The Rowing Lesson

The Rowing Lesson

by Anne Landsman

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Betsy Klein is summoned from her home in the United States to the bedside of her dying father in a South African hospital. Faced with having to say goodbye, she delves into his mind, speaking to him in the lyrical second-person. She imaginatively recreates his life—his struggles to become a doctor after being orphaned young and his fight to win the respect of


Betsy Klein is summoned from her home in the United States to the bedside of her dying father in a South African hospital. Faced with having to say goodbye, she delves into his mind, speaking to him in the lyrical second-person. She imaginatively recreates his life—his struggles to become a doctor after being orphaned young and his fight to win the respect of his Boer patients as a Jew—as well as her own experiences with him as a father.

Editorial Reviews

Michael Gorra
Landsman is a gambler, and here she risks everything in her decision to write in something like the second person. I say "something like" because there's a first-person narrator too: Harold's daughter, Betsy, who comes from New York to sit by the old man's hospital bed…Most readers will spend the book's first chapter trying to locate themselves in relation to its "you"—the "you" that implies a largely absent "I". Although later chapters will bring Betsy's own circumstances more fully to the foreground, Landsman's shifting pronouns are what gives this book its febrile and uncanny life, in which the barriers between self and other appear at moments to dissolve. Betsy's persistent invocation of "you" allows her to comment and question and judge, to conduct a conversation in which her father's physical silence matters not at all, so vocal does he seem in her mind. In that conversation, Landsman makes us see Harold Klein with a clarity she could not have achieved in a more conventional first- or third-person account.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Scenes from the rich, contentious life of a dying Jewish South African country doctor flash before his expatriate daughter's eyes in Landsman's frustrating second novel (after The Devil's Chimney). A skinny boy with a hot-tempered mother and a good-hearted father, Harry Klein grew up in pre-WWII Germany, where he married a woman from a socially superior Jewish family during medical school and later endured the wartime death of his father from influenza. After his emigration to South Africa, patients of all races revere him as "Doctor God," but he clashes with his artist daughter (who narrates, maddeningly, in the second person) and can't shake his life-long jealousy of his younger brother, a flashy, respected cardiologist. This novel offers a few insights on death, the frailty of the human body and the ties between parent and child, but the overly lyrical prose tries too hard, and the second-person narration does the mostly opaque narrative few favors. (Nov.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Betsy Klein journeys to South Africa to be with her dying father. During her hospital-room vigils, she talks to the unconscious man about his ancestors from Lithuania, love for life in South Africa, childhood in a large family, and work as a doctor respected by both blacks and whites. Despite his professional success, Harold Klein was not an easy man for his family, but Betsy fondly recalls their rowing lesson on the river, a time of special closeness with him. Her imaginings into her father's life reveal a more innocent time, before World War II changed life for the Kleins and their Jewish friends and before anyone noticed how wrong the separate-but-equal laws were. Landsman (The Devil's Chimney) liberally sprinkles Afrikaans throughout, described by Harold Klein as "the language that's a mirror into the soul of these earthbound people." Some readers may lose their way owing to Landsman's slow-building swirl of memories and lack of a tidy ending, but this is still a powerful story of the father-daughter bond in all its fragility and strength. Recommended for public libraries with strong fiction collections.
—Donna Bettencourt

