Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours, the Soul

15 09 2014

This spring, after years of procrastination, I finally got around to reading Virginia Wolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. I say this with some satisfaction, because I tackled it several times in the past and had always given up after a few pages. I just couldn’t fall into the rhythm of Clarissa Dalloway’s musings as she goes out to buy flowers for her party. I found her “What a lark! What a plunge!” exclamations off- putting, and I kept hoping for a flash of irony, which would enable me to laugh along with Virginia Wolf at her unremarkable character. The irony never quite came, but once I made up my mind to stop looking for it, I was able to settle into Wolf’s portrayal of 1920s London’s manners and values.

As for The Hours, I had seen the movie, and as I read Mrs. Dalloway, I kept remembering scenes from the movie, based on Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel; Virginia Wolf writing the book, Laura Brown reading it, Clarissa Vaughn enacting it. I’ve been interested lately in books that are structured as stories that speak to each other, and so I decided, in spite of my skepticism of books that achieve hysterical popularity, to give it a go.

With The Hours, Michael Cunningham is doing something extremely ambitious – he is simultaneously portraying the author (that is, Virginia Wolf) writing the book, a character (Clarissa Vaughn) enacting a modern version of Wolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, and a reader (Laura Brown) reading Mrs. Dalloway. In this way, Cunningham sets up a triangle connecting author, character and reader that looks like this:

The Hours diagram

What is so compelling about this triangle is that it is a sort of archetype representing the relationships that play out in an unwritten pact inherent in all novels, a pact between writers, their characters and readers. Fact and fiction meet in a space where there is essentially no difference between them. Wolf, playing herself in the role of “the author”, has become Cunningham’s character. Wolf’s own character, Clarissa Dalloway, has metamorphasized into Clarissa Vaughan, who is both an modern manifestation of Wolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and an entirely new creation. Laura Brown, the reader, attempts to escape her own life by reading Wolf’s novel. At the end of The Hours, Laura Brown (the reader) and Clarissa Vaughan (Cunningham’s, but also Wolf’s character) meet, closing the triangle in a sort of Gordian knot.

Where, one might ask after completing The Hours, is the locus of this knot? Who or what is at its center? For not only is The Hours a tribute to Mrs. Dalloway, it is a metaphysical expansion of the novel through time and space. It envisions its creator, its creation, and its readers. It takes Wolf’s protagonist and transforms her into an entirely different woman who nonetheless shares with her an identical soul. It offers us a vision of all three sides of the triangle, the reader, the writer, the character, as they converse with each other, each struggling to wrest from this story its themes of sanity/insanity, celebration of life/rejection of life, and the singular enchanting power of the moment, or as Cunningham calls it, the Hour.

You might be a writer living in a London suburb in 1923, or a depressed, unfulfilled housewife in Los Angeles in 1949, or a lesbian intellectual in New York at the end of the 20th century, yet there is something in which we all, by virtue of being alive , partake. “There’s just this for consolation,” Clarissa Vaughan reflects at the end of The Hours, “an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectation, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows that these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.”

And voila! We are all here together. Virgina Wolf, Clarrissa Daloway, Laura Brown, Clarissa Vaughan, Michael Cunningham, and you, the reader of The Hours. All of us are here, together, nodding in recognition.


Aleksander Hemon’s Heart of Darkness

29 01 2014

When I finished Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, I felt a strong impulse to write to him.  I had so many questions, so many things I wanted to understand about him.  Though I am sure our paths have never crossed, he seemed to me, at that moment, a brother – not exactly a spiritual brother – more like a brother in consciousness.  Somehow, by some inexplicable, arcane map, we have both visited the threshold of the same landscape, seen the same view, and asked the same questions.  It seemed to me that this Aleksandar Hemon, roughly the same age as I am, but with a cultural legacy that is very different than my own, had for a brief moment partaken in the same weighted mystery that engages much of my thought.

The Lazarus Project is the story of a journey that began when Hemon (or rather, Hemon’s alter-ego- character, but I’m just going to call him Hemon), came across the story of Lazarus Averbuch, a young Russian Jewish immigrant who was shot dead by the Chief of the Police in Chicago in 1908.  Apparently the assailant took one look at the disheveled Jew who had appeared at his doorstep and assumed that he was a violent anarchist.  By some form of cryptic alchemy, the story resonated with Hemon, a Christian Bosnian who had inadvertently found himself in the US at the onset of the war in Yugoslavia.

Perhaps Hemon, a Chicago-based immigrant himself, identified with Averbuch.  Perhaps he felt as misunderstood and misplaced and out of synch.  Perhaps the tale, with its racism and fear and violence and inane murder, reminded him of what was going on in his hometown, Sarjevo.  For some reason, this long-forgotten and now irrelevant story angered him, ignited his imagination, drew him inside of it.  To me, it feels like it cast a spell over him, no less, and compelled him to take a flight to regions once near and dear, but now happily forgotten, to Jewish hearts, beginning with that old favorite, Lvov, (or as it is now called Lviv) and then on to Czernowitz, or as it is known today, Chernivtsi, Chisinau (otherwise known as Kishenev, the famous pogrom town) Bucharest, and Sarajevo.

What did Hemon know about the places he was visiting?  Was he aware, for example,  that Martin Buber grew up in Lviv?  That Joseph Roth went to university there?  Was he aware that Paul Celan and Aharon Appelfeld weres born in Chernovitz?  That Czernowitz was the site of the first international Yiddish conference, which was co-incidentally held in the same year as the Averbuch murder? Probably not.  Or perhaps he knew, but they were not part of his trajectory. What was part of his trajectory was the Jewish Center in Chernivtsi, where he searched, in vain, for someone who could give him some first or second hand information about the 1903 Kishinev pogrom.

The book that came to mind as I read was Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Hemon begins in the (figuratively) white sepulchral city of Chicago, lands in Lvov, and proceeds deeper and deeper into Averbuch’s story, moving backwards along his route in space and time.  Of course, one hundred years separate Averbuch’s journey west and Hemon’s journey east, and the world he encounters as he makes his way is vastly different from the one that Averbuch left.   Or perhaps it is just weary and ravaged and devoid of hope.  And devoid of the Jews, or the vestiges of the Jews, that Hemon is looking for.

Like Charles Marlow, Hemon heads deep into the hidden heart of what is lost and concealed.  Where Marlow journeyed through the comparatively wholesome jungles of Africa, Hemon’s odyssey involves disgusting hotels, reckless cab rides, and all the rampant corruption, decrepitness and faded Austro-Hungarian kitsch that the region has to offer, as he is all the while kept company by Rora, an ex-schoolmate/photographer who entertains him with tales of lawlessness, vice and murder amongst the warlords of Sarajevo.

I am intrigued, and impressed, that Hemon found it in himself not only to research, but to write a detailed fictional re-enactment of a pogrom.  What is it about this quintessential  Jewish catastrophe that lead him to invest his writing self its horror?  What wells of empathy has he called up in order convey this particular moment in Jewish history?  And why?  After all, as the old Jew in Chernivtsi explains to him, “There were many pogroms in Russia before the Shoah, and then there was the Shoah”.

