Is there art without obsession? Obsession is endemic to the human condition. It drives creation like sunlight nourishes plants. If artists are observers of human follies and failings, then depicting obsession comes with the terrain. Three recently translated novels, ostensibly about music and musicians, use language to illustrate obsession. Blue Self-Portrait, by Noémi Lefebvre, translated from French by Sophie Lewis, is narrated by a young woman flying between Berlin and Paris. She sits with her sister, a violinist, and fixates on her love interest, a pianist-composer. Lefebvre transmits the narrator’s obsessive nature through sentences that are pages long with scant punctuation, and cascades of spiraling, stream-of-consciousness thoughts. The pianist-love interest spurs a mental whirligig through German intellectual and cultural history; Nazism; music, art, and language; and sex and relationships, including the narrator’s failed marriage and her overbearing former mother-in-law. All this, in fewer than 150 pages. Blue Self-Portrait is inventive and funny—as well as clever—cycling at breakneck speed through the atrocities of the 20th century while staying connected to the narrator’s primary obsession: the pianist. It may not be a big leap to go from the Wannsee Conference (synonymous with “Final Solution”) to Reinhard Heydrich, who convened Wannsee and was the only senior Nazi official to be assassinated. But segueing from there to the narrator’s pianist love requires a creative twist— …you can’t play any of that romantic, so-called classical music as if the Heydrichs had not existed, he [the pianist] would say giving his angelic smile before launching into Beethoven, without letting up would explain in his polite and respectful manner to the Auditorium audience which was there to listen to classical music and not to hear a pianist saying that to play Beethoven you must know not only Beethoven but also the Heydrichs… Lefebvre’s novel is layered with music. It is inspirited with Arnold Schoenberg, the seminal 20th-century Viennese composer and sometime painter, whose self-portrait gives the book its title. With his invention of 12-tone music, Schoenberg broke out of what he perceived to be the shackles of classicism. He used serial patterns (“rows”) derived from the 12 chromatic notes of the scale—think white and black keys on a piano keyboard. A victim of Nazism, Schoenberg was forced to emigrate to the United States in the 1930s, where for nearly two decades he trained a generation of prominent composers. Blue Self-Portrait’s literary rendering of Schoenberg is one of the many pleasures of this book. The translator notes that Lefebvre probes how we can remember the most shameful ideas of the last century by weaving “her text in approximation of a serialist piece.” Yet against the 20th century’s sobering background, the narrator affects a seeming detachment. Translator Sophie Lewis concludes this is the narrator’s means to hide an obsessive personality. Funny that one of the keys to this novel should be not caring. Our heroine is castigated repeatedly, and repeatedly berates herself, for the crime of “désinvolture.” What is this elegant French notion? Why, nonchalance, insouciance, of course. Plain old frivolity, laidbackness, devilmaycareism, happy-go-lucky style; in the plainest English, it’s not caring. But she does care—hence all the obsessing…[t]his term so often reiterated it counts more as a musical leitmotif than a point of prose argument. This “not-caring” musical leitmotif, combined with sentences of prodigious length and a fixation on history’s ills, are Lefebvre’s tools to convey obsession. Swiss writer Pascal Mercier, translated from German by Shaun Whiteside, uses pace and character to achieve similar ends. Lea opens when Adrian Herzog, a physician, meets Martijn van Vliet, director of a laboratory, in a café in Saint Remy. “I didn’t want to hear Martijn van Vliet’s story,” Herzog says, and then proceeds not only to hear it, but also to narrate it as the two men road trip toward Bern. Lea is Martijn van Vliet’s (now adult) daughter. A frisson of fear and foreboding surrounds her narrative. Mourning her mother’s early passing, Lea became obsessed with learning the violin at age eight— I can find no better words than these: she picked it up and started to play. Just as if she had been waiting all that time for someone to bring to her, at long last, the instrument for which she was born. Martijn welcomes the violin as a means to wrest his daughter from grief. Is there a better symbol for obsession than the quest to master such a difficult instrument? With the violin as a starting point, Lea and her widowed father spin into mania’s vortex. Martijn plays the hapless but well-intentioned father, unable to read Lea accurately or provide the care she desperately needs. In thrall to his daughter’s talent, he makes a series of terrible choices, including how to finance the purchase of Lea’s instrument. He fails to respond appropriately as Lea rotates through teachers and relationships with a destructive intensity that ends very badly. Ultimately, she lands in a mental institution where her doctor forbids Martijn to visit. [millions_ad] As Martijn and Adrian stop along the way to Bern, Adrian’s story unfolds in parallel—his fear that he is getting too old to practice medicine, and his worries about his relationship with his own alienated, adult daughter. Starting as strangers, Martijn and Adrian end up with intimate knowledge of each other’s private and public lives. As the novel moves inexorably toward tragedy, Adrian says— I felt myself slumping. I didn’t want to hear anything more of this sorry tale. I didn’t have the strength. It is plot and metaphor, along with Martijn’s growing desperation that transmits obsession in Mercier’s Lea. In both content and length, Compass, by Mathias Énard, translated from French by Charlotte Mandell, is the weightiest of these three books. A novel of great complexity, Compass won France’s Prix Goncourt. Musicologist Franz Ritter narrates Compass from his sickbed in Vienna as if he were in an opium haze (perhaps he is)— We are two opium smokers each in his own cloud, seeing nothing outside, alone, never understanding each other we smoke, faces agonizing in a mirror, we are a frozen image to which time gives the illusion of movement, a snow crystal gliding over a ball of frost, the complexity of whose intertwinings no one can see, I am that drop of water condensed on the window of my living room, a rolling liquid pearl that knows nothing of the vapor that engendered it… That sumptuous sentence opens the novel and runs to hundreds of words. Facing a fatal illness, Ritter reviews his life and oeuvre in close to 450 pages that are part travelogue, part intellectual history, and part complex philosophical musings. Threading through the book is a long sigh of remembrance for Sarah, a French scholar. Sarah is a distant and unrequited love who symbolizes all that is lost, all that is no longer attainable, and all that likely never was attainable. In other words, she is Ritter’s obsession. “Dear Sarah, you should know that I am dying.” A little too anodyne. “Dear Sarah, I miss you,” too direct. “Dearest Sarah, could old sufferings one day become joys?” That’s good, old sufferings. Had I cribbed from the poets, in my letters from Istanbul? I hope she hasn’t kept them—a monument to boastfulness. Ritter’s profession of musicologist is apt, since music by its nature is ephemeral, but also composed of time and experienced within time. Life is a Mahler symphony, it never goes back, never retraces its steps. This feeling of the passing of time is the definition of melancholy, an awareness of finitude from which there is no refuge, aside from opium and oblivion… Compass is a literal compass, traveling the world like a 21st-century Marco Polo. The musicologist’s inquiries spring from his experiences across Turkey, Syria, and Iran in his study of Orientalism and the European musical tradition. He probes language and ancient history, plumbing a gigantic range of topics from Mongols to Mozart, Beethoven to Bedouins— Karol Szymanowski [early 20th-century composer] to her was a part of the Polish soul, and meant nothing Oriental; she preferred the Mazurkas to the Muezzin, the dances of the Tatra Mountains to those of the Atlas. It is gratifying to give in to the great sweep of this novel, to be immersed in Ritter’s adventures, and in his capacious imaginings. Here’s Franz, moving from Wagner to fundamentalism to Nietzsche. The important thing is not to lose east…Why am I so wound up against Wagner tonight? Maybe it’s the influence of Beethoven’s compass, the one that points east. Wagner is the zahir, the apparent, the sinister dry West...Wagner closes everything. Destroys opera. Drowns it. The total artwork becomes totalitarian. What is there in his almond? Everything…Wagner is the Islamic Republic. Despite his interest in Buddhism, despite his passion for Schopenhauer, Wagner transforms everything into that Christian alterity in self…Nietzsche is the only one who was able to distance himself from that magnet. By its very length and heft, this book cries obsession. As in Blue Self-Portrait, the reader is privy to the narrator’s proliferating musings. Knocking on death’s door, Franz Ritter circles the earth. He interrogates his life’s work—music—and paints a picture of longing and depth that make him not only sympathetic, but also lovable. In this trio of novels, music mirrors and underscores obsession. Is it notable that two of the writers are French and one Swiss? Certainly the cultural references—sophisticated to obtuse—that saturate these books are not generally the stuff of American novels. Obsession, however, is universal. Image Credit: Flickr/qthomasbower.
