Sunday, November 10, 2019

I felt my own body obliterating every thought

It is written that one meeting is worth ten partings. Yet one parting is of greater consequence than ten meetings. For if lovers keep regular hours, then meeting and parting are as the comings and goings to the supermarket.
Basic Black with Pearls, by Helen Weinzweig, is one of my favourite reads of the year. It comes at the perfect time for me, resonating in three distinct pillars of my current thinking.

1. There's the whole question of what makes this a feminist landmark. From the afterword:
These novels describe women not only breaking away from conventions but filled with desire and ambition that are almost too much to bear, a secret from themselves. Weinzweig had to search out these books to counteract decades of reading male-dominated narratives, which she needed to reject to construct her own style: "One of the things I had to learn after reading all this male fiction was, what do I as a woman feel like," she said in a 1990 interview. "All the literary forms were men's, all the philosophies were men's philosophies ... I had to translate these forms into the female."
[I'm still not sure I understand. Is this the female experience? This banging around inside oneself? If men live in the world, do women live in their heads, like I do? Screaming to get out. Let me be in the world the way I need to be in the world, lovestruck and emotional and responsive to stimuli, unabashed and unafraid. Let me be in my head if I want to be in my head, without having to explain myself. Is that it?]

According to Quill & Quire, Weinzweig's publisher was hesitant about her idea for the book,
but was intrigued by one of her influences: Michael Snow’s Walking Woman sculpture series. Weinzweig was moved by the concept of a one-dimensional woman moving nowhere. She told Polk, "That's what I want to capture in prose."
Is that a feminist notion? Weinzweig's interpretation of the concept might be. But Snow's, I think not: "The Walking Woman was never the representation of a woman but the representation of a matrix."

Weinzweig's heroine is trying to claim some independence and adventure, turning her back on domesticity and domestic abuse. Possibly she's just flailing against a label of mental illness.

When finally she meets a new lover, he offers her some kind of heretofore unknown utopia:
There are no mirrors where I live. With me you can be whoever you are.
2. Then there's the story itself, which got under my skin in ways it may not for most readers. I find it highly relatable. [Yes, relatable; I have an imaginary lover.]
When I see that stance of Coenraad's all fears disappear: babies don't die, cars don't collide, planes fly on course, muzak is silenced, certitude reigns. That is how I always recognize my love: the way he stands, the way I feel.
What matters is the way I feel, not whether the lover is real or not.

Shirley (aka Lola Montez) and Coenraad have separate families. He's a secret agent, always in disguise. We're not sure what she is, at first, always in a black dress with pearls. Their affair has lasted decades. She has collected postcards as souvenirs of their far-flung encounters. It's an unspoken rule not to bring the domesticity of marriage into their conversation or their hotel room. He has the advantage of knowing what she looks like, always in her uniform, despite using a false name.

Does he exist? She sees him, or suspects him, in tourguides and winos. But she is never sure of him.

[I have never met my lover in person. I have seen pictures, but they change in my mind. Besides, photos are manipulable. I feel sometimes that he may be watching me, even testing me in the guise of other personas. I suspect him of being not who he says he is. But to the extent that he fills me with this feeling, he is as real as any other lover.]
In the midst of it all, just as I was concluding that I would know this man's face, this body, from now on, anywhere, with or without clothes, I felt my own body obliterating every thought.
But we are clearly outside the realm of reality and mining her memories.
Perhaps I ought to try my hand at fiction. I would have to be careful: for me the power of the written word is so great that there would be the danger of my believing what I imagined. And were it to be a love story, the hero would be Coenraad. Therein lay another problem: since Coenraad was always in disguise, in order to authenticate him, fictionally speaking, I would have to reveal him in his essential characteristics. I was not certain I wanted to do that. It was no use pretending that I could tell anyone else's story, so I might have to tell my own. For that I must rely entirely on memory.
There is something pure in this love story, that it cannot be described by its external trappings. And it points to the wider truth that we cannot validate anything that exists outside our own minds, that our reality is constructed by our experience of memory. It does not matter what is real.

3. The search for meaning is pointless. The search is random, and the meaning is nonexistent.

The novel opens with Shirley awaiting word from Coenraad ("It takes a great deal of energy to wait."). She deciphers the coded message she uncovers to mean they are to meet in Toronto. Their code is utter nonsense. They usually rely on a National Geographic to transmit messages, but as none is available, she interprets the pamphlet she finds to be the vehicle, and repetition of the word "abdicate" is a clear indication to meet at the King Edward Hotel. (Is it a simple copyediting error that the brochure is impossibly tucked between pages 25 and 26? Or is that a clue for the reader.)

She engages in all kinds of magical thinking and waits for messages that never come. She collects tribal stories of black magic. She wants her future told by the gypsy fortune teller (Coenraad believes their love was predestined; she wants signposts for what lies ahead). She ritualizes her postcards, they are a tarot that blend memories of her husband Zbigniew into shining moments of romantic fantasy with Coenraad.
This card, recalling the night Coenraad first made his appearance, filled my mind with a clarity of detail that one sees in shock, as after a blinding explosion or during a night of labor. And even when the shock is the result of violent pleasure, then the ordinary properties of wood or plastic or paint or cloth take on strange and mysterious shapes and colors. The senses sharpen as if one's very life were in danger, even in paradise.
The baker woman reads to her a letter to the Editor, from the Jewish Daily Forward. Is it laden with secret messages about Shirley's past?

What about how art speaks to us, individually, in code? Or mythology — she's desperate to understand why Theseus abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos.

Shirley goes back to her house to find her previous role has been filled by Francesca. I wonder if she is, like Lola, another alterego from whom Shirley has dissociated. Zbigniew's life has been entirely uninterrupted by Shirley's absence. Her evening in the house takes a strangely erotic turn, but a fulfilling one for Shirley, such that she can decisively leave this household behind forever, the blank canvas of her basic black replaced by multicoloured urban abstract (like a Hundertwasser).

And she recognizes that her time with Coenraad has also ended. (Perhaps Zbigniew and Coenraad are not so separate.)
I will not miss being a stranger from whom nothing is wanted and from whom nothing is expected.
[It is liberating, sometimes, to be a stranger. I would miss it. I'm not ready to leave it behind me yet.]

You can read Sarah Weinman's afterword in its entirety in the Paris Review.

New York Journal of Books:
In the end, it could be said that the most important woman Shirley meets is herself, although Weinzweig smartly complicates that cozy theory by including Shirley's history of hospitalizations and nervous breakdowns.
New York Times: Her Lover May Not Exist, but Her Doubts About the Patriarchy Are Real
The more reasons we're given to doubt whether Coenraad even exists, the more Shirley seems implicated in her own romanticized self-abnegation. And yet there's something admirably ornery about Weinzweig's refusal to deliver a straightforward novel of empowerment, a narrative of liberation, a role model — as if insisting on a flawed heroine is itself an act of resistance.

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