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Three-part harmony

Veteran political commentator Hillel Halkin’s first novel successfully updates an old, tangled tale

Melisande! What Are Dreams? By Hillel Halkin Granta, £14.99

    Readers familiar with the Middle East's chaotic politics will know Hillel Halkin as the author of four influential books and numerous commentaries on Israel and the region. Many will affirm that he is also one of the foremost translators into English of some of the best works of Hebrew and Yiddish literatures. Melisande! What Are Dreams? is his first novel. It is set in his native USA and not, as some might expect, in Israel, where he lives.

    Unlike some contemporary American fiction, where verbosity passes as mastery, this is a sparse, multi-nuanced, erudite and exceptionally accomplished literary offering, which makes one regret that Halkin delayed writing novels until now. (Though his biography of Yehuda Halevi does have the sweep of a grand novel.)

    Love triangles - whether mythic like Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot or purportedly factual like Antony-Cleopatra-Octavius - are archetypal and have inspired artists of every discipline throughout history. Basically, and often with tragic shades, they recount the story of two, high-born friends who love the same woman.

    I imagine Melisande! What Are Dreams? was inspired by Maeterlinck's play, Pelléas et Mélisande, or by Debussy's operatic adaptation. However, the altruism and the natural nobility of Halkin's characters suggest that he was equally stirred by the post-vulgate cycle of Arthurian legends immortalised by Malory in Le Morte d'Arthur and by Tennyson in Idylls of the King.

    Halkin's eponymous heroine, Mellie, and her admirers, Hoo and Ricky, meet at high school. Hoo forthwith falls in love with Mellie. Mellie, dismayed by academic conservatism, abandons university. Hoo becomes a classics scholar. Ricky spurns his studies and drifts into Indian mysticism.

    During this phase, Mellie and Ricky become lovers. After mental illness afflicts Ricky, Hoo marries Mellie who has always been in love with him. Hoo commits a casual infidelity. Mellie leaves him. Hoo withdraws to a Greek island and, pining for Mellie, reminisces about their time together.

    This plot structure is enhanced throughout by the insightful author's refined psychological and philosophical reflections.

    A major boon of archetypal stories is when an artist, while depicting the ecstasies and/or sorrows of the protagonists, provides further enrichment by delineating the epoch, social mores and cultural tenor of his/her particular version's setting. Halkin serves this paradigm brilliantly and subtly.

    His protagonists, no matter how hard they try to create their personal ivory towers, are nonetheless affected by the intemperate times that shadow their lives. The result is a veritable treat for readers.

    Moris Farhi's latest collection of poems, 'Songs From Two Continents', is published this week by Saqi

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