Licht Observed: Evan Fallenberg’s “Light Fell”

Haim Watzman

Joseph Licht, a religious Israeli with a devoted wife, five young sons, and a budding academic career attends a Torah class in Jerusalem given by a young rabbinic prodigy. The two men fall in love and conduct a passionate affair, leading Joseph to abandon his family and his religion—on the same day that his lover commits suicide. Two decades later, on his fiftieth birthday, Joseph invites his five grown sons to spend with him a Shabbat of celebration and reconciliation.

In Light Fell, Evan Fallenberg fluently takes on a tough subject—not just father-son relationships to the fifth power, not just father-son estrangement over many long years, but also father-son relationships sacrificed to love, and love of kind that breaks the most fundamental of his family’s implicit covenants and explicit taboos.

Joseph seeks to reconnect with his sons both to explain to them why he left them and to urge them to learn the lesson he learned. He had been living a lie, he tells them, and had no choice but to be true to himself. He sees that his sons, too, are avoiding, each in his own way, important decisions about who they are and what they must do with their lives, and he wants them, too, to know and follow the truth about themselves.

Light Fell is a compelling read. Fallenberg’s prose flows, his dialogue is expressive but natural, his characters sharply drawn. He succeeds in writing about Israel in all its variety with empathy and without falling into cliché. That’s a real accomplishment when portraying a society in which stereotypes often overwhelm reality, and even a greater accomplishment when writing in English for an audience outside Israel.

In short, it’s the kind of novel that will appeal to all those who love the modern realistic psychological novel of contemporary life—a group that includes the majority of readers of fiction in English today.

I’m not a member of that majority, however. I read and enjoy such novels, but often finish them with the feeling that the psychological paradigm—behavior or character trait X must be traced to incident or trauma Y in the character’s past—is inadequate to illuminate the paradox-rich riddle of human behavior. And the real world, I feel, is often an inadequate stage for the portrayal of real human characters. I belong to that literary party that thinks that Prospero and Ariel tell us more interesting things about the human condition than do Emma and Charles Bovary.

So I think Fallenberg is at his best when he strays from just telling us what his characters did and thought. There are a few intriguing passages where he hints that the facts of the breakup of Joseph’s family are not as simple as they seem to be. Different characters have different memories of that critical time, and an old letter from Joseph’s lover indicates that the rabbi may have seen their affair in a different light than Joseph did. Yet these traces of conflicting narratives are never developed, nor are their moral implications followed through.

I feel the shortcomings of this approach in particular because of the subject that Fallenberg has bravely taken on. To my mind, there is no theme more critical for fiction to address than the conflict between a person’s responsibility to himself as opposed to his responsibilities to his family, to his community, and to God. And I believe that the issue of homosexuality is one of the most central and difficult ones that we who seek to reconcile Jewish religious tradition and modernity must face.

The modern psychological paradigm leads almost inevitably to the principle on which Joseph Licht has based his life: you must be true to yourself, first, and then go on to address the rest of the world. Specifically, sexuality is destiny. That may well be true much of the time, and for many people. But, morally, that automatically places responsibility to self above responsibility to family, society, and God. I am more intrigued by those cases where people might make a less obvious choice.

That’s why I think Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience (see my post Jewish Literature As It Ought To Be: Naomi Alderman’s “Disobedience”) addresses the same issue in a more intriguing way. Some of Alderman’s characters choose in the end not to be entirely true to themselves, at in the modern psychologistic way, or to balance their conflicting responsibilities in ways that defy the expectations both of tradition and of modern life.

To Fallenberg’s credit—and to great effect—he leaves his readers hanging. Light Fell ends with Joseph reconnecting with some of his sons. But much conflict, anger, and sadness remains. The novel ends on the verge of a great change in the family’s interlocking relationships, but we do not know whether, in the end, Joseph’s great life decision will prove to be a long-run success or a disaster. Nor do we know whether the principle by which Joseph has chosen to live his life will indeed be adopted by his sons—and if so, whether it will be the right principle for them.

That’s one reason why Fallenberg’s characters and their dilemmas will remain in my mind for a long time to come—and that is his greatest accomplishment in this promising first novel.