Friday, January 14, 2011
Edeet Ravel's Your Sad Eyes and Unforgettable Mouth
Isn't that a sumptuously melancholy title? So indulgent . . .
And yet the novel doesn't wallow in melancholy nor nostalgia, rather examining the past, remembering a bright adolescent Jewish lesbian girl's coming-of-age in 1970s Montreal. Not simply the Montreal whose religious provincialism was newly exploded by the free love and drugs of hippies and draft dodgers; not only that Montreal of growing and militant French separatism; but most powerfully, the Montreal of those Jewish immigrants who had survived Hitler's death camps and attempted to rebuild lives and families in a new language, in a new country. The 'post-memory' (Marianne Hirsch's term, I believe, for the powerful effect which the survivors' experiences have on their children who inherit the memories) which drastically shape the lives of Maya and her friends is in danger of seeming remote in 2011. Ravel's novel reminds me of how closely (at least, relatively so, at my admittedly advancing age) the concatenation of generations brings us to World War II's horrors. By a striking (to me, at least) coincidence, we were in San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum within days of my finishing this novel, and I couldn't help but notice what seemed to me an effort to tell different stories about contemporary Judaism. I wonder if that community doesn't worry about the risk of fatiguing the world with the Holocaust narrative and thus turn to other facets of Jewish life -- the fascinating lives of Margaret and H.A. Rey, for example, or the reciprocal relationship between Jewish and Black jazz musicians.
Ravel's own Tel Aviv trilogy shows her own investment in contemporary world, Jewish, and Israeli history and politics, but Your Sad Eyes demonstrates that she is also capable of telling a fresh story about the narrative that dominates the 20th century. I find myself thinking back, in the days after reading this, to three friends, all mid-twenties to early-thirties, I once went on a weekend camping trip with. One was a good friend whose Prussian father took the family to Argentina after WWII, and from there to Canada when she was in her early teens. The second was her friend, an early-thirties, Jewish math professor who joked wryly about clubs he was excluded from in 1970s Vancouver. And the third, also early-thirties, was a Japanese-Canadian who, I now realize, would just barely have missed the wartime Japanese internment camps, and whose family must have lost property and livelihood when they were displaced across Canada from the Coast.
In other words, I suppose I'm saying, Ravel's novel set me to making connections, prodded me to retrospective awareness. All while entertaining me with beautiful writing, thoughtful descriptions, humourous insights, and sad, wise recognition of the difficulties of becoming an adult.
Oh dear, I've just quickly read through what I've written and I realize the book sounds much more ponderous than it is. Delights include Maya's adolescent commentary on her self-directed study of literature, art, and music as well as vignettes of Montreal streets and architecture then and now. There's an old dog you'll love. Youthful exuberance, unrequited passion, rich friendships. The chance to listen in on a bright, inquiring, insightful mind observing and exploring the world and her place in it. What's that old commercial say? Try it, you'll like it . . .