Odysseys come in all shapes and forms, from epic to personal. Three recent odysseys range in time and theme from ancient to dystopian. Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey launches from Homer’s epic, 2017 National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing road trips to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, and Jesús Carrasco’s Out in the Open follows a young boy’s harrowing escape from abuse across an unnamed landscape. No matter their geography, these books share exceptional writing, mining vast expanses of the human experience. Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey is, unsurprisingly, a roadmap to Homer’s Odyssey (which, incidentally, has just received a new translation by Emily Wilson). It introduces relevant scholarship and translations, discusses how the epic shaped the Western canon, sprinkles in choice etymology as well as descriptions of Mendelsohn’s Classics training, and provides a multitude of other, arresting details. And yet. An Odyssey is really a braided memoir woven with three strands: the semester that Mendelsohn’s 81-year-old father, Jay, asked to audit Daniel’s Odyssey class at Bard, a subsequent cruise by father and son that retraced the Homeric voyage, and the roadmap of The Odyssey. Jay Mendelsohn died shortly thereafter, framing not only his fatherhood and his life, but also An Odyssey. The memoir’s architecture is remarkable. Its structure presented Mendelsohn with a difficult challenge that he discussed in a recent interview with The Millions. Mendelsohn chose to echo Homer’s "ring composition," in which the narrator begins the story, then pauses and loops back to some earlier moment … a bit of personal or family history, say—and afterward might even loop back to some earlier moment … that will help account for that slightly less early moment, thereafter gradually winding his way back to the present, the moment in the narrative that he left in order to provide all this background. Mendelsohn loops back to early memories of his father and gradually fills in a man of fierce discipline and determination. Dad was a passionate reader and do-it-your-selfer; the more difficult and unpleasant something was for him, “the more likely it was to possess…the hallmark of worthiness.” Mendelsohn takes us from beginnings to endings. In Dad’s first class, Daniel unfolds the “Homeric Question,” an ancient debate about how Homer’s epics came into being. There was no single Homer, rather— … the bards who performed the epics, itinerant singer-performers … at once reproduced material that earlier poets had composed while refining it and adding new material of their own… The epic’s opening reflects that oral tradition—“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twist and turns/driven time and again off course….” [Robert Fagles translation]. Initially, Daniel cringes at having his father in his classroom. Proclamations from Jay—Odysseus is no hero because “he’s a liar and he cheated on his wife!”—call into question the wisdom of trying to teach Dad. But the memoir gradually evolves into an interrogation of the Mendelsohn father-son dynamic. Mendelsohn the son travels a road of discovery that is a crescendo of revelations about his father. Daniel unearths secrets and inconsistencies that cause him to rewrite not only the received wisdom from Jay, but his own self-concept; just as much of Homer’s The Odyssey is “devoted to father-son relationships….” “Who really knows his own begetting?” Telemachus [Odysseus’ son] bitterly asks early in the Odyssey. Who indeed? Our parents are mysterious to us in ways that we can never quite be mysteries to them. Mendelsohn’s readers journey with Odysseus down to ghost-filled Hades and back up to the end of Homer’s poem, where Mendelsohn notices Homer’s continued ”preoccupation with the rites of burial.” In The Odyssey’s final book, Homer summons Hades again, recounting a conversation between the ghosts of Achilles and Agamemnon. It is hard not to feel, in this final book of the poem, that in its repeated climactic references to tombs and burials… [that] the Odyssey is “burying” the Iliad… Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward’s most recent novel, is another kind of ghost-riddled odyssey, written in prose as lyrical and expressive as a bard’s singing. Jojo, who anchors the book, is the son of a black mother, Leonie, and a white father, Michael, imprisoned upstate. Jojo lives with his black grandparents—Mam, who is dying, and Pop, who serves as Jojo’s guiding light. Leonie comes and goes, in thrall to addiction and to her longing for Michael. At 13, Jojo takes responsibility for his toddler sister, Kayla (named Michaela for her absent father), and struggles to become a man. I follow Pop out of the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger; that’s how Pop walks. I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I’ve earned these thirteen years…. The voyage in Ward’s novel is the trip to pick up Michael, set for release from the Mississippi State Penitentiary—Parchman—where Pop did time decades ago. Along the way, Leonie stops to buy gas—but doesn’t provide Jojo with enough money to buy food for him and Kayla—and at a sinister house to pick up Misty and Leonie’s next fix. There, Jojo steals a pack of saltines and two bottles of juice— [millions_ad] I open my stolen bottle and drink the juice down, then pour half the other bottle into Kayla’s sippy cup. I hand one cracker to Kayla and slide one into my mouth. We eat like that: one for me and one for her…. Neither of the women in the front seat pay us an attention. It’s not hunger, or heat, or Kayla’s vomiting on Jojo, or Leonie and Misty getting high, or the blinding, torrential rain during the car trip. It’s absence—Leonie’s from her children—as well as the ghosts of the dead—family and others—that thread this trip with adversity. In a version of ring composition, Ward loops the dead in with the living, entangling brothers with sisters, fathers with sons. As the car pushes on, Ward fills in hellish, heartbreaking details from the family’s past, details that are also congruent with our nation’s past. There’s the ghost of Given, Leonie’s murdered brother, who haunts Leonie when she’s high. There’s Richie, a dead boy, with whom Jojo is acquainted from hearing Pop’s Parchman stories— Richie wasn’t built for work. He wasn’t built for nothing, really, on account he was so young. He ain’t know how to work a hoe, didn’t have enough years in his arms for muscle… The four riders—Leonie, Misty, Jojo, and Kayla—arrive at Parchman, reunite with Michael and begin the return trip. It turns out they’ve picked up Richie’s ghost as well—visible only to Jojo. Richie recites vivid memories of Jojo’s absent, dead father, River, whom Richie loved. Richie knows Jojo is River’s son— … by the way he holds the little sick golden girl [Kayla]: as if he thinks he could curl around her, make his skeleton and flesh into a building to protect her from the adults, from the great reach of the sky, the vast expanse of the grass-ridden earth, shallow with graves. I want to tell the boy in the car this. Want to tell him how his pop tried to save me again and again…. But I don’t tell the boy any of that. I settle in the crumpled bits of paper and plastic that litter the bottom of the car. The return trip is as emotionally harrowing as the trip to Parchman. Michael has no interest in Jojo, and Leonie’s primary interest is in Michael. Not until Leonie is stopped for “swerving,” and a cop handcuffs Leonie and points a gun to Jojo’s head does Leonie realize— It’s easy to forget how young Jojo is until I see him standing next to the police officer. It’s easy to look at him, his weedy height, the thick spread of this belly, and think he’s grown. But he’s just a baby. If the unburied are buried by the conclusion of Jesmyn Ward’s novel, it is in hearing their stories told, where dogs are not like Odysseus’s faithful old dog, Argos (who recognizes Odysseus after a 20-year absence, then dies in peace), but instead are vicious killers; where Mam’s agonizing death from cancer is less painful than the violence inflicted on her family members. Where Jojo grows up, caring and grounded, without a mother or a father, because his grandfather loves and mentors him. Jesús Carrasco’s debut novel, Out in the Open (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) presents a third odyssey. An unnamed boy flees an unnamed village through a dry, merciless landscape that feels like Carrasco’s native Badajoz, Spain. From inside his hole in the ground, [the boy] heard the sound of voices calling his name, and as if they were crickets he tried to pinpoint the precise location of each man within the bounds of the olive grove….Tensing his neck, he raised his head so as to hear better and, half closing his eyes, listened out for the voice that forced him to flee. The boy is escaping the village bailiff’s sexual abuse, suborned by his father who himself uses a leather belt— Afterward, the only witnesses would be the thick stone walls that supported the roof that kept the rooms cool. A communal prelude to his father’s worn leather belt. The swift copper-colored buckle slashing dully through the fetid kitchen air. Hiding and moving only at night, the boy soon runs out of food and drink. He spots an old goatherd who, with basic human decency and limited language, teaches the boy how to survive "out in the open." The deepening relationship between boy and man is built with deceptively simple encounters among the goats. Over time, the boy ends up caring for the failing old man. They woke before dawn and set off along the towpath. The old man riding the donkey, his head drooping, and the boy leading the way, with a stick in one hand and the halter in the other. Part dystopian allegory, part primer on the power of humanity, Out in the Open’s meticulous attention to detail affirms that a child damaged by trauma can forge a path forward with the right kind of mentor. "Mentor," Mendelsohn tells us, was what Athena named a so-called friend of Odysseus whom she conjures to provide Telemachus with “an experienced and trusted adviser.” In giving the boy a substitute for his absent father, Athena connects him not only to Odysseus, but also to “all his ancestors, male and female.” Jojo, too, has a mentor in the steady guiding presence of his grandfather, connecting Jojo across generations. The word mentor stems from the Greek word menos, usually translated as "heroic strength." “But really,” says Harvard Professor Gregory Nagy, “menos is not just strength of any kind—it is mental strength…a mentor is someone who gives mental strength to someone else.” And thus, Out in the Open’s old goatherd centers the fleeing boy so that he can free himself from his abusers. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
André’s disintegrating mind stars in The Father, a play by Florian Zeller (translated from French by Christopher Hampton). André’s dementia progresses rapidly through one short act. By the time the curtain falls, he can no longer decode his environment, including his daughter and son-in-law. The audience, too, is left befuddled, unable to distinguish André’s imagined family from his real one. A recent production at Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre underscored André’s bewilderment by casting alternating black and white actors as the elusive, double sets of daughters and sons-in-law. More often, we are privy to dementia’s impact on the people surrounding the patient. Marita Golden plumbs both perspectives—that of victim and family. As she was researching her new novel, The Wide Circumference of Love, Golden stumbled over a disturbing question: Why are older African-Americans almost “twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to develop the disease or other forms of dementia?” Writing for The Washington Post, she spotlights medical studies that ignore people of color, resulting in a glaring knowledge gap. Against the background of whites-only scientific inquiry (some of which is currently being remedied), Golden shows where love fits in. She reports on a family in which the mother was stricken in her early 60s. The husband is frank: “To watch the slow deterioration of my wife, the loneliness and the isolation…. Sometimes I pray. Sometimes I cry.” Their police officer son, moving home to help, is stirred: “My mother and I were already close...but actually we got closer, as mother and son, and we got closer as a family.” Golden reminds us that dementia disrupts “cognitive skills such as memory, judgment and language,” thus destroying the writer’s hammer and chisel. “The words hurl through his lips with a familiar bad taste,” she writes at the opening of The Wide Circumference of Love. “Words are that slimy, slippery, burn inside him like a house on fire.” The novel tells the story of Gregory Tate, a beloved African-American architect in Washington, D.C. Gregory’s wife, Diane, a family court judge, and two adult children have made the agonizing decision to place him in an Alzheimer’s facility named Somersby. Each family member must first cope with, and then adapt to, Gregory’s slide into confusion, violence, and finally, wordless silence. Diane is particularly well drawn. Without making light of her burden, she maintains her humanity and sense of humor, struggling to find joy. …Diane had slowly wriggled into the skin of an unalterably new life…she would retire from the family court…. Howard University’s law school had offered her a professorship…. There was so much to look forward to, but the present she feared would never be past. A loyal and devoted spouse, Diane feels that everything she does at Somersby is “sacred, an act of faith.” She takes Gregory’s admission there as her cue to examine her past and move forward. In their unique ways, her children do the same. Even Gregory, through whatever fog he inhabits, begins again. The Wide Circumference of Love supplies hope by interrogating love in all its permutations. It explores marriage through sickness and health; love between parent and child, even when it is hidden or fraught; and romantic love, however unexpected or inconvenient. Just as important, the book probes love’s favorite companion—forgiveness. In Golden’s novel, forgiveness and love partner to open the future. Erwin Mortier, the prize-winning Belgian author, deploys memory and language to brilliant effect in his memoir about his mother, Stammered Songbook: A Mother’s Book of Hours (translated from Dutch by Paul Vincent). Mortier is not a chronicler of hope, but of thorny, ruinous reality. He equates mental failure with mortality: “Death that sits at table here is called Mum.” Mortier records his mother’s memory loss, and the family anxiously trying—and failing—to buttress that loss. Here’s Mortier’s father: He has become her memory. More and more often she comes in uncertainly, a little closer to him…. If she can’t get any further than stammering, she looks at him wide-eyed. If the answer doesn’t come quickly, there is a hail of approach. It is words and language that Mortier seeks, lost not only to the patient, but to the family as well. The disease is kicking her out of time and booting us out of language. Words seem to me a kind of breakfast cereal at the moment: undoubtedly healthy, but rather tasteless. I chatter till [sic] I burst, chatter till I’m blue in the face and interrupt other people. I just rattle and gabble on, spew out language, teeth chattering, with a mouth full of dry oats. Where can I come ashore? And if I’m not chattering, I’m crying. In brief chapters composed of short, heartrending sentences, Mortier gives a stunning and raw portrayal of his experience—his childhood and childlike view of his mother; his siblings’ reaction to their failing parent; his father’s generous caretaking, defeated by his mother’s increasing need. All of this is set against receding piles of words: What strikes me most about her, what makes me saddest, is the double silence of her being. Language has packed her bags and jumped over the railing of the capsizing ship, but there is also another silence in her. I can no longer hear the music of her soul; that whole vibrating fabric of symbols with which she wove herself into the world—or conversely, the world into her. The fewer the words, the less the connection, so that by the memoir’s end, Mortier’s mother is a “glacial valley”: …an ice field has scraped over her, and the earth has been scoured away by the masses of ice. In the bare stone, wide furrows are legible. Every relief has been smoothed out. Marion Coutts’s memoir, The Iceberg, presents this battle for words even more starkly. Her husband, Tom Lubbock, chief art critic for the Independent, is dying of a brain tumor. He is losing his words (and livelihood) just as their toddler son, Ev, begins hungrily to acquire language. Coutts, too, is a chronicler, documenting her husband’s disease with the precision of an investigative reporter (in fact, she is a filmmaker and visual artist). Her reporting is anything but detached; Coutts’s sentences are awash with the love and passion she feels for the man slipping away from her, the man who is the father of her child. Disappearing words mark the slippage: There are these simple words that are starting to cause him trouble: small, single, only, speak, one, tiny, all, short, sign, slow, same, few, lips, stop, sold, lone. Tracking elusive words was always Tom’s pleasure but now it has added urgency. This, while their son teems with language: …his great unfurling slides of patter run alongside me from about hip level. My mum made me an omelette and the omelette was tasty it was eggy and so I had an eat. I wanted it in triangles. Ham is my best friend. Mum, look! The sky looks like milk! If a cow went on its back its milk would go up in the air. Coutts struggles to keep up with her son, while staying as close as possible to her husband. She is desperate to understand him as he loses ordinary communication: My love is cryptic. He speaks in mysteries. He speaks a language that is singular. Communication with Tom is nothing like speaking any other language. It is at the same time known by heart and deeply foreign. Late in the day (Why did they leave it so late, you cry) we are trying to elide language altogether and invent a communication that bypasses all known words. We do not have a lot of time…. the language we are looking for must circumvent the brain. Coutts wraps her friends into her family’s experience, leaning on them with an honesty that most caretakers would envy. The book is spliced with her emails, updating their friends on Tom, detailing what she needs from them. His spirits are very good. He is thinking, talking, his language very tricky by seeming stable. He wants above all to work on writing projects, and with friends to help he can. The three members of Coutts’s family face what is before them, not only with courage but with an infectious zest for living. They travel; they take walks and make picnics. This affirmation of life is one of the great gifts of Coutts’s memoir. If her experience is unbearably painful, her family’s zeal inspires. They embrace life, whether at the end or the beginning. Love is the mainstay of that embrace; love sustains them through to the end. And yet. Grief is not something to be avoided. The characters in these three books live in the fullness of their grief. As Diane recalls in The Wide Circumference of Love: A therapist friend told her once the process of grieving a spouse took seven years…. Who did the polling?