Kirkus Reviews
From Landsman (The Devil's Chimney, 1997), the story of a woman who channels her dying father's memories of his youth in South Africa. It is the last chapter in Dr. Harold Klein's storied life, and as he lies unconscious in an Intensive Care Unit, his family gathers around him, including his wife, son Simon and, most significantly, his pregnant daughter Betsy, who has come all the way from New York to say goodbye. In some of the more coherent chapters, Betsy remembers her own interactions with her father, recalling his dismay at her cabinet full of homeopathic remedies on a tense visit to New York, or his tenuous relationship with her partner, William. But, for the most part, Betsy narrates not her own life but her father's, speaking in the second person and inhabiting his emotional memory so deeply that it is impossible to trust her role as the narrator. She begins with a moment from his teenage years in small-town George, South Africa, when Harry, the painfully skinny son of the town's beloved Russian Jewish shopkeeper, explores a cut on the thigh of a local girl and simultaneously discovers the worlds of medicine and of women. Betsy follows Harry's adolescence, as well as his sassy sister Maisie and spoiled younger brother Bertie, through his departure to medical school in Cape Town at the dawning of World War II. Sharing a room in the big city with other small-town boys, Harry debates enlisting in the army, studies anatomy, pines after his classmate Dorothy and woos a freckled girl named Stella. Some of the details are captivating, particularly those relating to religion, race and politics. Harry's father's burial in the first grave in the first Jewish cemetery in the Africancountryside, for example, is particularly redolent. But many of the memories concern Harry's sexual awakening. Awkwardly presented from Betsy's perspective, these sections are not nearly as engaging as they could be. Bizarre and inconsistent. Agent: Maria Massie/Lippincott Massie McQuilkin
From the Publisher
Winner of the South African M-Net Literary Prize Winner of the Sunday Times Fiction Prize
Shortlisted for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature
Shortlisted for the Harold U. Ribalow Prize

Top 29 Financial Times Fiction Books of the Year Selection
Top 10 Times South African Books of the Year Selection

“Visceral. . . . Intensely exhilarating.”The New York Times Book Review 

“Amazing.”Los Angeles Times 

“The beauty of The Rowing Lesson is in its fluid metaphors, its urgent storytelling . . . and the lyric desperation of a daughter’s love.”O Magazine 

“Rarely in South African writing will we encounter language of such fire and passion.”—J.M. Coetzee 

“Beautiful. . . . Unfailingly original.”—Jennifer Egan 

“Like Joyce or William Gass or John Edgar Wideman, Anne Landsman fashions a sensual web of memory and desire, rescuing a world on the brink of extinction through the power of her lyricism.”—Stewart O’Nan 

“A tour de force.”—Roxana Robinson 

“An adventure in language. . . . It makes art of life.”—Louis Menand

Product Details

Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.34(w) x 8.37(h) x 1.07(d)

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By Anne Landsman

Soho Press, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Anne Landsman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-56947-469-3

Chapter One

I can hear the dirty blood inside you, the way that old fish, the coelacanth, spins on its head and can hear the heartbeat of its prey. I can hear the sea sweeping up onto the beach and back out again, as you breathe, and with it comes all of your past, the good and the bad, washing up around us like empty Coke cans and bits of driftwood and dead jellyfish. There's Maisie, your sister, the dark beauty, and the little one, Bertie, the baby brother you hate. They're standing on the shore and they're wearing funny bathing costumes. Bertie's pants are wet and he's crying and there's your ma, and she's laughing like a little girl because Wolfie is there, sitting under her umbrella, and he's flashing his perfect smile at her. He's the grownup son of Ralph Isaacson, proprietor of Isaacson's Men's Clothing. Wolfie can't stop telling her about J.L.B. Smith, the man who identified the coelacanth and yes, it was just yesterday when one was pulled up out of the sea and that East London lady kept it and showed it to Smith. It was going bad already and she had thrown the insides away. She threw away the viscera! What can you do. But still, J.L.B. Smith is going to find a live one, a live million-year-old fish and did you know, I've seen him in Knysna. He has a house there. I think it's near the lagoon and he loves the water, of course, and he has a boat. You are standing in front of your ma and Wolfie and you weigh one hundred and nineteen pounds even though you're eighteen and you never played one rugby game, never ever. Wolfie was a flyhalf for Outeniqua High and he's looking up at you as if you're a very basic form of marine life, something without a spine, something you can see through. At least the sun is behind you, and he has to squint.

I'm in the sea up to my waist and I'm waving like mad but of course you can't see me. I'm smaller than a pin, a memory of yesterday, a part of your life that isn't now, that isn't in the sun on a beach at Lentjiesklip. Betsy, Betsy, it's Betsy, I shout, but all I hear you say is Sorry, sorry, as you drip cold water onto Wolfie's flat stomach, as you stand over him with your own flashing smile, your hair that's still very, very black, and that long nose pointing East then South. Fantastic! you say. The water's fantastic! Your ma gives you a towel that's quite worn, really, even though your dad sells some nice bright ones in the shop, right there next to the buckets and spades. It's 1938 and the towel you have is the towel you keep. Your ma is still worried about you, even though you're not six months old or five or nine or thirteen. You've been rubbed in grease, wrapped in bacon and sent to Calvinia where the air is dry and the girls are prettier than the girls in George but nothing, nothing has put any fat on your ribs, on your bony, nosy face or those terribly thin legs.

