FEBRUARY 17, 2016
“REALLY, UNIVERSALLY, relations stop nowhere,” Henry James says in one of his prefaces, “and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.” Using a geometry of her own, debut novelist Sigal Samuel draws a nigh-perfect circle in The Mystics of Mile End, a book that nourishes both the heart and mind. Samuel’s frugality in introducing characters and motifs results in a tightly focused and elegantly served novel that is something of a feast to read.
Mile End is a neighborhood in Montreal, but, given its “mash-up of hipsters and Hasidic Jews” (as the blurb tells us), it’s also somewhere between Silver Lake and Jerusalem. Some of Samuel’s dialogue nicely captures that cultural mix, letting us hear English subtly inflected with Yiddish and French.
At the heart of the neighborhood, and the novel, is the Meyer family: widower David, daughter Samara, and son Lev; they are all children of disparate influences, sacred and secular. David rebels against the “scientific-mindedness” of his culturally Jewish parents by joining the “yeshiva world,” where he meets his devout wife, Miriam. After the birth of their children, he breaks her heart by abandoning Orthodoxy under a new constellation of influences: Kafka, Nietzsche, and Gershom Scholem, “a thinker who thrilled not to the long etcetera of petty details typical of organized religion, but to the transcendent aspects of Judaism.” He becomes a professor, taking a forensic approach to his religious heritage and its mystical riches, especially to what another character refers to as “our received tradition,” the kabbalah. An excerpt from David’s inadequate “academic manuscript” does, however, provide us with a useful exposition of the novel’s kabbalistic concerns:
The great kabbalists taught that God began the process of creation by contracting His infinite light. He poured it into ten vessels — each representing one of His qualities — that together form the Tree of Life. As the light trickled down through these vessels, it condensed into physical matter and gave rise to the world as we know it.
In the world of the novel, David’s oscillation between belief and skepticism — he’s not as settled in his mature secular worldview as he thinks — sets up an important tension between “book knowledge” and “experiential knowledge.” In fact, it’s a novel of tensions: between intellect and intuition; between imposing meaning and seeking meaning; between Ani, the vessel of self, and Ayin, the vessel of self-surrender; and — most importantly in dramatic terms — between father and daughter.
Samara (Sammy) and Lev lose their mother in a traffic accident when they are still kids. Growing up in the shadow of this random fatality, it’s perhaps no surprise that they repeat their father’s rebellion (much to his distress) by turning to their religious tradition.
Here Sigal Samuel’s work brings to mind another Montreal-born Jewish writer, Saul Bellow, who talked about “reality instructors” in his fiction; right there in Mile End, Sammy and Lev have an economic cast of characters that we might call the siblings’ “enlightenment instructors”: Mr. Glassman, their burdened Torah teacher; Mrs. Glassman, who seeks consolation in the mysteries of mathematics; Mr. Katz, a kind of Holy Fool whose ladder to transcendence is a Tree of Knowledge made out of the humblest domestic materials; Alex, Lev’s best friend, who looks to the heavens for astronomical enchantments; and Jenny, Sammy’s pale and perennial beloved.
Lev’s religious journey is relatively conventional; Sammy’s is the high-wire act that brings the novel into its edgiest territory, where transcendence begins to look a lot like madness. Lev is the narrator in the first section of the book, and he raises the curtain on the story with an engaging and convincingly youthful voice, but David and Samara, who also take the narrative mic, are the most interesting characters, the spiritual heavy-hitters. McGill student Sammy is her father’s daughter, and his rival; they both undertake perilous ascents of the Tree of Life. David realizes — with a nod to yet another of Montreal’s Jewish spiritual seekers, Leonard Cohen — that Sammy may well be better equipped to make the climb:
What if I’d tried to stop her not because I found her behavior weird, but because, watching her, I had felt a twinge of envy? It was as if, by listening to the static embedded in musical notes, dial tones, dishwasher noise, she believed she could attain enlightenment. An enlightenment I already knew would never be mine. There was no secret chord I could play to please the Lord.
Pleasing the Lord can of course become an all-consuming business, as Joyce reports at the start of Chapter Four of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when Stephen Dedalus is going through his last pious phase: “His daily life was laid out in devotional areas.” Mystics sent me back to that part of Portrait, with its masterful deployment of ecclesiastical language (what a theologian friend of mine once referred to as “churchy stuff”), because, not being a Montreal Jew but a Dublin Catholic, Samuel’s book made me want to think more about, in terms I was more familiar with, the benefits that accrue to a writer who has had a religious upbringing. (Yes, there are burdens, too, but even some of these can be turned to imaginative advantage, as Joyce’s work demonstrates.)
Chief amongst these benefits is what we might call a system of apprehension — a toolkit for tackling reality. For Joyce, this was the aesthetics he absorbed from his close reading of Thomas Aquinas, as Stephen recounts at length in Portrait during his peripatetic conversation with his college buddy Lynch. And this Thomistic devotion was no undergraduate phase; according to the Richard Ellmann biography, during his Trieste exile, Joyce was still reading the Angelic Doctor “in Latin, a page a day.”
It would be an understatement to say that kabbalah is the Aquinas of Samuel’s novel; it’s a constant presence, with an illustration of the Tree of Life serving as a gatekeeper to the text. In Mystics, the Tree provides both an account of creation and a means — a slippery means — of gaining traction with transcendence. The kabbalistic tradition, through Mr. Glassman, is keen to post warning signs about this risk, and to stipulate that scholars should be married men aged at least 40, which technically disqualifies both Sammy and David. “[T]o climb this … Tree … is a very dangerous idea,” Glassman tells Lev. “Because, when you are studying it, it is easy to become obsessed […] Suddenly, everything you see looks like a sign from above.”
This becomes the big question: are the neighborhood mystics discovering “patterns in the chaos” of the world, or are they imposing those patterns? Are we witnessing revelation or hallucination? Another one of the “enlightenment instructors,” David’s scholarly girlfriend, Val, makes a nuanced observation: “Sometimes, if you look closely, there’s an invisible map hidden beneath the surface of things” — the crucial word being sometimes. The novel is concerned with interpretation, and brings the reader into that concern: we have to work out when Sammy and David are discovering maps, and when they are stenciling maps on mayhem.
Slightly extended, the epigraph from Joyce’s Portrait applies neatly to Samuel’s Mystics. It’s from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story of Daedalus and Icarus: “Et ignotas animum in artes”; add the rest of Ovid’s sentence (“naturamque novat”) and you have — in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation: “At once he starts / to work on unknown arts, to alter nature.” Once Sammy plunges into her arcane studies, without much mentorship, we wonder to what extent she is altering nature, and to what extent simply misapprehending it. Has the novel’s realism turned magical or has it extended its psychological reach?
I think Samuel’s book is inviting us to answer questions like this for ourselves; in this way, readers find their place within that well-imagined circle. Mile End is a welcoming neighborhood.