Translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole
(New York, NY: New Directions, 2015)
“Otherwise, it would have returned to the darkness…”
At almost exactly the midpoint of Yoel Hoffman’s Moods, the first-person narrator (who throughout the book refers to himself in the plural) declares, “We think that our readers should use this book to look for another person.” His suggestions for how to undertake the search begin with these: to make the book “fall to the floor in a bar or a pub and then pick it up and ask a woman: Is this yours?,” or to “put two glasses of red wine on it (we’ll make sure it’s big enough) or stick a knife into it and say, If the knife reaches the word love, you’ll leave with me (we’ll be sure to scatter the word throughout the book)….” Those suggestions are made with tongue in cheek, and yet the speaker seems to take his own advice, using the book to look for another person. In the speaker’s case, use of the book is not as a pick-up line, but to search for a person who is always almost there, but never quite; who is almost the person he remembers, but not quite; who is almost the speaker himself, but not quite. Which makes book and speaker analogues of estrangement, both directed toward, but neither within, human embrace.
One manifestation of the search occurs near the end of Moods, when the reader is invited to “Imagine the loneliness of writers surrounded by the characters from all their books and unable to get away from them.” The characters with which the speaker surrounds himself share, with the person he uses the book to seek, this quality of not-quiteness. The speaker thinks, for example, of Har-Shoshanim, the character who had been the focus of the immediately preceding section. Yet, even though he has just been described, even though the speaker is unable to get away from him, he is not quite there, not quite accessible: “We tried going to his home and couldn’t. We tried to meet him in the cafeteria. Again, no luck.” The reasons for the not-quiteness of persons can be obvious and mundane. “The girls we had crushes on,” for example, “are already old”: no longer girls, and no longer crushes. Their age makes the speaker also old, and erases what hopes a crush might once have offered: “What would we talk about. Arthritis?”
More often, though, the reasons are not obvious but, to the contrary, inexplicable, as when, in an earlier section of the book, the speaker recalls having seen, “during the Days of Awe,” a beautiful woman who “glanced from behind the screen of the women’s section like a half moon revealed through a cloud.” The shifting of the screen makes the woman’s face “appear then vanish,” haunting the speaker through the service until finally
we couldn’t stand the screen any longer and went up to the edge of the women’s section and stared toward the swarm of kerchiefs that moved like a field of wheat in the wind. We didn’t see her and nonetheless union with her was brought about, facing away, so that the world would go on.
The woman shares with other characters in Moods the quality of not-quiteness: her presence is strong and certain enough to qualify as union, but it is complicated by an absence imposed by her facing away. This instance of not-quiteness is representative of them all, at least in the sense that it imposes the same bind they all impose: not-quiteness keeps me at once remove from the world, but without it the world would end. “Otherwise,” the speaker asserts, still referring to the world, “it would have returned to the darkness that preceded the chaos and void, and the voice.”
That threat of return to original darkness is never eliminated, as the book’s very last section dramatizes. There, citing the first sentence of the Torah (“In the beginning…”), the speaker invites the reader to imagine another loneliness, this time not the common loneliness of writers surrounded by their characters but “the loneliness of countless years,” the proper loneliness of very God. “Like a giant, old autistic man,” the speaker says empathetically, “He stared into what was and saw not even a crack.” Immersed in such complete and unremitting loneliness, the “only consolation was His name (or, more accurately, His names).” But they do not quite name Him, and the consolation they give is not quite enough, because “when He uttered them, He heard (because of the absolute emptiness) not even an echo.”
Ending the book with words that conceal everything in original darkness has additional force because it contrasts with an alternate ending the speaker considers earlier in the book: “The world is large and wide and has no measure. And all is revealed.” Despite being “greatly tempted to end the book with these words” that affirm revelation, though, the speaker decides not to end with them because “we need to be wary of too much truth.” He leaves the reader to mull the implications, for the ending he did choose, of his not choosing to end with too much truth, but he explicitly extends his wariness by posing a question. “True,” he concedes, “all is revealed. But how is it revealed?” As the speaker stands in relation to the world, so stands the reader in relation to the book: convinced that, but unsure how, it reveals all.
