HELEN WEINZWEIG published her first novel, Passing Ceremony, in 1973 at the age of 58. In Canada; she is not the first woman writer of her generation to come late to publication. And when the writer is as good as Weinzweig, one wants to rail at the business of living that must have got in the way of the writing. 'Mere is certainly a compelling story for someone to tell about the silence that has surrounded such women writers.
We don't have a lot by Weinzweig two novels and now a volume of stories ? but it's rich material. Her new book, A View from the Roof, is a collection of most of her published stories to date. There are 13, the earliest from 1968, though most appeared in the late '70s and '80s.
In a volume of stories it is the voice that hovers above the fictional personae that gives the stories their measure. Weinzweig brings an almost ruthless honesty to her invented world; she has clearly had too much experience of what Theodore Roethke used to call lived life to let her characters off the hook. They are trapped in their various isolations of ennui, self?hatred, boredom, or self?deception but they do not seem weird or unnatural ? this, Weinzweig seems to say, is what it is to be alive. Weinzweig was born Jewish in Poland and came with her family to Canada at the age of nine. She does not expect a lot from human beings. But as a writer she only ,rarely turns her perspective to autobiographical accounts. Her vision is political in the widest sense ? she understands the nature of power and how power functions between individuals within scripted social structures, including the family. Yet there is such urbanity, humour, and grace in her stories that she reminds us of what is possible.
Weinzweig has great skill as a writer. The plots and strategies of her stories are so different that one marvels at the range. She can write from the perspective of a child in Poland in 1912, a Yiddish mother reminiscing to her daughter about the men in her life, a disgruntled middle?class housewife describing her breakdown, a gigolo whose profession is seducing rich women, or a male writer escaping his cash?conscious wife. She can play with styles, writing monologues or surrealistic experiments. And throughout is the urbane, sophisticated voice of the writer who can encapsulate in a few words a chilling summary of our lives: "Pain has to be physical to be bearable. Or else why would Vincent [Van Gogh] have cut off an ear, if not to displace his soul's anguish to a spot he could touch?"
Several fascinating motifs recur through the stories. There is Weinzweig's disturbing portrait of the couple. Her couples seem locked in a dance of silence: "I don't mind the silence ... My marriage has prepared me for eating with strangers." Marriage seems a monologue a deux, for the male voice only. And there is anger in her portraits of women's lives, from the old Slav bitter about the constraints women impose on each other ("If another woman tries to live her own life, they scream blue murder") to the women who accept defeat passively, "trailed by desires as if by beggar children." But it is not just women who are caught. Most of Weinzweig's characters are surrounded by silence. "Something should have been said ? the truth, a lie, an approximation even ? for in the absence of words a presence slips in to fill the emptiness and haunts us forever."
And then there is Weinzweig's fascination with memory. One of the most extraordinary stories is "Me Man Without Memories." The plot is wonderful. A man who has made it to the level of owner of a downtown parking lot decides to write his memoirs. But instead of writing them himself, he pays to have someone else relive his life. With the precision of an obsessive, he reproduces the Depression farmhouse of his childhood in the city parking lot and hires a writer and his family to act out his life of 50 years ago as he watches through binoculars. He wants nothing fictitious in his autobiography' For him memory operates outside time and, as with many Weinzweig characters, his real passion is a desire for oblivion.
"What Happened to Ravel's Bolero?" is also Weinzweig at her best. She has taken the plot of any Harlequin romance ? a married man dismisses his mistress and returns to his wife for the sake of a vice?presidential promotion: the company does not approve of scandal. She writes the story in such a way that the same sentences repeat in ever?changing variations: the details of the place, persons, conversations return ? so that the whole weaves like a musical composition. The writing has the power of Ravel's Bolero, but there is no romance here, just our modern notion of lovemaking. It would be hard to imagine a more cryptic and brilliant expose of the repetitive banality of this life?plot. The sentences whirl around the reader, giving one the sensation of being caught in water circling down a drain pipe. There's a small triumph as the mistress walks out with the executive's silver salt?and?pepper shakers in her purse.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing themes of the stories is Weinzweig's preoccupation with art. Many of her characters are either artists or married to artists. Again she saves us from sentimentality. Art, she insists, is at odds with circumstance. The pursuit of art is ruthless. In "L'Envoi" the artist has been forced to exert so much control over his life that he is like the oyster, which "can survive only with a certain range of temperature and degree of salinity in the water and depends on food passing by." He is attached to his culch and cannot move one inch. Or in "Journey to Pourquois" the artist spends fictional years on a train where his elusive characters await him, and where he is safe from the claims of wife and life. Weinzweig's male artists are rather chilling creatures. Only one artist is female, and that is Weinzweig herself, whose tough, compassionate, and intelligent voice has orchestrated the whole.
These are wise stories, written by someone who has thought long and hard about the business of living. If the voice is often cool and sardonic, it is because life is sardonic. And Weinzweig's characters are eloquent about their lives because they can see the possibility of more. 'Me book, like a musical composition, is a masterly performance.