Commentary Magazine


Writer at Work

For Cynthia Ozick

Every writer dreams of publishing a story in the Monocle, and the Mouse was no exception. She was called the Mouse by two editors and a literary agent who had discovered that common to them were certain visits by the young woman during the second week of April 1979. She had sent cards first, of course, a watercolor of an applecart in an open field, announcing in longhand her intended visit to New York, and despite mildly discouraging replies, arrived, politely insistent, manuscripts in hand, a tiny, bony thing in pleated gray tweed that reached her gray-stockinged calves—a literary mouse not only in appearance, but because, as the editors knew from reading her fiction (which they never bought), she was an expositor of one theme only, a clutcher of one topic, which she would occasionally nibble at and worry (jealously, nervously, as her covering letters betrayed) . . . viz., The Role of Women in Jewish-American Literature. “SJF, lonely, literary,” as her favorite tabloid might capsulize it.

The Mouse’s name was Claudia Bemel. She told the editors that she just wanted to meet the people she had been corresponding with all these years. To the agent she brought a story she wanted to sell, preferably to the Monocle, preferably—since she was an occasional contributor to a Toronto women’s quarterly and therefore arguably a published author—without his levying a reading fee. A self-proclaimed soft touch, the agent capitulated, saying that he would read the story, but for anything else, they would see.

The story was called “Logos” and was about a Jewish law professor who had made a religion of the so-called Socratic method of teaching. His pedantic delight was to lay a proposition at the feet of a student only to pull it out from under him, assiduously to meet any question with a question of his own, to deflect all challenge back at its proponent. In thirty-three years of teaching not once had the professor answered a question.

This dedication made him unpopular not only with many students, but also with his colleagues, who took his old methods as a derogation of their more modern expository ones, an implication that they were lazy and lax. Many said he was the most arrogant man in the profession. Like his classical role-model, he was compelled into an early retirement and thus an untimely death.

On the subject of her professor’s arrogance, the Mouse had written into the story a joke that was then current, saying that it was the professor’s favorite. Q. What are the three things that prove Jesus was Jewish? A. He lived at home until he was thirty, went into his father’s business, and his mother thought he was God. On reading this, Farb-Rothman, the agent, laughed, but it touched a nerve: he himself had lived alone with his mother from the time his father died, when he was twelve, until she herself passed away when he was thirty-seven. He had never married.

The joke amused the professor, the Mouse said, for two reasons: all his adult life he refused to affirm or deny the existence of any god, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise. Two, he subscribed to the view that Jewish women were all latent Mrs. Port-noys—smotherers, manipulators; to his bed he took only shiksehs.

Yet when he died the professor discovered to his surprise that the soul survived the body. Uncharacteristically, he felt fear: what if there was in fact a God Whom he had not embraced? But his fears were overcome for a time by the realization that he could spend all eternity in discourse with history’s greatest legal minds.

First, he approached Moses. But, as everybody knows, in the world to come Moses speaks Yiddish on weekdays, and Hebrew on the Sabbath—the professor could speak neither, lousy Jew that he was. Disappointed, he wondered what kind of afterlife this was in which linguistic distinctions were maintained. He tried again, Confucius this time. But like Moses, the great philosopher could not make out what the professor wanted. So, the professor cast despairingly about for a friendlier face and at last recognized, from his famous satyr’s aspect, his very mentor. His heart leapt. But the professor, though learned, had no Greek.

As he turned abjectly from Socrates, suddenly it dawned on him that this was to be his punishment for not accepting God as the foundation of human order—hadn’t Socrates pleaded as much at his trial? For him, Heaven was to be a Gehenna. For eternity, he was to live among the great and virtuous as an untouchable, estranged from the family of God. He wandered miserably about the Ether, his face repulsive with tears and mucus, like a lost child. But his weeping abated when he noticed a bright golden glow he knew to be God.

He approached in the ecstatic hope that God was giving him this final chance, that He was as merciful as He was said to be. Squinting, he extended his arms to embrace the glow, and God’s form revealed itself to him. God was an old woman in long, rustling skirts, naked from the waist up. In some features She reminded the somewhat disgusted Farb-Rothman of Golda Meir. She had gigantically fat breasts, the Mouse wrote, which were as firm and nurturing as those of a young mother. The law professor was stunned, but God smiled at him and said, “Only your mind is surprised, my little darling, not your heart”; and She gathered the professor into Her expansive bare bosom.

