I, The Divine
Rabih Alameddine is one our most daring writers—daring not in the cheap sense of lurid or racy, but as a surgeon, a philosopher, an explorer, or a dancer. In this delightful novel, he takes his greatest risks yet, and succeeds brilliantly, in a work that while marked by radical formal innovation, manages to be warm, sad, funny and moving.”
Named by her grandfather after the "divine" Sarah Bernhardt, red-haired Sarah Nour El-Din is feisty, rebellious, individualistic - a person determined to make of her life a work of art. In I, the Divine, she tries to tell her story, sometimes casting it as a memoir, sometimes a novel, full of sly humor and dark realism, always beguilingly incomplete." What emerges from these exquisite "first chapters" is extraordinary - a woman and a life as real as any we have known in literature. Raised in a hybrid family shaped by divorce and remarriage, and by Beirut in wartime, Sarah finds a fragile peace in self-imposed exile in the United States. Her vibrant spirit has survived violence, her mother's suicide, her sister's madness, and the impossibility of escaping her family (including her frighteningly entrepreneurial stepmother, who has hired members of Hezbollah to sabotage her competitors). Her extraordinary dignity is supported by a best friend, a grown-up son, sensual pleasures (occasional sex, frequent bubble baths, the company of cats), and her determination to tell her own story.
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Talk about writer's block; Sarah Nour El-Din never manages to get past the first chapter of the memoir she aspires to pen. Alameddine's innovative novel collects several dozen of (fictional) Sarah's aborted attempts, a structural gimmick that works to create a revealing composite of a character who can't seem to finish her own story. Sarah is the Beirut-born daughter of a love match that went sour; her Lebanese father sent her American mother back to the United States when he tired of her and married a traditional Lebanese wife instead. Saniya, Sarah's stepmother, disapproves of her athletic gifts and packs her off to a strict convent school. Sarah, named after Sarah Bernhardt by her grandfather and just as mischievous and dramatic as the famous actress, grows up in wartorn 1970s Beirut, longing for American freedoms. She emigrates to New York with her first husband, Omar, and resists his attempts to force her to move back to Lebanon, losing custody of her son, Kamal, in the process. Over the next several decades, she marries and divorces again, suffers a devastating breakup with a controlling lover and becomes a well-known painter. Alameddine, a distinguished painter himself, is best known for Koolaids, a novel in which a Lebanese-American gay protagonist discovers he is HIV-positive. His Sarah is a compelling, believable character who struggles to establish an identity as she navigates between cultures, but one wishes that the novel's structure did not mirror her confusion so faithfully. Some vignettes are beautifully written and touching, but others seem rambling or irrelevant. Ultimately, the novel's clever framing device is also its weakness, as the reader yearns for the satisfactionof a linear story.
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Incidents from the life of a Lebanese-American artist-each of them vivid, passionate, and briskly told-that still never quite cohere into a unified whole. The problem is Alameddine's (The Perv, 1999, etc.) narrative strategy: she tells her protagonist Sarah's story in a succession of first chapters, variously labeled "Chapter One," "Title Page," and so on. The early chapters tell of Sarah's life as a girl in Lebanon and her parents' traumatic divorce. Her father, a physician, married a bright, attractive woman who gave birth to Sarah and her sisters but failed to produce a boy. She is effectively discarded, and Sarah's father remarries. The family endures the agonies of war in 1970s Beirut, a time and place depicted with compelling, fluid authority, while Sarah's stepmother chills the house with her severe, restrictive personality. Sarah makes her way to the US, attends college, and marries. When she discovers that her sister Lamia, now working as a nurse, has been causing the deaths of patients, Sarah returns to Lebanon to help the family cope with this awful development. The scene is compelling, as are the letters Lamia has written to her birth-mother, and yet, like many of the incidents here, it remains at a distance from the development of the central character. Sarah divorces, remains in the States, achieves modest success as an artist, and, while living in New York, attempts to reconnect with her embittered mother, who suddenly commits suicide-in a moving section that carries its deep pathos well. Sarah realizes in conclusion that she can best be known through her network of family and friends: good advice, perhaps, but not, at least here, the most rigorously coheringmeans of telling a life story. Lovely prose and vividly evocative scenes, though Sarah resists emerging whole from them.