… How could you tell when the grieving was done? She still grieved her mother, her brother, and the father she had not known. Had grieved them all her life. It is through their access to both love and grief that these characters make their way in the world. Astonishingly eloquent and present, Coutts summons the words to express these two emotions at the end: It was snowing the day we buried you… Unplanned, we formed a circle as the words went up…. You have moved through us and now you are gone, leaving us standing. And so are the living comforted. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The focus of Millions staffer Claire Cameron’s forthcoming novel is the poignant journey of a dwindling family of Neanderthals, diminished by hardship, nature, social taboos, and finally, Darwinian reality. The Last Neanderthal shines a mirror into our own humanity by featuring a family in peril, whose communication through rudimentary vocabulary is nevertheless sufficient to express the full range of human emotion. Meeting basic survival needs is more than a full-time job for these Neanderthals -- not so different, then, from the vast majority of families in today’s world. Against this spare background, an ambitious young scientist feverishly toils to untangle the story of Neanderthal remains recently discovered in a French cave. She works against the ticking clock of her advancing pregnancy and the shifting power dynamics in her professional field. The time period in which she lives may be infinitely more complex than that of the Neanderthals, yet we are clearly meant to find parallels between her challenges and the subjects of her research. Why and how did Cameron land on this topic? What are we to take away from The Last Neanderthal? The author’s insights into how she mined this subject will enhance the reading experience of this unusual book. The Millions: The Last Neanderthal is a book with a very unusual premise -- the end of the Neanderthals. How did you come up with it? CC: I have life-long obsessions, like many people do, but I didn’t realize the consistency of my obsessions until I started keeping notebooks. The ideas in my notebooks are often visual; there is a lot of cutting and pasting involved. A page doesn’t make any sense and I often can’t articulate why I’m collecting certain things. Pictured is an example of a page where I combined marks possibly made by Neanderthals in Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar with desert sand, feminism, and a domestic looking Will Oldham with a dog and a Volvo. All the big themes of my novel are there, though I didn’t know it at the time. Evidence of Neanderthals in my notebooks traces way back, but my notes got more pointed in 2010 when a team of scientists found out that many modern humans carry genes from Neanderthals. People of European and Asian descent have between 1 percent to 4 percent Neanderthal DNA. This is a sign of interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals, something that had only been in the realm of speculation before then (though to be fair, the people who write Neanderthal porn on the Internet already knew). That was the premise that intrigued me, how did the two groups make contact? TM: How did you research/learn about the Neanderthals? CC: A recent wave of research has helped to revise the scientific view of Neanderthals. Much of it, including the Neanderthal genome, shows they were more like us than we previously imagined. I wanted to write characters inspired by this research. I did a lot of study on my own, but the most important step I took was to work with John Shea, an archaeologist and paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York. When I first talked to Dr. Shea, he told me about reading an older Neanderthal novel. As a scientist, the story frustrated him so much that he tossed the book over his shoulder, scoring an accidental perfect hit into the wastebasket. We agreed that he would look for wastebasket moments in my work. There were many wastebasket moments but his notes gave me a framework. I started to think of the science like a creative constraint. When I read convincing research, I used it as a rule that I had to work within. TM: Although highly emotional, the Neanderthals’ story is told within a limited vocabulary, starting with their names -- ‘Girl,’ ‘Him,’ etc. -- presumably reflective of their brain capacity. Is this how you think of it, and can you tell us about how this kind of simplicity affected your writing process? CC: When David Mitchell talked about writing in the future or past, he said he looks for what a character might take for granted. I want to see through the eyes of the main character. I develop a set of beliefs for her and, as part of that, imagine what she takes for granted. That is how I get immersed to the point where the story dominates my work—the character becomes big enough to crowd out the writer. One of the things I decided is that my Neanderthals didn’t believe in talking all the time. They lived in a small family group and had intimate knowledge of each other. Every thought didn’t need to be said out loud. In fact, if they could hear me now, they might think I was a crowthroat -- the crow being the worst offender when it comes to constant, mindless squawking. Also, I speculated that this was part of their culture because talking took more effort in the physical sense, they had to force out each word. So the cost of each word was considered carefully before it was spoken. Once I shut up in my mind -- or taking more silence for granted -- I could hear all the thoughts I have that I don’t articulate. If you want to move a chair to a different part of the room, as one example, you do a silent calculation. It would be difficult to put into words what you are thinking. And if you practice keeping your trap shut, your senses wake up. You start to notice new things, like a bird that often calls when I step outside. I imagine she is an early warning system to let the other critters know, maybe, “Hey everybody, the squawking long pig is on the move!” So, I don’t see the Neanderthal language as a reflection of a simpler thought process, but as a sign of a different kind of strength. TM: There is a leopard that seems to have a similar level of cognition to the Neanderthals in the book. Can you talk about that? CC: My story is told through the eyes of a Neanderthal. We see the world much as she does. One of the things she believes is that there is little distinction between herself and the land around her. There is a glossary of Neanderthal words at the beginning of the book. One of the words, deadwood, expresses this idea. Deadwood: A body on the other side of the dirt; used as an equivalent to our idea of death, though it expressed a change of state rather than a permanent end. I developed the glossary as way to get inside the head of this particular Neanderthal, another attempt to uncover what she took for granted. If she saw herself on a continuum with other animals, rather than distinct or special in some way, it followed that she didn’t see much of a physical difference between her body and the land. She might also blur her mental identity. If she is interested in hunting or tracking, she assumes that another animal thinks in much the same way. TM: Nature plays a critical role in your fiction. Your last novel, The Bear, opens with a tragedy at a campsite -- two parents killed by a bear -- and their two young children left to fend for themselves in the wilderness. We are outdoors for most of The Last Neanderthal as well. How do you think of the role of nature affects your storytelling? CC: I often write about the place I am not. I lived in London, U.K., for about eight years and one day I got out of the tube at Oxford Circus. It was busy and as I tried to exit, I got stuck in a human traffic jam. There were too many people squished into an underground corridor. It became a gridlock of hot bodies pressed against each other. My inner Canadian quietly panicked, but this was London. Everyone remained calm and reserved. A message passed along the corridor until enough people backed out at one end and there was room to move again. Shortly after I started to write my first novel, The Line Painter. It was about Canada and specifically the vast, empty-of-people north of Ontario. I wrote out of a longing to be there, like it might be the antidote to being stuck in a human traffic jam. If I write from that place, of longing, then the place I am writing about becomes like an obsession. I feel intense homesickness and idealize it in the same way. The place is mine and I can imagine it as an intense version of itself. That also means that I use the setting to serve the story and forget any urge to create a faithful portrait. Right now I live in an urban neighborhood in downtown Toronto. I miss the access to Europe that I used to have from my London base. I miss the mountains. Though I get outside as much as I can, the life that I used to live, the one where I spent months in the wilderness, now resides most predominantly in my imagination. That’s why I write about it. TM: In each of these novels, you are making keen observations about parents, even if they are absent. Can you comment on that? CC: I love what Alexander Chee said, “you write to describe something you learn from your life but that is not described by describing your life.” My father died when I was young. I struggled with grief for many years. First I was locked in and couldn’t talk about it and after a while I got angry. I went through all the steps, but as I did, I held fast to the idea that I would eventually get over it. That’s how we talk about grief, that it is something to overcome. I was surprised to find that when I had kids, I went through a stage of grief again. This time I grieved for my dad. I understood what it must have been like to know you are dying and to leave small children behind. Grief doesn’t go away, it’s something you live with. And hopefully it becomes something that makes you stronger. I suppose that’s why it keeps coming up in my work, because I’m trying to figure it out. TM: The stark vocabulary of the Neanderthals is especially marked in contrast to the parts of the novel that takes place in the present when we are in the company of archeologist Rosamund Gale, or Rose. What role does Rose play in the narrative, including her impending motherhood and her professional struggles? CC: In 1921, H.G. Wells wrote a short story about Neanderthals called, “The Grisly Folk.” He described them this way, “a repulsive strangeness in his appearance...his beetle brows, his ape neck, and his inferior stature.” This was very much the thinking of his day, that a Neanderthal was like the archetype for an ogre. Since then our view of them has evolved, but we’ve really used them as a foil to ask questions about ourselves: What makes humans special? Asking questions in a self-centered way hasn’t given us much insight into them. I wanted to focus on Neanderthals. In some ways, Rose is a foil for the main Neanderthal character, Girl. While Rose’s experience are important, she is also a way to gain insight into what a Neanderthal might have been like. Girl is the star of the show. TM: Given today’s sense of -- or lack of sense of -- community, is there a message embedded in the relationships between and among members of “the Family” of last Neanderthals, and similarly, among the characters who live in the present time? CC: I think of a novel as a question that takes the length of a book to ask. I was not searching for a message so much as thinking through the implications of how our modern family structure works. I got interested in this question when my neighbor, a private, quiet person, told me about growing up in Newfoundland without central heat. He slept piled in a bed with his brothers, the youngest a bed wetter. My neighbor remembers getting up in the morning with a wet leg. When he stood, his pajamas would freeze and crackle. As he is so private I assumed this must have driven him mad, but when I asked he looked at me like I was crazy. Without his brother’s body heat to keep him warm, it was his body that would have frozen. So I started thinking about that, what if we thought about family like that -- the people who literally keep you alive? Grocery stores, electric lights, and central heat change how we think of our physical needs. Do they also change how we think about families? And what do we need to survive, both physically and mentally, in modern life? TM: Rose is a scientist who seems to have an instinct to “go it alone,” even though she is close to nine months pregnant. In that sense, she relates to her subject of study -- Girl. How did your sense of female independence inform your development of these characters? CC: Rose gets pregnant and assumes this is a fairly natural and ordinary thing to do. As baby starts to grow, the timeline for her project gets crunched. Her pregnancy gives her a sense of impending doom. When she becomes a mother she will be sidelined, whether by herself or by others, so she needs to get shit done. There is a group of women scientists on Twitter, many with an interest in archeology, who are posting photos with the hashtag #pregnantinthefield. I love the photos because seeing the possibilities helps us all believe them. Polly Clark, author of Larchfield, wrote eloquently about this, “I wasn’t a reluctant mother at all. But I had no notion of being simply a vessel: I stubbornly continued to think that, as an individual, I still mattered.” The women in these photos matter. But the other day I said a quiet apology to Rose for giving her a sense of urgency about her work -- I know she is the kind of female character that might be criticized. I had to write about her though, specifically how her professional interests and personal ambition sits at odds with parenthood. This was my experience. This is the experience of so many parents. TM: What can we learn from the Neanderthals in thinking about our own humanity? CC: We can fall into the trap of thinking that the way we do things now is normal, but it’s important to look back for context. As the always quotable Winston Churchill said, “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.” We are Homo Sapiens, a self-obsessed people who like to tell stories. I’m really writing about modern humans, aren’t I? A novel becomes a way of looking at history to think through our inheritance. TM: Do you have a new novel in process, and if so, can you tell us about it? CC: My obsessions sometimes turn into novels and sometimes they don’t. Or sometimes they combine to become something I didn’t expect. At the moment, I’m trying to understand the advances in physics, specifically how ideas about quantum gravity have completely changed our understanding of reality. I’m also comparing translations of Beowulf, what does the Irish poet Seamus Heaney do with an Old English poem, versus J.R.R. Tolkien’s handling of a similar passage? I can only hope that these two interests don’t combine.
