A Hard-To-Love but Indisputably Lovable Wielder of the Poison Pen

By Simone Zelitch

Published October 31, 2003, issue of October 31, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A Window Across the River

By Brian Morton

Harcourt, 304 pages, $25.

* * *

Writers are often told not to write novels about writing. The temptation must be tremendous. After all, they know the territory and the tools, and to a novelist, few things are more gripping than the process of putting words on paper. But it is hard to get emotionally involved in the story of a working writer. When the words come, writers spend a lot of time alone, and when the words don’t come, it may strike few readers as tragic.

Thus, initially, it’s difficult to feel a stake in the professional life of Nora, the writer-heroine of “A Window Across the River,” the new novel by Brian Morton, who won the 1998 Koret Jewish Book Award for his last novel, “Starting Out in the Evening.” To make matters worse, we are supposed to be impressed by Nora’s professional credentials, told that she has been invited to a well-known writer’s colony and has published several short stories in a prestigious literary magazine. Both the colony and magazine are named, on the assumption that the reader will be convinced of Nora’s seriousness and anxious for her to write again, to, as she puts it, transform herself “‘[b]ack into a writer. From whatever it is I’ve become.’”

Nora makes this confession to her former lover, Isaac, himself a disappointed artist, a photographer who now works for a New Jersey newspaper and has produced no new work in years. Isaac is still besotted with Nora. When, after five years without contact, she calls him in the middle of the night and doesn’t say a word, he immediately knows it is her. “‘I recognized your silence,’” he says.

The intimacy between Isaac and Nora is fully believable and beautifully realized. From it springs the larger theme of the relationship between intimacy and creativity, and between creativity and betrayal, because Nora, as we soon learn, can only write about people she knows. When she writes, she becomes “a cannibal, feeding off the lives of acquaintances, friends and loved ones.” Furthermore, intimacy leads to insight, and her fiction reveals uncomfortable truths: “Her fiction was more perceptive than she was, and more ruthless.”

This talent and curse has ruined more than one relationship. A college friend shares a confidence, and not only does it end up in a published story, but the friend herself is savaged. Boyfriends come across drafts and withdraw. A colleague reads a story where Nora has imagined a bleak future for her and has invented regret over an old flame. Furious, she accuses Nora of reading her diary. By pure chance, Nora gave the fictional character the name of an actual person in her colleague’s life.

Such supernatural moments are the stuff of intimacy. Anyone who has ever had a close friendship, raised a child, nursed a parent or been in love can recognize them. At the same time, this intimacy is private and is built on trust. Nora the writer cannot help but break that trust over and over again: “It was as though she was a medium, with no control over the voices that spoke through her.”

Nora is clearly afraid of this side of herself. “In daily life, she was a kind person — at least she hoped she was. But in her stories, she wasn’t kind at all.” It is this fear that has kept her from writing. In fact, at the novel’s outset, Nora seems to have settled on keeping the world at arm’s length. The spare language and brief chapters imply a hard-won emotional distance. She will not get too close because she is afraid of who she will become. Thus, she settles for silence.

However, as in that pre-dawn phone call, Isaac is able to recognize Nora’s silence, and he won’t let her get away with it. He knows she is gifted, knows it in part because of his own limitations and disappointments. Isaac is a photographer, but as years pass with scant recognition, “[h]is will began to give out.” Isaac is a decent man who is beginning to realize the limitations of his own decency. Slowly, he finds himself eclipsed by photographers who are younger and flashier, but also, he admits, more talented. Isaac can recognize what he calls “the real thing.” He realizes that Nora’s demon, or, as Nora herself puts it, her “goblin,” is an essential part of her. Unlike Nora, Isaac is not afraid of getting close. If that means getting close to Nora’s goblin, he believes he is willing to pay the price.

Inevitably, that price is paid. As Nora falls in love with Isaac, her resistance unravels, and even the tight, spare language of the novel itself loosens and flows. Nora begins to write. She knows that what she is writing puts the relationship at risk, yet it is the relationship itself that pushes her on. The Isaac she creates in her story, she might insist, is not the Isaac she loves. As in all of her “poisoned pen letters,” the weaknesses are foremost. Still, both Nora and the reader realize that, as ever, she has hit on basic truths about Isaac’s character, revealed not only by her power as a writer, but also by how close they have become.

Such ruthlessness risks making a character difficult to love, and Morton compensates, perhaps too well, by making the non-writing Nora indisputably lovable. She is resourceful enough to perform the Heimlich maneuver on a dog. She has a cute laptop computer that she won’t turn off for fear that it won’t turn on again. She’s unpretentious enough to eat a cheeseburger and a milkshake, and every once in a while, she’ll put on a dress and reveal a pair of world-class legs. She spends most of her free time with her elderly Aunt Billie, a girlish cat-lover who has, thus far, been spared a transformation into a character in one of Nora’s stories.

However, ultimately, we know that Aunt Billie’s time will come. While Nora may not always be believable as a woman, she is always believable as a writer. Nora the woman is adorable. Nora the writer is not. It is a true achievement that by the time Nora is able to write again, we have accepted her bargain. She must write because it is an expression of knowledge and an expression of love. Her ruthless writing is, in fact, a form of loving. Her true partner will learn not only to recognize her silence, but also to recognize her voice.

Simone Zelitch is the author of “Louisa” (Putnam, 2000) and “Moses in Sinai” (Black Heron, 2001). She lives in Philadelphia.






Find us on Facebook!
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.