Susan Taubes’s ‘Divorcing’ Asks: How Far Can the Novel Take You?

Susan Taubes’s ‘Divorcing’ Asks: How Far Can the Novel Take You?

The Unspoken Corners

Susan Taubes’s Divorcing.

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The question of why writers write is a lot like the question of why people marry, which is to say, it is the eternal question of why human beings knowingly commit themselves to tiresome and masochistic endeavors that most often lead nowhere, ending only in defeat or death. There are some writers for whom writing seems to be a form of psychotherapy, a means of sorting through experience. There are others for whom writing is evidently an act of pleasure and delight. Some appear to write out of a compulsion, others out of a belief that writing may bring them love, or attention, or acclaim. (In truth, each of us might be one or another of these writers at some point, our motivations, in art as in life, being opaque and ever prone to delusion.)

Then there is the writer for whom writing is a means of transportation, a way of accessing spaces she longs to return to or places she has yet to go. A form of movement; in other words, a form of freedom. Real travel may well be accessible to this writer; on occasion, travel may be her explicit subject. But more often she can be distinguished by the undertow beneath her narratives, trying to pull her beyond the steadying control of language’s constraints. As you read, you have the feeling that she is trying to get somewhere, trying to land. I have always loved this kind of writer best: the one who writes not to make a point because she can, but to get to a particular place because she must.

Renata Adler, Jamaica Kincaid, Rachel Cusk, and Marguerite Duras are exemplars of this form; it may well be a catalyst of this kind of writing for its creator to be born in one land and transplanted to another. To their ranks I’d now add Susan Taubes, a writer who was underrated and overshadowed in her lifetime, and whose first and thus-far only published novel, Divorcing, teems with stylistic daring, taunts with irreverence, and glints with genius. Reissued this September, Divorcing can now be read for what it is: an astonishing work of art, decades ahead of its time, whose formal innovations and insistent excavation of the unspoken corners of female consciousness we now take for granted as de rigueur.

Experimental and evasive, Divorcing invites obsessive re-reading but resists summary. On one level, it is a semi-autobiographical novel about a writer named Sophie Blind, who seeks a divorce from her scholarly husband, Ezra. On another level, it is a book about an unnamed writer at work on a novel about a writer named Sophie Blind. On yet another, it is the story of one Jewish family’s dissolution, which coincides with the rise of the Third Reich. Divorcing is both the tale of a dead woman speaking from the afterlife and that of a living woman resisting psychic death and manipulation by therapy and drugs. Taubes constructs the novel as though piecing together a kaleidoscope of experiences from broken shards of glass. The results are uneven but riveting, ultimately concerned with the question of where writing alone—and the novel form in particular—can take us.

Divorcing is divided into four parts, although these divisions feel fairly arbitrary, given Taubes’s shifts in perspective, tone, tense, and locale within them. The novel’s first three parts follow a disorienting dream logic. From its opening notes it is unclear where the narrator is situated and whether she is dead or alive, conscious or dreaming, sober or under the influence. The final part of the novel is explicitly hallucinogenic. The narrator is put in an isolation tank, a concept I didn’t realize existed in the 1960s, while her two children are hypnotized. None of this is really explained, yet like so much else in the novel, it makes a kind of intuitive or thematic sense. (If all of this sounds cerebral to the point of ridiculousness, Taubes seems to be largely in on the joke. Divorcing is, it must be said, very funny, and includes the perfect Freudian punch line, “Baby, culture stinks. Let’s screw.”)

Drifting between various European cities and shifting between the narrator as Sophie Blind and the narrator as unnamed-writer-creating-Sophie-Blind, Divorcing’s opening scenes frame writing—and in particular, the writing of this book—as an effort to push past sense-experience into a more primal, individual truth. After a paragraph spent describing the speck of an insect crushed onto a blank notebook page, the narrator abruptly states that she is “coming into consciousness, a lifelong struggle. For countless departures, few arrivals—mostly false.” These countless departures mirror the act of trying to write as well as the act of travel, which the narrator relies on to move through life. Taubes writes, “It’s the only way to live, Sophie always said, the only way to live in time: fly right with it.”

