Let’s start with her life, which is as operatically strange as the fiction. Susan Taubes was born Judit Zsuzánna Feldmann in Budapest in 1928. Her father was one of Freud’s disciples; his father was chief rabbi of Budapest. At the age of eleven, she and her father left Hungary for the United States (her mother stayed behind to marry someone else) and watched from afar as the German occupation demolished their home city. She did a PhD in religious philosophy at Harvard; by her mid-twenties she was teaching at Columbia. She looked like Ava Gardner, and lived between Paris and New York, taking lovers in addition to her magnetic, accomplished and somewhat brutish husband, the philosopher and religious scholar Jacob Taubes.
When she strayed from philosophy into experimental fiction, her admirers included Beckett, who called her ‘an authentic talent’. Her closest friend was Susan Sontag. Still, no publisher wanted Taubes’s first novella, A Lament for Julia, and when her novel, Divorcing, was published in the US in 1969, it was panned by Hugh Kenner in the New York Times as the work of a ‘lady novelist’. A few days later, at the age of 41, she walked into the sea in the Hamptons. Sontag identified the body.
The fiction was out of print for decades, but in recent years there has been a revival of interest in Taubes. Divorcing was reissued by New York Review Books in 2020 with an introduction by Sontag’s son, David Rieff. Lament for Julia is now available for the first time, along with nine of her short stories. Taubes’s fiction is autobiographical. She writes female protagonists who are daughters of psychoanalysts or trapped in fluorescently unhappy marriages or both. Critical reappraisals have tended to view her as a woman thwarted by oppressive forces: the strict Freudian father, the overbearing husband. But Taubes’s treatment of womanhood and heterosexual romance is complicated and contrary. Patriarchy, as it looms over her female characters, isn’t something to be abolished, or necessarily even to be fought. Her fiction is messy, funny and formally bizarre. Death, metaphysics, alienation – Taubes treats them less like millstones around her neck than toys to be played with.
Take Divorcing. The protagonist, Sophie Blind, begins the novel dead, or so she tells us: she was decapitated by a car on Avenue George V in Paris, coming out of the hairdresser’s. It’s a comic death and the tone is deadpan. ‘It’s quite certain I am dead. It’s in the newspaper.’ Sophie could get used to her new situation. She spent her life preoccupied with being happy: ‘Now I am dead I care only for the truth.’ Then again, perhaps she’s dreaming: she seems to be slipping in and out of consciousness. There’s a man standing over her. Now he’s hanging from the ceiling. He could be her cousin or her uncle. Is she on a psych ward?
Someone shakes the room like a kaleidoscope; chandeliers blossom and drop in mirror-lined ballrooms, there is too much glare and reflection. Now Sophie Blind isn’t sure whether she is dreaming … Who’s having a hunting party in her head? Birds shot in flight are plummeting darkly from all directions and new ones are thrown in as fast, their cries piercing shrill.
This kind of disorientation pervades the first half of the novel, which describes Blind (existential state unknown) as she attempts to divorce her husband, Ezra, a charismatic but odious man with whom she has three children. Ezra simply won’t hear of it. He allowed her to move with the children to Paris while he stayed in New York to teach. He puts up with her lovers. But divorce? Impossible. When Sophie rages at him, he simply looks at her indulgently:
This was only a woman, throwing her weight on him, fists pounding mostly wall, air, mattress; at worst, a jab in the ribs, her fist passing through the barricade of arms and knees. Just a woman, and now increasingly molten, pliable, fluid with rage; his own beloved wife, he knew what to do with her, and in nine months there was a baby.
Or he just waits out Sophie’s rage and begins calmly listing all the nice things he’s ever done for her. ‘The weight of so much consideration, devotion, service of so many years’ makes her feel faint: ‘She wasn’t sure whether she was standing, sitting or lying. She was asphyxiating. When she finally felt his body surround her and felt crushed under his weight, it was a relief. And in nine months there was a baby.’ The rhythm here is extraordinary. Taubes’s omission of the central act itself – instead there’s floating, asphyxiation, dissolving – heightens both its eroticism and its violence. What an easy slip between rage, annihilation and release. Sophie’s oppression is also, in certain cadences, her pleasure.
This passage establishes some of the motifs of Taubes’s fiction: a protagonist in a state of eerie suspension; a desire for self-determination coupled with an equal desire to be squashed by something or someone bigger. In Divorcing, Sophie is everywhere and nowhere. She’s a dead woman in a coffin suspended from the ceiling. She’s in Paris, in Budapest, with one lover and then another. The second half of the book tells the story of her escape from Hungary with her father, which launches her into a crisis of profound dislocation from which she never quite recovers:
She tried in vain to grasp the meaninglessness of every room and street corner, her inability to experience the rooms and streets as a moment in her life. In America the sky was not the sky, the grass was not grass, Sophie Landsmann was not Sophie Landsmann.
Lament for Julia stages this metaphysical alienation more literally. The novella is narrated by a disembodied voice, which describes itself as ‘a grey, nondescript spirit, cold and sober to a fault’. The spirit is obsessed with a girl called Julia Klopps, whom it has been following since she was a child. It notes the arrival of her period, fascinated and perturbed by her vagina: ‘Julia was late to flower. Indeed … I had grave doubts whether she was a woman. One might think that the missing appendage would allay my uncertainties; but this only proved that she was not a man … What was she? An anomaly?’ Still, the spirit clings to her parasitically. ‘For all I knew, it was my only chance to be in a woman.’ Julia is now married and has recently had an affair. When that relationship ends, she makes an abortive attempt to revive her role as a dutiful wife and mother, and then vanishes.
