Monthly Archives: July 2013

Dear Geoffrey Chaucer,

 The Canterbury Tales


The Canterbury Tales

Who knew you’d be one of the main muses responsible for helping me structure and start my next novel? I haven’t read your Canterbury Tales since 1960, my sophomore year in college. Back then it was on the syllabus of The History of British Lit, a required course for English majors. Students each had to memorize and recite the first eighteen lines of that work’s Prologue in Middle English. While dutifully repeating your alien-sounding introductory words over and over again, I gradually began to decode them. I was amazed. You describe how nature’s spring rebirth moved some medieval Brits to make, not love, but religious pilgrimages. I knew nothing of such pilgrims or pilgrimages. They sounded pretty fishy to me. At 20, I found most poetry remote from mundane matters that concerned me, such as snaring a husband and passing organic chemistry. But I wanted to know what those pious tourists were really up to, so I read on.

            Your wayfarers are a colorful crew with lots to say about finding not just husbands, but lovers too. Among your pilgrims are a butcher, a merchant, a monk, a nun, a knight, an oft-married seamstress,  and a miller to name just a few. To my sophomore’s delight their tales included more descriptions of sex than any other work I’d read, including my well-thumbed copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

The Wife of Bath

The Wife of Bath

And all of these narrators as well as the raconteur of the Prologue, talk of the most mundane matters imaginable: their work, their faith, their clothes, food, and housing, and the rambunctious love lives of their friends and acquaintances. It was a revelation to me to learn that medieval English people even had such familiar, ordinary concerns and the ordinary vocabulary to discuss them. You opened my mind to the possibility that a poet might speak to me and that I might hear and relate to what he was saying. Even in Middle English, your realism was a welcome relief to me.

Assassination of Thomas Becket

Assassination of Thomas Becket

The other thing I appreciated then and hope to imitate now is the way you framed The Canterbury Tales. In a roadside inn en route to Canterbury to pay homage to St. Thomas Beckett, your travelers agree to entertain one another with stories. Each of them has a distinctive voice and world view. The miller tells a ribald tale about a cuckolded carpenter in commoner’s language appropriate to a dirty joke shared in a bar while the knight offers his story of chivalry and courtly love in genteel phrases fit for kings and queens.

The other day I was listing the various characters in my as yet unwritten mystery/thriller and trying to figure out how to organize their activities and relationships. My story features a disparate group of Jews who come together at a hotel in Eastern Washington to perform a religious ritual. There are other guests as well. I was as frustrated as that proverbial cat herder. Then, while pondering, I flashed on a familiar group of religious folks talking and drinking in a medieval English inn. I could see them clearly.

Story Time at the Inn

Story Time at the Inn

As abruptly as it had surfaced, this image vanished, eclipsed by an idea, a question really. Could I structure my novel as a series of stories told by each character

Writer at Work

Writer at Work

and book-ended by a prologue and an epilogue? With The Canterbury Tales as a model, my book could reveal the comedy of tragic errors that is modern American life! The potential of this idea excited me for a mere moment before a host of doubts dampened my mood. Would your frame work for a novel? Would today’s wired travelers stop texting and tweeting to tell stories let alone listen to those of strangers? Could I write the different voices and points of view convincingly? For a moment these doubts drowned my excitement, but I pushed them aside. This strategy just might work. And even if it doesn’t, I’ll have something to revise, a beginning. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Humorous fiction

Dear Art Spiegelman,

Maus I

Maus I

 If my mother and father were still alive I think your Pulitzer Prize winning Maus books recounting your father’s life before, during, and after the

Maus II

Maus II

Holocaust would astound them more than the ten-dollar movie ticket, a black president, or cell phones. It’s not your subject matter that would dumbfound them, but your chosen format. Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began are what my parents disparaged as comic books and forbade me to read or buy.

Forbidden Fruit

Forbidden Fruit

My mother, a former school teacher, was sure that reading comics would instantly deplete my vocabulary and distract me from reading “real” books. My father refused to allow even one thin dime of his hard-earned money, including my allowance, to be squandered on “that trash.” Of course, my curiosity was piqued, and I devoured the adventures of Archie, Betty, Jughead, and Veronica at the home of my next-door neighbor with that furtive lust kids reserve for the forbidden.

            So why didn’t I read Maus I when it came out in 1986? It got great reviews, earned you a Pulitzer, and was responsible for the transformation of the much-maligned comic book into the graphic novel. I’m not sure what kept me from your book, but I suspect that I didn’t think I would assign it to my students, almost none of whom were Jewish or European and, after reading The Diary of Anne Frank and Sophie’s Choice, I didn’t care to read Holocaust stories. Even as an adult, I found them terrifying and depressing in spite of the fact that back in 1986, I thought anti-Semitism was over.

Jews as Mice

Jews as Mice

Now, a quarter of a century later, I know anti-Semitism lives on and I decided to read your Maus books. I found them fascinating and am so grateful to you for making the effort you describe and for being so forthcoming about your own thorny relationship with your dad. I’m also very grateful for those black-and-white drawings. You are an acclaimed visual artist and by depicting Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs, you somehow condense our stereotypes of the animals and the humans and remind us of them without having to constantly reword or qualify them. You are not afraid to evoke those stereotypes either, and the fact that they’re politically incorrect does not detract from their effectiveness.

Thus your medium leaves you free to concentrate on what happens when your characters converse and what is going on in the background. Your

Yinglish Word

Yinglish Word

father’s speech with its overtones of Yiddish and Polish is familiar to me even though my parents’ English was uninflected. It becomes clear in your dad’s transactions with you that his life experiences have left their mark on his everyday acts: eating, sleeping, talking, managing money, and relating to those he loves. To be a survivor is no cakewalk. So it follows that to be, like you, the offspring of two Holocaust survivors, one of whom killed herself, isn’t either.

Although I am very glad I read Maus I and II, I am also glad it didn’t take me too long. I didn’t want to linger in those trains and trucks or at Auschwitz or even in your dad and Mala’s kitchen in Rego Park or their cabin in the Catskills. Reading your books is a little like looking at scans of one’s broken bones or a suspicious cluster of cells. One wants to know the worst and yet one doesn’t, so one looks quickly. I did not dwell on your illustrations but scanned them as I read the dialogue in the balloons and in the rectangular spaces enclosing your dad’s narrative interjections.

While reading I was very aware of your scribbling notes or taping your dad’s answers to your questions. I share with you the desire to preserve the past, especially the Jewish past, as it was actually experienced by those who lived it. That’s why I relied heavily on oral histories of Seattle Jews archived by the Washington State Jewish Historical Society at the University of Washington when researching material for The Bones and the Book.

Pulitzer Prize

Pulitzer Prize

I suspect that my parents would have to admit that by telling your father’s story so graphically, you have done us all a great service. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, Uncategorized