This is the story of a failing marriage, yes, but also the account of a cracking consciousness, both in the sense of its literary liveliness and the sense of a mind becoming unmoored and increasingly consumed by suicidal ideation. Blind is even conscious (in her coffin) at her own funeral, where she argues with mourners. And divorce court ends with the judge’s refusal to grant Blind a divorce from her overbearing husband, on the grounds of her non-death: “JUDGE (Bangs.): Overruled. Her confession cannot be accepted. The death certificate presented at our preliminary hearing was shown to be invalid. Since then the court has had no further proof of her death, nor any evidence of her existence.” Indeed, “Divorcing” courts death. Which is not to say literary necro-leaning is its only aspect. Nor is it dour. “Divorcing” is often very funny, always alive, bursting with ideas, full of formal vitality and change.
The novel comprises four sections that employ a list of narrative moves: letters, drama, metalanguage — Sophie is working on a novel (this novel?) — fragments, dreams, perspectival changes and episodic anecdotes. “It’s not really fiction,” she tells her father. And the conservative reader might be tempted to say the same of “Divorcing.” But the more accurate truth, or at least the more aesthetic truth, is that this feels like a book both stuffed with fiction and nonfiction, memory and play. One is reminded of Elizabeth Hardwick’s poetic “work of memory,” “Sleepless Nights.” Like Hardwick, Taubes has a fierce imagination and perspective. Here she is on sex and adultery: “No better at being ‘the other woman’ as the ‘one woman,’ just the other side of the same bad coin. Most men want deception. But an outright . . . pervert like Gaston is positively refreshing. . . . He pulls the paraphernalia out of his drawer, he is going to humiliate you, nobody talks of love or pleasing one another, there is a tussle, and curiously, contrariness results in pleasure.” All of which is followed by a listing of her lovers, ending with a description of how a woman “must be practical, sensible. A woman needs money and a man. She needs a man to get started earning money. A man to manage her money. She needs to know how to manage men.” This last phrase is key. “Divorcing” is constellated with men (father, husband, sons, lovers) bent on infantilizing Sophie. “You are a child,” her husband says. “A pure and noble child; I understand you.” Her father, the Freudian practitioner, explains she clearly has an “Electra complex,” “she was really in love with him and wanted to marry him and there was no point in denying it.” Blind fights them assiduously.
And, of course, “Divorcing” is about divorce. Blind divorces herself, to some extent, from her parents, her husband, her lovers, her children, from New York, from America, from academia, from God, from the past, from the horrors of the 20th century. It’s a traditional novel divorcing itself from its own traditions, and an experimental novel divorcing itself from its own experiment. Here is Blind on the plot of the novel she is writing, and on “Divorcing” (we presume), and of her own life, seemingly: “The story is about a marriage, she thinks, sitting in her father’s consulting room. It’s the story of the true marriage . . . of a father who broke away from his parents’ traditional home, to whom his own marriage was a problem or a joke; who took her to America where she could dissociate herself from her childhood in Budapest, where she would not be tied by roots to land or people . . . trying to grasp the awfulness that whatever her grandparents and all the generations before them experienced in their youth, giving their lives sanctity, mystery and meaning, had been irrevocably outruled and superseded in the name of Progress, Reason and Enlightenment.” For the reader, it’s all exhilaratingly topsy-turvy, as Taubes’s first two sections are alight with literary fireworks while the last two sections settle surprisingly into more sober prose. The experience is something akin to touring some sweeping exhibit of a cubist painter and starting with the latter, more adventurous works, then finishing with earlier, more conventional showings.
One can’t help but read Taubes’s creation in Blind as a self-referential act, what some might call auto-fiction, but this is more exciting and tangled than that usually promises. Taubes took her own life just a few weeks after the book was published, unfortunately. “Divorcing” serves as a singular epitaph, a once missing, now welcome, brilliant work of late modernism.
Scott Cheshire is the author of the novel “High as the Horses’ Bridles.”
By Susan Taubes
NYRB Classics. 288 pp. $16.95