The book’s most powerful moment comes when he finds the Jews.  Or rather, he finds their cemetery in Kishinev.  “The leaves did not move as we brushed past them; the twigs did not break under our feet; there was not sun, though there was light, heavy and viscous. This was all, the world of the dead: Rozenberg, Mandelbaum, Berer, Mandelstam, Rosenfeld, Spivak, Urrman, Weinstien.”   And then he comes upon the grave of Isaac Averbuch  1901-1913. He has finally found the key, the source, the undeniable proof that everyone, even a wretched, victimized immigrant, comes from somewhere.

“Tell me Iuliana,” Hemov says to his guide as they make their way out of the overgrown, crumbling, desecrated cemetery, “what is this world about –life or death?”  It is a question that belongs to victims.  To the broken. To the lost.  Hemon has travelled down his river and arrived at this moment in order to ask it. He has come looking for the heart of the darkness in his soul and found it in a forgotten corner of Eastern Europe.

He, and his view of his sepulchral city, will never be the same.

Ignoring the Elephant – Ellen Ullman’s Jewish Question

17 08 2013

I’m going to talk here about Ellen Ullman’s By Blood.  If you haven’t read it, you should stop right here, because I’m going to raise some reflections that could spoil the experience of discovering this book for yourself. 

If, however, you’ve read it, or know that you won’t be reading it, than feel free to keep going.

So, now that it’s just us, I want to share some thoughts.  By Blood deals, with many things, (San Francisco in the 70’s, the Lesbian community, psychoanalysis, to name a few), but at heart, I think it’s about the problem of identity.  Living as we are in these post-modern times, our identity need not be imposed on us by others.  On the contrary, we enjoy a stunning freedom and legitimacy to define ourselves, regardless of where or to whom we are born.  We can each, at least in theory, declare who we are, and the world will accept it.  You’re gay?  No problem.  You want to be a Zen Buddist?  Totally fine.  You want to change your sex?  Also fine.  Change your religion?  We can respect that. You’re a guy and you want to be a kindergarten teacher, or you’re a woman and you want to be a construction worker?  Not an issue. Tell us who you are, and we will admire the you that you’ve created.


The problem arises when, in spite of your bold, iconoclastic, unapologetic work of self-definition, you begin to wonder about the part of yourself that cannot be altered.  You cannot shake the sense that there is a certain aspect to who you are which is indelibly written on your genes.  Or as Ellen Ullman might say, in your blood. 

By Blood involves three main characters: A psychotherapist, her patient – a young woman exploring the meaning of her being adopted, and the narrator who eavesdrops on their sessions.   The narrator, who has himself broken with his family and re-invented himself, is enraptured by the notion that as an adoptee, the patient is free to re-invent herself, unencumbered by  any knowledge about her biological parents.  “Mysterious origins” is the way she defines her cryptic beginnings, and the narrator is eager to listen in on the way she might explore and affirm this notion.  “How I wished she could see herself as made from whole cloth- as the self-created creature I’d hoped to follow into my own release from ancestry,” he explains.

But for the patient, it’s the not knowing that has become a burden.  She can no longer bear to be a blank slate.  She longs for the unassailable decree of ancestry, of blood-ties, of an irrefutable identity that is imposed on one’s consciousness.  And so, unlike most psychotherapy cases, the journey this patient makes is not toward liberation and transcendence, but into the difficult, messy, confining truth of genetic fact.  She is seeking not the light, but the darkness.  Not ease, but struggle.  

This woman, whose adoption bequeathed her a simple, uncomplicated existence, has chosen to exchange a comfortable fiction for a far more complex truth.  And that truth is not what she bargained for. For, in the course of the book’s remarkable narrative, it transpires that she is not a protestant, the fortunate child of American Wasps.  Rather, she is a Jew, conceived in a concentration camp, the unwitting bearer of a legacy of – of what?  What does it mean to find out that you are a Jew?  What does it mean to find yourself written into a chapter of their outrageous, turbulent history?  Where does one even begin to deal with that?

All of these might be interesting questions, but the author of By Blood has not chosen to explore them.  Naturally, I was curious about this.  To come so close to these issues and then to drop them is, in my opinion, an unusual authorial choice, a sort of ignoring the elephant one has brought into the living room.  Not surprisingly, I wanted very much to know more about Ellen Ullman.  After some internet research, I came to the conclusion that these questions are simply not the focus of her writing.  Though she is obviously knowledgeable about Jewish history and impressed with the phenomenon of Jewish resilience, she isn’t particularly interested in exploring the implications of discovering that one might partake of them.  It is, after all, the narrator’s story, and she artfully cuts if off in a way that is right for this work. 

Nonetheless, perhaps because of this omission, this willful decision to steer clear, it is these questions, more than any of the others that the book presents, that have stayed with me.







Ghostwriter and Ghost

12 02 2012

Anyone who has made an earnest attempt at creating art is familiar with the problem: if you are to focus on the work of creating, you need to go deep inside your head.  And if you are gallivanting around in your head, you are more or less on vacation from the unrelenting  demands of life.  You might tell yourself that you can do it, that you can be in both places at once, and maybe you can pull it off, doing whatever needs to get done.  But you will never be fully present in either your art, or your life;  your consciousness, your essential way of being, will always feel compromised.

A compelling exploration of the life/art problem can be found in the writings of Philip Roth, or more specifically, in two of his novels read in the following sequence: First, The Ghostwriter (1979), and then, immediately afterward, skip the next six Nathan Zukerman novels and go directly to Exit Ghost(2007).  Though the books are written 28 years apart, reading them as a pair is an uncanny and troubling endeavor.   Roth could not have originally (that is, in 1979) intended it,  and yet they go together so well;  The Ghostwriter as a question, Exit Ghost as an answer.  The Ghostwriter as a hope, a vision, a promise.  And then Exit Ghost as a sobering, merciless response.   And the authenticity of the response is oddly powerful, because not only has their narrator, Nathan Zukerman, aged in the long years between these two books, but their author has as well.

The Ghostwriter was Roth’s first engagement with Nathan Zuckerman.  How much of Roth was distilled into this character we’ll never know.  What we do know is that it’s 1956, and Zuckerman, an emerging (and promising) writer of 23 has been invited to the home of acclaimed author, E.I Lonoff and his wife Hope for dinner.  Roth’s depiction of Zuckerman, his mixture of self-effacement and arrogance, of doubt and optimism, of obsessive ambition and painful self-consciousness is authentic as only a once young  up-and-coming Jewish writer can write about another young up-and-coming Jewish writer.

Lonoff welcomes Zuckerman into the brotherhood of writers, speaking to him, as an equal, of his reading and writing routines, his difficulties, and even his fantasies about how he would like to live.  He takes great interest in Zuckerman’s job as a door-to-door magazine salesman.

