April 05, 2016 at 5:06 PM

Helen Weinzweig and Magic Realism

April 05, 2016 at 5:06 PM

My most important problem was destroying
the lines of demarcation that separates what
seems real from what seems fantastic.
Gabriel García Márquez

Helen WeinzweigI.  "What Would Helen Say?" (Inanna, January 6, 2016)

II. "From Pain to Prose" (Inanna, March 23, 2016)

III "Helen Weinzweig and Magic Realism" (Inanna, April 16, 2016)

Helen Weinzweig is the author of the novels Passing Ceremony and Basic Black with Pearls, winner of the Toronto Book Award. Her short story collection, A View from the Roof, was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Helen Weinzweig died in Toronto in 2010.

“Helen Weinzweig and Magic Realism” follows “What Would Helen Say?” (Inanna Blog, January 2015) and “From Pain to Prose” (Inanna, March 2016). In the first, I wanted to pass along some of Helen’s insights on writing that I’d been the lucky recipient of; in the second, I tried to tell of her life experiences and the personal pain arising from some them, how they are revealed in her work. In this, “Helen Weinzweig and Magic Realism,” I have written about how she used magic realism to transport her feelings of trauma and pain into language the reader could emotionally grasp.

I believe it was the commonalities we shared that sparked the bond I felt with Helen when we first met in the early 1990s; perhaps it was the same recognition that engendered her willingness to foster the mentor-student relationship, even friendship, that grew between us. We both started writing late in life (her first published story came at age 52; mine at 58); both felt the consequences of 1950s attitudes towards women; both whose work was grounded in a Jewish sensibility. It was the recalled memories of that association and her teachings that led to my writing the first two blog pieces on Helen and her work, and now this, "Helen Weinzweig and Magic Realism," the third and last.

Magic Realism is a term applied to a technique that combines “realism and the fantastic so that the marvelous seems to grow organically within the ordinary, blurring the distinction between them.” (Wendy Faris, in Magical Realism, Duke University press, 1995). The realistic and fantastic are seamlessly integrated, but when fantastic elements begin to enter the story of ordinary people living ordinary lives, neither narrator nor characters take any notice, mentioning them casually without further reference.

Magic realism can be a means of dealing with painful traumatic memories, [expressing] . . . “not what actually happened, but what was experienced as happening.” (Eugene Arva, The Traumatic Imagination Cambria Press, 2011). Pain itself cannot be expressed in language, but the “magic’ in magic realism (images produced in the imagination) can allow the writer/reader to translate what is unbearable into imagistic language, mimicking, or simulating, pain. Arva, a German scholar and professor of Engish, uses the term “traumatic” imagination to describe an “empathy-driven consciousness,” which converts pain into an emotionally understandable image that can then be expressed in language. Magic, i.e. the imagination, or traumatic imagination, therefore, is the “indispensable element” that allows for breaking through the paralysis caused by the original trauma to reach an understandable narrative, one the reader can emotionally intuit. (Arva, quoted in A Thesis on Magic Realism, Jo-Anne Sparrow).  

Helen herself has said, “The freedom of dispensing with strict chronology, plots, omniscience, gives me a means of dealing with . . . the slippery footwork required of all of us to stay balanced in the crazy [world] of appearance and illusion.” (Posner, Globe & Mail, Obituary, 2010).

“Magic Realism” originally referred to the fiction of 20th century South American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Luis Borges, now more widely applied. Helen admired and read extensively the work of these avant-garde writers, as well as Joseph Conrad, Jerzy Kosinski, John Barth and Ivy Compton Burnett. It is the modernist writers Weinzweig emulates in choosing magic realism (some refer to her work as surrealistic) as a means to transform traumatic experiences into imagistic language.

Basic Black with PearlsIn her second and most popular novel, Basic Black with Pearls, the story’s narrator, Shirley Kaszenbowski, alias Lola Montez, a lonely, emotionally neglected, middle-aged woman, tells of her wandering from city to city, country to country, around the globe to rendezvous with her lover, Coenraad, a mysterious agent we meet only through Shirley’s memories. Finally, in the novel, Shirley roams the streets of Toronto, where Weinzweig herself grew up. The realistic settings are the ballast for the fantastical — all within the realm of the possible.

Led by enigmatic messages Coenraad codes into pages of National Geographic, hinting at their place of rendezvous, she wanders and waits in a series of endless nondescript hotel rooms. We are never sure whether Coenraad or the meetings are real or the product of her imagination. Finally, we come to see the journey, her hope, as “something to prevent her from falling into an oblivion of insignificance.” (Stacey May Fowles, Special to Globe & Mail, 2015)

Weinzweig is careful in all her novels and stories to anchor them and her readers in a realistic, recognizable setting, giving us the detail needed to create a strong visual image and feeling of place, at the same time a foreshadowing of the magical. In Basic Black with Pearls she begins: “Night comes as no surprise in the tropics. There is no twilight, no preparation for the disappearance of light.” And, “I was sleepless in Tikal. As soon as night fell, the pariah dogs began their barking . . .” Later: “At Malton [airport] . . . I line up, get ticketed . . . sit in the lounge and wait.”

Helen describes Shirley’s Polish husband Zbiegniew as distant, absorbed in self and work, a controlling man of rigid mind and routines, which he imposes on everyone around him. Ironically, Shirley’s lover Coenraad is equally self-absorbed and compulsively dedicated to his profession. Shirley is left feeling alone, adrift, irrelevant, invisible; non-existent, “the ennui and desperation of the disregarded woman.” (Fowles) Coenraad tells her their next rendezvous will be in Toronto. Lola (Shirley) protests she can’t go back there. He: “It’s just another city.” She: “But that’s where I live.” He: “Take it or leave it. That’s my next assignment.” Case closed. We are reminded by Shirley’s sense of isolation, her search for meaningful connection, of Helen’s unfulfilled needs in her own marriage (See "From Pain to Prose," Inanna, March [date] 2016).

