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Post Road Magazine #32

Recommendation: The Confessions of a Noa Weber

Lisa A. Phillips

My recommendation: The Confessions of Noa Weber, by Gail Hareven. It's part of the unsung literary tradition of narratives of female romantic abjection—unsung because the whole idea, particularly when it comes to female-on-male yearning, is a kind of a feminist nightmare, a secret shame outed. He loves me not, but I love him—stubbornly, painfully, and in a life-defining way. The fish does need the bicycle, and badly.

Early classics of this tradition include several of Sappho's poem fragments and Charlotte Brontë's Villette, along with her passionate letters to Constantin Héger, the Belgian school master she was obsessed with. The gloves come off completely in the late 20th century in Chris Kraus's intellectually, erotically, and emotionally excessive I Love Dick. And when I say excessive, I don't mean that in a bad way—it's the entire point of this not-quite-memoir/not-quite-novel about the author/narrator's obsession with an academic named Dick . It's excessive because it's an obsession and that's the entire point. It's the food you can't stop eating because it never satisfies, the endless soapbox speech in the town square, the hot swelling between your legs that won't subside.

Hareven's Confessions is a much quieter book. It's my recommendation because it's unsentimentally hopeful, an uncommon quality in stories of otherwise doomed unrequited love. In Confessions, Noa, an Israeli attorney and author of a series of feminist detective novels, quits her job to write an account of her unrequited love for Alek, a peripatetic Russian immigrant journalist and the father of her daughter. She is hoping for a kind of catharsis of her obsession, which she calls her "dybbuk," the vindictive possessing spirit of Jewish mythology. But right way it's doubtful she'll be able to purge her love for Alek, which she experiences as a "transcendence"—not an easy thing to forsake.

The stubbornness of unrequited love is fundamentally subversive: I want you, and I'm going to keep wanting you, even if you don't want me. That's why female stalker movies like Fatal Attraction are both troubling and liberating—these viragos are fuck you's to anyone who's been tossed aside by some selfish prick. Noa is no stalker. In fact she's admittedly passive. At one point in the book she doesn't see Alek for a decade. Yet, she persists not only in loving him, but also in secretly nurturing the self who loves, even as her love contradicts contemporary notions of what's "healthy" in life and relationships.

And what comes of this rebel state? She lives ostensibly for Alek and despite him. At her first legal trial she imagines him there, her arguments made to impress him. Her detective novels make her a pop culture feminist icon, her fictional heroine's independence in stalwart contrast to her own irrational need. She shields her daughter from her obsession. Alek is entwined in her strength and her successes, a kind of lifelong muse. But he's also a constant torment.

I first read Confessions as I was starting my own book about unrequited love. My book is nonfiction, blending my own long-ago story of obsession with an exploration of why we succumb to this kind of fix. Several months after Unrequited was published, the man I was obsessed with briefly came back into my life. We'd been out of touch for fifteen years. During a good deal of that time, he lived in me as material—he appears in several places in the book—but I can safely say that however consumed I was by writing the book, I was no longer obsessed with him. Reconnecting through messages and a single phone call caused, shall we say, a significant relapse. Longing for him again was a surreal experience, given the years and thousands of miles that separated us. I was in a completely different place in my life—married, a mother, firmly entrenched in my career. Nevertheless, I thought, "I will carry this feeling to my grave." And I was ashamed. I was the woman who wrote the book on romantic obsession. How could this been happening to me?

I returned to Confessions like a bible, seeking insight into what I was going through. Like Noa, I had done the unrequited-love-as-muse thing, writing myself into a competent life that contrasted with my need. Like Noa, I was a Jew who wanted to be rid of her dybbuk. I pondered her attachment to the "transcendence" her unrequited love allowed—an irony given her resolute refusal to embrace Jewish spirituality as her daughter, a rabbi-in-training, has. Or perhaps this isn't ironic? In Judaism, God must remain not only unseen but also unimaginable. God's name can't be said, God's face can't be depicted. A classic early Hebrew school lesson is to ask children what they imagine God to look like. A common answer in the classroom I was in was a bearded rabbi. Then, the children are told gently that the Jewish God has no form or figure. Christianity, in contrast, sees Christ as a bridge from humans to God, as an evangelical librarian in Iowa once explained to me, drawing a little diagram to underscore his point. Perhaps Christianity isn't really the less sensual religion, as contemporary Jews tend to believe. It acknowledges the human desire for form and flesh in both physical and spiritual longings.

I began to think of Noa's desire as not so much a contradiction to her public persona but its necessary shadow. As she describes it, her love for Alek is the "only thing that gives me a sense of space." We are, in our culture, terrible at giving ourselves a sense of space—aimless, troubling, seemingly unproductive space in which we live with our deepest spiritual, emotional, and creative questions. It's very hard to find a space where we can take off the masks we wear each day, masks that for women can be particularly oppressive. There's the work mask, the wife mask, the caretaker mask, the mother mask. The mask of femininity, constantly re-evaluated with age: What to hide? What to reveal? What to color, to depilate?

I was also struggling with the author mask, so very different from the unmasked feeling of actually writing Unrequited. The author mask often required me to distill my book into talking points and, worse, "tips" for magazines and web sites—often about "how to get over him for good." For me, the more complex and important aspect of my book was more in line with Noa's experience of obsession. Sometimes, living with an unrequited love is the point, not getting over it. That withholding beloved is the bridge to an amorphous, messy state of being, a place where you aren't following all the rules and you aren't wearing a mask, a place that can be expansive and transformative. Therein lay another irony: Being the author of Unrequited, a book that is as confessional as it is informative, was pushing me to wear the mask of togetherness, of being an "expert," of saying it's all settled, I'm over it, and you can be, too! Fiction, and writers of fiction, are generally free of such pressures, though I understand Edith Wharton got some major heck for not getting Lawrence and Lily together at the end of The House of Mirth.

The Confessions of Noa Weber is a book about a woman unmasked. I don't think this is very common, in fiction and in life. I don't believe that unrequited love is the only way we can find space and take off our masks. And, dutiful author/expert that I am, I'm obliged to say that being romantically obsessed doesn't guarantee transcendence—it's a volatile state and can simply be too ruinous to be enlightening. But some of us may, at certain junctures, need the form of an enigmatic and withholding beloved—not a Christ, definitely, but not exactly an anti-Christ either—to push us to experience the self behind the masks. And no matter how all-consuming the beloved other seems, the self is ultimately what unrequited love is about. Confessions helps me remember that when unrequited love thrusts itself into my life, I can see it as a push, however painful, toward a more authentic existence. I don't want to give a spoiler about how Noa's story ends. But let's just say that I don't believe that either of us will be taking our phantom lovers to our graves.

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