(1988), a comic novel by the Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua, translated into English by Hillel Halkin, follows mid-level Israeli bureaucrat Molkho as he attempts to resume a romantic and erotic life in the wake of his wife’s death. Although Five Seasons
is considered one of the minor works by the author of A Late Divorce
(1984), reviewers nevertheless regard this “finely observed and oddly moving comic novel” (Kirkus Reviews
) as a worthy addition to Yehoshua’s oeuvre.
The novel begins at 4 a.m. one morning, the very moment after Molkho’s wife has just succumbed to her seven-year battle with cancer. It’s the most significant moment of his life, and he knows it: “He had managed to refine the instant of her passing…into something clear and vivid containing not only thought and feeling but also sound and light, such as the maroon glow of the small electric heater.”
He’s also a little concerned that he might have bungled it. He put on some music for his wife to die to, but he’s not sure “the breathless, staccato hunting horns in the Mahler symphony…were really the most suitable.”
For seven years, Molkho’s marriage has been sexless, unromantic, and perhaps, emotionally sadomasochistic. He recalls bathing ''her scarred and tortured body [which] already had turned…into some fossil of a species that had become extinct long ago or would perhaps not evolve for another million years.” And yet Molkho has been devoted. As his mind wanders back over his life, even major political events like Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon only feature as the background to some remark or deed of his wife’s.
But when it’s all over and he steps outside for some fresh air, he feels only a ''hot lump swelling in his throat and sticking there, refusing to overflow, until slowly it dissolved again.'' Then he thinks: “Soon he, too, would be free.”
As a well-to-do, mid-ranking bureaucrat, still not elderly, Molkho is something of a catch, and he’s not oblivious to this. He even admits that “in recent months” he has begun to consider a female colleague of his, a legal adviser in his department, as “a definite postmortem possibility.”
Meanwhile, unmarried women begin eyeing Molko up, even at his wife’s funeral, across the open grave. During the ritual mourning period, a lot of women visit Molko to hug and kiss him in consolation. Within a month, a local marriage broker phones to propose a match.
Molkho dutifully stays in touch with his Levantine mother, who embarrasses him. Her advice is to start dating—a year’s mourning be damned—although he should avoid movies, because “You know what people will think. You’ve done the right thing until now.” Her motherly advice doesn’t stop there: “For my part, you can have all the sex you want. Just don’t get involved too quickly. Try them out first. Try out a whole lot of them before you make up your mind.”
Molkho begins a flirtation with the legal adviser, but somehow their courtship takes them to Berlin, the birthplace of Molkho’s late wife, to see an opera which the recently bereaved are warned against. Molkho’s loss is on his mind, but when he tells his companion about his wife’s final illness, she suggests, ''And so you killed her little by little.’'
Molkho is shocked, hurt—and pleased: it is ''as if a soft quilt were thrown over him, he felt a warm, rich happiness in his veins.'' At this moment, ''the waiter deftly slipped two checks, his and hers, under their plates.’' Molkho—a confirmed penny-pincher—schemes to avoid paying for dinner.
Courtship after courtship runs aground or is clearly ill-advised from the outset. During a work trip to Galilee, Molkho fears he has fallen desperately in love with an 11-year-old girl. Next, he is approached by the husband of a woman named Ya’ara, on whom Molkho once had a schoolboy crush. The husband wants Molkho to seduce his wife because he intends to leave her, but Molkho is reluctant to do so until Ya’ara has a new husband lined up.
Molkho meets Ya’ara, no longer as attractive as he remembers, and still enmeshed in her memories of the man who took her away from Molkho, a charismatic adventurer. Molkho ends up driving her to Yodfat so she can visit the house where she once lived with him, the scene of a much-regretted miscarriage and a long recovery. It’s not an erotic experience for either of them.
Even more than his own mother, Molkho is concerned with his mother-in-law, who lives in a retirement home in Haifa to which Molkho is compulsively drawn, especially “the fifth floor, where the terminal cases lay dying.” After the Ya’ara misadventure, Molkho’s mother-in-law recruits him to help the daughter of a friend of her’s, a Russian girl. Nina is “cuddly,” but she doesn’t speak English.
Throughout the novel, Molkho’s attention periodically wanders to his three children, whom he calls “the schoolboy,” “the college student” and “the soldier.” A far-from-perfect father, Molkho’s interactions with them are mostly anxious nagging—until one day “the schoolboy” goes missing. For a day and a half, Molkho is insane with panic. He turns up, but Molkho has re-forged a connection with life.
Then his mother-in-law falls sick and dies. Molkho watches himself process this second illness and death, recognizing that he has been a passive observer of his own life. He takes on the task of returning Nina to Russia, and in the novel’s final moments a vista of true personal freedom opens for him.