Read an Excerpt
Ah, nothing in this world we live and dream is only what it
seems. Here you have a dictionary that really a storybook
without a proper ending--just a provocative, improper one.
The stories in this rattled box do not so much break off as
become attached to one another, while you become attached
to them, and to the characters whose stories they are: the
hapless hypochondriac with his faulty kneecap and bar of
anodyne soap; Bedruthan with his knees knocking in fear at
the ocean's frothy edge, and the deadpan, deadly sensuous
mermaid he seeks, to return a lost tortoiseshell comb;
Yolanta expatriating on the Continent with her langue
maternelle, her passport--and a bookmark between her legs; a
sassy Cinderella, last in reveries, breaking g,:asses in the dish,
water, and unmasking social form and ceremony in her unabashed
dealings with the prince; and many, many others,
weaving in and out of each other while the two seamstresses,
Elsbeth of the North and Anja of the South, stitch together
their tattered tales and scattered lives into a fabrication they
can all wear at once upon a time. And so can you. Baffled,
perhaps, at first, you will find that you are slipping, slowly
but silkily, into something more comfortable the further you
read, the more familiar you become. Because this is an affectionate
book that wants to be held, like any woman within it,
and will hold your attention and call it back again to fulfill
this most agreeable desire.
Fabric, fabrication--such is the stuff of these lost
chronicles come together here. Swinging their hatboxes,
swaying their hips, chapters with torn slips wander in on high
heels and blistered feet. A wedding dress is being cut out and
sewn by the same two seamstresses who are handstitching all
these pieces into place, with time and meaning layered like
the ultimate wedding cake.(*) A cloth of many colors unravels,
interwoven as it is of the simply real, fabulously real, and
the purely imaginary, and the threads, of various lengths and
gleamings--well, some are invisible, SD a nearsighted couturiere
bent over them has declared. A cloth of ecstatic flannel,
narrative handkerchief, and wrinkled linen moods; fur hands,
satin of solitude, handled-with-carelessness glass shoes. Out
of a tailor's dummy's muslin epidermis is the flesh made word.
Words themselves are the intimate attire of thoughts and
feelings. Here they are turned inside out to see what's going
on beneath the surface of everyday presences, garments and
forms. And if a book can wear a jacket, the notion of a book
can be turned inside-out, too--for much of the story here is
in the notes, and not in the body of the text . . . the very
body we find on the final undulation: nude with sunbeam for
zipper. Facing things in this manner, we watch estrangements
disappear. Death, whose name we avoid pronouncing, is just
the girl next door.
Like a diaphanous nightgown, language both hides and
reveals. There is no way of getting at the naked truth, even if
it's wearing the Emperor's New Clothes, or the Empress's
New Clothos. We follow our Mother Tongue into her boudoir,
anyway, hoping for a glimpse of something never yet
beheld--and come face to face with our own reflections in
her most private mirror, veiled meanings in a gossamer heap
on the floor. And still there are enough words left in the old
girl's voice to sing us to sleep once again. "I've got you uncovered,"
Anja, a wanderlusting seamstress from Croatia, whose territorial
seams are in confusion of late. It is thanks to Anja's chance find (a
tailor's dummy stuffed with shredded manuscripts) that these tales
have come to light and are taking some sort of shape--as she sorts
and stitches their tatters with her Scandinavian colleague, Elsbeth.
Bedruthan, a reluctant romantic--and gigantic--hero of Cornish
coast and legend, courageously searching for a mermaid whose only
property has floated into his hands (or did he kind it in the sands?).
Cinderella, resiliently abused stepchild whose secret rebellions in
both fact and fantasy forge her liberty. Seeing past mere wish fulfillment,
she unmasks social form and ceremony in her unabashed
dealings with the prince.
