Fanny & Gabriel
Fanny & Gabriel
By Nava Semel
Translated by Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann (Gefen Publishing)
“Should we call this a love story?” With that question, acclaimed Israeli author Nava Semel begins her final novel, the alluring historical saga Fanny & Gabriel. Your answer will be a Rorschach test of your own romantic sensibilities. For me, the novel’s bittersweet flavor has the taste of truth. And knowing that Semel wove this fully imagined novel from the troubled lives of her own grandparents makes her tale all the more bewitching.
As Semel tells it, from betrothal to death, the bond that tied Fanny and Gabriel together remained as stubborn as it was elusive. It endured, however frayed, through marriage, divorce and remarriage 40 years after they first wed, despite Gabriel’s countless abandonments and betrayals along the way. How and why their link never gave way entirely is the mystery Semel attempts to unlock.
That motive suffuses the book with empathy, irony and honesty. Her propulsive pacing carries us forward from the now-lost Jewish communities of Bukovina, Romania, to the ravages of World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel and beyond. Throughout, Semel uses authorial asides to comment on and grapple with Fanny’s steadfast faithfulness to an unfaithful man. Even in Gabriel’s absence, Fanny “held on to him, as though she had swallowed him up,” Semel writes. “She was here and he was there, by choice, and not due to the vicissitudes of fate. And yet they were fettered to one another until someone cut the cord.” But there is strength and dignity in Fanny’s stubborn refusal to abandon Gabriel, and Semel portrays her not as a martyr but as a heroine.
Some of the book’s most powerful scenes depict Gabriel’s terror in the trenches of World War I—he is conscripted into the army shortly after Fanny and he become engaged—and the shell shock that remains with him for the rest of his life. Perhaps that experience first leads him to become a serial abandoner, using his charms to seduce and then leave one woman after another in whatever country he lands. This is true especially after he settles in New York City in the early 1920s, abandoning Fanny and their son, Yitzhak, and makes a fortune on Wall Street. It is tough to take a shine to a character who could pay so little attention to the fact that his wife and son (based on Semel’s father, the late Israeli politician and Knesset member Yitzhak Artzi) remained trapped in Hitler’s Europe. I can only say it is part of the enchantment of Semel’s writing that she finds a way to confer on him a measure of understanding.
My appreciation of Fanny & Gabriel is only dampened by the fact that Semel’s early death in 2017 at the age of 63 means there won’t be more books to follow. The novel was written shortly before she passed away and has only recently been translated into English. One of Israel’s most popular, prolific and influential writers, she was among the first to explicitly address the enduring presence and impact of the Holocaust on the psyches of both the survivors and their children in over 20 books.
Semel does not shy away from discussing the Holocaust in this book, either, in scenes describing the enduring grief of a character who mourns for her first husband and daughter, both murdered in the Holocaust. The book’s true joy resides in the lives of Fanny and Gabriel’s children and grandchildren as well as in Semel’s children, whom she periodically references in her asides. Fanny and Gabriel’s will to survive is their legacy, this memorable work an elegantly crafted tribute to an earlier generation.
Diane Cole is the author of a memoir, After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges, and writes for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other publications.