Translated by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub. Mandel Vilar Press and Dryad Press. 240 pages. Hardcover $26.95; Trade paperback $16.95.
These spare, skillful tales are both introspective and illuminating.
Does it make sense to talk about a writer’s voice when responding to a translated work? In the case of Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, a book with two translators, a distinctive English voice — a blend of attitudes, mannerisms, and rhythms — rises off the page. In what ways is it true to the Yiddish original? This reviewer will never know. Still, the voice tests boundaries between the private and the public self, intimacy and isolation, confidence and insecurity.
Presented as works of fiction, these stories — many of them brief vignettes — have the ring and the stance of polished journal entries or memoir. These memories, meditations, and musings, which inhabit the same settings that author Blume Lempel lived in or visited, are at once introspective and filled with sensory detail. The searching soul often moves by association, turning many corners.
A good many of these pieces are inner portraits of the narrator, just as many are the narrator’s exploration of one other character — a person who is important to her life and to her understanding of it.
Lempel moves us back and forth among the sights, sites, and sounds of Jewish Poland, intriguing Paris, multilingual Brooklyn, with its heavily Jewish neighborhoods, Long Island’s Long Beach, and a handful of other places. Different phases of the narrator’s life — childhood, young womanhood, motherhood, spousal dynamics — are braided into each other beyond the simple, single thread of neat chronology.
Lempel’s story titles, as translated, most often contain the name of a character: “Pachysandra,” “My Friend Ben,” “Yosele,” “Cousin Claude,” and “The Bag Lady of Seventh Avenue” are among the tales bearing such sparse, straightforward titles. Though the stories usually show the title characters in relationships (and Lempel has a fine ear for creating compelling dialogue), a recurrent sense of isolation nonetheless permeates the collection.
It springs out vividly in “The Little Red Umbrella,” when Janet Silver, out on a blind date, misplaces the umbrella that was meant to identify her for the poet she intended to meet. Janet seeks a relationship, though she has reveled in her independence. Suddenly, she is overwhelmed by the realization that freedom does not have the meaning it had in her younger days: “Now it meant free to bang her head against the wall and not even hear an echo.”
In “Neighbors over the Fence,” Jewish Betty tells the time by noting the routines of her neighbor, Mrs. Zagretti, an Italian widow. The women bond over their appreciation of horticulture. Mrs. Zagretti becomes a mentor to Betty, whom she considers a much better companion than her son’s wife, even though Mrs. Zagretti has long ignored her Jewish neighbor.
Feeling isolated from her son and daughter-in-law, she leans on this unexpected connection with Betty. She even confides her desperation: “Can you imagine feeling close to a fly?” She confesses that a fly’s death has shaken her: “I felt as if I’d become a widow for the second time.”
Here and elsewhere, Lempel connects this sense of aloneness to the Jewish condition. . . .
To read the entire review, click here: Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories | Washington Independent Review of Books