by Norah Labiner


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781566891516
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Publication date: 09/01/2003
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Norah Labiner is the author of two highly acclaimed novels: Miniatures, an American Library Association Notable Book, and Our Sometime Sister, a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. She lives in Minneapolis.

Read an Excerpt


A novel


Copyright © 2002 Norah Labiner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1566891361

Chapter One


Proust died in November. Into his unheated room the doctors came and went administering syringes of camphor and adrenaline. Outside the rain began to fall and the afternoon grew dark. Scattered about his bed, its sheets lace-edged, and on the bare wooden floor were revisions of La Prisonnière, handkerchiefs, teacups overturned, empty. He asked for peaches, apricots, and sugar. There were inkpots and pens. The walls of the room were cork-lined. The fire remained unlighted. Now expect nothing more from me but silence, he wrote in his last letter, and follow my example.

Franz Kafka lived to forty. When he succumbed to tuberculosis he was six feet tall and weighed 120 pounds.

Freud, eighty-three years old, asked his doctor to administer a lethal injection of morphine.

De Quincey, he died with his arms full of holes.

Percy Shelley drowned.

Balzac, caffeine poisoning.

Babel, disappeared.

Bruno Schulz, shot.

Emily, the tallest of the Brontë sisters, died of typhus. Her coffin was twenty-two inches wide.

When Zora Neal Hurston died in 1960 in a Florida welfare home after having spent her last years as a maid, her books were long out of print. She was buried in an unmarked gravein a segregated cemetery.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was eating a Hershey's chocolate bar and reading his Princeton alumni newsletter when he suffered a massive coronary attack.

When the door was opened to his bunker Adolf Hitler was found lying on a sofa soaked in blood. He had shot himself through the mouth. At his right-hand side lay Eva Braun, who had taken poison. The time was half past three. It was the afternoon of Monday April 30, 1945, ten days after Hitler's fifty-sixth birthday. One biographer wrote of Hitler: Dostoevsky might well have invented him.

On May 19, 1864, while on tour of New England with President Franklin Pierce, Nathaniel Hawthorne died quietly in his sleep in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Albert Camus, who did not trust the mail, died in a head-on automobile collision with a tree while driving from Lyons to Paris to deliver a newly completed manuscript to his publisher. He was sitting on the passenger side. The driver lived.

In his final interview a month before his death, William Faulkner spoke of animals and farms; the intelligence of dogs, horses, and rats; growing cotton and wheat; how he did not like cars or buses and wished he could ride everywhere on horseback, even to the movies.

Anne Sexton removed her rings and placed them in her pocketbook. She put on her mother's coat, fur with a satin lining, carried her glass of vodka to the garage, turned the ignition of her red Cougar, switched on the radio, and waited.

Branwell Brontë, the bad painter, died at the age of thirty-one.

Anne caught a cold at Emily's funeral. It progressed to pneumonia. Anne, the youngest, the most forgettable, and all agreed, the prettiest of the Brontë sisters, died five months later.

Edgar Allan Poe was discovered raving and delirious outside a pub in Baltimore. Soon after being admitted to the hospital he slipped into a coma. Two days later he spoke lucidly to visitors. He died the next day. In a brief obituary the Baltimore Clipper reported that Poe had died of "congestion of the brain."

On the morning of March 28, 1941, Virginia Woolf rose early and wrote notes to her husband and sister. She made her way to the river Ouse, left her walking stick on the banks, weighted down her coat pockets with rocks and threw herself into the water.

On the evening of July 2, 1904, while suffering from consumption in a German spa, Anton Chekhov announced he was dying. He drank a flute of champagne, lay on his left side, and stopped breathing. In the silence of the room a moth fluttered against a lightbulb. The cork exploded from the champagne bottle. His body was returned to Russia in a refrigerated railroad car with For Oysters painted on its side.

Dylan Thomas spent his thirty-ninth birthday, October 27, 1954, in New York City staying at the Chelsea Hotel. In poor health, complaining of hallucinations, promising the world he would never live to see forty, he went on a drinking binge, fell into a coma on November 4, and died November 9 having never regained consciousness.

Charlotte Brontë, who buried Maria and Elizabeth in childhood, who in succession grieved for Branwell, beloved Emily, and rival Anne, was married June 29, 1854. She was thirty-eight years old. She wore a white dress of embroidered muslin and a bonnet trimmed with green leaves. She and Arthur Bell Nicholls honeymooned in Wales and went on to spend six weeks in Ireland. In December of that year she complained of headaches and nausea. By January illness left her bedridden and weak. She did not believe she was dying. She wrote out a will leaving everything to her husband and on February 17, 1855, she told him, God will not separate us. We have been so happy. She died in March. Arthur Bell Nicholls moved to Ireland and later married his pretty young cousin Mary Anne. He took her to the same Welsh inn where he and Charlotte had honeymooned. He burned Charlotte's letters and sold her manuscripts. The second Mrs. Bell Nicholls, by all accounts a sweet and even-tempered girl, allowed her husband to hang a portrait of Charlotte over their mantel.