Countless years and absolute emptiness mean for the speaker, as they do for God, that there is “no longer any limit to the things” he can say, that in the saying name the divine: “We can make soup from ghosts (which is to say, we can say that). We can push nails in from the wrong end. We know the difference between ourselves and others. Which is to say, others are imprisoned within their skin. We guess, for years. Paint mezuzahs. Steep tea. Grind. Herd. Toast. And on and on.” Limitlessness may create, may be, possibility, but it is also formlessness and void. In it, names echo for the speaker no more than they do for God. “We can say a single thing an infinite number of times.” Or, alternatively, say an infinite number of things, as he seems to be doing in his worry over endings. “Each time we think that we’ve come to the end of the book,” he muses about three fourths of the way through, “we’re reminded of something else to say.”
One of those things he finds himself reminded to say involves an image that, though he states it succinctly in this section, holds enough importance for him that variations on it occur elsewhere in the book. “We also recall,” he says, continuing the practice of referring to himself in the plural, “Lake Biwa, which resembles a huge violin, and when it’s still one can see the cities on the opposite shore doubled there, above and in the water.” The speaker does not accompany this recollection with any further explication of it; he does not here say why the recollection matters enough to delay the book’s end. The reader, though, might infer from the rest of the book that what fascinates the speaker about the image of Lake Biwa is not the things seen, the lake itself and the cities, but the conditions that make possible the seeing of them: the stillness and the doubling.
Those conditions of stillness and doubling occur again in another lake-and-city setting, “the legend about the city beneath Lake Baikal in Siberia,” according to which, “when the lake is frozen, people lie on its surface and look into it and sometimes they go back to their villages along the shore with a mysterious expression on their faces.” What they have seen is doubled, because the sunken city is itself beside a lake, and “people are also looking into that lake and seeing beneath it a sunken city wherein people are lying on the frozen surface of a lake and so on and on into infinity.” Those who lie on the ice are complemented by others who “never leave their wooden homes,” but instead “sit all winter long and look out at other lakes, the ones at the bottom of their souls.” The effect of seeing either sunken city, the external one or the internal one, is the same. Either seer knows something that others don’t; either is made separate by the seeing.
The not-quiteness that qualifies the people and places in the book also qualifies the book itself, which is not quite a novel and not quite a memoir. This neither/nor is not only imposed from outside and after the fact, in the jacket copy that describes the book as “part novel and part memoir,” but occurs within — throughout — the work itself, as when the speaker opens the book by describing a man “most likely” named Nehemiah following a woman down steps into an empty building, and then confesses that “I too (Yoel Hoffman, that is) once went like that down steps…” Or when the speaker worries that “It’s hard to believe that all this is taking place within a book.” Or when he avers, with a paradox to rival the Cretan Liar’s, that “Many of the things recollected in this book are fiction.”
Moods raises the possibility that many of our most valued experiences, though we classify them as, may not quite be, emotions and ideas, but may instead be moods. If so, the consequences are metaphysical. I must fit my emotions and ideas to the world, but the world to which I try to fit them is the real world. By contrast, the world molds itself to my mood, but the world thus molded is not the world. That is the condition of the person that the speaker uses the book to seek, and of the speaker in his seeking. Even though “we’ve forgotten his name and how he looks,” we do remember him as, and in the remembering exist ourselves at, “a body’s length from the earth’s surface.”
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H. L. Hix teaches in the Philosophy Department and the Creative Writing MFA at the University of Wyoming. His recent books include a poetry collection, I’m Here to Learn to Dream in Your Language (Etruscan Press, 2015), and an art/poetry anthology, Ley Lines (Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press, 2014).