There are moments of such lyric beauty in “The Parisian,” Isabella Hammad’s debut novel, that you want what they describe to be permanently closed, hers to be the final word. The book begins aboard a ship bound for France, and in these few pages alone she flicks off with seemingly effortless grace the dreamy sensation of being on deck (“the wind harassed the tassels on their parasols”) and the careful process of smoking there (“he cupped his hands over a cigarette, shook a match free of its flame, and held the lit end in his palm”).
Unfortunately, the novel is perhaps the single art form hardest to conquer through sheer talent. While neither poets nor songwriters nor painters have to confront the problem of duration unless they wish to do so, even a short novel asks hours of its readers. As for a long one, it has no chance of success without merits beyond its prose. “The Parisian” is worthy, sincere, generous — and grievously dull, a tale whose flares of energy are buried beneath a gnarled, inexpert narrative. Nearly halfway into the book, there is a description of black coffee trembling and flashing in the sunlight. As an image, it has a swift, beautiful clarity of expression — which by then only serves to highlight the long-windedness of the story surrounding it.
The title character of “The Parisian” is Midhat Kamal. Refined and intelligent, Midhat is the son of a prosperous textile dealer from Nablus, in what’s now called the West Bank, but which as the novel begins in 1914 is part of the Ottoman Empire. He is on his way to Montpellier to study medicine; hence those early shipboard scenes.
This is a year of some consequence in European history, obviously. (In his diary for the 28th of June of that year, King George V writes, with a sort of glorious stupidity, “The poor archduke and his wife were assassinated this morning in Serbia . . . stamps after lunch, bed at 11:30.”) But Midhat’s experience of the war is secondhand. He falls in love with a Frenchwoman; loses a friend who’s gone to the front; encounters, in numerous (and well-drawn) ways, Europe’s most polished varieties of racism; and finally runs himself sick on love and despair in Paris, having abandoned Montpellier.
By the time he returns to Nablus, Midhat’s high aims have dissolved, while Hammad’s have become clear: She is writing about history before it became history. After 1918, much of what was once called Ottoman Syria, including Nablus, came under French and British rule. The region’s future was still radically undetermined, and Hammad wants to return the reader, through Midhat, to that point, before the tragic century that lay ahead for the Palestinian people came to seem inexorable.
It’s a strong idea. So why does it falter? “The Parisian” is complex in a way few experienced writers could handle, and its catalogue of technical missteps is long. (Nearly every one of its chapters could beneficially be halved, for example. Hammad has tenuous control of point of view. And if only we could permanently retire the pocketwatch as a symbol of time and hardship.) But it also has a close grasp of history, and the high quality of its writing never fades.
The problem is simpler than any of that, really: Hammad has yet to develop any skill for character. The people she creates are so taxonomically familiar as to be basically blank: the remote father, the excitable friends, the fierce, canny grandmother. Midhat himself, even in the throes of emotion, never blooms into reality. He is tenderhearted and wary, you might say. He is certainly handsome and smart. Still, he remains a cipher.
Perhaps the clue is in the title. Since 1918, the people of the Levant have endured a series of catastrophes. Nablus has become the site of Israeli settlements, terrible violence and wholly understandable anger. The (admirable) purpose of “The Parisian” seems to be to reorganize that narrative around Palestinian rather than Israeli or European history; Midhat is a “Parisian” only in the bitterest sense — foreign there, eventually exiled at home, a victim of Paris’s careless confidence in its own centrality.
In other words, Hammad is writing with ideas and events toward the front of her mind. She does so empathetically, but “The Parisian” still feels like a house that’s been staged to sell, furnished only to draw attention to its architectural lines. What makes this doubly regrettable is that Hammad is clearly writing something highly personal, however she has fictionalized its occurrences — several of the book’s central characters bear her last name.
I found myself wishing again and again as I read “The Parisian” that we didn’t equate ambition with length. Hammad set out to write a vast, painstaking saga of the Palestinian experience, but her particular gifts seem far more suited to the short form. That’s no knock — so were Denis Johnson’s. Perhaps Hammad’s best chance of writing through the full sweep of history might be, paradoxically, in flashes, in the brief human moments, captured tantalizingly here and there in her debut, which occur only in the present — before some later observer compresses their joys and agonies into a protracted and deadening account, to which we have the patience to pay only a sadly vague, inadequate attention.
Charles Finch is the author, most recently, of “The Vanishing Man.”
By Isabella Hammad
Grove Press. 576 pp. $27