The Times (UK)
"The story of Sarah, half Lebanese and half American, named by her grandfather after the "divine" Sarah Bernhardt, is told entirely in first chapters, as Sarah begins and then abandons her memoir over and over again. Not only is it brilliantly executed, it is so convincing that it feels like the only valid way that Alameddine could have told Sarah's story. Her life has been fragmented - between Beirut, New York and San Francisco, between three failed relationships, between a mother who left her and a young stepmother who took her frustrations out on her. She experiments with tones, jauntily brittle one moment, elegiac and lyrical the next, sometimes bleak and hopeless. The picture slowly comes together, but arriving as it does in a non-linear order allows insights from unexpected directions.
The Seattle Times
'I, the Divine' skillfully finds a woman's voice
By Valerie Ryan
It happens so seldom, but when it does it is a thing to be marveled at: a man writing in a woman's voice — and getting it right.
Reynolds Price did it in "Kate Vaiden," Wally Lamb did it in "She's Come Undone" and now Rabih Alameddine has nailed it in "I, the Divine."
Everything about this book is inventive and wholly original, starting with the subtitle: "A Novel in First Chapters," which is exactly what it is. Red-haired heroine Sarah Nour El-Din, named by her grandfather who adored the "divine" Sarah Bernhardt, tries to write her life story. She gets started, but doesn't get very far before abandoning the effort. By novel's end, we do get the whole story in bits and pieces — "first chapters" only. Alameddine makes it work beautifully. Sarah's life becomes an irresistible mystery for the reader to stay with and unravel.
The mystery begins in her hybrid family: a Lebanese father and an American mother. Janet, the mother, doesn't last long. She is dispatched from Beirut back to New York for producing three daughters.
About Sarah's father she says, "He had married nontraditionally, an American woman, for love, the riskiest of all. He divorced for comfort, for tradition, for safety."
Janet is replaced by Saniya, the quintessential wicked stepmother in Sarah's opinion.
Saniya has her hands full with Sarah, who has learned gorgeous strands of pornographic curses from her grandfather, how to French kiss, how to play soccer — but nothing about being a proper young girl.
Sarah guides us, in fits and starts, through her adolescence, her first lover, her first marriage, the birth of her son, Kamal, another marriage and finally, her emergence as an artist and an entirely reinvented person.
Scattered throughout are references to the war in Lebanon, traditional Lebanese family life, her trenchant comments on life in general and art in particular: "I was in New York last week and saw two retrospectives, Pierre Bonnard's and Rothko's. Besides noting that Bonnard could not draw if his life depended on it and Rothko did not even try ... "
Typically Sarah: opinionated, feisty, feeling her independence and artistic competence wax and her self-doubt wane. Alameddine has given us a fully realized portrait of a complex and fascinating woman, one as real as the book in which she reveals herself.
"Set primarily in Beirut, this novel is especially interesting now for its portrait of a young woman divided in her loyalties between her Lebanese father, with his large family, and her dispossessed American mother. Sarah, named after the Divine Bernhardt, tells her story of dislocation and disconnection in oddly positioned and eccentrically numbered chapters.
'My family's leitmotif is loneliness. We exhibit characteristics of the curse differently, deal with it differently,' explains Sarah. Loneliness is a generous assessment--her shy, homely, older sister becomes a serial killer; her rejected, depressed mother a suicide. She herself is a 'twice divorced adulteress who abandoned her son.' Yet she is also a good friend and a talented artist. Still locating herself comfortably in the world--in war-torn Beirut, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, or in San Francisco--eludes her.
Her story begins with and returns repeatedly to dislocation, being in the wrong place--the only girl in an all-boys' school, child of a cultural mismatch, studying in a foreign city, married to an unresponsive man. 'Home is never where she is, but where she is not.' In the end she says one has to understand her connections to understand her, but she has no intact connections. Like her narrative, her life is broken and fragmented. The bright, strange, often startling pieces refuse to fit happily together. But scattered and patched they are moving and memorable."