_____________

 

After reading the story, Farb-Rothman brought himself a styrofoam cup of coffee and then switched on his dictaphone. “Dear Claudia,” he dictated:

I am returning your “Logos” not because I don’t like it—it’s quite funny/poignant—but because I really don’t think I can market it with the glossies. The hard truth is that they, the Monocle especially, don’t want to know that Jews have ordinary lives . . . i.e., are ordinary law professors à la John Houseman who die fairly happily, albeit having ordinary doubts, and go to a pretty much ordinary end. (I say this not to attack the quality or the ending of your story; when I say ordinary, I guess I mean Gentile and am thinking I guess of what some call Jesus’s “feminine qualities,” when he is compared with Jehovah—re your “surprise ending.” In other words, I imagine it would surprise a Gentile editor less than a Jewish intellectual, with the cult of the Madonna and all that, to discover that God is a woman.)

To speak frankly, I’ve always had the feeling Jews are in the Monocle the way the ambassador from Swaziland ends up on the society pages. Little bald vegetarians who speak with accents, oversexed motleys with deviated septums and crazy mothers. Anthropological curiosities. I say this in a professional capacity, of course. You will notice that Bellow doesn’t publish in the glossies much any more. His characters have become mainstreamish, bourgeois, if you will. Ozick, whom you spoke about with such understandable respect, is generally not in them for the opposite reason . . . too much earnestness, not enough anthropology (not the same thing as magic, which because it is magic [emphasis Farb-Rothman's secretary] has an everydayness about it, a religiosity, let’s say). There’s too much Take Me Seriously with the Ozick sort. Elkin, now a big prizewinner, is afraid that Jewish protagonists will make him parochial, i.e., unmarketable. I am telling you the man is right. A capital L liberal takes only himself seriously, if you see what I mean.

I would try some of the literary mags—N. Amer. Rev., Salmagundi (maybe). Otherwise, all I can say right now is sorry and thanks.

Cordially yours,
Robert Farb-Rothman

And here it was Farb-Rothman who more or less innocently first called her “this sort of literary mouse,” even as his secretary was typing his sympathetic letter, as he ate lunch with the fiction editors of the Monocle and Social Contract, and the food editor of Fifth Avenue.

But for a determined young woman, such a letter can only strengthen resolve. Impugned, after all, was not the writing, but the prejudices of philistine editors. It was just another sour truth to hold close and nibble.

So, in the ensuing months, Claudia Bemel wrote story after unsold story—jagged, angry polyhedrons of Ideas. In cold gray aluminum, she framed and hung in her room as a kind of icon to her struggle, three consecutive rejection slips from the editor of Fiction Canada—scrawled notes on photocopied letterheads, each of which faithfully read “Not our kind of story.” To bolster her morale and improve her standing for at least the purposes of a résumés or cover letter, she solicited a few book reviews, as well as an assignment to do an account of a readng by Toni Morrison, for the Montreal Gazette (her local newspaper), and an essay on the sexual politics of language for the Toronto women’s quarterly, whose editors regretted that they could pay her only in contributor’s copies.

“Logos” meanwhile had made the rounds, retyped and repackaged again and again. Every periodical of any repute had seen it, as had a few anthologizers besides. Claudia Bemel’s faith in it remained nonetheless undaunted, stoked as it was by the opinion of a reputable New York agent who found it funny slash poignant, and nonconforming. So it was more out of ambition than wickedness that she resubmitted the story to the Monocle, with minor changes (excising the reference to Portnoy, for example) and the following note:

Dear Fiction Editor:
I have enclosed a story by Simcha Smirnoff, a distant relation who was murdered during the massacre at Babi Yar. I recently became heir to his papers (all that remains of his estate) and was thrilled to find among them a score or so of stories, a verse novel in the manner of Eugene Onegin, and many, many poems. The enclosed story, “Legal Fictions,” is the first of Smirnoff’s writings that I have finished translating. I of course will be glad to send you more of this unique work as I proceed with the awesome task of rendering all of it into English, for possible publication under the byline, “Translated from the Russian by . . .”

Yours sincerely,
Claudia Bemel

Claudia Bemel was of course calculating that if the Monocle’s “slush” reader had read “Logos” in the first place, he wouldn’t remember it out of the hundreds of stories that came across his desk each week. She recalled (gleefully, perhaps) the rumor current a few years before that someone had typed out one of Jerzy Kosinski’s books, verbatim, on bond paper, and sent it around as an unsolicited manuscript; even the book’s publishers had refused it (so the story went), adding apologetically that the writer showed promise. And she had been mindful of the practicalities: if Smirnoff, the putative writer, was dead (in a Russian mass grave, yet), they would unquestioningly make out the check in her name, as heir to the estate. Eventually, once the Monocle had published a dozen or so of her stories in this manner, and Knopf had put a collection of them on its fall list, she would expose them all as literary dupes.