Columbine, a commedia dell' arte trouper in contempo clothing
who performs with her rowdy pals Pantalone, Pedrolino, Grattiano,
Arlecchino, Burattino, Flavinia, and Franceschina on both sides of
Effie (short for Ephemera, and the twin sister of Errata), a Mediterranean
nymph pursued by a faun who looks like Blaise Cendrars.
Elsbeth, Anja's Danish collaborator, whose niece is enjoying a
strange captivity: the red shoes, running us all amok. Elsbeth once
floored a quipspeak critic for saying this book is coming apart at
the seamstresses. It's coming together, she solemnly avers.
Hansel and Gretl, siblings with the usual spats until they unite in
their plot to overthrow The Gingerbread Variations witch. For once,
however, we see that sorceress's side of the story, too: at least one
Jacob Other, linguist, pan-discipline critic, poet, novelist, occasional
usher at the Opera. Fast friends with fellow expatriate
Yolanta, whom he met in a boulangerie.
Jonquil Mapp, oscillating inamorata of Torquil. Got her B.A. in
geography from Amplochacha U.
Little match girl, locked out of the Nordic holidays, selling
marches and burning her frozen fingers, hallucinating from cold
end hunger, telling her Dark Night of the Body to us all.
Morpheus, god of dreams, invoked, supplicated, wooed by our
Red Shoes didn't stand still long enough for us to get a good
Timofey, precociously fed on Slavic lit, later the lover of Nadia--but
now he's a specter afraid of the dark, at work on his own post
Torquil, Jonquil's weekend roustabout after their first carnal marathon
at the Last Judgment Pinball Machine Motel.
Yolanta, raving bibliophile, expatriate writer and Paris correspondent
for Exquisite Corpse. Does translations when desperate, strikes
many as ill-mannered (the French as mal elevee), although the
baker defends her character and keeps a shelf of books behind his
baguettes so as not to disrupt her delusions.
SUPPORTING (and cavorting) CAST includes:
A penguin who sniffs perfume, a clochard who steals gloves, a
femme fatale who steals bouquets. An innkeeping couple on the
road through the Balkans, a doctor in Baden-Baden, a pig and a
hermit named Henri. An apparition who brings his custom to
Anja, as Hans Christian Andersen does to Elsbeth. A peasant and
his wild young bride attracted to the ocean. (He's an aficionado
of metafiction, she of swift sensations. ) Another peasant with a
shoe to repair and a balletomanic daughter. Many cows, most of
them lowing, one dead (on a bus). A hypochondriac with jet-set
appointments. An unidentified neuter pronoun with wet feet and
a taste for beer. A blini woman who supports her own cast of characters
on the road in Mother Russia. Don Juanita heats up the
socks, but not in the laundromat with poker players or with the
milliner, once a shivering model. A man in a red cape poses a mild
threat and provides the musical background.
She drenched him with an absinthe
See dusk; lips.
Well, you don't have to. I'll tell you right now that she proceeded
to let out a wild shrill hiccup, and when we kept questioning
her about the parchment enwrapping her salmon, and the lost
Albanian, she excused herself to the powder room "and galloped
off in a chorus of evasive whispers."
But you'll kind yourself in their company again soon enough,
wondering if dessert will ever arrive so he can lean across the table
to ask, "Don't you want the rest of your clafouti?" and rend its
remains with his fork.
It was a meaningless act, but
we knew its implications.
"a meaningless act"
One of the propositions subjected to philosophic inquiry in
Carnal Knowledge. "The closeness that comes in handfuls" eludes
one's grasp when "the metaphysical stuff gets out of hand."
"Here, they just didn't get dry enough," he said with concern
for her warfare as he dabbed at her tears with a corner of her
own babushka, which could also turn into a flour sack(*)
should the shortage of occasion demand.
They camped out in pockets of the Motherland's big apron. Don't
Down the alley slouched a beast
en route to the Apocalypse.
Not all that rough a beast, this one. He had shaved that morning,
and his swagging carriage made alluring ripples in the silk shirt
on his back.