Passover -- or Pesach in Hebrew -- celebrates the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery as recounted in Exodus. Exodus is the prequel to countless other flights for survival. Enslaved Jews fled Egypt, centuries later they returned, and later still (mid-20th century), they fled Egypt again, for example. With entwined subtexts of persecution and forced emigration, the Passover story feels less like ancient history and more like current affairs. The new White House is hellbent to expel immigrants and deny refugees and Muslims entrance into the country. The president suggests a spike in bomb threats to Jewish institutions, along with desecrations of Jewish cemeteries, are “false flags.” In case -- like me -- you were unfamiliar with that term, it implies covert operations that a target group carries out against itself to make itself appear a target. The facts, unfortunately, speak for themselves. “Hate groups rise for the second consecutive year as Trump electrifies radical right,” reads an alarming headline from the Southern Poverty Law Center. It is against this backdrop that “Eight for Eight” is reprised -- it first ran at The Millions in 2015. The primacy of the written word is central to Judaism, in part due to the constant, urgent need to abandon possessions and escape. Books are portable and words are tough to murder. Education is highly valued as a commodity that can’t be expropriated. What follows is a literary sampling inspired by Pesach: eight books for the eight nights of the holiday, choices that amplify Passover themes and honor writing itself. For across eons and continents, the written word has fostered communication and learning in the Jewish community, enabling Jewish culture not only to survive but to evolve. First Night: Monday, April 10 Reading: “Exodus,” The Bible “Exodus” is Passover’s origin story. Readers are no doubt familiar with it. Here are a few key phrases to jog the memory: the Israelites’ lives are “bitter with hard service in mortar and brick;” death of the Hebrew firstborn son, Moses, in the bulrushes; God in the burning bush; “Let my people go;” Pharaoh’s hardened heart; nine horrific plagues; the Lord "passes over" the Israelites to spare them the terrible 10th plague—death of the Egyptian firstborn son; the Israelites flee; Pharaoh’s army follows; Moses parts the Red Sea and closes it behind them. That’s only the beginning. The remaining 25 chapters of Exodus cover years of wandering in the desert replete with manna, the Ten Commandments (twice), and much more. But before the Israelites start their wandering, Moses instructs them to “Remember this day, in which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out from this place; there shall be no leavened bread be eaten.” (Exodus 13: 3). Thus Passover. Second Night: Tuesday, April 11 Reading: People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks To observe this commandment, Jews gather at Seder to retell the Exodus story, recorded in a book called the Haggadah. (And yes, eat, but that comes later.) The Sarajevo Haggadah forms the hub of Geraldine Brooks’s novel. Created in medieval Spain, it’s “a famous rarity, a lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript.” The manuscript surfaces in 1996 war-ravaged Sarajevo, saved by a Muslim librarian. The novel explores several periods of Jewish history woven from fragments of detritus discovered in the manuscript: Sarajevo 1940, featuring a hunted Bosnian Jew; fin de siècle Vienna; 1609 Venice and the Catholic Inquisitor. There’s a story about the manuscript’s illustrator set in 1480 Seville. And one about its scribe, who completed his work in Tarragona in 1492, just as the Jews were expelled from Spain at King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s behest. Despite having launched Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella’s triumphant consolidation of power proved not only catastrophic for Jews, but also for centuries of Muslim civilization on the Iberian Peninsula. Third Night: Wednesday, April 12 Reading: Maimonides, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel Within that Iberian Muslim culture in 1135 Cordoba, was born Moses Maimonides. As told by a renowned 20th-century scholar, Maimonides’s life unfolds like a novel: the prodigal son, risk-filled peregrinations to escape mayhem, family tragedy, and a world-class intellect. Maimonides’s family was forced to flee Cordoba in 1148 as the centuries-old Jewish community was “totally destroyed by the Berbers.” They arrived in Fez, Morocco, in 1157. Although the Jewish community had had to go underground in Fez, Maimonides’s precocious intellectual journey shows a constant flow of ideas from Arab colleagues. “The Jews followed the precept: ‘Migrate to a place of study’; the Arabs: ‘Whosoever journeys toward knowledge, his road to paradise will be made easier by God.’” Already engaged in a far-flung scholarly correspondence, Maimonides had addressed the problem of forced religious conversions when, in 1163, the family had to flee Fez following the murder of a scholar-friend for failure to convert. They sailed for Palestine and stayed outside Jerusalem because the conquering Crusaders had “celebrated their victory with a dreadful slaughter [of Jews] in the square of the Temple.” Failing to find the intellectual life he sought due to the “degeneracy of the immigrants, who were mostly driven not by religious enthusiasm but by pleasure and profit, infuriat[ing] even the Christian pilgrims,” Maimonides sailed for Egypt. Within a few short years, his father died and his beloved brother David, a trader who had supported his scholarship, was shipwrecked off India. “No avowal of love and devotion can explain a grief such as overwhelmed Maimonides.” This was his greatest loss, and one with which he struggled for the rest of his life. Finally settled in Egypt, Maimonides became a physician to support himself, produced astonishing, pioneering scholarship, was appointed Nagid (leader) of the Egyptian Jewish community, and became physician to Egyptian royalty. He died in 1204. Fourth Night: Thursday, April 13 Reading: Jews and Words, by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger “Sorry Maimonides,” the celebrated novelist and his historian daughter declare in their short, enlightening book. Citing a line of vocal biblical heroines, they take Maimonides to task for suggesting women stay silenced at home. Like many American Jews, these authors are secular. Why this book? Because “ours is not a bloodline but a textline.” Literacy, at least among Jewish males, has been a constant in a constantly disrupted history. Since ancient times, every boy was expected to go to school from three to 13; “study was unconditional, independent of class, pedigree, and means.” Moses was the first great teacher, “mythically and textually” launching Jewish scholarship on Mount Sinai (see Exodus, above). The ideal Jewish student is one who “judiciously critiques” his teacher, offering a “fresh and better interpretation.” Disagreement “is the name of the game” in a fractious written tradition. “We Jews are notoriously unable to agree on anything that begins with the words ‘we Jews.’” Taking the reader on a provocative, whirlwind tour, including a fascinating chapter on Jewish concepts of time, the authors note, “Jewish culture’s…inbuilt tension between the innovative and the sacrosanct -- crisscrossing the oral and written -- has survived to this day.” They reference Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and the Marx Brothers, because they “were etched by something intimately and textually Jewish.” This book makes too many trenchant connections and observations to summarize here. “We nonbelievers remain Jews by reading,” will have to suffice. Fifth Night: Friday, April 14 Reading: The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, by Lucette Lagnado Expelled from Egypt again, this time in the mid-1950s. This memoir captures a flourishing Jewish community in which the author’s father, the man in the white sharkskin suit, prospered and thrived in a cosmopolitan city, home to inhabitants from around the world. Lagnado’s memoir is compelling not just for the richness of her own family’s story, but for the thousands of unwritten stories that stand behind hers. It is the tale of a rooted extended family, forced to flee nation and home, abandoning all. The terrifying closure of basic rights under a hostile government and the accompanying fall from prosperity. The flight across the globe, first to Paris and then America, a country that even if founded by immigrants, can be harsh and strange. Sixth Night: Saturday, April 15 Reading: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, by Frederick Douglass Immigration isn’t America’s only founding principle. Like Pharaoh’s Egypt, America, too, was founded on human bondage. Slavery’s legacy, everywhere with us today, has birthed a uniquely American literature of loss, suffering, and injustice. To read it is a life’s work; Frederick Douglass’s straightforward narrative is required. Douglass doesn’t know his age or his father’s identity, although he surmises he’s his master’s son. He doesn’t know his mother either, because they were separated at birth, as was the practice in the “part of Maryland” from which he ran away. “For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child.” Douglass hews to a sharply observed reality, delivering graphic descriptions of slave beatings and whippings; intimate details of the dysfunction in his masters’ families; the deranged cruelty of overseers; and the relentlessness of endless, inhumane, uncompensated labor. “I have been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.” Douglass is as eloquent as he is blunt, sharing specifics that cannot be denied. Seventh Night: Sunday, April 16 Reading: The Story of a Life, by Aharon Appelfeld, translated from the Hebrew by Aloma Halter So too, with Aharon Appelfeld’s excruciating memoir. “At what point does my memory begin?” Appelfeld asks. He is four, on an idyllic vacation in the “moist forests of the Carpathians,” with Mother and Father. And even younger, watching Mother prepare strawberries with powdered sugar and cream. He remembers his “spacious house” and the smell of starch when the maid changes the drapes. And his teenage diary, “a mosaic of words in German, Yiddish, Hebrew, and even Ruthenian,” along with his inability “to connect words into sentences [because] the words were the suppressed cries of a fourteen-year-old youth who’d lost all the languages he had spoken…” Appelfeld’s memoir is that mosaic as well. It is composed of vividly rendered vignettes that are tenuously connected in ways that may only fully make sense to him. 1938 was a bad year (Appelfeld was six), when “it became clear that we were trapped” and Grandfather moved in to die. Mother was murdered at war’s outset. “I didn’t see her die, but I did hear her one and only scream.” Then Appelfeld is 10 and alone in the forest, sporadically sheltered by a kind prostitute and others who decline to question his origins, until he is 13 and the war is over. Like thousands before him, Appelfeld is history’s victim, an involuntary emigrant from both his birthplace and his past. But not from his memory. Sometimes “the dampness of shoes or a sudden noise is enough to take me back into the middle of the war, and then it seems…it never really ended, but that it has continued without my knowledge. And now that I am fully aware of it, I realize that there’s been no let up since it began.” Eighth Night: Monday, April 17 Reading: The Last of the Just, by André Schwarz-Bart, translated from the French by Stephen Becker Sometimes forced emigration is not emigration at all, but death. This iconic novel frames Europe’s history of anti-Semitic violence within an ancient legend: “The world reposes upon thirty-six Just Men, the Lamed Vov, indistinguishable from simple mortals…into them, as into one receptacle, pour all our griefs.” In this book, Ernie Levy is the last Lamed Vov. The story opens with Ernie’s 12th-century ancestor, the Rabbi Yom Tov Levy of York, slitting the throats of his flock to prevent bloodthirsty Englishmen from victoriously doing so. It traces Ernie’s lineage through medieval French atrocities, the 300 Jews burned for the “daily quota” in Seville during the Spanish Inquisition, murder under the Portuguese Inquisition, and several more centuries of involuntary migrations and killings in a “history overstocked with martyrs.” Ernie is born “puny” in Stillenstadt, Germany, but with the “inimitable grace of a bird.” When Nazis storm the synagogue in which his family and neighbors have taken refuge, cursing and beating up old women, little Ernie stands up to them, recognized by his elder as the “the lamb of suffering; he is our scapegoat,” maimed the next morning with a “splendid stigma.” Ernie fulfills his destiny, protecting children and comforting the afflicted. His family escapes to France, where he falls in love and marries. But France is no refuge. “A few freight trains, a few engineers, a few chemists vanquished that ancient scapegoat, the Jew of Poland….[T]he ancient procession of stake and fagot ended in the crematorium.” In a final emigration, Ernie and his wife, Golda, are deported from Drancy, “one of many drains inserted into Europe’s passive flanks…for the herd being led to the slaughter.” Ernie soothes Golda and the terrified children on the train to Auschwitz. He recites that “old love poem, unfurled in the gas chamber” the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” In the flash that precedes his annihilation, Ernie “happily” remembers the legend of gentle Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion, who, “wrapped in the scrolls of the Torah, was flung upon the pyre by the Romans for having taught the Law.” His pupils ask him what he sees within the flames. The Rabbi’s answer: “‘I see the parchment burning, the letters are taking wing.’…‘Ah, yes, surely the letters are taking wing.’”
