Poet/memoirist Kathleen Spivack’s first novel is jam-packed with “Unspeakable Things.” Underlying them all is the pain and dislocation of refugees fleeing the horrors of Hitler’s wrath. They pour into New York, city of hopes and dreams, giant ships “disgorging the crippled remains of Europe.” But home proves to be a tenuous concept. “The major part of their lives was lived in the key of Memory,” and in Spivack’s wildly imaginative telling, the search for belonging, solace, and redemption is a grim, often surreal fairy tale haunted by ghosts, severed fingers that dance in their specimen jars, a dark, creepy eroticism bordering on the grotesque. While the novel’s heart is a stirring chronicle of survival, it catapults back and forth in time and place with the disjointed urgency of a fever dream.
Spivack (“With Robert Lowell and His Circle,” “The Beds We Lie In”) sets the bulk of the book in 1940s Manhattan, threading together the stories of several characters into an often compelling but roiling, twisting narrative. At its moral center is the elderly immigrant activist Herbert, the family patriarch whose dedication to aiding fellow refugees is an attempt to mitigate the helplessness of losing his son Michael to the Nazi purge. “His hunched shoulders puffed out under their burden like angel wings under a too-large shabby coat.”
His wife, Adeline, once a glowing, talented musician, has been reduced by all she saw and experienced to “a strange feral creature” living in an asylum. Spivack vividly captures the intensity and disarray of dementia, as well as the fog of the aging mind, with memories morphing into hallucinogenic daydreams.
The novel begins as Herbert’s second cousin Anna arrives from Hungary. A small, brilliantly intelligent woman, she has “the face of an angel . . . the most beautiful eyes, the most seraphic smile.” Her severely curved spine, errant whiskers, and long nose earn her the fond nickname Rat. Two weeks in the sexual servitude of Rasputin as payment for her weak, homosexual husband’s gambling debts have left her with a “demon passion” and obsessive memories of “unspeakable things.”
The novel heads off the rails with the introduction of the pediatrician Dr. Felix, who is so flamboyantly reprehensible he clogs the book with repetitive, tedious behavior that strains all credulity. Preying upon impoverished immigrants who somehow refuse to see his cruelty, he is a clownish stump of a man who tricks and molests children as well as their desperate mothers in exchange for treatment. Echoing Hitler’s goals, his passionate sideline is “the creation of a better, purer society,” through the propagation and regeneration of the “great and beautiful,” and his laboratory is filled with bits and pieces of body parts. He commits various perversities under the watchful gaze of a photo of his beloved führer.
Then there’s poor Maria, Herbert’s 8-year old granddaughter, who not only endures the hardships of poverty, sickness, and the ministrations of Dr. Felix, but Anna’s horrific stories as they share a bed at night in the family’s tiny apartment. She consoles herself with the chilling mantra “I am dead.”
Pivotal to the story is the parable of the Tolstoi String Quartet. The celebrated Viennese ensemble “lived as one” for 20 years, spending days rehearsing music, evenings playing concerts, and nights curled up on clean sheets caressing their instruments, while their wives slept on rugs beside their beds. When their wives finally rebel and the men lose some of their musical spirit, they revive their passion by eschewing Mozart and Brahms for music by atonal firebrands like Schoenberg and Berg. This turn so enrages Hitler that he orders the removal of their “revolutionary” little fingers, which they approach Herbert to help them find.
“Unspeakable Things” is a wildly ambitious first effort. It is sprawling and messy, and too often, Spivack goes way over the top with florid, almost comically grotesque descriptions, especially of sexual encounters. However, sometimes her writing is heart-piercingly direct, ringing with poetry. Intriguing musical allusions abound, and similes and metaphors pop from the page, as when Herbert feels the wind bite him with a “keen animal sharpness” or when she poignantly describes a small cold room crammed with nine refugees — “Everyone stirred in the little room, as if a wind had touched them, and then everyone in unison, turned over and slept more deeply.” Unspeakable Things” would have been easier to bear with a deeper vein of realism touched by just this kind of truly human moment.
By Kathleen Spivack
Knopf Publishers, 290 pp., $25.95Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.