Reading Lament for Julia alongside Divorcing underlines Taubes’s interest in disoriented characters for whom the conventions of human experience (linear time, for example) have little purchase. In Divorcing, this is taken to be a post-Holocaust diasporic sensibility. Sophie never recovers her place in the world after leaving Hungary on the eve of the war: ‘The world in which she would have wanted to live had ended – before Hiroshima, before Auschwitz … Time was oppressive, superfluous.’ But when she returns to Budapest in 1946, she finds that those who stayed there and survived the war are equally dissociated, a condition that is framed as both existential and geographical. ‘I can’t believe anything will ever make sense,’ a childhood friend tells Sophie. ‘But I’m going to London and who knows.’
Taubes, like many postwar artists and intellectuals, turned to surrealism (which she considered ‘the true realistic novel of this generation’) to articulate the trauma of displacement, the secondary trauma of returning to a diminished homeland, and the lifelong challenge of regaining a sense of coherence – or of going without. ‘Dearest, I hang in the sky. The world has come to an endless stop.’
This is writing that’s in dialogue with Freudianism, which Taubes treats as alluring but fraudulent. Sophie wounds her father with her indifference towards psychoanalysis. ‘She didn’t “reject” Freud. She just did not find it as interesting as works of literature. No, she was not interested in explaining people or anything.’ Taubes’s work captures the sheer exhaustion of analysis as it was practised by Freud’s closest disciples. In these books penis envy is both relentless and absurd:
Julia was a glove with the thumb turned in, a wrinkled purse. A mere repository, a trench, a sponge that absorbed everything; whatever she touched seemed to impregnate her. She could not even cast her own water from herself without wetting her bush. Her acts could only be construed as states suffered. Wouldn’t I have to rewrite her entirely in the passive?
The female consciousness is not only alienated but exploited, acted on and objectified. Sometimes Taubes’s engagement with Freudianism does little more than remind the reader of what a bizarre and chauvinistic worldview it is. The extended scene in Lament for Julia in which Julia loses her virginity to a soldier passing through town – narrated by the spirit, who is horrified by her becoming ‘a bruised peach’ – is nauseating. ‘Why weep for Julia, she wanted to be pierced, rammed, filled, she wanted it,’ the spirit muses. ‘Because of the way she is made, I suppose, with a crack, a slit, between her legs, poor thing; a hollow in her flesh she wanted filled with flesh, a man’s or a child’s.’ It would make entertaining satire, but it isn’t always clear this is what Taubes intended.
In ‘Dr Rombach’s Daughter’, one of the stories collected alongside Lament for Julia, the Freudian influence is treated more earnestly. A Viennese psychoanalyst lives alone with his teenage daughter in the home where he sees patients, though he insists that the patients never see her. He has a habit of grilling his daughter about her private life and insists she has an Electra complex. On one occasion he walks into a room and demands to know what she has been thinking. Nothing, she says. She had just been sitting there. But he begins to speculate:
‘You’re tired of seeing me come in, hour after hour. You’d like to see a young man walk in, who is interested in you as a sexual partner – make up to you a little. And you are perfectly right to feel that way,’ he added and sat on the arm of the chair, fondling her. ‘What is a father’s love after all?’ Then, in a serious tone: ‘You must not repress these natural drives out of irrational guilt feelings arising from your Oedipal attachment to me. Of course, you’re a growing girl, your glands are beginning to work, your breasts are developing –’ he studied her breasts, ‘they could be a little, well, shapelier. Don’t you wear a brassiere?’
Her characters may express animus towards Freud, if they’re interested in him at all, but Taubes presents the father-daughter relationship as the original site of self-alienation. How can a girl develop a sense of self when confronted with a philosophical framework that turns the female subject into a plaything to be analysed, sexualised and narrativised?
Taubes delivers her answer through literature (rather than analysis), mocking the notion of coherent narrative, much less the coherent female self. Midway through Divorcing the father, annoyed that his daughter has chosen to be a writer rather than an analyst, asks her about the novel she’s writing. ‘Can you explain to me what kind of book this is?’ She cannot. On the next page, the novel has turned into a play. (It’s a good joke: Sorry, Dad!) Suddenly, we are in a courtroom filled with various Hungarian rabbis, ghoulish Ezra, Sophie’s enraged father and Sophie herself, lying in a coffin. The men argue over her inert body, each demanding custody and claiming that she belongs to him. When Sophie finally speaks, it’s only nonsense and obscenities. The scene is funny, if a little on the nose.
Sophie begins to write as a means of self-reclamation, as a way of orienting herself in the world: ‘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.’ The girl in ‘Dr Rombach’s Daughter’ (a version of Taubes’s 14-year-old self) stays up late after her father has gone to bed so she can get words on paper. Not in any particular order, not in sentences, just for the pleasure of writing them:
The blue she saw, the sadness and shame she felt, the quivering moth on the lampshade, they eluded her. But the words blue, sadness, shame, moth, belonged to her … The world was like a wall. Its objects were turned away from her until she named them. Then the sky allowed her to enter. She called things by their names and they came to her like animals.
To know where you are, to be able to name things and feel that you belong among them, to come home to oneself in language – this is what Taubes strives towards but can’t fully achieve. Her writing never moves in a single direction, never resolves itself. This isn’t an aesthetic failure, but it is existentially painful. ‘I. We. She. No, I give up,’ the spirit in Lament for Julia finally admits. ‘It’s a poor metaphor. A wonder it carried us this far, lurching, circling about from some initial point to where we are at present.’ Of course, the spirit doesn’t know where it is. The spirit is lost. It needs Julia to guide it home, but she’s gone.
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