Of Jews and Germans: The Conflict Unresolved : THE LATE-SUMMER PASSION OF A WOMAN OF MIND <i> by Rebecca Goldstein (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $18.95; 261 pp.</i> ; <i> 3557-0398L38) </i>
The time hasn’t come yet where “typical” national character-traits assigned to foreigners in novels are taking a turn to the radically new, but Rebecca Goldstein’s elaborate novel, “The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind,” manages to disturb and to surprise. We are talking Teutonic here; fastidious, tenacious, humorless people all, inquisitive and gifted but cold and orderly. A little bit like Eva Mueller, the 46-year-old brilliant German professor who had left her homeland as a young woman to escape the shadows of her father’s Nazi past--something she isn’t aware of when the book starts. Eva isn’t only a formidable professor of philosophy (with an infuriating and unhealthy obsession with Spinoza and Plato), but also a writer who has been laboring for 10 years over a book called “Reason’s Due,” something she has trouble finishing because “one cannot push, or press, or tug.”
Eva is still a beautiful woman in this terminally German way: pale and delicate, with an elegant bone structure, ash-blond hair and smooth white skin. But she’s also a compulsive neatnik with an eclectic taste who hates spring and bright light, detests odors, earthiness, flesh and carnal feelings, and has little patience for uncontrolled and profane expressions of life. When she watches students exposing their bodies to the sun, she thinks of skin cancer, not of lust or joy. Eva’s motto is “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and that only confirms her methodical way of interacting and her passion for psychological vivisection. When a weeping student confides in her that she’s in love with an older professor, Eva simply states: “I don’t quite understand how that is a sufficient refutation. Does your being in love conduce to your well-being despite the fact of your misery? Or is it, rather, that you believe being in love overrides your well-being?” Actually, Eva hates being intruded upon with petty questions about the messy lives of her pathetic, banal students who have no discretion “because they were Americans, and discretion was as alien to them as lederhosen.”
But something is wrong with this arrogant, frosty “Uberfrau” who has banned sex and love for good from her existence. Although she is “as far as possible without a history,” the facts of that history remain, and she knows that what she had shed was only the awful sense of them. A young and eager student named Michael Fields, who is also a disc jockey at night, interrupts her long-established routine of sleepless nights with lots of coffee and hard-core philosophical ruminations with his shameless admiration. She takes him on as a scholar because “he had some pleasing qualities and a few scattered grace notes of talent.” Against her will, she finds him irresistible, although he dismisses lightheartedly all the logic and reason of Spinoza “with a dazzling smile, blotting up every shadow of the room.”
This unexpected passion is alarming enough to remind her of a traumatic and excruciating chapter in her life she had successfully blocked out: her love affair with a cruel Jewish lunatic named Martin Weltbaum that ended with an abortion. If this passage seems destined to slide into embarrassing sensationalism, it’s not. The descriptions of his ugly memories of growing up in Washington Heights as the son of Jewish-German immigrants is bold, almost scary. He hates everything--the packed synagogue “with the sour stench rising from their bodies,” his cooling mother, the tainted people around him, “necrophiliac perverts, living in a filth of decomposing memories,” and so on. Eva throws herself into the affair with an abandonment that is sick and grotesque. He is so powerful for her that she gives up her identity--after all, by nationality she belongs to the perpetrators and killers--and fills herself up with him in order to save him from himself, his nightmares, his cruelty to her and his insanity. She hopes for his hatred for her because it means freedom from feeling guilty.
Eva becomes more obsessed with Michael and with the softening of her resistance to something as ordinary as feelings of sexual awakening. Her repressed Traumbilder (dream visions) surface and they are all about Papa. He was the most loving father, tender and caring. She remembers the shiny black jackboots he and his friends wore. One day she watches a Nazi parade from the window with her baby sitter and yells like they do: “Germany awake, Jews to the stake! Heil, Heil, Heil!” For Christmas, she gets sweets sent by Dr. Goebbels because her father is a famous music professor who has written a very important book that she will later dig up in an Israeli archive and discover his stupid, anti-Semitic thesis on music and National Socialism.
The beautifully written, almost sly way in which Goldstein lets only us see, through Eva’s innocent eyes, that her father was a full-fledged Nazi is clever and effective because it shows that a father’s worth isn’t judged by political orientation. She unravels, brilliantly, how Eva later is for the first time able to separate a child’s fantastic recollection from the devastating reality known to the whole world. She describes how all the infamous characters like Hitler, Goering and Heydrich could be seen by a child, and it is clear that the inability to see immediately the murderous ideas behind the Nazi ideology wasn’t only a child’s prerogative.
Just like the five parts of this book are different in mood, suspense and intensity, so is Goldstein’s writing. Never anything less than remarkably skillful, her cunning richness of language and images is sometimes overwhelming and stifles the passion and feelings hidden behind the dazzling word constructions as if she’s afraid they might run rampant if not kept under control. The long and winding passages about philosophy disrupt the flow of Eva’s gripping and often very funny recollections. This is, in several parts, a daring, ambitious book, and that some of the ideas don’t come together convincingly is only a reflection of the unresolvedness of the conflicts within and between Jews and Germans, the unhealed wounds of the Holocaust and the impossibility of closing this chapter of history.