Book Review: For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors (Laura Esther Wolfson)
Reviewed by Anne Kaier
Last summer, sitting in a spacious reading room in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, I overheard a librarian talking to an impatient male customer. In that friendly but brisk way of librarians, she told him, "I'll get it for you in two minutes' time." She didn't say "in two minutes," as an American would. That slight difference shocked me out of my sense of being at ease in Britain. I've spent a lot of time in Oxford, lived there once for two years. Normally, after even a few weeks in England, my mind becomes used to the lingo. It even slides into my head and into my speech. But this morning, the slight difference in the ordinary phrase tore at the seamless mesh of language that normally surrounds me in the UK. That's not the right phrase, I thought. Then I realized that for the British speaker, it was the right phrase, but I am not British; I am an American and say it differently.
I thought of this incident when reading Laura Esther Wolfson's collection of essays, which won the Iowa Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. She writes with great insight about her career as a translator and interpreter of Russian into English—a much more complicated dance than my simple steps from American English to British and back again. But Wolfson's great theme is displacement, a sense of not quite fitting into the places or with the people she loves—and often leaves.
Many of the essays circle around her two marriages, first to a young Russian she met when she was living and working in Russia near the end of the Cold War.They ultimately moved to the States where they spoke Russian—not English—together. But their ways of communicating, linguistically and emotionally, ultimately got out of synch. Her second marriage also foundered and in a searching essay she considers the nature of divorce in her family. Most of her relatives have had long, steady marriages. In a striking metaphor which is typical of her writing, she speaks of herself as feeling tiny in an old growth forest of solid marriages. Then she brings in memories of her father's first wife, Kate, whom he divorced before her parents got together. Normally, Kate is seen from her father's point of view as a mistake he got over, but Wolfson finds herself looking at this story from the woman's perspective. Kate remarried several times and the writer sees this as a victory of hope and bravery over experience. In resurrecting Kate, Wolfson finds a way to weave herself back into her family.
Some of the most memorable essays tell about Wolfson's search for ways to fit into the Jewish culture she knew very little about as the child of unobservant parents. As an adult, Wolfson, an accomplished linguist, tried to learn Yiddish, even participating in a Yiddish language course in Lithuania, her ancestral homeland. However, her conversational Yiddish is not good—again making her feel how difficult it is for her to become part of that which she loves.
"But despite my years of classes and my love for the language, for the way the very sound of it renders me instantly whole, for a time, while making me recognize just how fractured I am and helping me forgive myself for that because, given the dislocations of Jewish history, what could be more natural than to be fractured?—despite all of that my conversational Yiddish remains lousy."
This is elegant writing, piercing, insightful. Wolfson is willing to grapple with the contradictions of her experience.
Her most sustained reflections on her rare lung condition come in an essay called "Climbing Montmartre." In Paris, she was diagnosed with lymphangioleiomyomatosis or LAM for short. She jokes that she can't remember how to spell it, not surprisingly. It's a degenerative disease. In a vivid scene in her French doctor's office, Wolfson takes us into the moment when she finds out what is wrong with her and what her future may be.
"I was sitting across from my surgeon. Call her Chantal Bonmot. She looked to be just a few years my senior…with creamy, freckled skin, dark blue eyeliner, and glossy dark blond hair held back with a black velvet headband." The doctor ticks off the diagnosis and symptoms, shortness of breath and collapsed lungs, with typical French sangfroid. Wolfson is trying to write all this down, assimilate it, the way you do in doctors' offices. She asks, "Is that all?"
'Oh, and perhaps you'll need une greffe de poumons.'
An unfamiliar word reminded me we were speaking French.
'Greffe? What is that?'
'It means you'll have to get a new pair of lungs,' she said. I admired her ease in defining the word. I've spent enough time learning languages to know that most people are hopeless at explaining difficult words to foreigners.
'Une greffe de poumons? ' I mastered my new word immediately, right down to the gender.
'Oh really,' she said, 'it's no big deal. It wouldn't be for another fifteen or twenty years. And many women with this condition don't live long enough to need one.'
'Twenty years!' My exclamation overlapped with her last words, nearly erasing them. 'Mais ca passe vite!' (That goes by quickly!)"
This scene is emblematic of Wolfson's strengths. I loved her clear understanding of how we so often react in a stressful moment—she's aware of the French woman's facility with language and concentrates on that, as we so often concentrate on what must, in retrospect, be seen as a side issue when we are in this kind of highly stressful and worrying situation. I also admired the sharp characterization of the French doctor, down to the ironic pseudonym, Bonmot, meaning"good word." Hardly the physician's strength when she so casually intimates that Wolfson has only twenty years to live. Yet I wanted a great deal more here. What did Wolfson feel in this scene? For heaven's sake, she's just learned she may have only twenty years to live. She's still a relatively young woman. Of course, the sudden outburst of "That goes by quickly" gives us a clue. She's shocked, outraged. But surely in retrospect, thinking about this encounter, she had more and more varied responses to her lung condition and her prognosis. What did she think when she got home? What did she go through, emotionally, before she determined to handle her situation in a combination of acceptance and denial—spiked, perhaps, with motivating anger? Again, metaphor—linked to action—gives us a clue. She titles the essay "Climbing Montmartre." I'm not surprised that climbing, even in the face of difficulty, is her response. She scales the steep hill, even when she is short of breath, just as she did when she was younger and healthier. But I wanted to be with her right after that French doctor told her what might be in store for her. Why did she decide to go on laboring up the highest hill in town? What emotions led her to it? What combination of anger, fear, and determination to continue to enjoy what she loved spurred her on? I wanted her to give me a scene showing the drama of her inward thoughts and feelings. Spell it out for me. Instead she offers us a vivid description of the shops, cabarets, and history of Montmartre—full of intriguing bits of information about Picasso and Eric Satie. She follows the tour with this reflection: "If only I could take some of those wisps of time that linger in the alleys and crevices of Montmartre and tack them on to the end of my life." It's a poignant remark, typically elusive. But it's not what I want to know.
It's important to realize that her book is a collection of linked essays, not a single, tightly woven memoir. The individual essays can be read apart from each other. However, they work more powerfully together, read one after the other, from the beginning to the end of the book. That way you get a more immediate impression of the way Wolfson circles and revisits moments in her life—her marriages, her divorces, the different stages of her career as interpreter and translator, her lung condition. The collection's fractured chronology works to underscore her displacement theme. The reader, too, feels displaced—surely a conscious technique in a writer this skilled. The collection is held together by Wolfson's voice—probing, funny, intelligent, distinctly her own. Yet despite two readings of the essays, in the end, I had only a slippery sense of who she was—as if she could not look directly in the mirror and tell us what she sees there. It's as if her sense of dislocation extends to being somewhat a stranger to herself—and aren't we all?
Title: For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors