Heeding the Call That Haunts

Tattoo for a Slave

By Hortense Calisher

Harcourt, 336 pages, $24.


‘Your grandmother never kept slaves.”………… With these words spoken to a young, naive Hortense Calisher by her father, born the seventh child of eight in 1861 in Richmond, Va., this unusual book opens. A “tattoo” can be a bugle call, a drum roll or any sound that stays and haunts. Calisher didn’t hear the eponymous tattoo until her late middle age, after her parents’ death, but it was distressing enough to propel her to write this imminently fascinating book, billed oddly as a fictional autobiography.

Calisher is the acclaimed author of some 15 novels — the latest being the very readable “Sunday Jews” — and seven books of novellas and short stories, as well as a three-time finalist for the National Book Award. In her latest offering, she writes sensitively about the complexities of penning an autobiography (although one major flaw in this book is that we are never told who, what or how much is fictional). “To survey the landscape of one’s family is scarifying,” she writes, “only to find that the truth of events does not lie in the consecutive, but is uncalendared.”

Born when her father, a perfume manufacturer, was 50 and her German mother 28, Hortense always was her father’s darling. A gifted storyteller who heaped upon his firstborn “all the chrysanthemums of love,” he saved his hoard of tales — and the talent for telling them — for his daughter. Hortense always knew she was far more cherished and respected by her father than by her mother. In 1929, when her mother wanted Hortense to leave college, her father leaped to her defense.” For him, I could do no wrong. I was his heir,” she writes. “For her, college was the armor she hadn’t had.” Like so many women of her time, Hattie, her mother, born around 1881 as Hedwig, was “too untrained to be aware that she belonged , too, could be one of the intelligent.”

Much of “Tattoo” involves a tortured search for answers to questions that plagued Calisher most of her life. Her relatives on her father’s Southern side — who moved “up” from Norfolk, Lynchburg and Richmond — were storytellers and busybodies, and they entertained Calisher throughout her life. Yet a few seemed quite eager to reveal family truths. Her mother, who left Germany at age 16, was equally reticent about her past, her background, her inner thoughts.

“Forgive me,” she writes of the “cobweb” of her family, “if nearing life’s end, I see a drama with a tinge, modest, all but ignorable, of the Shakespearean.” Her father seems to her, somewhere in his core, and despite all his savagely embraced joys, a homesick man.

“Homesickness,” he intones to his daughter. “We call it ‘hankering.’ Standing right in the middle of what we still had, you hankered after it. Account of we always knew we’d be leaving it.”

Yet Joseph Calisher seemed to his daughter exceptionally proud of being an “Israelite.” “Our whole tribe was rather inordinately proud, if you considered the race’s history,” she writes. “They had… no sense of having been repressed or made to suffer for what they were. Rather, it was to be taken for granted that we were among the superior — in morals intellect and charm. This was not out of arrogance… rather, out of a humility that found the truth unavoidable.”

The horror at the book’s heart appears unexpectedly when, looking through her deceased parents’ safe deposit boxes, she discovers shocking documents — insurance policies on “servants” of her paternal grandparents from 1856. She tries to discern how it would have felt to be such a “servant” in a dateless calendar with “no regular time spots…. How would that weigh on one from day to ponderous day? She assumes, probably correctly, that the “servants” were slaves, and senses her father wanted her to find the papers.

A fierce identification arises; Calisher feels she wants, even needs, to crawl into the confines of the envelope, to apologize to history, to “switch the company one was born to travel with.” She tries to fathom what caused her grandfather to observe the custom of slave owning, “whether blithely or resignedly we cannot know.” She pithily reviews thousands of years of Jewish oppression, and concludes, “Who says that being hunted, driven from pillar to post for what you are, means that once harbored in safety, or at least in asylum, you’ll automatically be swamped in sympathy for others so targeted?”

“Tattoo” is frustratingly meandering, neither an easy or particularly pleasurable read, with the feel of an unedited series of rambling diary entries. Its triple tattoo ending, “Remember the slave,” seems an odd, even hollow, admonition. It’s also an odd admonition with which to leave readers at the end of a long, distinguished career as a writer of fiction rather than as a social activist.

Susan Miron is a harpist whose last CD release was “Domenico Scarlatti: 13 Sonatas” from Centaur Records.


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Heeding the Call That Haunts

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