The narrative continues to conflate writing with traveling, traveling with writing, but without a particular interest in those few arrivals. Taubes’s narrators are unconcerned about settling in any given bed with any given man. The narrative sets up a series of puzzles and ambiguities that resist resolution, giving the impression of a mystery novel with many killers and no clues. Why arrive anywhere when you can keep departing, when the liftoff itself is the experience you’re after? Taubes’s narrators aren’t trying to rationalize Sophie’s life through writing or any other means. Taubes writes, “Thinking about the sense of one’s life, trying to make sense of it, was an idle and useless preoccupation, Sophie had always believed. Worse than useless, it was positively unhealthy. In short, a bad habit.” Instead, she’s interested in writing as a means of holding that which refuses to be made into sense: the selves we have been and have lost, the marital narratives we have bought into and broken, the homes that no longer exist, the myriad ways in which we attempt to divorce our present from our past, our history from our fate.

For Taubes, as for so many European Jews born in the 20th century, questions of travel—which is to say, questions of belonging—were questions of survival. Born in 1928 to a prominent Hungarian Jewish family, Susan Taubes was the granddaughter of Mózes Feldmann, the head Conservative rabbi in Pest; her father, a renowned psychoanalyst, brought Susan to America in 1939, leaving behind her mother and much of her extended family, some of whom survived the Holocaust (others of whom did not). Ten years after leaving Hungary, 21-year-old Susan married Jacob Taubes, a noted philosopher and religious scholar, in the United States; the two lived apart for several years after their wedding, exchanging detailed correspondence as Susan continued her studies and Jacob traveled in Israel. Both Susan and Jacob were close friends of, and influences on, Susan Sontag. Divorcing was published in 1969 and immediately met with a condescending review in The New York Times. Taubes died by suicide a few weeks later; Sontag, who would later describe the suicide as “second-rate,” was brought in to identify her drowned body. (I hesitate to mention the circumstances of Taubes’s death, facts that may tempt her readers, as it has tempted her marketers, to cram her work into that particular box marked “Read with a sense of impending authorial tragedy.” To give Taubes her due, we should resist this.)

What does it mean to be spared the worst of something? Sophie Blind is not in Europe during the Holocaust, but Divorcing is a Holocaust novel all the same. It is a novel about an escape that cannot recognize itself, in the moment, as escape. It is a novel about the randomness of who is spared from tragedy, that is, for whom tragedy is delayed. Sophie Blind is conscious of having left Europe—and her mother—on the brink of the Holocaust. (She recalls the experience of living on the ship to America more than she can recall the sense of going from the Old World to the New; the liminal space is where her consciousness stays.) The second and third parts of Divorcing trace Sophie Blind’s family history: her parents’ courtship in the left-wing intellectual Jewish community of Budapest; their unhappy union, marred from the start by her mother’s prior marriage and lack of familial pedigree; the supplementation of their marriage with affairs; the decision, in the end, to divorce, as the Nazis arrived in Hungary. Taubes’s depiction of Hungary’s slow descent into a virulent nationalism—and the way in which even the most dire political developments are first and primarily understood through the ripple effects they send onto our private dramas—is among the strongest features of the novel.

Taubes presents these facts first in a detached third-person narration, as though these family trials form part of a documentary. Sophie reflects that the loss of her country, and the exile of her people from their homes, felt “like it happened to someone else, another child, an undefined stranger.” Between the adult Sophie and the Hungary of her childhood stand two oceans, the Atlantic and the wide span of decades. She can cross one through travel and the other through memory, but she can never cross both at the same time. Divorcing can be read as Sophie’s attempt to do so anyway, through writing. Taubes repeatedly mentions Sophie Blind’s unmarried name—Sophie Landsmann, a bit heavy-handed—while describing her alienation from the physical landscape of Hungary. (And as the adult Sophie is divorcing her husband, the unwritten question of what her name and identity will be after she is no longer a Blind hovers.) As Hungary yields to the Nazis, and Sophie and her father prepare to leave for America, Taubes’s writing frames the incalculable personal losses of the Second World War as inevitable, predestined, already written: “It had to be so, the Jews weren’t meant to feel at home anywhere; the fields, orchards, horses, cattle, rivers and sky were not for Jews and not what Jews wanted or should want because they were singled out by God to be different, singled out for a different destiny.”