Did I sell any other magazines other than Photoplay and Silver Screen?  Did I use the same line at every door or adapt my sales pitch to the customer?  How did I account for my success as a salesman?  What did I think people were after who subscribed to these insipid magazines?  Was the work boring? Did anything unusual ever happen while I was prowling neighborhoods I knew nothing about? ….Had I ever been to Hackensack?  What was it like? ….I wish I knew that much about selling magazines. I wish, he said, I knew that much about anything.  I’ve written fantasy for thirty years.  Nothing happens to me.” 

His genius notwithstanding, nothing happens to him because he has moved to remote farmhouse in the country, with only his wife for company.  Lonoff gives Zuckerman a rudimentary description of what might be described as his creative process.

Meanwhile, I turn sentences around.  That’s my life.  I write a sentence and then I turn it around.  Then I look at it and I turn it around again.  Then I have lunch.  Then I come back in and write another sentence.  Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around.  Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around.  Then I lie down on my sofa and think.  Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning. And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day, I’m frantic with boredom and a sense of waste.

His only relief from this routine, he explains, is his teaching job at a local college.

 his way, at least two afternoons a week, I have to stop, no questions asked.  Besides, going to the college is the high point of my week.  I carry a briefcase.  I wear a hat.  I nod hello to people on the stairway.  I use the public toilet.  Ask Hope.  I come home reeling from the pandemonium.

Hope, it becomes clear, is the one who has had to bear the burden of Lonoff’s yielding, however ambivalently, to the demands of art over those of lived life.  Her frustration is compounded by the presence that evening of yet another visitor to the Lonoff household, the “fetching” and clever Amy Bellete, a former student and assistant of Lonoff’s.  Amy is dark haired and bright eyed with an enigmatic European accent.  Does the Zuckerman character fall for her?  Yes he does.  And it is this infatuation, more than the dimensions of Lonoff’s conundrum, that spike this tale with metaphysical dynamite.  For Zuckerman begins to entertain the idea that he young woman is none other than Anne Frank.

The novel draws to a close.  Lonoff confesses to Zuckerman his fantasy of moving to Florence with a younger woman.  Zuckerman overhears Amy proposition Lonoff, and Lonoff reject her advances.  Hope has a fit of rage.  The two youngsters, Amy and Zuckerman, depart leaving Lonoff to his raging wife and his long days of playing with words.

It’s a great book.  But don’t stop there.  Go now to Exit Ghost.  The characters of The Ghostwriter have lived entire lives.  Roth has lived an entire life.  But you, lucky reader, can enjoy the luxury of time travel, garnering wisdom and insight without having to pay the price in time.

 So.  It’s 2004. The once randy Zuckerman, now both incontinent (he wears pads) and impotent, and suffers from lapses of memory which are starting to impair his functioning.  Amy Bellete, the European beauty who, in The Ghostwriter, inspires Zuckerman to masturbate on Lonoff’s day bed, is an impoverished, decrepit old woman dying of brain cancer.  When Zuckerman first recognizes Amy in a cafeteria, he avoids her.  Like Lonoff, Zuckerman, we immediately learn, has also chosen art over life.  Having indeed fulfilled his promise as a writer, Zuckerman has moved, like Lonoff, to the country, to live a solitary, isolated existence.  As he tells it:

 I don’t give readings or lectures or teach at a college or appear on TV.  When my books are published, I keep to myself.  I write every day of the week- otherwise I’m silent. I am tempted by the thought of not publishing at all – isn’t the work all I need, the work and the working?  What does it matter any longer if I’m incontinent and impotent?” 

Though the last line here makes the rest seem like an elaborate rationalization, the question that Roth is posing is a weighty one; if the point of the writer’s effort is to produce writing, having done that, does it even matter if it is ever read?  On a certain level, it doesn’t.   But having unequivocally chosen art, what is one to do about the remorseless presence of life?

After succumbing to a momentary temptation, Zuckerman answers an ad for a house swap – his country home for the West side apartment of David and Jamie, a young couple, both of them writers. To his own great surprise, Zuckerman is drawn to the Jamie, the wife, who awakens feelings that the impotent Zuckerman thought were dead and gone.

Through the couple, Zuckerman is pursued by Richard Kliman, a 28 year old freelance journalist.  Kliman who is writing Lonoff’s biography, has uncovered a scandalous secret regarding Lonoff’s personal life, about which he wants to questions Zuckerman.   Zuckerman is outraged at the sensational violation of his mentor’s reputation.  He then seeks out Amy Bellette, with the hope of warning her about Kliman, and finding out the truth about Lonoff.   Zuckerman’s obsession with Jamie, and his quest to vanquish Kliman’s plans, fills him with a new hunger for real, lived life.

Back in the drama, back in the moment, back into the turmoil of events!  When I heard my voice rising, I did not rein it in.  There is the pain of being in the world, but there is also the robustness.  When was the last time I had felt the excitement of taking someone on?   

Zuckerman, in this novel is 71, and we know before he does that his struggles are doomed.  He comes to understand that Jamie has no physical interest in him, and that in the face of Richard’s determination, he is powerless.  Powerless to stop him, and powerless to influence what will happen to Lonoff’s reputation.

Lonoff tried to run from life and take refuge in art, but even in death, his life is about to catch up with him.  Zuckerman too, tried to escape the irritations and demands of life for his art, only to find that time has barred him from all he thought he wanted to escape.  It would appear that in the artist’s struggle between life and art, life is the stronger element.

In the face of the impossibility of an affair with Jamie, Zuckerman is inspire to compose, on his hotel notepaper, long scenes of dialogue between them.  It is all fantasy; mere art.  But then, what are we to make of this:

But isn’t one’s pain quotient shocking enough without fictional amplification, without giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life, and sometime even unseen?  Not for some.  For some very, very few that amplification, evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, and the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most. 