Your ma is talking about going to Cape Town to see her sisters, Molly and Poppy, and you're asking her to bring back sprats. Sprats! Wolfie pulls a face and he says something rude about sprats and it cuts you, as if you're the sprat on his plate that he's frowning at. But then he laughs again, and you laugh too. How can you not when the sun shines on you, when this strong man with the sandy wave in his hair, and the chest and legs of a rugby player shines his light upon you. This peacock shuffling his tail like a deck of cards, dazzling your mother, your sister, Maisie, dripping right next to you. Maisie has her own light, in the velvet darkness of her eyes and in the mystery that's happened under that ugly old bathing costume of your mother's that she's wearing. No one can see Wolfie strutting alone into the future, a thousand girls lost and won and forever lost or Maisie, married young into your mother's dream, become a woman, a rich woman staring at the sea from an ocean liner heading towards Europe, staring into her life moving so fast underneath her.

Bertie is the one you don't think about, never ever, because his spot on your mother's lap is your place, the clothes he wears are your clothes. Even his filthy one-eyed monkey is your monkey. There's nothing that he hasn't taken from you. He's the sprat on your plate, the flea in your bed, the rash you got two summers ago.

But here you are. It's summer at the Wilderness again and your father's at the shop in George selling people sweets and coffee and combinations, the worst kind of underwear in the world, a one-piece top and bottom thing that itches and buttons and scratches and drives you mad. You wore them for a whole year once, to keep the fat in and the cold out, and it was hard to get them off fast enough. You soiled them once, outside the convent, and that was the worst day in the world for you, coming home dirty in dirty combinations. You can only hope nobody is buying them today.

That's a bad thought, because nothing is more important than people buying soap or stockings, beach umbrellas or chutney. You're in the sun, and your father isn't, selling everything from beans to furniture. He's always working, moving things on the shelves, or sweeping the floor or looking at the catalogues the commercial travellers bring in. Sometimes the travellers come for Friday night supper and everyone talks and laughs and there's dancing. You can tap dance, and so can Maisie and the two of you spin and whirl and tap until you can hardly breathe anymore. "Daisy, Maisie, give me your answer do ... I'm half crazy all for the love of you...." And there's more laughing and your ma has tears running down her cheeks and once she even wet her pants.

Ag, Friday nights. You had the lucky job of catching a chicken from the backyard and putting it in a bag, hitching the horse to the cart and driving the squawking chicken to the shochet's house where there would be a quick "Baruch Attah Adonai ...," the knife swooping down on the chicken's neck and blood spurting into a bucket, as the shochet held the headless bird. There were two nice plump ones, one named Maisie and one Harold after you, and one day it was Harold's turn. Nettie, the maid, looked out into the yard and the bird was gone so she said to your ma, "Madam, Harold has been killed!" Your poor ma fainted, right there on the kitchen floor. The jokes that Friday night were even funnier, and your ma laughed like a drain, and even your dad, who was always the one listening and smoking, smiled.

Wolfie is reading the George and Knysna Herald on the beach and he's talking about the Great Trek they're doing, to commemorate the Great Trek of a hundred years ago. There's a picture of the two covered ox-wagons, the Piet Retief and the Andries Pretorius, arriving at the foot of the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, months after leaving Cape Town. Everyone's wearing long beards and carrying flaming torches. They're throwing the torches into an enormous bonfire and all that fire reminds you of the pictures of Kristallnacht.

You look at the golden beach, the hills curving around you like gentle green arms holding a treasure, and it's hard to believe that the world is tilting, slipping, that the Great Trek just happened all over again, that shops like your father's were burned in Germany. Bertie van Riet went to see the Trekkers and so did Hermanus Claassen. Lots of Afrikaans boys went and watched the wagons and the men on horseback tumbling through the Little Karoo. At every town they stopped, there were people waiting and cheering, the dominee praying and someone from the Broederbond talking.

