Retelling By Tsipi Keller
Readers of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” always know that Raskolnikov committed murder, but they often don’t know whether Raskolnikov knows that he committed murder. It is in this wonderful vagary, more than among any writerly tricks of mood, foreshadowing or scenic alteration, that one finds the origin of the so-called psychological novel, a genre that has become largely moribund in an America in which consciousness is often postmodernized into hocus pocus, or ignored altogether for the sake of the heartless thriller. In her new trilogy, Tsipi Keller is revealed as a superlative psychological novelist: “It was the end of the millennium, life rushed at me, the streets reeked of urine. Everybody talked but nobody listened. Men in suits shook hands as if important matters were at stake. It was all a game.”
Born in Prague, where her father owned a kosher restaurant on a street that no longer exists, Keller fled the communists and arrived with her parents in Israel, where she began her writing life. A stint at the Sorbonne followed, during which she wrote in French. In the mid 1970s, another city and yet another language: Keller came to feminist America, settling in its capital, New York, where she would produce translations of Hebrew-language poets as diverse as Dan Pagis and Irit Katzir; her anthology, “Contemporary Hebrew Poetry” — which has been decades in the making — will appear next year under SUNY Press.
Many English-language novels followed Keller’s American arrival, most notably “Elsa,” finished in 1995; “Jackpot,” 1998, and “Retelling,” 2002. Written out of order and published only recently, these books constitute a trilogy that is among the most subtly compelling of our time — so subtle, in fact, that this trilogy doesn’t have a name.
“I couldn’t think of one,” Keller said recently over coffee and cigarettes in the East Village. “Call it, ‘Women Ending Badly.’”
These three books, in the words of their author, “follow women in bad situations that they have brought on themselves.” In “Jackpot,” the first volume (written second), we meet Maggie, an attractive, insecure 26-year-old who thrives on submissiveness. Hers is an inconsolably vicarious life, an attempt at existing in a hostile city she suffers with a self-imposed neurosis, which at its best prevents her from living her life to the fullest and at its worst stifles her terribly, rendering her smallest decisions moments of impossible stasis. Her domineering friend, Robin, offers to take her on a vacation to a Bahamian Eden, an island named Paradise. Much as Hebrew had to address English in Keller’s mind, the language of the body has to have a sit-down with years of inculcated propriety. Maggie opens her mouth and, instead of verbalizing her inner life to Robin, she begins drinking, then gambling and having sex, all to excess. Eventually Maggie becomes either reinvented or her “true self,” finding a wretched sort of liberation as a successful resident prostitute at the hotel at which she once was a tourist.
After sex comes death, and so “Retelling,” out this month, from Brooklyn’s Spuyten Duyvil, which also published “Jackpot.” The heroine is a 32-year-old named Sally, a similarly trapped New York woman accused of murdering her friend Elsbeth. Alternating largely between Sally’s lazy days in a park on the Upper East Side and her interrogations by the police following the murder, suspense is achieved right from the opening (“Ah, to be alive, I thought. Not a small miracle, considering the events of the past few weeks and the growing uncertainty I sense all around me”) and is maintained straight through to the end, which is marked by a quick coda that glosses Newton’s writings not on pure science but on alchemy: “All things are corruptible, all things are generable.” As Sally is brought low, we should be reminded of the line previous to that which Keller quotes from Newton: “Nothing can be changed from what is without putrefaction.”
According to Keller, her project is less to accuse than to descry. “Society gives women mixed signals,” she said. “And woman have a different relationship with authority than do men.” It’s because of this that her second book in the trilogy is called “Retelling.” “It’s a defense,” she explained, “a rehearsed monologue. Even if Sally didn’t commit a crime, she has to defend herself. All women have to defend themselves, whether they’re guilty or not.”
After meeting Keller, I was privileged with a peek at the manuscript of “Elsa,” the last of Keller’s three women and also the eldest at 39. In this short epilogue, set to appear in 2007, Elsbeth’s nipple rings are gone, as are Maggie and Sally’s occasionally knowing lasciviousness. What’s left is utter vulnerability, not as a role women assume for men in response to expectation but as an unsurpassable handicap to intimacy. The book ends with a startling scene in which Elsa goes beyond the tired trope of enjoying victimization at the hands of men; eyes open as she makes love, she sees relationships for what they really are: a flux of allegiances that flicker by the thought.
Joshua Cohen’s forthcoming books are a novel, “Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto” (Fugue State Press), and a translation from Czech of “I, City,” a collection of stories by Pavel Brycz (Twisted Spoon).