My Love Affair with Kundera

8 11 2011

I was twenty. I wandered into a bookstore in Jerusalem, and saw it on the New Books table– The Joke. The title was intriguing. The blurbs were enthusiastic. The surrealist/modern- angst cover hinted that the humor of The Joke would be cynical and ironic. I didn’t have much money in those days; reader, I bought it for love. Or rather, a hope that it would live up to its promise. And that, my friends, was how I met Milan Kundera.
It was one of those instances where a book takes you by the hand and shows you something you’ve suspected must exist, but never seen. The writing was witty and accessible. The project was political satire, where the distinction between the good guys and the bad was thrillingly obvious, and the tone was an appealing mixture of earnest and sardonic. Kundera’s characters, Czech citizens living in a regime that both terrorized and infantilized them, were foreign to me, but at the same time, as intriguing as fascinating new friends. The predicament of people struggling to create a life under the stifling rule of communism struck me as beautiful and heroic.
But rather that talk about The Joke , I’m going to move on to the book that is considered Kundera’s masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Whenever I’m asked to think of a book that influenced me as a writer , this is what comes to mind. I’ve heard it said that with the end of Communism in Eastern Europe, this work has lost its relevance. That might be true if one approaches it as protest literature, but otherwise, I disagree. What Kundera has shown here is how one might successfully invest a book with philosophical discourse, politics, psychology, sociology, history, and one’s own digressive musings, while never losing sight of the main business of fiction – which, hopefully we agree, is a good story. This all sounds heavy and unpleasant to digest. It isn’t. It’s more like a meal where the various ingredients have combined to produce an unusual sense of satisfaction.
Why is this so? I think it’s precisely because The Unbearable Lightness of Being offers us so much more than just another story. It opens in (what was once) Czechoslovakia, at the time immediately before the Prague spring, and tells of a couple, Tomas, a surgeon, and Tereza, a waitress in a provincial hotel. Following a brief, chance meeting between the two, Tereza leaves her home and travels to Tomas in Prague. A love story ensues, but Tomas has a habit for philandering which he cannot and does not want to curb. Tereza tries to be accommodating, but feelings of unworthiness, jealousy, and self-hatred nonetheless make themselves known in anxieties and bizarre, violent dreams. The couple moves to Zurich, where they enjoy the freedom and prosperity of the West, but when Tereza decides that she can no longer stand living in the shadow of Tomas’s affairs, she returns to Russian-occupied Prague, alone. Tomas realizes that she is the love of his life and followers her. Like many of the Czech intelligentsia, he eventually loses his job and takes on menial work, in his case, as a window washer. Ultimately the two leave Prague for the country to live out their lives amongst simple farmers.
This story, a romantic tale at heart, is compelling enough. But what Kundera does with it is both daring and original: he frames this story in philosophical notions and dichotomies. Like a Sonata (Beethoven is clearly a favorite, and his work also figures in the book) the book is structured in seven “movements”, which bear names like “Light and Darkness” and “Body and Soul”. This directs our attention to the philosophical problems that Kundera wants to explore through the fates of his characters. But Kundera, though painfully alive to the great post-modern questions, does not go in for post-modern tricks and obfuscation. He simply interrupts the narrative and explains what’s on his mind. He doesn’t show what he’s thinking, he tells you. Like a warm, chatty professor digressing to his class, he discusses the narrative action, brings in relevant examples to highlight his case, quotes renown but unconnected figures, calls up historical anecdotes, and holds forth in discourses on the nature and motivations of the erotic (a pet subject of his, to which he gives a good deal of consideration).
For me, this work offers a model of how an artist might integrate all the various, and unrelated, musings, ideas, associations, and insights that flow through one’s mind into a clear, stable story line, deeply developed characters, and intensely felt themes. This sort of integration is not easy to achieve, even when done badly. But when the attempt is successful, it is exhilarating.
The result is such that in this novel, Kundera has described one of the principal dilemmas of our time: How to find meaning in a world where the post-modern sensibility has made everything meaningless. What is weighty for us? What is weightless? Is there anything that can comfort us in the wake of meaninglessness? How can we live with the knowledge that even if others understand our words, they don’t really understand what we mean?
Did Kundera create Tomas and Tereza and the rest of his characters in order to share his philosophical ponderings? Or did he begin with his inquiries, and then create characters and situations in which they could play out? One only need turn to the writing to see the answer. I have been thinking about Tomas for many years….Kundera tells us right at the beginning of the book, after a few pages of musings on the meaning of Nietzsche’s concept of Eternal Return. I saw him standing at the window of his flat and looking at the courtyard at the opposite walls, not knowing what to do.
It is images like this one that suggest that in the world of Kundera’s vision, the most troubling of philosophical questions play themselves out not in books and treatises, but in every moment of our waking, and sleeping, lives.

Midnight in Tuppertown

27 07 2011

When I was growing up in Toronto, our family owned a cottage. Almost every summer weekend we would pack up the car and drive two hours north. We’d speed past cows grazing in empty fields, lonely gas stations with signs unchanged since the 1950s, and small, dreary, towns. The towns inevitably had a general store, a lumber yard, the odd coffee shop, maybe a church, but that was about it. And I would wonder: What did one do in a place where there were no enticing store windows, no malls, no movie theaters, no skating rinks, no libraries, no city? How did people live in these places where the view from your window was of nothing but empty fields and a cold, limitless sky? Just the thought of it all sent a chill of horror through me, and I could only be grateful that no matter what seemed dissatisfactory about my own life, at least had the great good fortune not to live in one of those places. I think it was this sense of despair that inspired a deep appreciation, or rather, an awe, for the writing of Alice Munro, whose essential view of the world was shaped by the dimensions of those small towns.

Though I knew of Alice Munro when I still lived in Canada, it took me many years to read her work. As a girl growing up in the suburbs, the last thing I wanted to read about was the alarmingly similar predicament of other girls living in what we sophisticated city-folk referred to as “the boonies”. I was afraid that I would be bored to death, and that that boredom would feel uncomfortably close to home.

And so I read about people who lived in “interesting” places: Holden Caulfied’s adventures with the seamy side of life in NYC. Garp’s consorting with bears and prostitutes in Vienna. Garcia Marquez’s Buendía family in brilliant and doomed Macondo. Hanif Kureishi’s Karim negotiating his identity in South London. I could read about anything, it seems, except the lives of girls with whom I shared a language, a landscape, and a birthplace.

When, many years later, I did approach Alice Munro, it was with a skeptical curiosity about what she had done with her subject matter. Unlike Munro’s heroines, I had left Canada for the Middle East. It was no longer troubling for me to read about girls stuck in places where the monotony was broken only by bake sales and gossip. I found her very first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, in my local library. And then, with my hard earned worldliness I re-entered the world I had so happily left behind.  This is the setting of the very first story in the collection, her debut, as it were:

Then my father and I walk gradually down a long, shabby sort of street, with Silverwoods Ice Cream signs standing on the sidewalk outside tiny, lighted stores. This is Tuppertown, an old town on Lake Huron, an old grain port….Presently we leave these yards and houses behind, we pass a factory with boarded up windows, a lumberyard whose gates are locked for the night. Then the town falls away in a defeated jumble of sheds and small junkyards…

Are you asleep yet? Or just yawning through the gloom? What could possibly happen in this place that would interest a reader?

Here’s another description, from another story in the collection, The Peace of Utrecht. But be assured: the characters in this story are as close to Utrecht as I am to Teheran.

the whole town, its rudimentary pattern of streets and its bare trees and muddy yards just free of the snow… dirt roads where the lights of cars appeared, jolting towards the town, under an immense pale wash of sky.

I know these streets, those bare trees and muddy yards, that immense sky. And every time I read an Alice Munro story, I wonder anew at how she is able to create something from what seems to me to be… nothing.

I’m not going to explore here how that Munro takes these settings, where life is quiet and local color is pale and muted, and turns them into a backdrop for stories that are compelling, powerful, and in their own unique way, full of tragedy, horror, moral dilemma, social critique, and drama; in other words, that span the infinite and ancient spectrum of human endeavor. But I would be happy to provide and example.

