Bee Season, by Myla Goldberg; the Autograph Man, by Zadie Smith

Article excerpt

New York: Anchor Books, 2001. 288 pp. $22.95 (c); $13.00 (P).

New York: Random House, 2002. 368 pp. $24.95

Jewish mysticism defines a quest for truth and transcendence. Using intense discipline, study, and the repetition of magic letters and syllables, the seeker aims to pierce life's contradictions and distractions and to reach God's realm of unity. The writers of the Kabbalah, the Zohar, and commentaries on these central texts warn of the rigors and dangers of this quest. The spiritual pilgrim risks error and madness as he works to achieve oneness with the "en sof," the infinite. But the risk may be worth the danger, for the few who breach the barrier between the human and divine can do wonders. They can, in fact, heal the world, so tragically fragmented by its distance from God.

These arcane ideas and practices are usually associated with learned men of faraway times and places: the second-century teacher Simon ben Yohai; the scholars of Sefat in Israel; the saintly Rabbi Akiba; and the 13th-century Spanish visionary Abraham Abulafia. All its practitioners have been men, all rigorously trained scholars.

Recently, however, two contemporary female novelists have made an odd choice: they have claimed mysticism's central ideas and dramatic action for their own secular quest stories. Myla Goldberg's Bee Season (2000) and Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man (2002) move the search for divinity to, respectively, suburban Philadelphia and North London, in our own bewildered times. In each novel, the seeker is young, untrained in Judaism, and wandering clueless in search of meaning. In each novel, the author revitalizes the ancient mystic's vocabulary, discipline, dangers, and hope. Despite its strangeness, Jewish mysticism works to organize and evaluate the chaos at the heart of each novel.

Eliza Naumann, the nine-year-old protagonist of Bee Season, discovers that she has a talent for competitive spelling. It propels her from the ignominy of being an ordinary pupil to the triumph of shining in local, state, and national spelling competitions. Because she can spell -- intuitively, hypnotized by the combining and recombining letters -- she replaces her older brother Aaron in the attentions of their cantor father.

Meanwhile, her family is fracturing. Eliza's mother Miriam, always emotionally absent, falls deeper into her secret life of petty theft. Aaron, exiled from his father's inner sanctum of Jewish music and Hebrew learning, seeks out other forms of spirituality than the Naumanns' Judaism. He finds a community of Hare Krishnas, whose chanting, rituals, and self-abnegation appeal to his need for a warm community, near to God.

In their house of closed doors, Eliza pursues her father's tutorials, as he directs her study for the spelling bees. First dictionaries, then incantatory repetitions of letters and combinations of letters, then initiation into the meditation of the medieval mystic Abraham Abulafia:

"Letters," Saul says. "Abulafia believed that, by concentrating on letters, the mind could loose itself from its shackles to commune with a presence greater than itself,...shefa, the influx...the Divine Intellect."...

"Do you mean," Eliza whispers, "that I'll be able to talk to God?" (pp. 172-73)

She masters the techniques of mystic concentration: "She could feel the different vowels in her marrow, her bones chimes through which the letters blew" (p. 190). Then she surpasses her father's knowledge. Alone with Abulafia's Life of the Future World, she experiences a religious ecstasy that rips through her body and mind, with visions, pain, "crawling insects and crashing waves" (p. 268), her own disembodied voice, "infinite human and animal possibilities" (p. 269). Possibly, she sees God: "the shape's face is every face ever formed" (p. 269); she feels herself disintegrate and rerum anew. As the story ends, this newly transformed child asserts her independence, choosing her own road, which leads away from winning spelling bees, toward the person she will become. …