Taubes interrogates the disintegration of Sophie’s childhood country and Sophie’s adult marriage through a series of nesting-doll perspectives: Sophie’s point of view as a child, as an adult, as an adult reflecting on childhood, and, on occasion, her own destiny as seen from the perspective of some omniscient third party, perhaps the perspective of God. Then the interrogation flips. Sophie is suddenly on trial herself, in a section of the novel formatted like a play or a legal transcript. She is asked to defend herself against her sins, as her father, ex-husband, and members of their community sneer, scoff, and scold her while she lies in her coffin. Here there is language that would make Philip Roth squirm (or swoon), as Sophie rebukes the jury from her coffin: “I’m sick of all this fuss. Go ahead, you dodoes, and condemn me for eating fried octopus, cock sucking, animal worship. I touched the mezuzah when I was menstruating, put that down. I confess to all your charges. I recommend to all Jewish women semen drunk straight or mixed with beef blood. Now feed me to the dogs as is your custom.”

Taubes mockingly anticipates the reader’s search for resolution or coherence in Divorcing: “Coherent discourse? How do you expect me—? Begin to explain now in my present state of decomposition?…plurality of parallel existences…not my words…thought I put it in different books.” At the same time, the first part of the novel consistently frames writing as an act of control, and for Sophie Blind in particular, a means of wresting back selfhood and agency, however disorderly, from the imposing influences of her father, her husband, and her broader family and the institutions they represent—psychoanalysis, marriage, and Judaism. Referring to divorce papers, Sophie Blind tells her husband, “Sometimes one’s life depends on a piece of paper.” Writing is again framed as a means of escape. At the close of the novel’s first section, Taubes grounds the reader with a self-awareness so clear-eyed that she resets one’s expectations, asking the reader to consider the stakes—as well as the obviousness, safety, finality—of the book in her hands:

Between life and dream there was not much difference really, however the two wrangled, struggled, played tricks on each other. A book was something really different. To begin with, you know where you are: you’re in a book, and whether the setting is Paris or New York or the moon or not specified at all, you know you’re in a book.… You can be dreaming and not know it. You can be awake and wonder if it’s a dream and not believe it. But a book is simply and always a book—you can be sure of that. And with a book, whether you’re reading it or writing it, you are awake. The question does not pose itself. Writing a book appealed to Sophie on all these grounds. In a book she knew where she was. Because, however baffling and blundering and ambiguous, a book was a book.

A book is a book, simply and always: a container, a means of transportation, some pieces of paper on which one’s life sometimes depends. Sophie Blind—and the unnamed narrator creating Sophie Blind—speak frequently of her (their?) book-in-progress to her lovers, her husband, and her parents. In return they respond as most do when informed that a relation is writing a book; they ask vague questions, offer unsolicited suggestions, inquire after the seriousness of the undertaking. At multiple points in the novel, writing is situated simply as a means of acquiring financial freedom. One of Sophie’s lovers quips, “Write a book that gets you a fifty-thousand-dollar advance and it’s simple. You’re free as a bird. Tokyo, Lima, Istanbul, anywhere. Spend your life on an airplane or cruising. It’s obvious you have to travel.” Sophie’s mother echoes the sentiment, telling Sophie, “My life is a novel…somebody should write it. Why don’t you? I am sure you could make a lot of money with it.”

The idea that a novel would be a path to financial freedom might now seem a touch absurd (though the absurdity has rarely stopped anyone from trying). Still, Divorcing identifies financial freedom with other forms of freedom, especially those freedoms that we can only hope to attain through art. This conflation gestures at the reality that, for Sophie Blind and perhaps for Taubes, writing a book was a path to establishing an independent identity and a way of appropriating and transforming the mindless comments of the strong-willed men around her. Which presents a possible answer to the book’s chimerical logic: How dare we expect explanations when Sophie Blind is busy being reborn?