Take The Shining Houses, also from Dance of the Happy Shades. The plot is oh so simple. You’ve heard the story about the community that is eagerly awaiting the construction of new, modern apartments, and the only thing stopping the project is some crazy old lady who, though she’s been offered more than fair compensation, insists on remaining in her dilapidated old eyesore of a cabin/cottage/shack/house, thereby putting the entire plan on indefinite hold? What, you may ask, can possibly be done with this situation that is new, fresh, or surprising?

Well, how about this: Mary, a young wife and mother, and part of the community of energetic young couples perceives that she, out of the whole self-righteous lot of her peers, is the only one who can see crazy old Mrs. Fullerton’s dump of a house as something rich, layered, and complex.

Here was no open or straightforward plan, no order that an outsider could understand; yet what was haphazard time had made final. The place had become fixed, impregnable, all its accumulations necessary, until it seemed that even the washtubs, mops, couch springs and stacks of old police magazines on the back porch were there to stay.

Mary senses the violence in the plan to force Mrs. Fullerton out of her house. The problem is that she can’t find the language to describe what she sees. The scene is played out at a child’s birthday party, where the parents have assembled for coffee and birthday cake.

Mary set her coffee cup down before she spoke and hoped her voice would sound all right, not emotional or scared. “But remember she’s been here a long time,” she said. “She was here before most of us were born.” She was trying desperately to think of other words, words more sound and reasonable than these; she could not expose to this positive tide any notion that they might think flimsy and romantic, or she would destroy her argument. But she had no argument. She could try all night and never find any words to stand up to their words, which came at her now invincibly from all sides: shack, eyesore, filthy, property, value.

Mary can’t find the words, and it wouldn’t make a difference if she could, because she’s up against something much more dark and primal than a neighborly disagreement.

And these were joined by other voices; it did not matter much what they said as long as they were full of self-assertion and anger. That was their strength, proof of their adulthood, of themselves and their seriousness. The spirit of anger rose among them, bearing up their young voices, sweeping them together as on a flood of intoxication, and they admired each other in this new behavior as property-owners as people who admire each other for being drunk.

In that brief lacuna between what the writer puts on the page and what the reader enacts in her mind, the shining houses and their smug, sanctimonious young owners have slipped over the line that differentiates a group from a mob.

Munro concludes the story with a final, compassionate glance at the town:

She saw the curtains being drawn across living room windows; cascades of flowers, of leaves, of geometrical designs, shut off these rooms from the night. Outside it was quite dark, the white houses were growing dim, the clouds breaking and breaking, and smoke blowing from Mrs. Fullerton’s chimney. The pattern of Garden Place, so assertive in the daytime, seemed to shrink at night into the raw black mountainside.

And that’s the thing about Alice Munro. We’re still in some dull town in Ontario, still with characters who seem limited in scope and experience. So why does this story, like much of Munro’s work seem to partake of the finest, the most subtle truth and beauty?


Freedom and Revolution

28 02 2011

Freedom and Revolution. There are still some places in the world where these words evoke drama and idealism. But when we use them with reference to ourselves, what they mostly elicit is cynicism and irony, as in the titles of two books I’ve read recently, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. These titles suggest something stirring and political, but what they in fact address is the more prosaic problem of how might live in a place where freedom is a given and the revolution is over.

Reading the two back to back, they provoke an urge compare and contrast. Both books are set in Middle-class America. Both feature the story of a couple, while simultaneously attempting to convey the spirit, feel, and tone of an era. What makes the comparison interesting is the fifty-year time lapse between them. Revolutionary Road was published in 1961. Freedom came out just last year. Chronologically speaking, Patty and Walter Berglund could be the children of Frank and April Wheeler.

You want to believe that given the fifty year gap, the books will be very different, and they are in many ways. Revolutionary Road unfolds in what we might now call the times of Mad Men, where people conduct themselves according to stringently coded norms of style and behavior, and difference of any kind is scarcely tolerated. The men and women of Freedom, on the other hand, happily disregard the expectations of others, and blaze their own trail on their own terms.

What struck me, however, is how in several ways, they’re actually quite similar.

Why not start with the women? Both Jonathan Franzen in 2010 and Richard Yates in 1961, have created female protagonists who have effectively lost themselves. These writers, both exquisitely sensitive to nuances of character, time and place, have given their heroines the same sense of a dead end. It’s interesting to notice just how it plays out: Patty Berglund’s best years are when she becomes a “stay-at-home” mom (Then term, and its notion of electivity, didn’t exist in 1961, yet the core situation that it conveys hasn’t changed). Franzen describes her as enthusiastically living out the role of the “enviably perfect mother”, and her crises doesn’t occur until her children grow up and leave the house, at which point she descends into drinking and depression. April, living as she is in the late fifties, lacks the language and societal affirmation for her sense of emptiness and ennui in her housewife role (and it is in fact not merely a role, but a complete identity, bestowed on her by the world). It’s painful to watch April try, like a trapped fly, to solve the conundrum of how she ought to live. When the book opens, she is trying to realize her dream of becoming an actress by taking part in a local play. When that fails, she devises an escape plan – her and Frank will pack up their two young children and go to Europe, where Frank will finally be able “find himself” while she supports the family. (Her need, practically bleeding off the page, to find herself, is a subject which doesn’t occur to her. Did Yates purposely write it this way, or did it simply never occur to him?). This too, doesn’t pan out, ostensibly because April gets pregnant.

It is perhaps the great change in women’s lives in the last 50 years that makes Patty, as opposed to April, seem so pathetic. Patty is free in exactly the place where April is trapped. Of course Franzen was making a statement here about the titular freedom he is questioning. What does seem noteworthy is that both women instinctively try to escape their existential predicament through men, or more specifically, through affairs with their husband’s best friend. Patty’s coy pursuit of Richard Katz leads to divorce and emotional oblivion. For April, the nihilistic misery of her encounter with Shep Campbell ends in death. It seems that fifty years, and a revolution in our understanding of women and their lives, has not made much of a difference. (Some might point out that both of these stories, and their women, were written by men. Yet I have yet to hear anyone say that this aspect of the plot is unauthentic.) The extramarital affair with the closest available man is still the escape route of choice, through which a woman might break out of her life in a desperate, but doomed grasp at self-realization.

Moving on to the men, both Frank and Walter are trying to make their peace with the American Dream. While Frank regards it with disdain and irony, Walter prides himself on defining himself in opposition to it. Funnily enough however, it turns out that the joke is on them. On both of them. Frank is seduced into the Dream with promises of promotion and money, while Walter, clever, noble, and naïve, is tricked into engineering his spiritual and professional downfall with his own two hands. The Dream really is just a dream, and truth, cold and lacking in glamour as it turns out to be, lies only in the personal/familiar sphere. It is in this sense that Freedom is, in spite of everything, the more optimistic work. Walter and Patty eventually reclaim each other, but for Frank there is no redemption; just as there was no redemption for the stifling mindset of his times.

Interestingly, the male protagonists in these novels cheat too, both with women from their work places. It’s nice to note that while Frank’s partner of choice is a secretary (Did anybody say Mad Men?), Walter’s affair is with a woman not only his professional equal, but of different race. It is perhaps in this detail that we feel the effect of those fifty years at its strongest.