God has strong opinions on reproductive rights, at least according to many Americans. Our new vice president, who “made a commitment to Christ [as] a born-again, evangelical Catholic,” led a frontal assault on reproductive rights as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. As governor of Indiana, he defunded Planned Parenthood and signed multiple anti-abortion bills into law, including measures to prohibit private insurers from covering abortions, and one of the most extreme anti-abortion bills in the country. Five recent and forthcoming books address the fallout from America’s long, fraught wars over reproductive rights. Religion plays a central role in all of them. Lilli de Jong, Janet Benton’s confident, forthcoming debut, is set in 1880s Philadelphia. Steeped in her Quaker upbringing, Lilli flees her family after becoming pregnant by an apprentice in her father’s furniture workshop. Although their affair is consensual, Lilli’s lover leaves for better economic prospects in Pittsburgh, and her efforts to inform him of his fatherhood end in frustration and worse. Lilli’s recently deceased mother had a favorite maxim: “If our principles are right, why should we be cowards?” In that vein, Lilli makes the agonizing decision to keep her daughter, Charlotte, birthed in a home for unwed, destitute (read -- fallen) women. Lilli’s fight for economic security is increasingly thwarted as she faces a society that condemns both her pregnancy and her decision to mother. Lilli de Jong is informed, but not overwhelmed, by research. Written in first-person diary form using the Quaker pronouns “thee” and “thou,” Lilli de Jong’s voice artfully and convincingly reflects her time. From the opening inscription -- an 1880 report of the State Hospital for Women and Infants -- the reader confronts injustice. “Every other door…is closed to her who, unmarried is about to become a mother. Deliberate, calculating villainy, fraud, outrage, burglary, or even murder with malice aforethought, seems to excite more sympathy…” Sentence by carefully-crafted sentence, Benton ensnares the reader in Lilli’s worsening predicament. Here’s Lilli, leaving her last Friend’s Meeting following her father’s decision to marry too soon and outside the faith (the family is shunned): “Above us spread a blank white sky, a page cleared of its story.” Of the frightening lead up to delivery, Lilli is too tired “to write more -- except to say that I’m still here, one person holding another inside.” Of baby Charlotte’s survival instincts, demonstrated by an eagerness to nurse -- “her body conveyed the force of a thousand sprouting seeds.” Lilli questions whether her successive punishments at the hands of those around her fit the crime. In the end she acknowledges, “I’m no longer innocent -- nor am I any longer ashamed of not being so.” Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life takes on reproductive rights from the provider’s perspective. Manning’s hero is Axie Muldoon, a clever, courageous purveyor of birth control and abortions in mid-19th-century New York. Loosely based on the real physician and abortion provider Ann Trow Lohman, Axie has a wicked sense of humor and the feistiness to stand up to law enforcement and the rest of the male establishment. She meets her match in Anthony Comstock, a historical figure and religious zealot whom she terms “My Enemy.” Manning’s opinion piece “Abortion Wars, the First Time Around” followed the 2009 murder of George Tiller, an abortion doctor. After surviving two earlier attempts on his life, Tiller was fatally shot while ushering at his church in Wichita, Kan. “Abortion, with its drama and illicit sex and romance gone sour, was, and remains a sensation that sells news,” Manning writes. Nineteenth-century prosecutors pursued Ann Trow Lohman for close to 40 years. From 1839 to 1877 she was arrested five times, jailed “for months without bail,” and jailed on misdemeanor charges for a year, likely escaping harsher punishment by threatening to unmask the rich and powerful among her patients. In the 1870s, Lohman was stalked by Anthony Comstock, who persuaded Congress to prohibit the sale and distribution of materials “for contraception or abortion, or the sending of such materials by mail.” Posing as a husband seeking “abortion services for a lady,” Comstock finally entrapped Lohman. Rather than face long years in prison, Lohman slit her throat. “The end of sin is death,” The New York Tribune wrote. “We didn’t believe when we first heard because you know how church folk can gossip,” opens Brit Bennett’s auspicious debut, The Mothers. It turns out that Nadia Turner, whose mother committed suicide six months earlier, “got knocked up by the pastor’s son and went to the abortion clinic downtown to take care of it.” The “mothers” are a group of Black church ladies -- community minded and caring -- weighing in like a tongue-clicking Greek chorus throughout the book. “When we were coming up,” the mothers say, [W]e all had a girlfriend or a cousin or a sister who had been sent off to live with an aunty when her shamed mother learned that she was in the family way…. [I]f we had become sent-off girls, we would have borne it like they did, returning home mothers. The white girls ended up in trouble as often as us colored girls. But at least we had the decency to keep our troubles. In other words, abortions are for white girls who lack the fortitude to see things through. But isn't this judgment rooted in inequality? Abortions -- access to reproductive healthcare generally -- have historically been a luxury more accessible to white girls. Poignantly embedded in Bennett’s title are two missing women -- Nadia’s mother, and Nadia’s potentiality as a mother, lost as a consequence of her abortion at age 17. Nadia is smart and ambitious; she’s on her way from Oceanside, Calif., to the University of Michigan. She’s a girl with plans; the boy who impregnated her -- not so much. Luke Sheppard seems like a nice guy, but after he stands Nadia up at the abortion clinic, their lives diverge. Within the book’s endearing humor and snappy dialogue, Nadia’s abortion takes on increasingly mythic proportions. Part way through law school, Nadia comes home to care for her ailing father. There she is forced to face her past, including what she has done to cover it up. Despite the tongue-wagging church ladies and Luke’s parents’ prominence in the church, it feels less like God is judging Nadia, than Nadia herself. Now comes Joyce Carol Oates with a massive entry to the field called A Book of American Martyrs. The novel exhaustively examines two families destroyed by an abortion doctor’s murder -- the victim’s and the killer’s. With chillingly detailed psychological portraits, the book reads more like nonfiction than fiction. The murderer is Luther Dunphy, who not only kills Dr. Augustus Voorhees, but his bodyguard as well. Here’s Luther -- just before he fires his shotgun at the men approaching the clinic in 1999 Muskegee Falls, Ohio. "The Lord commanded me. In all that befell, it was His hand that did not waver.” Jesus finds Luther after Luther’s father assaults him for the near murder of a high school classmate who outed Luther’s friend for stealing. “In the place where I had fallen, Jesus awaited me. I saw that Jesus was displeased with me but he would not speak harshly to me, as my father did, to reprimand me.” With echoes of Jesus himself, Luther is a roofer and a carpenter. Trying to disavow his hard-drinking, violent past, Luther forces himself on Edna Mae whom he meets in church, and marries her after she becomes pregnant. Failing in his efforts to become a Christian minister, he finds his calling instead in murdering in Jesus’s name. Luther remains unrepentant through to his death by botched lethal injection, awash in religious righteousness for having killed Voorhees, and forever denying that he murdered Voorhees’s bodyguard as well. A Book of American Martyrs splices the tragedy of Luther’s family -- Luther’s earlier car accident in which his daughter with Down syndrome is killed, his wife’s worsening dependence on opiates, his two trials and execution, his damaged children -- with that unfolding in Augustus (Gus) Voorhees’s family. The Voorhees family is seemingly godless, with Gus Voorhees living to the extreme the gospel of taking care of the vulnerable. His wife, Jenna, is a lawyer acting in parallel, though not without doubt and despair. Neither Edna Mae Dunphy nor Jenna Voorhees survive the crime intact; they too become missing mothers. Their decline and alienation from family threads through the book. It is their daughters -- DD Dunphy, a rising boxer, and Naomi Voorhees, a budding journalist -- whose stories move into any kind of future. The compelling struggles of these two young women as they cope with the loss of their fathers and make a life for themselves bind them in complex ways. What does Oates seek to accomplish? Each of her characters is so fully rendered that readers may find themselves overwhelmed in a vortex of incompatible ideologies. Perhaps that’s her point. If Luther Dunphy’s actions are the result of a mentally ill man’s tortured efforts to justify his own, violent impulses, he doesn’t come to those beliefs in a vacuum. Spotlighting religious extremism, reproductive rights, the risks inherent in hate speech, the death penalty, and the opioid epidemic -- to name a few -- Oates suggests we move beyond sound bites and tweets to consider these searing contemporary issues with nuance and compassion. In a recent interview about his book Life’s Work, Dr. Willie J. Parker examines why he changed his mind on abortion, setting aside his original religious objections in what he describes as a “conversion.” A Black physician, he says, “I had to come to a crisis moment regarding a religious understanding that left me unable to help women when I felt deeply for their situation…The biggest insult is the notion that there’s such a thing as a black genocide, as if the people who care about abortion really care about black women and black babies.” Dr. Parker describes his use of “verbicaine” during procedures, his coinage for conversations with patients in which he tries to lighten the mood -- “Rather than allowing your fear to amplify any sensation that you’re having, you’re having a conversation with me, you’re asking yourself, Why isn’t this guy treating me with judgment and stigma like I expected him to?” God may have His opinions, but in literature -- as in life -- human judgment and stigma seem to prevail. Image Credit: LPW.