And indeed, immediately upon receiving the manuscript, the “slush” reader at the Monocle squirreled it (poor wretch) to the fiction editor, who wasted no time in attemping to phone Claudia Bemel, executrix of the literary estate of Simcha Smirnoff. But the editor failed in this, finding that the young translator shared with the Monocle’s editorial staff a cantankerous affection for privacy, or mystery, which is to say her number was unlisted. (In fact, she lived with her parents, whose number was quite accessible when associated with the name and address on Claudia Bemel’s covering letter and self-addressed-stamped-envelope; but, like many of his species, the editor was not a creature of sufficient patience, ambition, and pragmatism to take this detour.) Therefore, a week after Claudia Bemel had submitted “Legal Fictions,” a.k.a. “Logos,” to the Monocle, it was returned with the following letter:

Dear Ms. Bemel:
Unfortunately, we do not feel that your translation of “Legal Fictions,” by the Russian writer Simcha Smirnoff, will work out for us in the manner you propose. We say this not from lack of interest or as a matter of literary valuation, but out of an abundance of caution. We do not feel we can deal with these writings—as fascinating and valuable as they seem—without first being satisfied of certain, mostly legal, matters. To that end, would you consider allowing Mr. Smirnoff’s papers to be examined by a Russian specialist, as well as by our lawyer? Once satisfied that we are safe in proceeding, we would be happy to discuss publication of “Legal Fictions” and other of the writings.

Will you please phone me collect at the number designated on our letterhead? I am sure you will agree that such historic papers deserve special care.

Sincerely,
Sean Billingsley

_____________

 

Of course, a writer unardent in her mission would have lost nerve, perhaps undertaken something as rash as a confession in the hope that such an action would at least attract notice for her plight. A foot in the door is a foot in the door. The so-called Mouse, however, waited a decent interval (the obligatory thirty days her rejected manuscripts always lay moribund on editors’ desks), and then, talking herself into a breathless state of mind, wrote to the Monocle:

Dear Mr. Billingsley:
As it turns out, you were wise to proceed cautiously on my translation of “Legal Fictions” by Simcha Smirnoff. What a tempest in a samovar! My succession to the literary estate is now being challenged by certain of my cousins, and possibly a great-aunt (formerly favorite). My lawyer advises that I not deal further with these papers, for now, anyway. He is holding them in trust for me and says that, really, I shouldn’t even discuss them.

As a struggling writer, I am just devastated about this, particularly as it causes difficulties with your estimable Monocle. I will communicate with you on developments as soon as it is legally feasible to do so. I really am so sorry.

With cordial regrets,
Claudia Bemel
For the estate of Simcha Smirnoff
Montreal

Upon placing her carbon of the letter in the “Logos” file, Claudia Bemel consoled herself with Farb-Rothman’s letter of the previous year (“funny,” “poignant”). She saw now that he was only partly right. The broader truth was, every second Jew on the continent had become a writer. Even though as a woman she had something new to add to the tragicomedies of Fuchs, the Roths, Friedman, Elkin, etc. (even Norma Rosen wrote about men), you couldn’t blame editors for feeling a surfeit. It was simpler than Farb-Rothman had said: she was a generation too late; the American Jew as exemplar of alienated personhood, the prototype for Lost in Space, a dweller on limbo’s bridge, like (she noted in her journal) the lonely visionaries of the prophetic books tying the Pentateuch to the Gospel, was old hat.

She took a job as junior translator with Canada Casualty and Life Assurance, spending her days with the Petit Robert, “Terminology Used or Accepted by Statistics Canada,” Glossaire de la finance . . . contorting a language that held nuance for everything but the concrete, transmogrifying pamphlets on unemployment insurance (“Protégezvous contre le chomagel”) and dental plans (“Vous êtes permis deux visites par an”), wallet inserts on What to Do if You’re in an Accident (“Si vous avez un accident . . .”), the schedules and addenda to contracts, mortgages, and tables of liability that put a cash value on individual eyeballs, sex parts, and fingers.

But inevitably, one evening, as she was organizing her possessions in preparation for taking an apartment of her own (a flat, rather, in an old rooming-house near McGill), she turned up the “Logos” file and, rereading the story and all of its accumulated correspondence, contemplating the effort and faith she had invested, felt herself called back into battle. It’s true, you’ll never outmuscle them, she told herself. But that was what God gave a Jew brains for in the Diaspora. Like Esther, she saw what she must do.

