Translated by Hillel Halkin. Harper. 528 pp. Hardcover $29.99.
- Reviewed by Philip K. Jason
This breathtaking tale of a prominent professor’s undoing is expertly woven with biblical passages.
Some books are so spectacularly original, so far beyond the boundaries of any reader’s expectations, and so challenging that they establish a new point of reference for any further discussions of literary achievement.
Ruby Namdar’s The Ruined House, set at the dawn of the 21st century, explores the givens of a cataclysmic era that may become a period of tumultuous cleansing. Though centered on the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual disintegration of a successful, middle-aged college professor, it fully engages the new American century’s self-masking: its adulation of elites and its confusion of cultural values.
Andrew P. Cohen, an accomplished and proud secular Jew, has tripped over the scales of hubris and found himself to be a foul beast. His aura of polite self-congratulation has become contaminated and slowly begins to smother him. His many faults, the recognition of which he has artfully hidden from himself for decades, are in the process of being revealed.
The selfishness with which he ended his marriage is exposed to him. The comfort and security he felt in his academic achievements, the physical attractiveness and health that he nurtured and in which he delighted, and his assumption of fully controlling his always upward-bound destiny are most painfully stripped away.
Namdar tells his story, almost sings it, with a lyricism that is only the richer for the hideous images that increasingly fill up Cohen’s world as he falls apart. The erotic turns into its hideous opposite. Images of grotesque tongues and penises fill his imagination. He sees signs of what’s coming, has nightmares and incredible daydreams, and they all finally rest on how his being — if not his world — has been penetrated, irradiated, by ancient texts: sections of Old Testament with accompanying Mishnaic commentary.
This material, represented in the graphic style of the original manuscripts, focuses on the preparation of the Temple’s high priest for performing his duties during the seven days leading to Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. These duties are largely rituals of purification, but also include various kinds of sacrifices — offerings to God.
Inner and outer cleansing of the self and the temple are described, along with a number of sacred objects like fire pans and candelabras. The strange ceremonial practice of purifying holy places by sprinkling them with blood is included. . . .
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