By Alice Ferney
Translated from the French by Emily Read
Bitter Lemon. 217 pp. Paperback, $13.95
By Justine Levy
Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
Melville House. 220 pp. Paperback, $15
THE OLD CHILD AND OTHER STORIES
By Jenny Erpenbeck
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
New Directions. 120 pp. Paperback, $14.95
Fiction writers Alice Ferney, Justine Levy and Jenny Erpenbeck offer fresh work bearing the familiar if irresistible news that childhood is bloody, mysterious and impregnable and adulthood merely an apostrophe that stakes its claim, in Ferney's words, "in this tangle of childish flesh." The inescapably linked bodies of parents and children fascinate all three of these writers -- bodies that sometimes have little but their own weight to offer, yet fail to anchor one another in a shifting world; bodies that embrace, resist or reject one another in often startlingly unexpected ways.
In Angelina's Children, Ferney begins by introducing us to the harsh world of the French Romany, or gypsies. Through the eyes of a single tribe consisting of the titular matriarch and her five sons with their families, and the additional, sympathetic gaze of a librarian who arrives to read stories to the illiterate children, we learn the truths of a bitter way of life. Angelina and her family survive by scavenging, begging, stealing and by moving their caravans whenever chased off by locals offended by the fumes of their rubbish fire -- the only source of heat in the clan's impoverished encampment.
The librarian, Esther Duvaux, is at first slow to be accepted by Angelina's brood, but over the course of a tragic year she is witness to and later tries to intervene in the lives of the children. By turns protective and angered by the gypsies' apparent passivity, Esther is unaware however of the deepest strands running through their camp: the will of the mother to hold herself in one place for her children for as long as possible. Everything Angelina does is in the interest of genetic survival; she would, she admits, let her husband starve if it were the only way she could feed her children. It is her body that is ultimately consumed before the family is forced to move again. At the core of this clear-eyed, unsentimental story is unyielding muscle, concealed beneath layers of traditional clothing, a vitality the Romany must carry "locked within themselves."
Levy's Nothing Serious can't quite live up to the mysterious attraction of gypsies, yet its blood and tribal aspects are clear. A chronicle of despair among the French elite, and perhaps owing some of its recent European success to its depiction of celebrities including philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy (the author's father) and model Carla Bruni, Nothing Serious follows Louise Levy through anorexia, addiction, abortion and self-loathing during her marriage to the power-hungry Adrien. Louise admits that in trying to please her husband she has lost all sense of her physical self, becoming an "ex-woman" who in desperation, and in one of the book's most poignant passages, resorts to taking her father's drugs in an attempt to absorb some of his fame and strength into her body: "It was as if Dad was inside me, with me. . . . Taking his amphetamines was like a transfusion, it was my life woven into his, it was something of his intelligence and his courage that passed into me; he was guiding me, protecting me, watching over me without knowing it."
After nearly dying, she discovers that her depression is in part due to an unwillingness to throw off the clinging dependence of her childhood. Yet curiously she ends her story like a doll, putting on a dress bought for her by her new lover, who is helping to make her into a "woman" again. What progress this is supposed to signify remains unclear, as does Levy's ultimate attitude toward her material. "Nothing serious" is Louise's oft-repeated mantra, her attempt to acknowledge the overblown fuss she has made over the end of her marriage, but it also signals the author's tentativeness, her too self-conscious dread about overdoing the significance of the loss of first loves. And so I found myself, after suffering with Louise, disappointed by her story's simplistic conclusion: "Life is a rough draft, in the end. . . . You cross out, you cross out. . . . That's why life is long."
"My life seemed to me only a rough draft," agrees the narrator of the final story in Erpenbeck's powerful collection, The Old Child and Other Stories. But the difference lies in the consistent (if perverse) gravity with which she handles childhood, loss, estrangement and blood entanglements. In "Light a Fire or Leave," a horrified woman sees herself becoming more and more like her mother, "as if she'd pulled me on over her head." In "Sand" a woman irresistibly takes on the voice of her grandmother (a public performer who recites famous speeches), and in "Siberia" a son is mortified by his father's love for a woman other than his mother.
It is in "The Old Child," however, that Erpenbeck most completely illustrates the raw potential and power of the parental body. Discovered on a street carrying an empty bucket, a 14-year-old girl remembers nothing of her name or past; she is taken by authorities to an orphanage, where she struggles to adjust her blockish, strangely uncooperative body to her surroundings and to the other children. With its contorted ending, "The Old Child" straddles parable and realistic narrative to ask, precariously: What happens to a child's identity when there has been no cradle in which to form it? Unlike Levy, Erpenbeck does not necessarily see a happily re-written ending for those who lose their way on the long path between birth and death. Read these sharp stories if you can get to only one of these books, but be forewarned: Erpenbeck will get under your skin. *
Mylene Dressler's novels include "The Floodmakers," "The Deadwood Beetle" and "The Medusa Tree."