For a couple of days, the main character was an insurance-company executive, then he ended up back as a lawyer, although not a professor, but an editor for a case-reporting service. He was in charge of headnotes and indexing. No longer was he Jewish.

He lived in this sort of transitional area of town, between downtown and the ‘burbs. No, that sounded like symbolism, purgatory or something. He lived in this town, period. Cedarvale, maybe. Or Oakwood.

He was married to this woman who . . . well, just to this woman of razor-sharp physique and demeanor who had never abandoned her private-school habit (a little plurisignation was all right) of tartan, knee-socks, deck shoes. Deck shoes or saddle shoes? Deck shoes. They had a Volvo. No. They had an old Toyota, beloved but slightly abused, the way an old dog is. And a station wagon, three or four years old. A great big one, with fake wood trim. And they had this twelve-year-old boy with a brain tumor. And twin girls, ten years old. Just like that. Two cars, a basket case, and twins. Of course, you didn’t see much of the basket case. Probably there was only a glimpse or two of him, lolling, drooling. The rest of it was the man going to his office in the ‘burbs and the woman being reference librarian for the Attorney General (they had met in a government law library) when she wasn’t looking after the basket case, their suffering barely straining their smiles.

The truth was, probably they wanted the basket case to croak. That was it. Each day that brought Michael (the case) closer to death . . . does Michael die? Not crucial, really . . . the thing to do is write as though you’re exhibiting snapshots. On each day that brings Michael closer to death, the man and wife, privately, without telling one another, feel something rustle . . . in their hearts . . . ugh! . . . feel something expand inside of them. Something embryonic. Ovarian. Thrilling? No. Probably they don’t feel much of anything. Numbness is all. A person should not mean but be.

Anyway, the story ends at Sunday dinner. Or after, would be better. The couple’s eyes meet as she passes him the what? butter or something (shitl), creamed lox, for God’s sake?, and each simultaneously feels that embryonic whatever push, break out, flood, test its wings, something. Or, anyway, they get aroused. They make love afterward (there is no description, only a rather grainy, unrevealing Polaroid), while the twins play cards in the hallway outside the bedroom door. Michael is left by himself, making small noises in his outsized crib.

But where’s God? Claudia Bemel was driven to ask herself. For although it is not sophisticated for a modern impressionist writer to show people meandering around the Great Reward (Hell is okay as long as it looks like a shopping mall or the headnote department of a legal publisher), it is tacitly accepted that people, especially the writer, are going there, eventually. That was the whole point, wasn’t it? It was the difference between the impressionist writer and a former “Jewish” one like her—she had believed in earthly happy endings, the kind Henry James once disparaged as “a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs, and cheerful remarks”; they didn’t need to.

So where is God? she asked, and finally found Him in the top drawer of a night-table next to the lawyer’s bed, buried under socks (poorly sorted), credit-card receipts, forgotten coins, broken watches, an old luggage tag, a bus transfer, two Ramada Inn stir-sticks, a little pocket knife with tobacco-flakes in its hinges, panty hose . . . in a Gideon Bible the lawyer had taken from a Martha’s Vineyard motel he and his wife had stayed in many years ago. Yes, many years ago, on their honeymoon, in fact, when they’d driven along the East coast, years ago. On their honeymoon. He remembers it for the first time in all those years while he makes love to (with?) his wife and the twins are playing cards, etcetera. He feels guilty about having lifted it. There is a Madonna on the frontispiece, full of bosom, nurturing the divine infant.

Yes, there was the danger here of Mythos with a large M, but Claudia Bemel couldn’t resist. She was only human. A sop to the humans. No one would notice, much. She changed the title back to “Logos,” and after the Monocle had published the story, it was made into a film called Arctic Front. For the film, the Gideon Bible became a crucifix that had years ago fallen to the floor from its nail at the head of the couple’s bed.

_____________

 

Arctic Front got mostly good reviews, but only Monocle types and movie junkies saw it. It did, however, very much improve the careers of the young actors who played the husband and wife. Claudia Bemel, no longer called the Mouse, by anyone, blamed the poor attendance on the film’s title. Farb-Rothman, her agent, explained that the movie people felt the public would be confused by “Logos.” Claudia Bemel suggested that they re-release it under “Legal Fictions.”

“I’ll try it out on them,” Farb-Rothman promised, long distance. “I’ll tell them, ‘Now that the weathermen have seen it, let’s go for the lawyers.’ How’s that, Claude? Weathermen and lawyers. I’ll try it out on them.”

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