Somewhat less obvious, but definitely thought provoking is the role of the rebellious “outsider” in these tales. In Revolutionary Road, this is clearly John Givings, the son of the local real-estate agent – and a certified resident of the local mental hospital. Freedom, with its 2010 ideas of what constitutes otherness has Richard Katz – the inadvertent rock star. Both these characters enact the age old part of the fool who tells the truth. John Givings comes across as rude, obnoxious, and lacking in all sense of propriety, but he also has a quality of cutting though every decorous nicety that dictates the prevailing social behavior of the sane. Oddly enough, it is with him, and only with him, that Frank and April have social exchanges that feel honest. Richard Katz’s otherness works in a very different way: blunt, cynical, and smug, he’s the man Walter could never be, and the guy Patti could never have. His very presence has an aura of both coolness and authenticity that torments Walter and Patti even as they fall under its spell. Obviously, the concept of otherness has changed to become less threatening and more accessible, such that its attraction feels potent and powerful, drawing us in rather than frightening us. What doesn’t seem to have changed is the fact that both of these so-called successful couples are in need of a truth-teller who says what everyone knows but cannot speak.

Finally, the two novels invite a literary comparison. Franzen’s seems to spread out, replete as it is with detailed descriptions of not only relationships, characters and situations, but memorabilia of the times – our times. It is entirely and constantly self aware – as if writing a record for future generations. Yates’s, on the other hand is nuanced, focused and sharp. There are far few characters, and we know far less about them than we do about Franzen’s, yet we end up knowing everything we need to know about who they are and the world they inhabit. Without long lists that characterize the era, or wordy portrayals of overly imagined characters, Yates manages to convey a powerful sense of what limits the Wheelers, what shapes them and delineates the borders of their world.

As a reader, I loved Freedom, but I am in awe of Revolutionary Road. Franzen appears to me a juggler, frantically doing jigs in the air to please the crowd, while Yates seems as coolly knowing as a prophet. At the ending of Freedom, Patty and Walter return to each other. It is an ending of hope, one that warms the heart, but makes you wonder what all the fuss was about. But in Revolutionary Road, with April dead and Frank estranged from his children, (because in 1961, the notion of a father raising his children alone was, well, revolutionary) the focus turns to Shep Campbell, and his unsophisticated, dumpy , wife Milly. It was perhaps her lack of sophistication, her innate dumpiness that made him dream of the beautiful and sophisticated April Wheeler, but if April represents fantasy and Milly reality, Shep knows, by the end of the book, where he’ll be making his bed.

Looking at her now in the lamplight, this small, rumpled, foolish woman, he knew he had told the truth. Because god damn it, she was alive wasn’t she? If he walked over to her chair right now, and touched the back of her neck, she would close her eyes and smile, wouldn’t she? Damn right she would.

I have to admit that I had a lot of fun reading Freedom; I loved the familiarity of it, and the gratifying shock of recognition that its chatty narratives bestowed. But it is this ending, earned in the wake of Yates’s tragic story, that will stay with me longer.

Of Billiards and Buildings

23 12 2010

I have this habit of asking the Germans I meet unpleasant questions. Of course I don’t ask right away. First come the neutral, tentative things that are said when meeting someone new. But there is always the looming monster of the holocaust just under the words. Always the troubling sense, running just under the surface of the conversation like the river Styx, that an entire nation stands behind each of us. It is a situation which evokes a certain amount of anxiety on both sides, and there is often a pressing need to clear the air.

What was it like growing up in a place where all the adults you knew were suspect of being Nazis? (That is, racist, fascist, mass murderers, or their silent accomplices.) That’s the question that interests me, and usually, after a moment’s thought, they tell me that their childhood was more or less normal. Then they launch into an explanation that their own personal family members weren’t Nazis. I suppose that at this point, it doesn’t matter if that’s actually true or not. And I can understand the desire to lie; who wants to tell a Jew that they’re the descendant of a Nazi?

But the place where it does matter, the place where the difficult, disturbing, unsavory truths about one’s time and place are supposed to rear their annoying heads is in literature. Realism, magical realism, surrealism, or dark, post-modern sicko humor; the main thing is that there be some truth on the premises.

Wait – don’t go ; I’m not going to do a survey of German post-war literature. I’m only going to talk about one book, by a really excellent German writer: Billiards at Half-Past Nine . It was written in 1962 Heinrich Boell. He’s not one of those obscure geniuses that die unrecognized. On the contrary, he’s a Nobel –prize winner (1972) “…for his writing which through its combination of a broad perspective on his time and a sensitive skill in characterization has contributed to a renewal of German literature”. So you’re entitled to approach the work with a certain amount of expectation.

Billiards at Half-Past Nine examines modern German history through the prism of the Faehmels, a respectable Cologne family. A talent for engineering and architectural design runs in their genes. If I tell you that the scaffold of the story is of a father who built a cathedral, and the son who helped to demolish it, you can understand how metaphor is busy at work here. In the course of the book, the family is destroyed, both physically and spiritually, by the events of, well, modern German history. The son, Robert, deals with this ruin of his family, his community, his values and his nation not by going to therapy, not by embracing anarchy an becoming a terrorist, not by taking to the streets and calling for a better society, but by adhering to a meticulously scheduled routine which includes playing a daily game of billiards at – you guessed it- half passed nine.

I don’t want to seem facetious here. Robert Faemel is struggling under the burden of a great many tragedies; his brother was a Nazi (though in Boell’s eyes, he too is one of their victims) , his mother went mad, his wife was killed by flying shrapnel, his daughter in law’s Nazi parents tried to kill her when she was a child, and his schoolmates, many of whom rise to respectable positions after the war include many ex-Nazis . All this, together with the fact that he himself was instrumental in destroying his father’s creation make for very troubling mental life. The idea that only the certainty of a strict daily routine, played out in activities of impeccable internal logic such as shooting pool, enable Robert to carry on suggest a very interesting premise. It’s all done beautifully, with great literary effects; changing point of view, vivid, lyric language, wonderfully poetic use of repetition, metaphor and symbolism, and striking interior monologues. The book certainly offers some insights on the German state of mind in the post war period, and yet, for me it was deeply flawed. Both the first time I read it, many years ago, and then again more recently, I was struck by what was, for me, inexcusably absent.

Which is the Jews. Or rather, some mention of the Jews – Jews who once lived in Cologne, for example. And what happened to them. There is but one brief sentence telling that Robert’s mother was committed to an institution following an incident where she tried to save join Jews who were being transported to a concentration camp, but that is really it. If a person who knew nothing about the holocaust were to read this book, they would not learn that the conflicted, suffering Germans ever had a problem with Jews at all. Which seems rather odd, given the generally accepted version of the ostracization , deportation and murder of six million Jews that indicates otherwise.
I was thinking about this when I wrote Interruption, a short story of mine that recently appeared in the online journal, Jewish Fiction (If you click on the link you’ll discover that I’m not really a blond cartoon character.) I have very little in common with Yakov Stiener, the protagonist. He’s a middle aged German Jew who left in time and went to Israel to join a kibbutz. What we do share is a frustrated impatience with the avoidance of the subject in post-war German literature.