It's not our holiday, your dad said, and he went and bought a car. A 1938 Chrysler Imperial called Charlotte. Charlotte is a dream, a white gleaming fish of a car, bigger and better than Lucas, the Model T Ford, or Charles, the Rugby. CAW 955. You attached the license plate yourself. Charlotte has a lilt to her, a rhythm, and you've sat in the back and looked out at the sea, as she hugs the coastal road between George and the Wilderness. Places catch you, they take your breath away and sometimes, if it was up to you, entirely up to you, you might be quite a trekker yourself, hiking here and going there, climbing this rock-face and swinging into that gorge.

It's a miracle he's alive, Doctor Brown once told your ma, and you look at old pictures of yourself with matchstick arms and legs, your five-year-old head balancing like a big, funny ball on those shrunken shoulders. Nobody knows why he's so thin, said your ma and pa and your two aunts, Molly and Poppy, and they sat you down (and strapped you down!) and tried to feed you milk puddings and vetkoeke and gribbenes and you hated all of it. You loved the saltiness of sprats, you loved fish caught fresh from the sea, and fruit. You and Maisie climbed over the fence into the neighbor's backyard one day and sat in their plum tree, eating their plums. The neighbor children sat at the bottom of the tree with a biscuit tin and everyone gave them a penny to sit and watch you eat plums.

"All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small.... All things wise and wonderful: the Lord God made them all...." Singing hymns is when you look at Hilda Lewis's breasts, pushing against her school uniform, or Gertrude van der Westhuizen's black-stockinged legs. You have seen those legs swimming in the Touw river, the stockings crumpled and empty on the bank. There are girls everywhere, chattering and laughing, their hair up, their hair down, their hands carrying and fixing and stroking. Your teachers, your ma and your sisters, Nettie and her girls, the ladies giving shillings to your dad, their fingers opening and closing around the money like sea anemones.

In fact, you decided that you might just want to be a doctor one day in one of those brightly coloured huts on the beach in Muizenberg. You were five and your mother and your aunts were changing into their bathing-costumes and their breasts, all six of their breasts, were out at the same time and you never ever forgot the living, breathing sight of all that softness.

Your father's father was a carpenter from Lithuania and your ma, well, you know what they said about those girls from the East End of London. A lot of them fresh from the shtetl and only in England for a minute before a lady called Bessie Levin came looking for girls wanting improvement, wanting a better station in life. The station was Frenchfontein, Johannesburg, and it was the last station of all. The men came searching for gold, and when they found it they were tired and there were no women. So Bessie brought the girls to the Spire House, to Phoenix, to Sylvio Villa, on the corner of Rissik and De Villiers. The pimps were Russian and Polish Jews from America-how terrible!-Joe Silver and Lou Rosenthal and a lot of other Jewish names that could make you die of shame. Jews selling Jews to white men and black men and all the thousands of browns and pinks and greys in between.

Shame on them. Shame on those bad Jews who make everyone else hate the Jews, who give the Jews a bad name. That's why Bertie van Riet said that Hitler's right. It's Joe Silver's fault, and Freddy Gold's and you're never ever going to touch money. You're going to touch broken arms and legs, and fix them, and touch foreheads and listen to hearts, beating away under breasts, under flat ones and soft ones, with nipples like thumbs, under big ones, bigger that your head, bigger than anyone's head.

But your ma never came to Rissik Street. It wasn't her, was it? By the time she came to South Africa they had cleaned up Frenchfontein. It wasn't quite so French anymore. It might have been your great-aunt Fanny but nobody really knows because she disappeared anyway, with a man twice her age and what happened before or after is anybody's guess.

Wolfie is smacking you in the stomach and curling his arms at you as if this is finally going to turn you into a man. You can have my boat, he says, and you can take the girls up the river. Have a picnic. The oarlocks are there. The oars are on the jetty. Maisie will bring her friends, Hilda Lewis and Gertrude of the long legs, and Bunny will come and his cousin, Morry Berelowitz.