By Gina B. Nahai
Rabih Alameddine's new novel unfolds like a secret, guarded too long, which is at last pushing toward the light: It moves in jagged lines, flows forward and backward and sideways. It grows by bits and pieces, each one as thrilling, as restrained and mystifying as the other, creating a tale that is fluid and spare, humorous and heartbreaking and always real. Born in pre-civil war Lebanon, Sarah Nour El-Din has been named for "the Divine Sarah" Bernhardt. Her father is a Druze, her mother an American. Her parents had met at the beach of the American University of Beirut, where he was studying to become a doctor. They married in spite of his family's opposition to his taking a foreigner for a wife. The young doctor did this--defied common sense and the expectations of the close-knit Druze community--because he loved the American "more than any man ever loved a woman."
The American, in turn, has tried to appease her in-laws and gain acceptance into her husband's community. She has learned Arabic, cooks Lebanese dishes, never misses a wedding or a funeral. She has given up the independent spirit that had brought her to Lebanon in the first place. She has become quiet and deferential, "swallowed whole," Sarah tells us, by the land she had once come to conquer. And she may have succeeded, may have managed to keep the life she has paid for so dearly, but for one unpardonable mistake: Instead of producing an heir to carry his father's name, the American has given her husband three daughters.
The first daughter was greeted by the Druze family with mild disappointment. The second caused alarm. The third one, Sarah, will lead to the demise of her parents' marriage: Convinced that his wife is unable to give him a son, the doctor divorces the American woman. Then, of course, the tragedy begins.
"When my father divorced my mother and sent her back to America," Sarah explains matter-of-factly, "she put a curse on our house from which none of us escaped.... The curse was a life of loneliness. If you ... scrutinized our hearts, you would come across a loneliness so enveloping, so overwhelming, it frightens the uninitiated." Alameddine tells Sarah's story in language that is honest and ironic and never tainted with self-pity. He re-creates a place where intelligent, educated people live under the shadow of ancient curses and distant ghosts, a land where intense violence and extreme tenderness exist side by side, often within the same home. He tells of a war that goes on for so long that it becomes a way of life, talks of souls that are at once mutilated and rendered whole through their connection to one another and their families.
In Lebanon during the war, Sarah grows up resenting her father for ruining what he has described to her as a fairy-tale love affair, resenting also the young second wife he has brought into the house for the purpose of producing a son. The stepmother will bear two daughters before finally delivering a son. One of her daughters will die at the hands of a mad suitor. Another girl, Sarah's sister from the American wife, is so devastated by the loss of her mother that she will go mad. The only boy in the family--the vaunted and longed-for son expected to carry the doctor's name--will be openly and unapologetically gay, with no intention of perpetuating his father's line. At 18, Sarah leaves home for America, coming in part to seek the mother she last saw when she was 2 years old. Instead of the pair of open arms she has longed for, however, she encounters a lonely, bitter woman who has little time for her daughter. The mother, it seems, has been afflicted by the same curse she put upon her former husband and his children.
"She had been wronged," Sarah concludes, "and lived that wrong for the rest of her life." On her own in the West, Sarah marries and divorces twice and falls in love with a third man who leaves her without an explanation. Neither Druze nor American, neither the obedient wife nor the confident rebel, she lives by half-truths and conjectures and tries hopelessly to find a connection with her past.
Telling her story is also Sarah's attempt to understand the forces, seemingly beyond her control, that drive her toward self-ruination. But the past, she learns, is ever-changing and open to interpretation. It has many beginnings and just as many shapes--hence the 45 first chapters, prologues and introductions that constitute the book. The past also has a way of re-creating itself in the destinies of those most harmed by it: Sarah gives up her own child to her second husband and lets him take the boy back to Lebanon to be raised without her. Therein lies the tragedy of yet another damaged life: Sarah concedes that, like her father, she too fell out of love with a spouse and like her mother, she is no longer with her child. "I did not forgive my father his treatment of my mother," Sarah confesses, "until I repeated the same story."
Gina B. Nahai Is the Author of Several Novels, Including "Sunday's Silence."
Alameddine Re-creates a Place Where Educated People Live Under the Shadow of Ancient Curses.
The discomfort of families. Maya Jaggi on an accomplished tale of traumatic lives spanning Beirut and America, Rabih Alameddine's I, The Divine.
A book subtitled "a novel in first chapters" risks being taken as a gimmick. Yet Rabih Alameddine's second novel is an assured follow-up to its Beirut-born author's riveting debut, Koolaids (1998), a novel in vignettes that miraculously captured the dual disasters of the Lebanese civil war and the Aids pandemic in San Francisco.