I understand that this is a topic which, if you were a German living in the 1950s and 60s, you might want to avoid thinking too hard about. Because the conclusions you could reach might leave you little room for anything other than giving up your life and identity as a German. (I think positive proof of this suspicion can be found in the example of Sebald – another German writer, but one who saw fit to make his life in England, and was courageous and honest enough to confront the story of the devastation of the Jews head on; without self pity, without arguments about the suffering of Germans, without lame sociological explanations.) Nevertheless, time isn’t standing still, and the questions Germans need to think about these days are easier; less about genocidal tendencies, and more about how to understand the deeds of those older relatives who had the genocidal tendencies.
This summer I spent a few days in Berlin. If you enjoy an environment of metaphysical weirdness, you could do worse than take a trip there. The streets are filled with cheerful, chatty people. The parks and the river add a pretty touch to the urban sprawl. The buildings are a nice mix of stately old and bold-design new. Let the discerning, analytical part mind go to sleep and you could be in a place as innocuous as say, Canada.

But it doesn’t take much to pick up on the uncanny weight of time and place that hangs over the pleasantness. Pay attention and you become aware, as you hop between east and west and back again that these grassy parks, these public squares and these buildings, are in fact the ground zero of the 20th century. There are the little brass plates that appear in doorways, telling you the names of the Jews who once lived there and when they died, and other little brass plates set into streets and sidewalks showing exactly where the Berlin Wall stood not too long ago. There’s the bombed out Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, purposefully left in its ruined state as a lesson and a warning. There are the white crosses on the fence along the river commemorating the unfortunates who were shot trying to swim to West Berlin. There’s the sculpture of Jewish children outside the Friedrichstrasse train station – one group who went to England on a Kindertransport, and the other who was sent to die. Everywhere you look there’s memorials; the memorial for the murdered gypsies, the memorial for the murdered homosexuals, and of course, the memorial for Europe’s murdered Jews.

At first it appears a strange use of good real estate. 2700 blocks of granite laid out over an area of 19,000 square meters. Whatever one makes of it, its unavoidable, dark presence in the middle of the city cannot be ignored. For people who are used to having everything explained at the click of keyboard, it is annoying, then mystifying, then disturbing that there is nothing explaining just what it is supposed to be. All the perplexed observer is left with is a collective recognition that words will fail.

And there, in the middle of Berlin, amongst the passing traffic and the urban rush of the day, one is struck with the sense of finding, finally, a measure of integrity. I imagine that were they there to see it, both Robert Faemel and Yakov Stiener would be comforted.

Reading Natasha in North York

29 10 2010

Warning:  This post leans toward the autobiographical, and may be somewhat self indulgent.  Think carefully if this is going to be a problem.

Still here?

Ok.  First, two caveats: 1) I’m not in North York.  Not physically.  2) Wikipedia defines North York as “a dissolved municipality within the current city of Toronto.”   So actually, there is no North York.  It did exist at one time and I lived there.  But now all I’m left with the time-frozen flashbacks as they exist in my mind and in the mind of David Bezmozgis as he portrays them in his short story collection, Natasha.

I’m not sure that this would have concerned the collection’s Russian-Jewish protagonist, Mark Berman, and his parents.  They knew that they were in Toronto of course, and they were quite sure that they were in Canada. But they had no reason to know, or even care, that the place where they had found themselves on arriving from Riga via Vienna and Rome was, municipally speaking, North York.  But I knew.  I was born there and grew up there, so that for me, while Riga and Vienna and Rome were as close as the moon, North York was the world.

It’s difficult to convey the jolt of bizarre recognition I felt on reading the book’s opening line Goldfinch was flapping clotheslines, a tenement delirious with striving. Each word of this artful, seemingly innocent sentence seemed all wrong.    A little Twilight Zone moment. Let’s examine it closely:

Goldfinch – The same suburban Goldfinch street that I used to pass on the bus home from school everyday?  Is this street the stuff of literature????  You’ve got to be kidding.

Flapping clotheslines – I don’t remember any clotheslines.

Tenement – Excuse me?

Delirious – In the Toronto I remember, delirious people were hospitalized.

Striving – This sounds much too noble and heroic. Why the pathos?  Who had to strive in Toronto?

It dawned on me then that even though David Bezmozgis and I lived about a ten minute drive from each other (In the early eighties when the first stories of the book take place), we were seeing something very different. What for him and his family was a heady, if challenging adventure was for me, the most boring place in the universe; a place that, given the right weather on the right day, could drive a person to suicide.

As, like a virtual tourist being led through my own home, I read the stories, I often had to pause in incredulity. Bezmozgis had taken the suburban, concrete and neon landscape of my childhood and turned into the scene of heartbreaking drama (Tapka) sly tales about the meaning of Jewish identity (An Animal to the Memory), the subtle ambivalences of immigrant experience, (The Second Strongest Man) and suburban basement sex and drugs (Natasha ). Where was I when all this was happening, under my nose as it were?

But the story that I found most troubling was Roman Berman, Massage Therapist.   The story describes how Mark’s father passes an exam allowing him to work as a massage therapist. After father and son distribute advertising flyers, the family is invited for Friday night dinner at the house of the Kornblums. The experience is a bitter one.  Everything about the Kornblums reminds the Bermans that in this new life they are outsiders; poor, shabby, and relegated to the role of charity seekers.

As I read that story, I remembered how, on more than one occasion, my family also invited “Soviet Jews” for Friday night dinner.   That’s what we called them. Soviet Jews. All I knew of them was that they had lived in the worst place in the world, a place that bad as it treated them, didn’t want to let them leave. We had worn fake gold chains with dissident’s names on them. We remembered them at our Pesach Seders.   We had gone to rallies when Soviet diplomats came to town.  (I was seven when my parents took me to my first demonstration.   It was a cold fall night, a night when we would normally be at home watching All in the Family, but on that night we had gathered beside a hotel where an official named Kosygin was staying.  3,000,000 is half of 6,000,000 read one of the signs and I, at seven, I puzzled over what this cryptic slogan could mean.  Clearly there was something that Kosygin knew, that everyone knew, that no one had  told me about).  When they finally started to get out it was like recovering long lost family. After all weren’t my great grandparents also Russian Jews?  Weren’t they also thankful for a chance to get out of the most evil place in the world?

Except that it wasn’t.  They hardly spoke English.  They were wide eyed and awkward, and a little stunned, as if we and our Friday night routine were exotic and puzzling.  Though Jews, they seemed to know nothing of Jewish history or language or ritual.  How on earth, I wondered, were these people going to manage in Canada?

Reading Bezmozgis’s stories, I can only hope that we appeared kinder and less patronizing the Kornblums.  But the gulf between us and them was in some ways unbridgeable. We had lived lives of freedom and prosperity, and they were seeing our world through eyes that we couldn’t even imagine.