I, Fern Alice Jacobi, being of sound mind and body, being neither a borrower nor lender, being of upright stature with opposable thumbs, born under the sign of the crab with an ascendant in fire, borne from the past into certain and unredeemable failure; shy, aloof, defensive, intolerant, bitter, once innocent, twice denied; being prone to excess but free from addiction; I, being all these things and less, swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. Truth #1: I am sitting before a Smith-Corona typewriter and have allotted myself exactly three days to compile this memoir. At midnight on January third in the year of our Lord, 1999, I promise I will remove my fingers from the keys and commit this document to the ashes of apples and earth where it belongs. My typewriter will be transformed into a pumpkin, and I, glass slippers and party dress restored to rags, will suffer to fall off the page and disappear forever. My time choice is arbitrary. My mode is ink. My method is confession. These truths are situational. Others are relative, suspect, or ugly. Watch out for them; they may leave scars or stain the carpet. Truth #2: I am not a biographer. I admit this readily and offer it as both apology and explanation. I find myself in the awkward position of having to tell the story of a woman whom I never met and who died several years before I was born. Did she, does she need me to defend her? Of course not. But let's say history needs a slap in the face to wake it from its own nightmare. Let's say that she, Frances Warren Lieb, the first wife of Owen and predecessor to Brigid needs me far less than I need her. Things in life have roots in death. There's a rarefied pearl of wisdom for you, a new catchphrase for the dress-in-black crowd, a painful anodyne for what ails us all. We can't escape ourselves so let's join the party! Don't you ever feel that the age-old homilies are all lies? That whatever does not kill you, does not, in fact, make you stronger? Stopped clocks may be right more than twice a day? All roads lead to roam? Don't you ever feel outraged by the grand conspiracy that is life in general and your own life in particular? Whatever you have thought or dreamed or run from, believe that. Believe this: they are out to get you. And if they could get to her, to Franny, the first Mrs. Lieb, they can get to anyone. So please, I implore you, read on with skepticism. I hope that you cannot find it in yourself to believe me. You like books that promise either facts or the revelation of mysteries. You don't like to sit on the fence. I know, I know, I feel the same way myself. It is only that in attempting to tell this story, to tell the truth, I find I don't even know what that word means and really, honestly, I cringe every time I strike those keys. I feel like a beleaguered cheerleader: T is for the time we spent together; R is for-; well, you get the idea. Read the biographies. Run your own set of tests. Hire professionals. I wish none of my story were true and that ultimately your disbelief will offer me some respite, hope that perhaps I am merely delusional, wrong, untrustworthy, that not only did these events not transpire, but that these people, myself included, do not exist. Having undertaken the idea, having recalled and recollected and become perhaps vengeful, perhaps authoritative, but more than anything else, having become-I know too what I have so long denied and feared. I remember everything.

These are the facts as I recall them. During the months of September and October of 1990 I found myself employed by a married couple of modest fame, ill repute, and certainly, more than anything else, beauty. And while I had heard of them, or more specifically of him, of Owen Lieb, I had never encountered or contacted them before that autumn. I was initially hired for a single project, perhaps two or three days, but we all seemed so happy together; we were strangers in a strange land. It was so naturally unnatural, that they asked me to stay on with them. Or rather, he asked me to live with them as a companion to his young wife who was fragile and lonely. He worried that she would not last through the oncoming winter in such a desolate location. I did not think about ghosts or history, about the ridiculousness of my own guilt and innocence, my susceptibility, no, no, my inability to understand the game being played around me. It begins now, my story, no more digressions, no further preambles. It begins and began in September on a day all of sun, but it will end on the night of Halloween with a rainstorm that turned first into hail and then unexpectedly into snow which fell and did not stop until twelve inches had accumulated and blanketed the tiny fishing villages and farms all along Galway Bay to our house near the western seacoast. The three of us were trapped, yes, I suppose that is the word for it, trapped, together and perhaps we thought it was the end of the world, because for some reason we were all impelled to tell the truth, to reveal our secrets and scars and tattoos. The whole truth and nothing but the. So help me.

At the time of the events in question I was twenty-one years old. Frances Warren Lieb was thirty years dead. Owen Lieb was a thousand and barely looked fifty, while his young wife, Brigid Lieb née Pearce of Indianola, Iowa was twenty-nine. We are the major characters in this strange little drama. I regret that the ending of this story will be less than happy. Although I have not yet written it, I can tell you that as I foresee it, as the events play out again and again in my memory, exactly, so that the most minute details do not change from year to year or dream to dream, I can see the white nightdress Brigid wore as she came down the staircase on the night of the storm and how she held the banister and the sharp perfect angle of her elbow awkwardly turned out as she misstepped and almost fell, but then caught herself and smiled down at us and said


Excerpted from Miniatures by NORAH LABINER Copyright © 2002 by Norah Labiner
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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