In this wonderful collection of nine short fictions, Rebecca Goldstein attempts to use several "languages," the language of contemporary spoken English, the fictional voices of our literary past, the alternate language of philosophy, music, mathematics and theology (or, more correctly, religious passion).
Goldstein focuses on our world with the widest possible lens. Unless you concede that there is an "everything," the author suggests, you're never really going to get the hang of "something," or even "anything."
Goldstein begins with "The Editor's Story," a long and quite beautiful monologue by a retired editor in the '80s, a New York gentleman whose lifetime and all-consuming love has been literature.
His life has been transformed and made meaningful by one marvelous event: his discovery--as a very young, naive man--of "The Chimera," a novel that was the herald of Modernism as we know it, a novel that in its elegance equaled or surpassed anything by Joyce or Proust.
The young editor, blissful, agog with love, arranges to meet "A. E. Worthinghouse," the author of this masterpiece, and is both dumbstruck and disappointed to find that Worthinghouse is not only female, but sad, shadowy, unattractive, melancholy and utterly without charm.
The editor tells this 60-year-old "story" to another woman, a scholar at Princeton--and reveals that in fact it was he who coaxed another 106 pages out of Worthinghouse; he who transformed an already brilliant novel into a masterpiece. By doing this, of course, he transforms the scholar's life as well. Thus do we all impinge on each other, in a billion known and unknown ways.
Sometimes the language and the worlds of fiction act more strongly upon us than our close (and ordinary) friends. Many novelists have recently stuck "real" people into their fictional narratives, but here, in two stories--one charming, one very gruesome--fiction intrudes into "real" life.
Becky Sharp steps out of "Vanity Fair" to confound a pretentious pedant at a philosophy convention, and in "From Dreams of the Dangerous Duke," written entirely in the feverish conceits of the early 19th Century, a repressed governess, consumed by yearnings for "unspeakable" sin of every kind, succeeds in conjuring up the Dangerous Duke--Death itself.
What these stories become, in their shifting voices, changing times and places, is a literary sampler--either a gift box of candies which, although they are of different flavors, all feed our sweet tooth for literature or a sampler in the embroidery sense, in which the author uses an astonishing variety of different "stitches" to finally reveal to us a picture of remarkable depth and complexity.
Some of these fictions make use of the Jewish faith or heritage or conviction. In "Mindel Gittel" a kind and lonely refugee, a survivor of a concentration camp who has ended up in Jerusalem via Connecticut, recalls a couple also from the camps whom he and his wife rescued long ago, who, in a state of living death, gave birth to a lovely, joyous American golden girl, Mindel Gittel, whose name translates in English to Melody Grace.
Alone, now, in Jerusalem, the narrator remembers this lovely girl and her great American success. He speculates that her life may in some way intertwine with others in a meaningful and light-filled way. But, of course, the really meaningful character is with him almost as he speaks, right under his metaphysical nose, as we will discover later.
"The Chimera," that masterpiece novel, in myth a shadowy monster, half unknown, drifts through all these stories. The author of the novel, so dark and sad and shadowy, cast that shadow down through generations of life.
In Jewish terms, the "Rabbinical Eyes" which come down through families in generations are physical manifestations of memories so "unspeakable" that they must be carried in speechless ways as those dark circles under tortured eyes. Several of these stories evoke the camps and the terrible atrocities that fill our world.
Paradoxically, these shadows also produce light. To read "The Chimera," that extraordinary novel, is to be assured that you are not alone in suffering. The suffering of the Jews also yields up the lightness of Yiddish Theater (used breathtakingly here), and through suffering, the light and joy of music, mathematics, philosophy and physics are discovered, rediscovered, lauded, revered.
This collection is not for the lazy reader. It is for the intellectual, the student of physics or literature or the sublime in any package that it comes in. Rebecca Goldstein is a formidable scholar, and her creative spirit is superlatively generous in its ability to transform daily life.