Several months after I finished reading the stories, my writing program at Bar Ilan held a literary convention. I was thrilled to find out that the guest writers were Nathan Englander (of The Twenty Seventh Man fame, see my post on this story) and David Bezmozgis.  (Never mind that I embarrassed myself by approaching Nathan Englander and asking him if he were David Bezmozgis, but that’s another story).  At a dinner held in their honor, I  couldn’t resist the opportunity to let Bezmozgis (having ascertained who he was) know that he was in the presence of a fellow Torontonian.  “How,” I asked him, “are you able to take such a dull place and use it as a backdrop for such moving stories?  When I was growing up, Toronto seemed like the most uninspiring  place on earth.”

“Yeah,” he nodded sympathetically.  “I can see how you might have felt that way.”

A Riddle and an Experiment

24 09 2010

Do you like riddles?  I don’t, except for the ones that trick you into not seeing the obvious.  Like this one:  Who is always present but never mentioned?  Most definitely a participant but rarely acknowledged?  Who’s voice, though essential and vital, is almost never heard?   

The answer, my friends, is Jewish women up until say, the 20th century.   Before you jump with a few examples of great Jewish women and their achievements, I want to stress that I’m not talking here about the exceptional, the unusually bright and charismatic, the rare meteors who burst out of orbit and explode into the atmosphere, but the regular, ordinary, unremarkable women.   

Jewish history is filled with texts which seek to organize and regulate everyday life, but you’d be hard pressed to find a woman’s voice, even in quotation, coming out of any of them.  What this tells us is that in the distant and the not so distant past, the reality of individual women’s lives as they themselves might have told it was of little interest to the society they lived in.   Their position, it seems to me, was similar to that of slaves in ancient Greece; indispensable for the smooth running of everyday activity, but otherwise irrelevant.  (And clearly, the sympathetic, benevolent (though patronizing) approach to women in Judaism did little to mitigate this reality).  Though this seems unacceptable to contemporary sensibility, it has been the norm for all human societies, a sort of universal law.  It is we who have broken the spell; we are the rebels, endowed with the ability to see the potential of women’s lives with different eyes.

I’ve thought a lot about this, and about the fundamental differences in consciousness that these changes imply.   How, I wondered, did the perception of women in our society differ from that of most of other societies in history?  The writing of my first novel, The Wayward Moon was sort of a thought experiment.   I imagined the lives of women in 9th century Babylonia.  (Why that time and place?  Well, that’s a subject for another essay).   It seemed to me that the major differences between our society and theirs could be clustered around three issues:

1)Freedom of Movement  – This varied from place to place, and depended to some extent on socio-economic status  (the higher the family’s status, the more the women were expected to conceal themselves and stay put)  but generally speaking, women of the middle east in the 9th century  could not just get up and go.  I’m not only talking about danger of being attacked, which in the days before police forces was a real possibility.  The mere idea of a woman travelling anywhere on her own was unthinkable.   Women’s movements were monitored and curtailed under the anxious eyes of their parents, husbands and brothers.   The entire issue of when and how a woman might show herself in public was a going concern.  In some places, the only women who would walk freely in a public space was a prostitute.  No wonder it was considered a shame for the entire family if one of its female members was out unchaperoned.

 2) The Right to Education – A very modern right, which even today, in some parts of the world, cannot be taken for granted by either men or women.   Up till a few generations ago, education was a rare luxury.   Still, in the Jewish community throughout the ages, and most certainly in 9th cen. Babylonia, most boys did receive a biblical/Talmudic education, with some learning to read Hebrew/Aramaic.  Not the girls.  Although Islamic society (and this includes Jewish society within the Islamic society) at this time was interested in exploring and expanding on the knowledge of other cultures, you can be sure that the girls were not included in the fun.

3) Mastery of One’s Own Physicality-  Throughout history, various religions and philosophies have argued that the physical is entirely separate from the spiritual, but modern psychology tells us that it’s all about the body.  The body is where we experience the world, and our place in it.   In this light, the fact of women’s powerlessness over their own physical destiny is particularly nefarious.   But the facts are these:  in most societies, a women’s sexual life was closely managed by others, with her virginity not merely a physical detail, but a state of being which had serious ramifications for her entire family.  A woman was not at liberty to choose the person she was to marry, or her age at her marriage, or the time in her own life that she was to marry.   Consequently, her first sexual experience was generally her wedding night, at a time and with a man not of her own choosing.  Likewise, no one asked her if, when and how often she wanted to get pregnant.    Outrageous as all of this seems now, the price for rebelling against these norms was dangerously high.   Women were not owners but slaves to their own biology, and they were expected to put their physical being at the disposal of the needs, plans, and wishes of others.

From our perspective, these limitations sound pretty miserable.   But how, I wondered, did they seem to the people who had to live with them?   While it’s tempting for us to insist with our enlightened, self-righteous certainty that each woman would have her own unique opinion on the subject, the answer has more to do with the nature of the society in question than individual personality.    As David Foster Wallace has pointed out, society is like water – so ubiquitous that we scarcely know it’s there, chiseling our perception and shaping our consciousness.*   

When I was writing The Wayward Moon, I was imagining what life might be like for a young woman living in a society that denies her freedom of movement, education, and mastery of her own body.   And what I came to realize was that generally speaking, these limitations were no problem at all.  No freedom of movement?  Who wants to go anywhere, when life is best at home.   No education?  Books are only interesting to a few really smart men, silly!  No deciding who to marry?  Why should I decide when there are others who are so much better equipped to make a good choice?  No control over who I sleep with?  What am I, a whore?  A decent woman sleeps only with her husband. 

The Wayward Moon was kind of a thought experiment.  I imagined an ordinary Jewish woman, entirely at home in her time and place, which in this case, was a thriving Babylonian town at the height of the Islamic empire.    And then I imagined what would happen if she had to leave that place, and make her way in the world alone.   She would, I knew, be incredibly vulnerable, easy prey for anyone who took notice of her.  But what if, on the other hand, fate forced her to experience freedom of movement?  What if she were taken under the wing of a mentor and given instruction in theology and philosophy?  And what if, after having been raped and abused, she allowed herself to discover her own sexuality, on her own terms?  

These are the questions that I wanted to explore.   I wanted think about what happens when a consciousness expands, so that it sees wider and farther and deeper than others, but lacks the language with which to express what it sees.

In imagining Rahel Bat Yair, I tried to give voice to a character who would seem both entirely imaginary and very real.   I created certain conditions for her, and then envisioned what might happen.   Would Rahel come to think a little more like we do?  Would she somehow find a new way of being in the world?   Or would she find that the world could not contain what she had become?

Happily, I’m not a scientist but an author, with an author’s freedom to create my experiments’ results.    

*If you’re not familiar with David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005 it would be worth your while to read the whole thing.   Others have considered it so worthwhile that it’s been published as a book, but here are some links where you can read it online.