then all the other kinds of grey: yellow-grey, blue-grey, beige.” Marche often deploys vocabulary with subtle wit, as when the narrator remarks that, at Raymond’s cottage, “The mugs, glasses and cutlery are miscegenated from eight different sets”; given the anxiety generated on all sides by this relationship between a Jew and a gentile, the verb resonates powerfully.
At times, though, Marche’s minimalism grates, and it becomes especially distracting when it concerns Hannah’s move to Israel and her religious education. Newly arrived in Jerusalem, Hannah remarks that “searching for an apartment in a city where you don’t speak the language is hell.” Strange: English might not be an official language of Jerusalem, but it’s hardly a struggle to communicate with it; almost every resident speaks enough to hold a conversation. And who worries about temporary housing in Jerusalem, anyway? How could Hannah not have heard of Flathunting.com?
When Hannah says she wants “a husband who understands Torah, and, say, the Holocaust,” or asserts that “Talmud is about endless debate,” it’s clear that her renewed sense of Jewish identity is cobbled together from equal parts cliché and generalization. And this reductionism isn’t limited to Hannah herself; late in the book, the reunited lovers daytrip to Hebron, where, “if anyone in the market knew Hannah was a Jew, they’d likely try to kill her.” This is generalization to the point of racism, voiced not by a character, but by the novel’s authoritative narrator—an offensive and unfortunate effect of the book’s compressed style, through which complex ideas are boiled down to taglines.
On some level, inadequacies of language—on display here for better and worse—are themselves the point in this novel of absences and gaps. In describing both Hannah’s groping for a sense of her Jewishness, and the two protagonists as they cling to each other despite a dozen good reasons to call it quits, Marche provides a reminder of how little substance or reason there can be at the core of the most passionate romances, whether interpersonal or philosophical.
The question of whether Raymond and Hannah end up together provides suspense to the novel’s final pages, but an answer is less interesting than the couple’s struggle for togetherness against the odds. Yehuda HaLevi understood almost a thousand years ago that being Jewish is often about being apart and away from the things for which we yearn, and Marche’s chronicle of absent love is one more attractive but slight chapter in the eternal story of exile.