Is there a more timeless subject for literature than obsession? From the beginning, it has been a defining force. Odysseus spent a decade battling monsters and temptresses just to gaze once again upon his wife, Penelope, while Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina died for love -- or, more accurately, for the lack of it. The vagaries of the heart, it seems, are always with us, as essential to our existence as, well, breath itself. Even among contemporary writers, obsession continues to reverberate, motivating works such as Ann Beattie's "Chilly Scenes of Winter," Annie Ernaux's "Simple Passion" and Elizabeth Smart's achingly beautiful "By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept."
Menis Koumandareas' short novel "Koula" operates very much in this tradition, an evocation of obsessive love from the inside. Spare, deceptively simple, it is the literary equivalent of an Impressionist painting, sketching in brief, intense bursts the story of a middle-aged wife and mother, Koula, and her affair with a young man named Dimitri, whom she meets during her evening commute. Although Koumandareas has won the Greek National Book Award three times, this is the first of his efforts to appear in the United States.
Originally published in Greece in 1978, and taking place in the early 1970s, it bears the hallmarks of its era: long hair and bell-bottoms, chatter about political "meetings and demos." Rather than date Koumandareas' writing, however, this only highlights the notion that the themes he investigates are timeless, as immediate and recognizable 30 years later as they are to the characters themselves. "Koula" is a novel, then, that unfolds almost entirely in the interstices between "[e]xpectation and remembrance, the future and the past." What gives the book its resonance is an almost painful sense of serendipity, of how events, once set in motion, take us where we don't expect to go.
The relationship between Koula and Dimitri begins as little more than mutual acknowledgment: smiles and greetings in a crowded subway car. They never consciously decide to sleep together, just exit the train one night and end up in a basement apartment Dimitri keeps. Their connection, though, is more than merely sexual; the most intimate scene in the novel involves the two of them lying still, in the dark, "as if the slightest movement, the faintest glimmer of light might break the spell." The point is that the most consuming passions are not physical but emotional. "[S]ince meeting Dimitri," Koumandareas notes of Koula, "she was constantly on the alert for the sound of the telephone.... There were times when her mind wandered off in a kind of darkness, and then there emerged a vision of the creaking steps leading down to the basement, and there was the sound of woodworm gnawing at the staircase." It's like an illness, a possession, and it leaves Koula unsure of who she is. "She felt as if she had been given some potent drug," Koumandareas writes, "like a racehorse or a football player.... I don't care, she said to herself. Whatever will be will be. She was sick and tired of being cautious, of measuring out her life drop by drop."
Of course, the thing about passion is that, also like an illness, it eventually runs its course. For Koula, this happens abruptly, one evening when her love, her obsession, yields to more expansive concerns. "What if this was the hour of judgment, she thought, the hour when the heavens are rent asunder to reveal archangels brandishing their great swords? If this was the hour, then she must gather her thoughts, answer for herself -- but to whom?" Ultimately, Koumandareas suggests, the stuff of daily life is answer enough. "A prayer welled up in her like a song," he tells us, "that all these people might go home tonight to their loved ones, or even their unloved ones, that they might repeat the same gestures, the same routine.... Tonight let them all be able to do the things they always did, she prayed, never mind if they didn't do them right or changed some minor detail, as long as they did them. She wept silently, freely."
In the end, Koumandareas has staked out a territory in which love and longing, despair and expectation bleed together in interior twilight. Here, obsession offers escape from the stultifying routines of adulthood, but it is only a passing respite. Far more lasting are the bonds of responsibility, of family, of "humanity enlisting all its resources in an effort to bear up and behave rationally" -- although they come at a terrific cost. "Would this be what it would be like every evening from now on?" Koula wonders as the novel closes. It's a line reminiscent of Samuel Beckett: "I can't go on, I'll go on."
David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.