Not until the end of the novel do we find out that Shirley – the ‘I’ narrator – had suffered a nervous breakdown, or perhaps she is schizophrenic. Wandering lost, through the streets, she decides finally to abandon looking for Coenraad and returns to her home. There, she finds a housekeeper, Francesca, has taken her place. Zbiegniew and the children have barely missed her:

Francesca (opening the door): “Oh . . . I’ve been expecting you. . . . I knew you’d turn up sooner or later.” . . . [children] Anton and Dina, coming down the stairs greet her as if in passing, “Hi mom.” Zbiegniew asks a disinterested, How have you been? and offers that he’s had a bad cold, his “routine has suffered.” Shirley tells us the meal ended in a silence she knew all too well, saying, “I offered to do the dishes. . . .” [but] she, Francesca, demurred: I was a guest after all . . . .

Finally, Shirley: “Tell me, how soon after I was gone did you move in?” Francesca: “. . . I was here when Zbiegniew got home from work.” Shirley: “Then despite everything, he was able to maintain his schedule?” Francesca: “To the minute.” [Something Coenraad might have said; or Weinzweig’s husband John: See "From Pain to Prose."]

Bizarrely (fantastically), Francesca invites Shirley to join her and Zbiegniew in the bed Shirley had shared with her husband. After briefly describing the [familiar] bedroom, Shirley, as narrator, tells us: “I find a clean nightgown in the left hand corner of the bottom drawer of my dresser. . . . When Francesca bustles in . . . we listen to the bath water gurgle down the drain and . . . see the door open slightly. Francesca put the glass [of vodka] through the opening, then withdraws her hand, empty. I lie down in my accustomed place at the side of the bed near the door . . . Francesca stands before me . . . [and] invites me by gestures to sleep beside Zbiegniew in the middle of the bed and I, also using gestures, indicate I wish to remain where I am. She comes into bed, plumps her pillow, yawns. . . . Soon Zbiegniew emerges . . . He looks in my direction. . . . turns off the light . . . [W]hen he gets under the cover, we three pull and tug gently at the eiderdown to divide it evenly between us.”

She goes on to describe herself lying in the bed, Francesca between her and Zbiegniew, while he gets it on — yes, just that brutally efficient, described in equally brutal language. Listening, hearing the two of them, Shirley admits to feeling “the ache of lust,” not for Zbiegniew, but for Coenraad and her potential new lover, Andy. When at last she decides to go, she exchanges her basic black for a more “appropriate” dress from her closet, pauses in front of the children’s doors. Francesca, who has gotten up from bed and followed her says, “You need have no jealousy. I never have an organism. . . .” Then, “I hope you know what you’re doing. You’ll never find another man as decent as your husband.”

A trademark of Helen’s writing is unresolved endings. At the close of Basic Black with Pearls, Shirley leaves home only to start on another journey to seek her identity in the arms of Andy, a yet-to-be tested lover. Helen has said: “. . . I could find no solution for this woman . . . whether she leaves home physically or mentally is not the point. But she does leave her occupation, which is wife and mother, and goes out into the big world. And I couldn't find anything for her to do out in that big world. That question has disturbed me as a person and as a writer.” (Bauer, “Interviews with Helen Weinzweig," Fiddlehead 1982; quoted in Panofsky)

There are many examples of the use of magic realism in Helen’s work, but to give them here would go far beyond the perimeters of a blog. You will want to read in particular her stories “Circle of Fifths” and “Journey to Porquis” (A View from the Roof) as illustrations of how she seamlessly blurs the line between reality and fantasy, so effectively “turns personal pain into beautiful prose,” as the title of Michael Posner’s Weinzweig obituary suggests.

It will come as no surprise that Helen Weinzweig is thought to be one of Canada’s first feminist fiction writers. Despite the recognition by feminists at the time and praise from critics, she never gained the broad acclaim of the Canadian public. Panofsky has said of her: “Weinzweig is one of Canada's marginalized writers of fiction” and conjectures that no doubt her work had alienated (some) readers and “challenged” (some) critics because of her surreal settings, her negative view of life that hints at an ever-present dark side. As well, her writing draws on the techniques of modern abstract painting, music and the avant-garde French novel of the 1950s (e.g. novelists Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute, making the writing inaccessible to many of the more conventional readers; the modernist style requires more active effort on the part of readers to interpret meaning.

In a letter to The Globe and Mail (Fowles), Helen wrote: “. . . “Success and 60 cents will get me a ride on the subway. No one can find a copy of my novel in the bookstores.” Today, on the 35th anniversary of the republication of her novel by Anansi Press, her work and her unique place in avant-garde writing is achieving a renewed recognition. Today, les femmes d’un certain age, women of Helen’s generation, will recognize themselves in the male-dominated world she recreates of that era (see TV’s Mad Men), when women were assigned and confined to traditional roles as housewives, mothers, secretaries . . . ; when artistic talents went unrecognized or were passed over; when women abandoned their own dreams to support their husband’s career.

Today, Helen Weinzweig would be a best seller. Today she would find a welcoming home at Inanna Publications.

- Rhoda Rabinowitz Green, author of Aspects of Nature (May 2016)


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more on Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig here

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