The German Girl (in Spanish, translated by Nick Caistor), is a novel with a purpose: To expose the atrocity of the S.S. St. Louis, whose 1939 voyage from Hamburg to Cuba exemplifies the fatal consequences of closed borders and failed humanity, of hope gone horrendously wrong. Armando Lucas Correa, raised in Cuba before emigrating to the United States, writes with a political agenda as well -- to out Cuba not only for denying sanctuary to most of the St. Louis’s ill-fated passengers, but also for erasing the crime from Cuba’s history books. Cuba is not the only country with a selective memory. The United States, too, played a key role in the horrors that transpired, and was very late in coming to a public admission of guilt. Correa is a journalist. Among other professional activities, he is editor-in-chief of People en Espanõl. His first book, En Busca de Emma (In Search of Emma: Two Fathers, One Daughter and the Dream of a Family) is a memoir about the arduous and emotionally fraught journey of starting a family with his male partner. The German Girl is his debut novel. The novel alternates chapters between two narrators. The first is Hannah Rosenthal, a Jewish girl who is 12 in 1939, having lived a bourgeois existence in Berlin before the Nazis’ rise to power. Hannah experiences the world through smell. Two women on the S-Bahn give “off waves of sweat mixed with rose essence and tobacco.” Berlin after the November pogrom (Kristallnacht) -- “a stench of broken pipes, sewage, and smoke.” Hannah’s childhood nanny, recalled through “the fragrance of her lemon-bergamot-cedarwood cologne mingled with the smell of sweat and spices.” Hannah also experiences the world through her beloved friend Leo Martin. Together they travel Berlin, hiding from the “Ogres” -- her parlance for Nazis -- and sharing a passion for adventure. The second narrator is Anna Rosen, an American girl living in 2014. She and her bedridden, widowed mother are enshadowed by 9/11. They live a sober existence in New York. Hanna’s sections are written in the past tense, Anna’s in the present. The parallels between the girls are many, sometimes tipping their similarities toward the contrived. Both have suffering mothers with whom they appear to have a strained emotional connection. Both idolize their absent fathers, each missing for different reasons. Both are only children. Both have a male friend their own age, though Hannah is much closer to Leo than Anna with Diego. Hannah lives with her parents: an anxious, self-centered opera singer mother named Alma Strauss Rosenthal (faint homage to Alma Mahler, perhaps?) and her father, Max Rosenthal, an esteemed university professor. As Berlin becomes increasingly dangerous, Hannah’s family -- desperate to leave -- secures passage on the St. Louis. Leo’s widowed father, too, manages to book passage for himself and his son. The voyage appears to bring escape and deliverance, but instead, it is their terrible misfortune to have set sail on a doomed ship. At the end of the book, Correa provides these facts -- on May 13, 1939, the St. Louis sailed for Cuba from Hamburg with 900 passengers, the majority German Jewish refugees. It docked two days later in Cherbourg to pick up 37 additional Jewish passengers. All refugees had landing permits from the Cuban Department of Immigration, as well as U.S. entry visas. Cuba was intended as a transit point; passengers were to await emigration to the United States. A week before departure, Cuban President Federico Laredo Brú invalidated the landing permits. The St. Louis arrived in Havana early morning May 27. Only four Cubans, two non-Jewish Spaniards, and 22 refugees were ultimately permitted to land, despite efforts by relatives, and protracted negotiations with offers of payment by Lawrence Berenson, lawyer for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Ordered to vacate Cuban waters, Captain Gustav Schroeder made heroic efforts to find a non-German port to accept the refugees. He sailed for Miami, but the United States denied entry. A similar refusal came from Canada. Forced back across the Atlantic, the ship stopped in several European countries that agreed -- following another intense set of negotiations -- to take the passengers. Great Britain accepted 287; France, 224; Belgium, 214; and the Netherlands 181. In September 1939, Germany declared war. Other than the 287 taken into the relative safety of Great Britain, most of the rest of the passengers suffered the terrors of war. At least a quarter were exterminated by the Nazis. In The German Girl, Anna and her mother are shaken from their depressing existence by a set of photos they receive from the 87-year-old Hannah Rosenthal, who turns out to have been one of the “lucky” passengers permitted a landing in Cuba. Having spent her whole life there, she has now reached out to her great-niece (Anna’s father was her nephew). Anna and her mother travel to Cuba, where Hannah reveals her life story in a series of largely expository chapters. Sharing her great loves and tragic losses, she generously roots Anna in her father’s family and puts Anna’s mother on a path forward. In a recent review of Affinity Konar’s Mischling, Lisa Zeidner wrote: The morality of fictionalizing the Holocaust has been a subject of scholarly discussion since philosopher Theodor Adorno famously declared “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Do the scaffolding of plot and invention, the linguistic embroidery, deny the actual victims their more authentic voices? Conversely, might fiction have “the power to take the narrative to places that survivor testimony cannot?” [citing Anna Richardson] The German Girl begs a different question. Given Correa’s professional credentials, might this book have packed more punch as nonfiction? Perhaps a futile inquiry, but Correa’s journalistic instincts are apparent not just in his clear reporting on the voyage of the St. Louis, but throughout the book. For example, he introduces Jehovah’s Witnesses to make the very important point that the Nazis singled this group out for torture and brutality due to their refusal to accept totalitarian authority. In Crossing the Borders of Time, journalist Leslie Maitland set out to find her mother’s teenage lover, lost to her when her family fled Nazi-occupied France. Her mother’s family was able to secure passage to Casablanca, and then to Cuba on the San Thomé in 1942. Describing the horrors of the St. Louis, Maitland notes the “infighting among unscrupulous officials,” Cuba’s corrupt immigration director, and the fruitless “frantic telegrams to President Roosevelt” and other world leaders. Scholar Peter Gay describes his Berlin childhood under the Nazis in My German Question. Like many other highly assimilated and non-religious German Jews -- including Hannah Rosenthal’s family -- in 1933 “We had suddenly become Jews.” Deeply interested in the psychological ramifications, Gay says he cannot write autobiography, his has to be memoir. His past has proven “to be a mosaic with central pieces missing.” He recounts his father’s daring maneuvers to secure passage to Cuba. Finally obtaining visas and tickets for the St. Louis, his father, having an eerie sixth sense, took a harrowing risk to fake documents for passage on the Iberia, which sailed April 27 (two weeks earlier than the St. Louis). The German-Jewish refugee community in Havana, numbering over three thousand, clung together and talked Germany: who was still caught up in the Nazi trap and what one could do to help…. Our ties to our former homeland…remained intimate and inescapable, a cause of wrenching anxieties. Anxiety coupled with deracination’s fallout. A Longing in the Land, poet Arthur Gregor’s memoir of being forced as a teen to flee Vienna post Anschluss, makes clear the longing never ends: The crack of displacement -- irreparable, as I have learned -- also affects our most personal relationships, often shapes or destroys them. It makes our need for them so urgent -- for who but the object of one’s love can soothe this rift? -- and this urgency works against them…. The anguish of this rift is not appeased. The truth -- documented -- can be more powerful than fiction. And yet, doesn’t fiction provide the ultimate truth? Here’s Peter Gay: That my mother loved me as much as she could seems to me beyond doubt, but her ability to give voice to her affection for me was compromised by her anxieties and her ailments. Such a description fits perfectly both Hannah and Anna’s mothers in The German Girl. They are sleepless, ailing women, suffering from grief and worry. Through fiction, Correa has captured not only the unspeakable anxiety of protecting a family while fleeing for one’s life, but also the endless pain of deracination, emotions from which Hannah is never released. Speaking of her life in Havana, toward the end of the book she muses: I can wander one last time among the colorful croton bushes, the poinsettias, the rosemary, basil, and mint herbs in the neglected garden of what has been my fortress in a city I never came to know. Correa deploys facts to honor his fictional subjects. In a heartbreaking appendix, he lists every passenger on the St. Louis. If this ship’s manifest is insufficiently potent, Correa writes to remind us of the deadly consequences of closed borders, neglected refugees, and maligned and forgotten immigrants.
