The Milk of Human Kindness
John Steinbeck concluded his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath with a startling scene. A young woman who lost her baby offers her breast to a starving man who had given what little food he had to his son. They are stranded by a flood in a rain-soaked barn, marooned by the conditions of the Depression, which have made them all hungry and desperate. The man has not eaten in six days and the warm breast milk may succor him, just as it may alleviate her pain at the loss of her child. Steinbeck’s editors were dismayed, not least because the man and woman were strangers. They urged him to remove or revise the scene, but he insisted that it was the kernel from which the whole novel sprang. For him, it was an emblem of solidarity and survival, a source of hope, biologically rooted in nature itself. (It was later dropped from John Ford’s celebrated film adaptation.)
The Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua places a similar scene at the heart of his latest work, The Retrospective. Whether Steinbeck knew it or not, the image had a long if minor history in classical lore and Renaissance iconography. It was usually called in Latin Caritas Romana, Roman Charity, and centered on a man in prison, sentenced to death by starvation. His daughter visits him there and feeds him secretly from her own breast. In some accounts his jailers are so touched that they set him free. This stark legend becomes a leitmotif in Yehoshua’s novel, whose Hebrew title, Chesed Sepharadi, translates as Spanish (or Sephardic) Charity (or kindness or generosity). An aging Israeli film director, Yair Moses, goes to a historic city in Spain to receive an award at a retrospective of his early work. (Yehoshua himself was once honored in the same city, Santiago de Compostela, and the novel, like John Updike’s Bech stories, reflects some of his public life as an author.) The filmmaker is accompanied by Ruth, his frequent star and longtime mistress, who may be suffering from a serious illness, although she refuses to look into it. His films, richly described in the novel, allude to Yehoshua’s own early stories, and they stir up deep currents of the past. They were written by his old student (and Ruth’s former lover) Trigano, who broke with both of them when they scotched a scene in his script in which she, having given up her baby for adoption, would tender her breast to a hungry old man. Still another version of this Caritas Romana shows up in an old painting that fortuitously is reproduced in their hotel room.
In this echo chamber of ideas, it would be difficult to do justice to the wealth of themes in Yehoshua’s simple plot or the improbabilities he risks to realize them. Witty, observant, keenly reflective, Moses is in part a surrogate for the author himself, reviewing his fabled career, looking back at the dense, symbolic stories that made him famous almost five decades ago, long before he wrote a full-length novel. Though realistic in detail, those Kafkaesque parables, like “The Yatir Evening Express” and “Facing the Forest,” deftly allegorized Israel’s inner life, its turbulent history, its relation to the Arabs within and without. But film (unlike fiction) is a collaborative art. If Moses’s first works were written by the passionate, obsessive Trigano, this would make him the director’s artistic conscience, his creative demiurge. A figure of Dostoevskian intensity, Trigano bitterly accuses Moses of selling out, betraying his original vision for a popular style, more realistic, more psychological. As it happens, Yehoshua’s later fiction melds both kinds of writing: He is a sharp and gifted realist, yet an aura of larger significance always infuses even his most straightforward novels, such as Five Seasons and The Liberated Bride. Moses needed to distance himself “from this strange and alien spirit that had hypnotized my work.” Had he followed Trigano’s path, he would have offered the world “pretentious stories intelligible only to the cognoscenti.”
Nevertheless, Moses returns to Israel determined to reconcile with his old screenwriter, hoping to rekindle his inspiration by going back to its sources. Pursuing his own personal retrospective, he revisits the locations and recalls the casting and shooting of his early films. These memories evoke the simpler, more provincial Israel of the 1960s, a world in which the intransigent Trigano still lives. Moses finally confronts him in a moshav near the Gaza border, where Trigano is visiting his retarded son. After the wonderfully rendered scenes in Spain, the novel had somewhat lost its way. But in the fraught dialogue between these old collaborators, each considering the other a “failed artist,” the novel comes alive again. Yehoshua delves into the nature of creativity, how the texture of life is transmuted into art, how characters are fashioned from real people and actors intersect with their roles. Moses is forced to come to grips with a coldness, a detachment, in his own nature. He has related to Ruth more as a character he inherited and shaped in his work than as a person or lover, and she in turn has withheld herself from him. By seeking to reconnect with Trigano, he aims to revise the past, to rewrite the moment of refusal and rupture when his life and art may have gone astray.
His former screenwriter’s price, however, is a steep one. The stubborn director, named after the original Hebrew lawgiver, is required to do penance for the scene he cut from their movie by reenacting it himself: He must arrange to be photographed as the old man, his hands bound, nurturing at a young woman’s breast. Of all the unlikely things that take place in the second half of the novel, including his odyssey through those film locations and his relentless fixation on Trigano, this humiliating demand is the most improbable. Yet, against all expectations, the far-fetched turn of events works. As the kind of symbolic situation Yehoshua might have built into his early fiction, it catapults an otherwise conventional novel onto a different plane: Now taking direction, Moses returns to Spain to act out the tableau that holds out the atonement he seeks. A monk who had befriended him earlier, who had even taken his half-serious “confession” in church, finally finds him a woman who will play the part. The novel ends where the old film was intended to end (and exactly where Steinbeck’s novel did end), in an ambiguous but exhilarating act of “charity,” somewhere between the erotic and the alimentary, between love and nurture. “The inspiration I craved has returned,” Moses thinks, as the warm milk touches his lips. “I am drinking it into the chambers of my heart.”
Yehoshua overloads the ending, even bringing in that May-December couple that embedded itself into so much of Spanish and Western literature, Don Quixote and his fantasy lover, Dulcinea, but it furnishes a coda to the book’s main ideas. For Steinbeck writing in the Depression there was hardly anything sexual about this nurturing image, but from Yehoshua’s perspective “one can never really know the line that divides compassion from passion.” Caregiving is one of the novel’s central motifs, often associated with food, as when Trigano lovingly feeds his helpless son while Moses, who elsewhere displays a hearty appetite, refuses to eat. But bodily nutriment spills over into creative and romantic nourishment. The director must sort out his unexamined feelings about Ruth, part fraternal concern, part sexual attraction, his sense of artistic yet also personal responsibility for the woman whose character he had molded on the screen. In the twilight of his creative life, shadowed by mortality, he looks to reconcile the polar differences in his work—the realistic and the symbolic, the local and the international, the private and the literary—which is exactly the trick Yehoshua brings off in this ambitious, engrossing, playfully testamentary novel.
Morris Dickstein is Distinguished Professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center. His most recent book, Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, received the Ambassador Book Award. He is completing a memoir.