By Kathleen Spivack
Alfred A. Knopf, 290 pages, $25.95
Severed fingers tapping out a Schubert melody, violated flesh sizzling with sulfurous handprints, ghosts wrapping themselves around the living – these are among the images, unspeakable and clamorous, that populate Kathleen Spivack’s grotesquely poetic debut novel.
Audaciously conceived and gorgeously written, “Unspeakable Things” is a species of Holocaust fiction, though at a geographic, if not emotional, remove. Its defiance of realist conventions and explicit, violent sexual passages will repel some readers. But the less squeamish will appreciate the novel’s original take on survival and assimilation, as well as the energy and precision of its prose.
One might dub Spivack’s style “black magic realism,” cousin to both Latin American magical realism and European surrealism. In “Unspeakable Things,” dreams and waking reality converge, sexuality runs rampant, inanimate objects become sentient and the barriers between the dead and the living are porous.
The third-person narrative, filled with flashbacks, is set primarily in 1940s New York, in a world of European refugees with varied ties to the Old World. An eerie, often disconcerting strangeness haunts this community, a “suburb of war-torn Europe.” At once cut off from and intimately connected to their past (like those severed fingers), these refugees are “the crippled remains of Europe, already charred, or at least forever marked.”
At the story’s center is Herbert Hofrat, a Viennese Jew who has become a sort of refugee fixer and one-man welcome wagon. He meets regularly with supplicants in places such as the New York Public Library and the Automat, doling out help or reluctantly denying it.
When he’s not doing favors, the former undersecretary at the Ministry of Trade shares a cramped New York tenement apartment with his son David, “a cipher, working a Washington basement, trying to decipher other ciphers,” his overburdened daughter-in-law, Ilse, and two grandchildren, Maria and Philip. Herbert has serious, seemingly insoluble problems of his own: His concert pianist wife, Adeline, is paranoid, delusional and confined to a psychiatric hospital, and the Holocaust-related death of their son Michael still torments them both. In memory at least, Michael is ubiquitous, “a wraith in a wreath of smoke,” a symbol of unbearable loss.
The family is joined early on by a welcome guest: Herbert’s beloved cousin Anna, a childhood companion with whom he enjoys speaking Esperanto and playing epistolary chess. Anna’s deformed appearance – she is a tiny humpback with a long nose and whiskers growing out of a facial mole – has earned her the nickname “the Rat.”
Anna, “the mad White Russian Countess” and a woman of “exquisite ugliness,” is both afflicted and sustained by passionate memories of the “unspeakable things” she was forced to do with Rasputin – yes, that Rasputin – in order to save the homosexual husband she never loved. Years later, recalling the fiendish monk, “even while she experienced anew the shame and horror, a little spasm, the beginnings of wild excitement began to mount.”
Rasputin is a seductive monster. But the creepiest figure in the novel by far is a New York-based pediatrician named Felix. An unrepentant (and cross-dressing) Nazi, he masturbates to an image of Hitler, regularly violates his young Jewish patients and beds their impoverished mothers. His true passion, however, is a wild eugenics scheme to clone a new race of geniuses from random body parts he stores in his refrigerator.
Among the victims of that scheme is the legendary Tolstoi Quartet, Viennese musicians so gifted that their harmonies heal the sick. So bonded are they to their instruments that they take them to bed at night and caress them in lieu of their neglected wives. Tired of sleeping on the floor, the wives walk out. The musicians respond by playing the modern, dissonant music they have long disdained, from Alban Berg to Schoenberg.
Disaster ensues, beginning with the destruction of a concert hall: “The fabric in the velvet curtains gave way and shredded under the impact of strange sounds. The cushioned seats in the house burst open and the stuffing hung out in limp, exhausted trails.” Their playing deafens a stagehand and shatters windows. And the Nazi officers in attendance exact revenge by chopping off the musicians’ pinkies – and sending them to a delighted Felix.
Musical metaphors animate the novel, even when the Tolstoi Quartet isn’t on stage. In New York, for example, “[t]he winds, swept, merciless…[l]ike the knife-sharp notes of a clarinet, rising with authority above the insistent throbbing bass notes of everyday street life.” And in the cacophony of traffic, “the dark horns of taxis hooted next to the horns of the great ships, swinging into and out of the harbor.” Later, Spivack writes, “the glittering towers of New York began to sing in chorus, a metallic shimmer of sound….”
After all the displacement, the images of death and dismemberment, there is comfort to be had in this New World: new harmonies, new routines, the genesis of an American consciousness. Evil isn’t completely vanquished, but sorrows can finally be mourned, guilt laid aside; some vestige of good remains, triumphant. “Nothing goes away; it just changes….Nothing is lost,” Spivack writes, as though willing it to be true.
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and a contributing book critic for the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.