A dark heritage of fiction
by Sally Feldman
'Philosophy frees, history enslaves," is the theme of the latest troubled novel from this prodigiously prolific writer who hovers between literary figure and populist romancer, between the intimately domestic and the grand sweep. Here, as ever, her real preoccupation America itself and the limitations of history is shared by her protagonist. Joshua Seigl is a man of letters who has abandoned fiction as part of a drive to free himself from his dark European heritage and embrace the clean optimism of America:
"For to be a philosopher is to wish to believe that the human mind transcends the contingencies of time. To be a philosopher is to believe that the human mind is not yoked to time; philosophy is of the timeless spirit, while history is solidly of the earth."
Seigl, on the brink of middle age, has had many love affairs but little intimacy. His reputation was made by his early novel, The Shadows, an allusive and highly literary evocation of the Holocaust. Since then he has pursued a haphazard literary career, supported by an inherited family fortune, and is currently working vaguely on a translation of Virgil. As the novel opens he is seeking to hire a research assistant but is unable to face the prospect of being invaded or probed. So instead of the bright young graduate students flocking to his door, he chooses their opposite: an illeducated, unquestioning, lumbering young woman disfigured by a set of inept tattoos on her limbs and especially over one cheek.
Seigl, highly intellectual and wealthy, is struggling to come to terms with his mixed background. His Jewish father was the only member of his family to have escaped the gas chambers in Dachau. His mother is not Jewish, so according to the Jews neither is he.
Alma Busch has been so violently and systematically abused by men that she has no fixed identity and no beliefs other than received prejudices. The main one of which is that she hates the Jews though she's not sure why. Her tattoos, the marks of her sexual degradation, are obviously her symbolic link with Seigl and his family's dehumanisation by the Nazis. And though this is clearly the intention, for me the parallel is crude to the point of offensiveness.
And it gets worse.
Alma, seemingly devoted to Seigl, is in fact plotting his downfall in a desultory and unconvincing way. She steals from him for her abusive boyfriend; she talks of planning to kill him. She is the fallen woman to his Jewish saintliness, the Mary Magdalen who must be redeemed.
Seigl's inability to connect with others, his fear of revealing too much about himself, is reflected in the debilitating illness, which progresses in parallel with this claustrophobic and unlikely alliance with the odd deformed girl.
His first intimation that his nerves are failing him occurs while he is out jogging in the Catholic cemetery. Unaccountably his legs suddenly buckle beneath him. Seigl's greatgrandfather had reputedly married into the MunichCatholic haute bourgeosie with the understanding that this act would make of him and his progeny nonJews in perpetuity. Appropriate then that the greatgrandson who could believe in no religion, who in fact disdained the very concept of religion as one of the evils of mankind, should be struck down in this place.
No one in this story can neutralise the past and all are paralysed by the inability to face truths. Alma cannot forgive Seigl when she discovers that he is not really Jewish after all. He has adopted a false identity and confused her just as he has lied by taking on the persona of a Holocaust victim in his novel. Fiction is not true. "You're stealing from them. Some people you didn't even know. And other prisoners . . . You made 'Dash'aw' up, too, didn't you! You made it all up! You pretended you were there, and you weren't. It's all lies."
At a moment of epiphany, close to death, he realises that she is right his fiction is a lie, and she the idiot savante who has seen right through him as no other can.
Then there is Seigl's sister Jet also dehumanised by their fractured past. Dysfunctional to the point of insanity she is given to moments of insight in an otherwise delusional psyche.
I don't suppose you'll want me to give away the ending. Well, not completely, so let's just say that this disturbing exploration of what it means to live a good life without God is fatally overburdened with oppressively Biblical allusions and meanings. Finally embracing his ancestry, Siegl takes on a kind of Jesus mantle and dies to save the innocent. Alma sees the light and reforms. Her tattoos are her holy stigmata. Then along comes an avenging angel from one Testament or the other and kills all hope.
There is much to be admired in this finely observed account of the struggle between good and evil, thought and action, trust and betrayal. But ultimately the allegory takes precedent over the story. Since these highly symbolised characters are never allowed to step out of their allocated tableaux into real life, it's not possible to care much what happens to any of them.