Writing from upstate New York to her then-husband, Jacob, who was living at the time on a Bauhaus estate in Jerusalem, the 22-year-old Susan reflected on the fiction of her time. “The new ‘literature’ creates a situation which is almost reminiscent of the mystery-cult,” she told him. “There is the picture, the hieroglyphic, the priestly interpreter + initiator, and the initiated members. And we are no longer in the sphere of ‘literary enjoyment’ in the ordinary sense.” Taubes, then a young wife and student, was commenting on a study she had recently read concerning the first chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses and its formal parallels to the structure of a Catholic mass. She continued, “And people who complain they don’t ‘enjoy’ modern art better learn to enjoy their meals, their bed and the sunshine and prepare their souls for a less easy, sedentary and comfortable banquet with the gods.” (If you’re on the market for a mantra, this would make a good one.)

The final section of Divorcing offers a gentle resolution for those less prepared for that uncomfortable banquet. Sophie and Ezra’s children are minor characters in the first three parts of the novel, but they assume prominence in the fourth, which takes the form of an extended conversation between Sophie, her three sons, and Sophie’s friend Kate, an unmarried hypnotist. The sons are young and chaotic, full of questions and hormones. Taubes has thrust us into the present tense, the now; we are shunted, unprepared, into the first person. And the children are running wild.

In this last section, Sophie’s sons offer a path to narrative reconciliation. Their conflicting energies serve as an externalization of Sophie’s impulses, and their Americanness (“My tolerant American children”) is resolute, a grounding influence for their nationless mother. The boys pose blunt questions that the earlier sections of the novel invite but don’t answer, such as “Why do you like traveling so much?” and “Just when you should be making something of yourself, when you were about to become an actress—how could you go to a gross place like Jerusalem?” Taubes’s narrator responds plainly, “It was the war. We were just stunned. The things that had happened and that after they happened everything could just go on as before…it made one’s personal future somehow irrelevant.”

David Rieff posits, in his introduction to the reissue of the book, that the final section of Divorcing may have been added as an afterthought, at the urging of publishers. I’d disagree. Taubes seems to be demonstrating, once more, the yawning gap between how we package ourselves for others’ understanding and how we struggle to see ourselves. Sophie’s children are already embarking on their own journey of packaging and unpackaging, as Kate lulls them into a hypnotic state while Sophie lies in a sensory deprivation chamber. When Kate asks if Sophie has had a “rebirth experience,” Sophie replies “I’ll write it up for your files and let the computer decide.” Once more writing is the space where Sophie can set herself down, and know where she is.

The question of where flares up once more in the brief and surreal closing images of Divorcing. Sophie, or the narrator who has created her, stands in a train station somewhere in Europe. Then, suddenly, the platform falls away and she is in bed. Taubes again evokes the feeling of waking from dreams within dreams. “Because I’m not awake yet?” she writes, “Not truly awake. Of course, she thinks, going out on to the street to hail a cab. And what presumption to expect in this life to be perfectly awake.… The irrelevance.” Irrelevant because, as you see the blank space at the bottom of the page, both you the reader and Taubes the writer remain, indisputably, inside a book.

It can sometimes seem as though the highest goal for a novel in our time is to be made into a television series. The result has been a procession of novels that read almost like background material for a script: plotted with the aim of being binged, more developed than written, more consumed than read. The reasons for this shift–the narrowing of possibilities for economic sustainability in the arts, the mass screen-addiction with which analog art forms have been forced to contend–are obvious and therefore uninteresting, as are most of the results. But the power of a reissued novel, especially a mostly forgotten novel by an author long dead, lies in part in its ability to remind us of other goals, other purposes, other conditions for creation. In our era of made-for-adaptation fiction, Divorcing is thrillingly set apart by its manipulation of and deep faith in, the novel as a form. Taubes draws together a tangle of realities and perspectives that could not fit into a medium any less forgiving or less malleable than one lacking in all practical restrictions except that it must take the form of words on pages, bound together in some set order. It has been a while since I last read a novel that gave off that incandescent quality of needing to be exactly what it was, of being unsuitable for any other medium. I had almost forgotten how good it feels.

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