Lies, First PersonFiction
Reviewed By Eric Maroney
- Open Letter Books (2015)
- 370 pages
Elinor Brandeis, the narrator of Gail Hareven’s Lies, First Person, explains early in this Israeli novel that first-person narrators are not trustworthy. While Elinor paints a picture of her life as a sort of Garden of Eden—a place of childlike safety and comfort—within her is a great sense of unease and dread. She first hints at it during a discussion of literature with her husband, Oded. Elinor grows annoyed by his comments about Nabokov’s infamous novel Lolita, and remarks:
The next morning I was already able to tell him that he was making a big, if common, mistake in his reading of Lolita; that the book was pervaded by a consciousness of sin; that the utter ruin of Lolita is conveyed through the unreliable narrator, and that the reader together with Humbert Humbert are clearly aware of the fact that there is no restoration and that atonement is impossible.
After this musing, Elinor self-consciously begins to remove herself from her personal Garden. Like Humbert Humbert, she is haunted by a past laden with sin and guilt; and although she may realize that restoration and atonement are impossible, she maniacally acts to prove otherwise. Elinor’s journey, again, like that of Humbert Humbert’s, is shrouded by the mists of her self-serving motivations. There are times in this novel when the legitimacy of her stories is thrown into grave doubt. And at those times, Lies, First Person is revealed as a wrenching novel at war with itself, both revealing and concealing vital elements of Elinor’s story.
Early in the novel, Elinor divulges that she is haunted by the childhood sexual assault of her sister, Elisheva, by their uncle, Aaron Gotthilf, an Israeli-American academic. When Gotthilf stayed at Elinor’s family’s small hotel writing the book Hitler, First Person, he repeatedly sexual abused Elisheva. Gotthilf’s book caused a scandal among academic and Jewish circles, and Gotthilf was shunned as a pariah for giving Hitler a human voice, but his crime against Elisheva went unpunished. Elinor and Elisheva bear the brunt of the guilt, anger, and shame of the act. For Elinor, Gotthilf becomes the lightning rod for her rage and recriminations—in fact he becomes her very focal point of evil in the world, akin to Satan in his power and darkness.
As the girls grow to young women, they part ways from the strain of the crime’s aftermath. Elisheva converts to Christianity, marries an American man, and moves abroad to the Midwest. Elinor meets a mild yet strong-willed man named Oded, who becomes a successful lawyer. Under his protective wing, she is accepted into his family, and all her failings and oddities are embraced without question. While Elisheva, in a Christian act, eventually forgives Gotthilf of his crime, Elinor’s desire to exact revenge grows to maniacal proportions.
At this point, Lies, First Person, plunges into surprising, sudden turns, as Elinor pursues fantastical paths of imagination and speculation in her quest to kill Gotthilf. Increasingly, he becomes the embodiment of negation, as she refers to him by the peculiar names First Person or Not-Man. In her progressively convoluted thoughts, Elinor clearly becomes a first-person narrator the reader cannot trust. In compulsive rounds, she tells and retells the story of her life, undermining the credibility of her voice.
Interestingly, it is the appearance of Aaron Gotthilf himself near the end of the novel that provides a hint that Elinor’s story is most likely a display of shadows without substance. As Gotthilf delivers a talk in Jerusalem, attempting to distance himself from his novice novel Hitler, First Person, Elinor explains the sound of his voice:
I should describe the elusive quality of his voice. . . . His voice aspired to pathos, as if he were presenting us with an imitation. He sounded like a kind of clown mimicking himself—a clown mimicking a clown imitating an imitation, an imposter pretending to be an imposter?
Gotthilf is a shadowy figure, never fully fleshed out by Elinor. Her story could be the work of her feverishly overworked mind, or a purposeful scheme to hide some important and revealing fact from the reader. After all, what kind of being is an “imposter pretending to be an imposter”?
Lies, First Person is an extremely ambitious novel, which in the end does not lend itself to firm or lasting conclusions. Hareven has produced a work of dramatic and impressive contradictions. Between the two poles of questionable truth and falsehood, she examines such weighty issues as sin, guilt, forgiveness, Judaism, Christianity, motherhood, womanhood, violence, and especially the limitations and possibilities of art.
Dalya Bilu, a veteran translator of most of Israeli’s premier authors, renders Hareven’s Hebrew prose into clear and lucid English, helping the reader through the thicket of this dense, intriguing novel and aiding Hareven’s mission to convey both a grand scope of life and history while simultaneously presenting a small world of disquieting, individual claustrophobia. In the end, Hareven’s novel rises above the difficulties and problems of its characters and Elinor’s unreliable narration to capture the very strange and forgivable ways people confront and deny difficult experiences and memories.
Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two children and is currently at work on a book on folk religion and a novel.