If you haven’t read Randa Jarrar, it’s time to. Jarrar’s debut novel, A Map of Home, introduced her as a smart and funny/not-so-funny writer. Jarrar grew up in Kuwait and Egypt, the daughter of an Egyptian-Greek mother and Palestinian father. She moved to the United States after the first Gulf War. A Map of Home is a coming of age story about Nidali, a girl with similar background to the author’s, who lands in Texas after migrating through various parts of the Middle East. Laced with family antics -- affectionate and keenly observed -- A Map of Home is an immigrant story with kick. Here’s Nidali, just off the plane in Texas: I looked out the car’s window, mesmerized by the highway. Cars stayed in their lanes. They stopped at traffic lights; here, those red and yellow and green circles were not mere suggestions or street decorations….A woman was crossing the street and no one appeared to offer her luscious love bone. We arrived at our new home, a long narrow house that was a little off the ground. You had to take three big steps to stand on its front porch. It was on a short dirt road…lined here and there, and here again, with cans of Lone Star. This must by the soda they drink here, I thought. Alia Malek’s A Country Called Amreeka uses nonfiction to tell the story of Arab immigration to America over the last century. Malek profiles a series of individuals -- an Alabama football player in the Jim Crow South, a politician giving voice to Arab American constituents, a gay man who has to navigate bi-culturally -- each an immigrant “success,” each quintessentially American. A Map of Home deploys fiction similarly; it offers a fresh lens on the immigrant experience so core to being American. In an interview with Beirut39, Jarrar said, “Texas kind of reminds me of an Arab country in America where everyone speaks Spanish instead of Arabic. I like the approximation in culture.” That approximation is deftly illustrated in her debut novel. If A Map of Home travels from Kuwait to Texas with humor and wit, Jarrar’s forthcoming short story collection, Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, paints with an even broader brush. With compelling themes of displacement and reinvention, these stories push boundaries -- probing race, class, sexual identity, and family; the role of women in Arab and American culture; and much more. In this collection, mythology meets reality, and Jarrar’s palette spans the world. The stories are full of pithy asides. Describing a mentorship with an imperious and mesmerizing Egyptian feminist in “How Can I Be of Use to You?” the narrator wants to hitchhike “back to my family -- to their familiar oppression and their unspoken support.” In “Grace,” a heartbreaking story worthy of Borges, a seven-year-old girl is kidnapped from a Pathmark in Paramus, renamed Grace, and raised by a female commune. She plays with a doll that she convinces herself is a “still and shrunken Ida,” her little sister. She is never found. As an adult, however, she discovers that Ida has written a novel that precisely describes her captivity. It hurt me that Ida could have found me and not reached out to me. But I guessed we were even. Still I felt angry that she imagined me as a lonely old hag, still imprisoned…. Each night, before I go to sleep, I picture myself driving to our old house. I imagine Ida waiting for me by the staircase, still a child…. We run through the empty house, no one there but us, stopping in the vast, wooden den. And there Ida asks me where I’ve been, and I tell her: that I’d been taken away by those who wanted to share a life with me, that I’d been quickly kidnapped by love. There’s boy trouble and religion trouble. In “Lost in Freakin’ Yonkers,” the narrator is thrown out of her home, pregnant and single: When you’re disowned, your mother becomes your secret lover, calling you from pay phones, visiting at odd hours and for short bits of time. And your lover becomes your mother, has to take care of you now that she’s gone. Despite her mother’s urging, the narrator is not interested in trying to convert the father of her child -- “He’ll be shitty Muslim and a shitty husband too.” She drives home with the drunken boyfriend after the birth, “a ton of shit going on inside my head.” This is it? I ask myself, hating the government and financial rules, my reproductive system, his big dick, and mostly, my God. Not just God, but the God, the one who wrote the book resting in the car-door pocket on my left, the book that my boyfriend erroneously skims from left to right, the book that provides Guilt big enough to make me want to marry this ape with several mental illnesses he does not plan on addressing any time soon. Politics are never far below the surface. “Testimony of Malik, Prisoner #287690” is written in the form of a report from Istanbul describing a kestrel named Malik Kareem Aziz El-Hajj Aamer Kan’un found in a “nearby village with Israeli tag on claw and placed under arrest…We believe the small falcon is a spy.” Interrogated by a series of Commanders, the kestrel says As a child, I saw the bodies of collaborators hung from the lines my kin and I used to hunt from. Their bodies swayed. The punishment for spying was always death. And death never appealed to me…. One day, while I was en route to the sea, I saw the bigger birds, the warplanes, hovering far above me. The plane urinated a white phosphorous that clouded the air I flew in, and soon I was in the sea. The kestrel is captured by university students in Tel Aviv, investigated, and tagged. “In Aqraba, everyone was angry with me for being captured by the Israelis.” He falls in love with a gull from Istanbul. “She said we could never breed, because I was not one of them.” The final transmission from Prisoner #287690’s recording chip is one of longing and displacement: "I am too elderly to fly home now. I want to return to Aqraba, to say goodbye, not to those who have shunned me, but to my land, to the olive trees, the earth, and the cicadas." (Are birds a current stand-in for grief and rage? Max Porter’s new novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, substitutes a crow for a nanny/grief counselor following the death of a young mother.) Jarrar’s title story opens with the death of the narrator’s father from a brain aneurysm “on the Metro-North train from White Plains to Grand Central; his fellow commuters didn’t notice until Scarsdale.” The narrator is the daughter of a transcontinental marriage between two journalists -- a Black American man and an Egyptian woman from Sydney -- who meet at the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire. After their engagement, my parents wrote their respective stories on the plane and filed them from Cairo, then took the Egypt Rail to Alexandria. My dad exaggeratedly said he was pissing out of his ass the entire ride over. In Alexandria, he was greeted as family, converted to Islam a week later, and married my mum in the front hall of her apartment building. She left my dad and moved back to Sydney before I turned one. I never knew why, but suspected…that he’d cheated on her. Everyone in Sydney treated me like an Egyptian kid. I looked like one of them, and nobody mentioned my Black dad. The narrator recalls being the victim of racist epithets, remarking that her Mom was good at hiding things. “The whole time she was my mother,” Jarrar writes, suggesting that the connection was temporary, “I assumed she never got laid or even dated, but I was mistaken.” Again, there is deracination, complex family relationships, and humor that telegraphs heartache. Jarrar channels Isaac Babel in “The Story of My Building” and in the final story covers territory reminiscent of Moacyr Scliar’s The Centaur in the Garden (about a centaur born to a Jewish family in Brazil). “The Life, Loves, and Adventures of Zelwa the Halfie” is the tale of a “half woman -- the upper half -- and half Transjordanian ibex.” If ever there was an allegory of an outsider, this is it. Ibex were once the supermodels of the Near East, where our fine likeness were painted on vases and water jugs, our horns curling back like shells. Sadly, I do not have horns…but I am horny. As you can imagine, though, I have been single for a while. Nowadays, when I go on dates, I drive my disability-equipped van, which allows me to accelerate with my hands and provides my lower body lots of room. But when I was younger, I used to show up at dates’ doors, carry them on my back, and gallop off to dinner. This was a problem because it created an intense and too-premature sense of intimacy. The thirteen stories in this collection blend humor with rage, wit with pathos. Jarrar presents an astonishing variety, each story as inventive as it is insightful. It's a book for this oppressive electoral season, where presidential politics are ugly and destructive, and demagoguery is endeavoring to trample a core American truth: Our country’s strength derives from open borders. Jarrar is here with a correction.
Pamela Erens’s new novel, Eleven Hours, opens with the push and tug between laboring patient and nurse. Lore, the expectant mother, rigid and stubborn -- “No, the girl says, she will not wear the fetal monitoring belt” -- and Franckline, her nurse: “These girls with their birth plans…as if much of anything about a birth can be planned.” Orphaned, friendless, and estranged from her baby’s father, Lore is poised to deliver alone. Franckline, by contrast, is more sociable, a seemingly happily married woman from Haiti. Through Franckline and Lore, Erens continues interrogating the core contradiction that threads through two earlier novels: The simultaneity of twinness and aloneness. In light of this core contradiction, Eleven Hours’s outwardly different protagonists - Lore is white; Franckline is black -- share important characteristics. Franckline is herself pregnant. Out of superstition of miscarrying, she has not informed her husband. Just as Lore’s isolation derives from loss and betrayal, it also transpires that Franckline’s past is one of suffering and disruption. Thus Lore and Franckline form a pair, each with private misgivings about her pregnancy and impending birth, each entangled in the other’s present. Layers of finely wrought details frame these women as matched puzzle pieces. Moving seamlessly between them, Erens renders them singular and affecting, deftly weaving in their backstories while remaining rooted in the novel’s central drama: Lore’s labor. With indulgent pragmatism, Franckline watches her patient fight to control the uncontrollable process of birth. Lore is inflexible; Franckline knows better: Anything can happen, and often does...Babies twisted up on the umbilical cord, starved for oxygen for a little too long. Birthmarks obliterating a child’s face, absent fingers or toes. Fifty-hour labors, a mother suffering a heart attack while pushing (that one was only thirty-two years old, grossly overweight, yes, but seemingly hale, with an energetic, generous laugh; they saved her, but it was touch and go). Lore is less than self-aware; Franckline is generous, attuned, and self-aware, to the point of underestimating her own kindness: "The pregnancy has made her mean, made her small, Franckline thinks. On the subway and in the street, she looks away from pregnant women -- seven, eight, nine months along -- so as not to poison them with her envy." Lore is a speech teacher at P.S. 30, while Franckline considers her own, hard-earned English: "How supple her speech is now! How she surprised herself at times! She is proud of her English; after eleven years it is almost flawless." Eleven years, eleven hours. Duality is literature’s lifeblood; writers frequently quarry opposites. William Shakespeare loves his twins; Mark Twain, his Prince and the Pauper. Contemporary novels embed alternate endings within the same book. Jenny Erpenbeck’s recently translated The End of Days offers two interpretations of the same facts in each of its five segments. Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World splits into divergent paths -- the road taken and the other road taken. Erens makes a fresh contribution. Along with creating original and nuanced characters, she pits duality against intense isolation. Her astonishing debut, The Understory, tells the wrenching story of John Frederick Ronan, who squats in his deceased uncle’s New York apartment, living in his head. He is obsessed with twins, hunting for them around the city, using two personal aliases. Readers wend through his warped reasoning -- twisted from either his inability, or his lack of desire, to engage with others. He arrives at a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York seeking shelter, having been evicted into homelessness. In the silence of the monastery’s enforced, pre-dawn meditation, Ronan reflects: "I have no family, no home, no friend, no books. Surely they can leave me my thoughts." Reading The Understory is itself a meditation. Sublimely paced and rigorously crafted, The Understory investigates not only Ronan’s raw isolation, but also his drift toward coupling; a love that unfolds with disastrous consequences. Erens’s second novel, The Virgins, centers around two teenage lovers at a tony boarding school. While their classmates imagine steamy sex, Aviva and Seung’s relationship is rife with the unsaid -- misunderstandings and misconceptions that ultimately coalesce in tragedy. Aviva and Seung come from different cultural backgrounds, but their disconnection is rooted in something more fundamental; a set of experiences that impedes their ability to trust the people with whom they should be closest. In Eleven Hours, the characters are similarly disconnected. Franckline has had to break with her family of origin, imbuing her with a powerful streak of self-reliance. Lore was orphaned young, but it is the ugly betrayals of those around her, including the father of her child, that have convinced her to go it alone. Erens deploys a character named Julia -- who introduces Lore to the man who will father her baby -- to address the subject of rape and its aftermath. With this subplot, Erens signals what is finally being publicly acknowledged: Rape is endemic to the female experience, far more common that we choose to admit. Perhaps Lore’s child will splice her loneliness, but during labor, her isolation is stark. Here is a contraction, exquisitely captured: ...the moan this time is not simply a moan of will and pain but a call into the emptiness: Is anyone there? There is a blackness spreading into her vision and she feels herself spinning in an unlit sky. Empty, empty, her moan cries. And later, as Lore strengthens her resolve that the baby’s father will never be part of her baby’s life: "Now she would be her own fiancé; she would marry herself. She would be both father and mother to this child. It was, really, one of the most ordinary stories in the universe." Eleven Hours is, at its most basic, the story of a woman about to mother a daughter (Lore has found out she is carrying a girl). Erens writes thoughtfully on pregnancy and mothering, mining her own challenges with breastfeeding. Mother-daughter pairings appear throughout the book. At Lore’s mother’s funeral: ...she looked down at her mother’s face, relaxed of some of its characteristic lines, and thought that here lay the only person who would every truly understand her, the only person she would ever care to be close to. Franckline, whose mother’s “soft murmuring patter dried up near Franckline” after a teenage dalliance, is rescued by another mother, the one who would become her mother-in-law. Neither Lore nor Franckline share information about their mothers; instead they engage in a kind of emotional parallel play, in which they give free reign to their thoughts within the confines of a small hospital room, keeping everything to themselves. Between nurse and patient, there is a whiff of the mother-daughter, as if Lore were a cranky toddler continually saying "no" to Franckline’s experienced advice, and Franckline her long suffering parent. Franckline reaches for Lore’s hand...There is flesh bunched below the wide silver band on the fourth finger, like a thick putty squeezing out...The finger above the ring is paler than the other fingers, with a bluish tinge. Franckline should tell Lore in no uncertain terms, in her practiced nurse’s voice, that the ring must be cut, that she could lose a finger. Franckline should use a word like necrotize, a word that makes young women pale and listen. But Lore would simply repeat 'no.' Lore sneaks out of her room, wandering into another part of the hospital like a rebellious teenager escaping an overbearing mother, and realizes she has gone too far: "Come get me, Franckline, she thinks. Come find me. Come help me, come make it all easier." Contrite, Lore makes it back and shuts the door. Franckline arrives at the room a couple of minutes later, out of breath, her eyes reproachful. 'I’m sorry,' blurts Lore. How she hates that phrase! It’s like trying to move sand around her mouth. But she cannot bear Franckline looking at her like that. With passages like these, Erens skates perilously close to troubling, clichéd territory: Competent, wise black woman supports white woman in her struggle. Erens seems to recognize the dangers of descending into such a well-worn trope, skirting offense by giving Franckline a complex interior life, and by masterfully filling out each character. Eleven Hours is crafted with the taut economy of The Understory, and with the same laser focus on human alienation. In fewer than 180 virtuoso pages, Erens knits together two women, two lives, two stories. Each woman has borne serious trials; each is detached from her family of origin, albeit for different reasons. Each has reason to worry about bringing new life into this world. They are together, but brutally alone. And yet for the duration of Lore’s hospital stay, their communion feels both necessary and illuminating. What passes between Franckline and Lore lifts them above despair, thrusting them toward life itself.