So it's later, much later, and the six of you are crowded into Wolfie's red-and-white boat. The boat sits deep in the water and Gertrude is trickling her fingers over the side and no, you say, lifting the oars into the air for a moment, Stop doing that. I am the captain of this ship. The girls laugh, because you sound big and small at the same time, and it's funny. Gertrude says, I want to row and now she's getting up. The boat rocks and you grit your teeth. She almost falls down right next to you and takes the left oar. Hard on port! you shout. She crabs, her oar stuck. And now it's out of the oarlock, floating on the water's surface. With the right oar, you turn the boat around, grab the oar that's drifting further and further away. You chaps don't even know how to row! you say.

Gertrude moves back to her old seat, sticking her hand even deeper into the water this time. You want to smack her on the head with the oar but you don't. You keep dipping the oars, the blades catching and pulling, followed by the little melody the drips play. Your sleeves are rolled up so that the girls can see the stringy muscles in your arms, as they bunch and release, bunch and release. If there's one thing you know how to do it's row. Maisie wants a turn now but you won't let her. Bunny and Morry are talking about the mad Germans and if there's going to be a war. Bunny says, I am going to fly, and Morry says, It's the sea for me, and you say, I am going to be a general. You tip the oars back, making a V. The boat coasts to a stop. The General of the Generals, you add, putting your hand inside your shirt like Napoleon. Gertrude takes a leaf, and she puts it under your nose, like a moustache, and you're Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin exactly.

We're going to Ebb 'n Flow, is what you said to your ma, and she boiled some eggs and gave you tomato sandwiches, spread with chicken fat and sprinkled with salt. They're in a brown bag tucked under the prow. The river is still wide here, and there's a campsite on the bank with canvas tents, and you row, row, row the boat under the railway bridge, a special railway bridge that cars can cross too. You've driven over in Charlotte and she's waited in front of the bridge for the train to pass, a panting buffalo of a train coming from De Aar.

You slip under the bridge between the pylons and there are black, long-necked birds on the bank, gazing at the six of you from a rotting tree. It's the only dead tree you can see. Everything else here is green, greyish green, or moss-green or blue-green or silver-green. The river flows between two soft green hills, and you and Morry and Bunny and the girls are going to follow the amber water up to its source, to the place where it trickles out of the mountain, to its secret hiding place, to Ebb 'n Flow. You have been up this river many times before but each trip is different. Sometimes the sky is as blue as a window flung open, other times, like now, it's grey like a mourning dove. There are so many sounds as you follow the river, folding itself between the ancient stinkwoods and yellowwoods dripping with moss. There's the plish-plash of the oars and you try your best to make the strokes even, to tell the girls to stop laughing so you can listen to the water, to the monkeys screaming above your heads, to the call of the birds. You're looking and listening for the rarest bird of all, the Knysna loerie, with its brilliant blue body and green head, its crest like a cockatoo's and the flash of red as it flaps its wings and disappears.

The river narrows and narrows, and soon you can see the rocks and pebbles gleaming under the water, which seems to have softened and thickened, insects, twigs and foam gently swirling on its surface. You have to be careful here, not to leave a red scrape of paint on one of the rocks. You use the oar to push away from a tree draping its branches into the water, a giant old hand reaching at you. You push the boat around a corner, and there's an orange rock-face on one side, pocked with dassie-holes and dassies. Sometimes you can even see one basking in the sun, a fat rock-rabbit minus the long ears. Gertrude shrieks at something Morry said to her and this time you almost hit her, with the blade of the oar. You can't hear the monkeys, that noise that makes you feel like the river and the sky and the rock are a million years old.


Excerpted from THE ROWING LESSON by Anne Landsman Copyright © 2007 by Anne Landsman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Anne Landsman is the author of the novels The Rowing Lesson and The Devil’s ChimneyThe Rowing Lesson was awarded South Africa’s two top literary awards—the 2009 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and South Africa’s 2009 M-Net Literary Award for English fiction—and was shortlisted for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Harold U. Ribalow Prize. Award nominations for The Devil’s Chimney include the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. She has contributed essays to the anthologies Touch, An Uncertain Inheritance and The Honeymoon’s Over and has written for numerous publications including Vanity Fair, The Washington Post, The American Poetry Review, The Believer, The Guardian and The Telegraph. Born in South Africa, she lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

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