There is magic in the books which await me on my shelf and the words of a woman from long ago, found tucked away in a box in my attic…
Anouk Markovits said in an interview that her novel “I Am Forbidden” began as a “humongous” thing, which is not surprising since it takes us from Romania, to France, to New York, amidst scenes from WWII, from the Parisian Spring of ’68 and the Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
What remains of this paring down is a lovely and deft distillation of the magnitude of this history—of the world, of a community, of a family—brought down to the lives of two memorable characters, Atara and Mila. These women and those who surround them come alive on the page, they tuck themselves into your mind and remain there long after the last page has turned.
Atara rebels and, eventually, leaves the fold, while Mila builds her life within its strictures. Both women are strong and complex, brave and driven by their hearts and their minds to craft lives of meaning. Both make choices that wound, with implications far beyond their own small and finite lives.
Markovits has said that rather than follow the common thread of most novels about orthodoxies whose focus is on rupture and escape, she chose instead to explore the lives of those who remained. She lends to the reader a window into a culture most likely either unknown or foreign to them (even if you live in New York or Paris and shop at Costco or wander in neighborhoods where the Chasidim are very visible, the men tucked under their fur hats and the women wigged and modest, followed by passels of children dressed similarly). She shares with us the intimacies of her characters—their humanity, their loves and hatreds and strengths and weaknesses, exploring the twisted and often painful ways that they must bend themselves in order to fit in that tight hold of their culture and religion.
In viewing the fervency of fundamentalism—that of Christians, Jews, Muslims—I have always been struck not by how different they are from one another, but by how very similar they are—how many parallels exist within the intricacies of ritual and the pervasiveness of beliefs whose aim is keep all that is holy pure, attainable only through restriction and separation, the shunning of that which is not. Indeed, Markovits has said that in part it was the events of 9/11 which drove her to write this novel, seeing then how—albeit cloaked under the muslim kufi and not the jewish streimel—the fervency of belief can be twisted and deformed. Her language is elegant and sparse, rich in its telling. It does not preach or judge but presents a world before us from which we can reach our own conclusions.
But ahhhh as a reader, a lover of books, of their beauty and their power to grant freedom to all who have access to them (access being now more than ever, a critical goal), perhaps what most resonated with me was Atara’s secret passion, discovered during her hidden forays into the library in Paris…
At fourteen, Atara found her way to the Bibliothèque Sainte-Genviève as if she had always known that such a space must exist and that she must be let in. In the hushed, tall reading roo where lamps of milk glass inside green shells cast bright ellipses of light on rustling pages, she read contemporary authors. She did not read them in any order: One day she came across “Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs,” the next day she found “L’Être et le néant.” When words or concepts escaped her, she did not put the book aside; the more enigmatic the formulation, the richer the promise of freedom. When she left the library, pearly threads linked roof to roof, dormer to dormer, a luminescent web under which everyone was equally chosen.
She lingered in front of the Sorbonne, peeked into the cobbled yard. The bell of the chapel rang. She darted through the crowd on the boulevard Saint-Michel, across the Seine, faster, to get home before Zalman noticed her absence.
When Mila began to mention classes that prepared for the baccalauréat, the diploma that opened the doors to university, Zalman withdrew the girls from the lycée. Mila and Atara were to help Hannah around the house until they were of age to marry.”
Markovits spoke of her own experience with books in an interview in Haaretz…
I was raised in a city in eastern France in a Satmar family. My rebellion started when I was a young child. I had trouble accepting that Jews were different or better than others; it didn’t make sense. I wanted another truth, and I found it in books. I started to sneak into libraries and to hide books under my mattress. It isn’t that books made me want something else. It is because I wanted something else that I turned to books. I was hungry for communication with others, for more empathetic truths. Also, I grew up in a large family, so privacy was elusive, and books gave me a private world that permitted reflection.
As I finished the book, I came across two things that made me smile for their relevance to this story which rested in my mind, shimmering and sad. First I listened to Susan Cain speaking about her new book, Quiet (yes, I saw myself a thousand times over in her description of introverts, or at least of introverts “passing” as extroverts), in which she spoke of the importance of books in her life, in her memories. She spoke of how reading was a family activity, and of her grandfather—an esteemed rabbi for whom the streets were closed to allow the passing of his funeral cortege—lived surrounded by books, often preferring them to social interaction.
Later, I dug up some very old books I somehow inherited, dusty, fragile tomes which appear to be commonplace or daybooks of distant relatives.
I’ve spoken before of how I destroyed my own as well as my mother’s journals (that’s a story in itself which I won’t burden you with here), yet somehow these, being so far removed from my own life, seem safe. One of them is a thin and humble notebook, yellowed and tattered, dated on its first page 1850. In an entry, written in a cursive which cannot be more than 1/32″ high, the woman wrote…
“I must learn to go forth in the world caring less for the opinions of others. This morning so much over my careless words and spontaneous expressions
Mr. ____ asked ____ if I were engaged – what of that I wonder? Does he feel any interest? He needn’t. It will avail nothing. […] If I had a dozen offers I’d not step from school into married life. I wish to pursue my education still further, my knowledge of the world as well as of books needs to be increased before I am united with any one. […] as if I could only release myself from this dreamy habit. What kind of minister’s wife should I make, I wonder? Such a bundle of faults as I am? And often thinking I am not even a child of God?”
I cannot wait to read more of this woman and her dreamy (the word was a bit illegible, but I prefer to read it as dreamy rather than dreary) habits, her bundle of wonderful faults…