And the Bride Closed the Door

  • Review
By – September 2, 2019

Many read­ers around the world were strick­en with a deep sense of loss at the death of Ronit Mat­alon in 2017 at the age of fifty-eight. A beloved pro­fes­sor of Hebrew lit­er­a­ture at the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty, Mat­alon was the daugh­ter of Egypt­ian immi­grants to Israel whose strug­gles inspired her fic­tion­al por­tray­als of Mizrahi immi­grant and fem­i­nist expe­ri­ences. She pub­lished nine nov­els in her life­time, includ­ing the high­ly acclaimed The One Fac­ing Us and The Sound of Our Steps. In his eulo­gy, Pres­i­dent Reuven Rivlin praised both her lit­er­ary voice and her encour­age­ment to younger writ­ers: She was a won­der­ful author whose books sound­ed a clear, orig­i­nal and deter­mined fem­i­nine and Mizrahi voice” who gave rise to a whole gen­er­a­tion of authors and lit­er­ary schol­ars.” The day before her death, she won the pres­ti­gious Bren­ner Prize for her final work, And the Bride Closed the Door, praised by the com­mit­tee for expos­ing the deep inner struc­tures of Israeli soci­ety, the exis­ten­tial ten­sions of being Israeli, and ques­tions per­tain­ing to the def­i­n­i­tion of indi­vid­ual iden­ti­ty” all dealt with bril­liant­ly and light-handedly.”

Giv­en that its action unfolds over a sin­gle day in a small apart­ment, And the Bride Closed the Door often feels as claus­tro­pho­bic and ran­corous as Israeli soci­ety itself; after the tit­u­lar bride, Mar­galit or Margie locks her­self in her mother’s bed­room hours before 500 guests are expect­ed at her wed­ding. Chaos ensues. That essen­tial­ly sums up the plot of this large­ly char­ac­ter-dri­ven novel­la. This sto­ry (beau­ti­ful­ly trans­lat­ed by Man Book­er Inter­na­tion­al Prize win­ner Jes­si­ca Cohen), is brim­ming with wise and com­pas­sion­ate com­men­tary on a pletho­ra of con­cerns: cul­tur­al­ly-imposed gen­der roles, the role of pub­lic and pri­vate mem­o­ry, and the dys­func­tions that dri­ve fam­i­lies apart. Above all, it deals with the secret inner lives of her cast of characters.

Arguably the most humor­ous of her works, Matalon’s far­ci­cal treat­ment of the Israeli wed­ding indus­try offers sly com­men­tary on how fraught mar­riages have become in the Jew­ish State, as if the entire Zion­ist enter­prise would grind to a halt were one bride to sud­den­ly resist. In the end, the social and ide­o­log­i­cal forces swirling around them seem to imprison each of the fam­i­ly mem­bers as much as the bride on the oth­er side of the door has trapped herself.

Through­out the family’s mount­ing pleas and threats, Margie stub­born­ly keeps her silence, with the sole excep­tion of a scrawled note con­tain­ing a famous Lea Gold­berg poem, The Prodi­gal Son.” Or not quite — as the orig­i­nal was writ­ten in the mas­cu­line Hebrew tense, and the ver­sion that appears has been voiced in the fem­i­nine. The ensu­ing strug­gle over the cryp­tic missive’s mean­ing leads to even more con­ster­na­tion and uproar among the bat­tling fam­i­ly mem­bers. Odd­ly, the more fren­zied their efforts to force Margie into the open, the more her bewil­dered fiancée Mat­ti express­es sol­i­dar­i­ty (if not under­stand­ing), with her mys­te­ri­ous resis­tance. Margie’s grand­moth­er is anoth­er sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ter; though hard-of-hear­ing and con­fused, she seems to pos­sess a preter­nat­ur­al under­stand­ing of Margie’s deter­mined refusal to play her part in the social order. At one point, this matriarch’s singing of Ara­bic lyrics by the leg­endary Lebanese chanteuse Fairuz, is ren­dered in lan­guage that might well serve as a del­i­cate homage to Matalon’s own fem­i­nist art.

Matalon’s posthu­mous speech at the Bren­ner Award cer­e­mo­ny, deliv­ered by her daugh­ter Talya, draws a wry par­al­lel between her fate and that of her pro­tag­o­nist, the absent bride: There is some­thing sad yet a lit­tle bit fun­ny in the fact that I, just like my locked-in bride, am not attend­ing this wed­ding’. But I hope it is clear that — just like in the nov­el — absence is some­times as sig­nif­i­cant as pres­ence and that some kind of wed­ding, legal, semi-legal or bare­ly legal, is still occur­ring.” As know­ing, sophis­ti­cat­ed and humane as those part­ing words might sug­gest, And the Bride Closed the Door offers its read­ers all the more rea­son to mourn the loss of Matalon’s bold, uncom­pro­mis­ing voice.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and edi­tor of the forth­com­ing book Amos Oz: The Lega­cy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.

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