Lynn Steger Strong’s debut, Hold Still, joins a spate of recent novels that explores lost girls and their mothers. Some of these books feature tragic, deceased girls, while others feature heart-rending girls who though not physically lost, have lost themselves. Their mothers, all of them white, share certain characteristics around abandonment -- some have been abandoned by one or both parents, some become abandoners. Like their daughters, these mothers have a tendency to lose themselves. For the girls and mothers in these books, losing one’s way is signified by lightness/thinness. Hold Still's protagonist is 21-year-old Ellie, who suffers alcohol and drug abuse, along with what appears to be crippling depression. Ellie feels lost to her family, and far more consequentially, to herself. Alternating between 2013 and 2011 when a terrible event happened that overshadows the book, Hold Still unfolds through earlier flashbacks. Ellie has a younger brother and a father, but most prominent is Ellie’s mother, Maya Taylor, an English professor at Columbia. As a young girl, Maya was abandoned by her mother. Maya’s father, inadequate and inappropriate to the task, died while Maya was in her early 20s. A similar pattern emerges in Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, to which Hold Still is compared on its book jacket. Ng’s novel opens with the death of 16-year-old Lydia and unfurls in lyrical, painstaking detail. Early on, Ng poses the question -- How had it begun? Like everything: With mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing... Lydia’s mother, Marilyn, was herself a lost girl, her father having abandoned the family. At Marilyn’s wedding to a man of Chinese descent, Marilyn’s mother makes unforgivable racist remarks. “That was the last time Marilyn saw her mother,” thus rendering Marilyn parentless. Long before she dies, Lydia loses herself trying to satisfy her parents’ projected desires. She fakes friendships to feed her father’s zeal for her popularity, while she fakes school to fulfill Marilyn’s thwarted dreams of a career in medicine. As the circumstances surrounding Lydia’s death grow more mysterious, one thing clarifies -- Marilyn’s temporary abandonment of her family is foundational to the drama. Sari Wilson’s Girl Through Glass also contains a lost girl and a thread of maternal abandonment. Girl Through Glass is narrated from the twin standpoints of adult and child by a former ballet student named Mira. When Mira is a tween, her mother abandons her, moving from New York to California. Mira’s father remains on hand, but he’s not paying attention. Yes, her mother was gone -- but, like a girl in the fairy tale, [Mira] has been given a substitute. Mira’s mother substitute is a shadowy 47-year-old man, who proves neither fairy godmother nor godfather. Mira loses the dream that is congruent with herself -- becoming a professional ballerina -- and thereby loses herself. Girl Through Glass is Mira’s adult struggle to embrace her past mistakes and forge a way forward. Consider Nancy Reisman’s stunning Trompe L’Oeil, which plumbs the aftermath of four-year-old Molly Murphy’s death in a traffic accident in Rome. Despite efforts to stay together -- the Murphys have two more children -- the family slowly unravels. Reisman writes with captivating musicality, masterfully exposing the innards of the disintegrating Murphy family. Molly’s mother, Nora, does not abandon the family. Instead, she remains at the center, growing lighter and lighter. She declines social invitations, because Nora could imagine herself on a small olive-shaped boat crossing the pool of a martini glass, but not at the cocktail party itself. Eventually Nora’s husband leaves her, prompting Another kind of winnowing, gradually becoming a yet-sparer Nora -- thinner, quicker. Nora’s lightness feels like an indispensable coping mechanism. Floating through life, she is able to bear with grace her evolving grief over her daughter, the loss of her husband, and her family’s endlessly mutating need for her. Perhaps it is no surprise that thinness wafts through Girl Through Glass; Mira is a rising ballet star, with the attendant fixation on body type. She and her fellow students “are being molded into the stick-thin hipless Balanchine ballerinas.” If there’s a fairy tale at work here, it’s “more like Hansel and Gretel.” Wilson pings the lost girls: A brittle finger bone, a threat of fire and oblivion, a trail of receding crumbs disappearing in the woods of a vanishing child-self. So too, lightness is a trope in Hold Still. Graduating Harvard, Ellie’s mother, Maya, “felt weightless, lost.” Ellie, frequently seen through her mother’s lens, is “perfect-looking” at age 12. At 17, Ellie is very thin. “Maya’s daughter’s hips jutted out from underneath the satin string that connected the front and back stretch of fabric that still covered her.” And Ellie’s own observation as she stands naked in front of the mirror: “Her hip bones jut out below her abdomen.” “Eating disorder memoirists love to fetishize hipbones,” Katy Waldman writes in a plea to reject anorexia’s false narratives and focus instead on its biologic causes. Noting that “starving silences who you really are,” Waldman puts Virginia Woolf and a host of literary luminaries (Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Louise Glück) in the anorexia “clubhouse...a clique of brilliant madwomen bent on self-destruction.” In Hold Still, Maya is a Virginia Woolf scholar; she never goes anywhere without her copy of To the Lighthouse. “Virginia,” Maya says in praise of Woolf, is the “presence of the absence.” Maya has a strong dose of self-abnegation. She runs compulsively, leaving at 4:30 a.m. to run with her son; routinely running great distances from Brooklyn to Manhattan. And she has a self-punishing streak: There was something constantly off-putting about the ease with which her in-laws existed in the world...They...seemed to feel as if they had a right to all the pleasures they’d been given, while Maya sat most days waiting to be punished for all that she had somehow managed to acquire. Nevertheless, Hold Still is not an eating disorder memoir, and none of these books is about anorexia. What does jump out, however, is the undercurrent of lightness/thinness among these lost girls and their mothers. Earlier this year, Mattel tried shaking things up with three new Barbie body types -- one curvier, one taller, and one petite -- as well as a long overdue assortment of skin tones. According to The New York Times, “Mattel executives have struggled to rebrand Barbie as an aspirational figure, one not so closely identified with her unnatural body measurements.” Hate to break it to you, Mattel executives, aspiration is the problem. To what should girls aspire when an entire culture, including a culture of smart literary women, values them for how little of them there is? Intelligence and education were not enough for Marilyn in Everything I Never Told You. The birth of her first child permanently disrupted Marilyn’s Harvard (Radcliffe) education and her trajectory to medical school. Nor were they sufficient for Harvard educated Maya in Hold Still. Lightness/smallness in Hold Still seem to pertain not only to body size, but to a way to navigate through life. If you can slip through the cracks without engaging too much emotionally, you have the possibility of avoiding pain. Maya chose Virginia Woolf, in contrast to her friend Laura’s specialty -- “all those Frenchwomen and their feelings.” Feelings are dangerous when your mother abandoned you and your father only made it worse. At her Harvard graduation, Maya “waited for some feeling to come over her, and some sense of what might come next.” That divorce from feeling characterizes Maya’s daughter Ellie as well, and ultimately spells trouble. Ellie’s journey in Hold Still is a disturbing slide through aimlessness, moving inexorably toward more abusive sex and drugs, while her family looks on helplessly. No combination of psychotherapists and tough love seem to make a difference. Finally, her family sends Ellie to Florida to take care of Annie’s little son, Jack. Annie is an old friend of Maya’s, whom Maya mentored. In parallel with other women in these books, Annie says, “I reconciled myself to not having a mother a long time ago...Long before my actual mom died.” Ellie’s attachment to Annie’s son initially holds the promise of providing stability. Maya and Ellie stay in close touch, as if relieved to be sharing the mundane details of childcare rather than all the ways that Ellie has tripped up earlier in her life. Inevitably, however, life in Florida unleashes new dangers. Hold Still drills down on emotions, and the lack thereof. Throughout the novel, one emotion that Maya owns, and owns powerfully, is her love for Ellie. Mother and daughter are so conjoined that Maya’s carefully curated New York life falls apart in parallel with Ellie’s in Florida. (Spoilers prevent further elaboration.) Maya’s love for her daughter endures, the opposite of lightness and avoidance. On the contrary, it is anchoring, if fraught. Maya describes her feelings about Ellie in her journal: Sometimes I say out loud to myself or type it, the thing you did...I try to imagine a world in which I hate you. I try to see if I’m capable of letting you go...What makes me angrier than the thing you did is the impossibility of the idea of not loving you because of it. In Hold Still, that tortured, grounding love serves as the necessary glue between mother and daughter. And that, perhaps, is the bottom line.