Though less successful than Koolaids, I, The Divine builds on that quest for a fictional form to reflect trauma and self-reinvention. Rather than post-modern gimmickry, it recalls more profound attempts at formal innovation expressive of historical and psychological rupture, as with slavery's shattering of time and lineage in the fiction of Toni Morrison or Caryl Phillips.
Sarah Nour El-Din is a Lebanese-American artist named by her grandfather after the "divine" Sarah Bernhardt. In almost 60 chapters, she haltingly tries to tell the story of her life, as though composing a memoir or writing an autobiographical novel, in one case in French. Yet she abandons each successive attempt only to begin again. At times her starting point is her childhood in Beirut in the 1960s and war-torn 1970s, as the daughter of a Druze doctor, Mustapha, and an American mother, Janet, who divorced over Janet's "failure" to produce a son.
At other times Sarah begins in 1990s New York or San Francisco, where, it transpires, the successful painter is still fleeing the memory of sexual assault as a young woman in Beirut.
Her stuttering recollections embrace other family traumas. One sister was shot dead by a militia sniper whom her parents spurned as a suitor. Another, "so homely - elephantine nose, wide brows, bulging eyes, and pitted skin that looked like it needed a good scouring", was a nurse who killed patients in her care. Almost as worrying for her conservative family are the "transgressions" of her gay brother, Ramzi, and best friend, Dina, a lesbian living in Boston. Worst of all, her wronged mother spurned her daughter and grandson in New York, preferring to nurse her bitterness before committing suicide.
Exploring patterns in her own life, Sarah reflects: "I did not forgive my father his treatment of my mother until I repeated the same story." As a "professional divorcée ... living off two alimonies", she says, "in my family, love, like religion and politics, was to be avoided, a passion that vanquished reason".
While she recalls her father choosing the comfort of "tradition" with his second wife, Saniya, over waning passion for the foreigner Janet, Sarah dissects her unsatisfying love life: her first boyfriend Fadi, her Greek Orthodox ex-husband Omar ("more acceptable than Maronite, but still Christian") with whom she eloped to New York, and her Jewish American ex-husband Joe.
The absence of both her son Kamal, whom Omar took back to Lebanon, and David, the recent lover for whom Sarah still pines with an "indecent obsession", creates an undertow of loss.
Alameddine has created a warmly engaging, sophisticated and subtle woman's voice. Bestriding cultures, Sarah imagines that, like Beirut, she hides an "Arabic soul" beneath a "western veneer"; she is apt to weep at a few notes of the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthoum.
From the US she looks back with irony at the indoctrination of her childhood. Her father insisted that, while "a boy's sexuality is like a plastic tablecloth", a girl's is "like fine linen, much more valuable. If a carafe of wine is spilled on it, it will never come off" - an image echoed with irony in the recovered memory of Sarah's rape and subsequent abortion under the title, "Spilt Wine".
Though the narrative is rehearsed repetitively from myriad angles, it is neither confusing nor dull. Alameddine skilfully undermines Sarah's misconceptions, including the literary clichés through which she views her life. While her "wicked" stepmother, Saniya, emerges as a kind ally, Sarah discovers that her beloved grand-father's vindictive hatred of Americans is what prompted her parents' divorce. She has idealised an old man whom her sister recalls as a "Machiavellian arsehole, prejudiced as hell, xenophobic and bigoted", a mysogynist who loved not Bernhardt, with her history of abuse and prostitution, but the "unattainable myth of what a woman is".
In a final twist David too emerges as less than the perfect lover of her memory.
In Koolaids, Alameddine quoted from Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveller - also a novel in first chapters: "Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time." Sarah's halting tales mirror not only how people understand and remember their own lives but the process of getting to know someone else, the layers of deception and self-deception that are slowly shed.
At times it does seem tricksy, as in the melodrama surrounding Sarah's sister, "A Serial Killer In Our Midst". A final chapter on family dynamics is an ill-advised attempt to point a moral. But what holds the novel together is the language of its acid humour and taut one-liners.
While it lacks the compelling immediacy of Koolaids, it confirms Alameddine as a captivating storyteller who can move and amuse even in fragments.