Emotional Arithmetic

by Matt Cohen
256 pages,
ISBN: 0886193621

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Sums Of Love
by Keith Garebian

THERE ARE GENERAL LINKS between this novel and Matt Cohen`s earlier ones -- madness, a constant interpenetration of past and present, inversions of customary romance, and a character who, as it turns out, was the eponymous heroine of Nadine (1986) and here acts as an ironic catalyst in the background. But Emotional Arithmetic is quite unlike any of his earlier fictions. Behind the episodes of bitter recrimination, sweet eroticism, forlorn alienation, and heroic perseverance is the shadow of neurosis and madness, but a much bigger shadow, although never sensationalized, is that of the Holocaust, where the past haunts the present. It is in these shadows that Cohen finds voices and images for his movingly compressed story of what he calls "the immense gravity of love" in all its wounding forms. The novel opens one July afternoon "in the crystal blue heart of a perfect summer," with Benjamin Winters, the narrator, providing a close-up of his mother`s hands in repose on a glass-topped table. The image of her long fingers "tipped with manicured pearl nails" floating "on her skin like moons on a faraway planet" is beautifully poetic, and yet is suddenly altered by another detail -- a prominent file folder bulging with "her lists, her letters, her documents of imprisonment, betrayal and suffering." The scene is rescued from melodrama because of Cohen`s assured tone and pace. The prose is sharp and succinct, the pitch taut and intense without ever straining apart or rising feverishly to great glittering epiphanies. Significant revela tions do occur, but they become part of widening circles of metaphysical meaning. We discover that the mother, Melanie, is a schizophrenic given to vivid displays of madness, the irony being that she once ran a school of dance where she taught the secret of being still, -unmoving, the centre of the storm." She is in a mental institution, named Heritage Acres by its chief physician who believe,, that his patients -- whom lie euphemistically calls "guests" -- always dream about the past. Melanie does always dream of the past -her marriage to a University historian that soured because of his adulteries, her unrequited love for Christopher Lewis (a novelist with a penchant for steamy historical romances), her role in seeking redress for mankind`s inhumanities and injustices; and, most of all, her two girlhood years in a Nazi concentration camp at Drancy, where her adult "guardian angel" was a Jewish inmate and her closest companion was the teenaged Christopher. Her story, like tier mind, splits into several fragments, all different in mood and dramatic impact, but all posing the central problems of her "emotional arithmetic," in which passions and actions add LIP to judgement. Yet the novel is not simply her story. The frame expands and allows us to see how her errant older husband, loyal son, and Holocaust "angels" all figure in the same difficult equation of survival and truth. Both Melanie and tier husband, David (whom she mockingly refers to as the old biblical king who needs to warm his body with Young women), are seen as victims -- she of a history of genocide and necro-pornography, and he, the emeritus professor and gentleman-farmer, of a history that strands him in the middle of a life lie doesn`t understand. The heaviness of spirit is authentic and authentically projected, and in elaborating metaphysical irony ("God is the mystery that drives us mad"), Cohen combines black comedy with ghostly horror. Despite tier erratic attempt to burn David in bed for his infidelity, Melanie is not the only grotesque. Her son-in-law, Levin, is a repulsive clown, "an unstable comic-opera psychiatrist," as apt to joke about death as he is about predatory sexual appetite. And then there are the ironies of Jakob Bronski, Christopher Lewis, and, finally, Benjamin and his young son -- all of whom are "angels" of life, death, or deliverance. Bronski incarnates the ambitions of this novel. A sweet old man in the body of a giant, his mutilated hands and damaged memory signify something morbid; and when he resurfaces in Paris 40 years after the Drancy horror, he is an apparition from the past. He is a secular analogue of the biblical Jacob: he wrestles with death, ascends the ladder of ideas, descends the ladder of the flesh, and carries a monument of stone in his heart for the nightmares of his wife`s extermination at Auschwitz, the Suicide of his mad socialist lover, and his abandonment of an infant daughter. As an expert translator lie feels himself to be "the linguistic mechanic of nothingness:` although this nihilism is contradicted by his acts of charity and Courage. Shepherded by Christopher to the New World, where he is translated into a set of dichotomies (hero-victim, saint-sinner), he becomes, ironically, Davids "angel of death" in a dramatic episode that carries the novel to its conclusion. The ending`s rainbow of hope is not without unsettling shadows. Although Benjamin has loved his parents and his wife and son, and has struggled with Bronski (the angel of death), he is a tainted recorder or witness, repeating one of his fathers sins. This infidelity is not adequately dramatized (nor is the character of Julia, his lover), but it is a form of love, and Cohen manages to darken the ending without shying away from the culpability and paradox of his narrator.

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