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A review of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction by Chris Andrews (Columbia University Press, 2014), Bolaño, A Biography in Conversations by Mónica Maristain, translated by Kit Maude (Melville House, 2014) and A Little Lumpen Novelita by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer (New Directions, 2014)

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Some readers turn to fiction to find not a mirror of the world they live in with all its ambiguity and ugliness, but a comfortable construct where beginnings are followed by middles and conclude with at least moderately-happy ends. The bad earn their comeuppance, while the good get the girl/win the man/score the job/enter heaven. It’s a version of the Elizabethan worldview, where a society riven with murder and incest and terror always rights itself in the end. “The time is out of joint,” Hamlet says early on the play, and at the end young Fortinbras will ride in to reset the clock. A broken world always ended up mended, all its gears and springs put back in place. We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the wayward quality of our lives. We tell stories to soften the painful edges and pull the sting out of the bad moments we wish had never happened. We tell stories because we always want everything to end happily ever after, just like we were taught as kids, when the big people read to us. Even our memories get a little soft and rounded over time, just to shine a kinder glow on ourselves. But the twentieth century also made vividly clear just how chaotic and uncertain life is. Evil can rise up in the pathetic guise of a nondescript German corporal, or of a skinny disaffected ex-Marine in his Texas backyard with a mail-order rifle, not to mention—going back a few centuries—the pious crucifixed footmen of the Spanish Insurrection who promised you heaven and then broke your legs. It’s the smiling soldier who marches you under the sign that claims Arbeit macht frei, or the man who calls you out of the dark doorway and draws you into the Mexican desert with his guarantee of mercy and salvation. This is the world of Roberto Bolaño; this is the carnival of wandering troubadours and lost souls.

Author Photo linocutSo, you just weathered a really difficult Upper Michigan winter. I mean, the icebergs just melted in Lake Superior, and all these eager bastards are swimming in it already. What did you do to inaugurate the summertime, symbolically or otherwise?

I drank from the hose.

Domenica_Ruta_ 32

The Library of Congress breaks down your book into these categories: Children of drug addicts—Massachusetts—biography—drug addicts. What genre would you put your book into?

I really dislike reducing any work of art to a DSM-IV listing. My mother was more than her addictions and mental illness. And I am more than her daughter.

JD Salinger Portrait Session

In “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” a story in J. D. Salinger’s second book, Nine Stories (1953)—his first was his novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951)—all four characters, two girls in their teens and two men in their early twenties, are so vividly drawn and speak in such perfectly rendered idiomatic American English that the reader might be watching them in a movie.  These days the story also has the quality of a faultless antique: a Manhattan taxi fare, for example, comes to 65 cents.

 

Joyce Johnson is the guest. She is the author of several books, the most recent of which is called The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, available now from Viking.

Kirkus calls it

An exemplary biography of the Beat icon and his development as a writer…Johnson [turns] a laser-sharp focus on Kerouac’s evolving ideas about language, fiction vs. truth and the role of the writer in his time…there’s plenty of life in these pages to fascinate casual readers, and Johnson is a sensitive but admirably objective biographer. A triumph of scholarship.

Also in this episode: Joshua Mohr, author of the novel Fight Song, now available from Soft Skull Press. Fight Song is the February selection of The TNB Book Club. Publishers Weekly calls it “an interesting mix of Charles Bukowski and Tom Robbins, with a cinematic heaping of the Coen brothers for good measure.”

This podcast now has its own app, available (free!) for the iPhone, iPod, or iPad, and is also availalble (free!) for Android devices.

Also: You can subscribe to the show over at iTunes, or at Stitcher, free of charge.

Listen here:

I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, by Sylvie SimmonsFor the past thirty-five years, author Sylvie Simmons has imbued the pages of music’s most important print outlets with an engaging style and her incisive views of the industry. The London-born journalist (now based in San Francisco) has written for the likes of SoundsCreemQRolling StoneMusic Life, and MOJO; she’s also had articles appear in The GuardianThe TimesThe IndependentThe San Francisco Chronicle, and other newspapers.

Beyond her proficiency in all things pop, Simmons penned a catalog of pivotal features on the emerging L.A. metal scene in the 1980s; perhaps most notably, she was the first journalist to devote serious attention to then-unknowns Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe.

Not every game that I played with my parents required so large and so mathematically sophisticated an apparatus as our beanbag tic-tac-toe set: with its ever shifting planes of experience—Xs and Os—victory and loss—all poised on invisible pins and ready to pivot from pleasure to pain to panic—that nightmare land of indecision—at the slightest provocation.

We also enjoyed simpler pastimes, such as hide-and-seek.

Why two history books, Boone: A Biography and now Lions of the West, after publishing fourteen books of poetry and eight volumes of fiction?

I have always been interested in history. My dad, who did not have much formal education, loved to read history and tell stories about Daniel Boone, the Civil War, the Revolution, Cherokee Indians, George Washington, David Crockett. Growing up on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina I found arrowheads and pieces of Indian pottery while working in the fields. The very ground seemed haunted by the Indians. I always felt that intimate connection to the frontier past.

 

Why did you write Lions of the West as ten linked biographies?

There are literally thousands of figures one could write about in the story of the westward expansion. My plan was to tell the story through the lives of ten representative and significant figures, implying the much greater whole story. What Bernard DeVoto called “history by synecdoche.” I like the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “There is properly no history, only biography.”

 

The subtitle of Lions of the West is Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion. Who are the heroes and who are the villains?

As it turns out they are all both heroes and villains at different times. Except for John Chapman, Johnny Appleseed. He is mostly a saint. They all did things we are ashamed of. Even the great Thomas Jefferson recommended to William Henry Harrison that he let the Indians go deeply in debt to the government trading posts in Indiana so they would have to pay off their debts by ceding more land to the United States.

 

Which genre do you prefer, poetry, fiction, or nonfiction?

Whatever I am working on at the time seems the most important.

 

How would you compare biography writing to novel writing?

Obviously there are great similarities between biographies and novels. Both are about lives, both are prose narratives, both require some research about geography and history. Both require the use of the imagination. But fiction writing requires a different kind of sustained imagination, where the writer often lets the characters and story take over, unfolding with their own surprises and revelations, whereas the imagination in biography writing has to bring alive actual events in
already known sequence, with already known results.

 

Do you think your experience as a poet and fiction writer has influenced the way you
write history?

I hope my experience with poetry has influenced my use of word choice, economy, and cadence in language. Poetry teaches us that what is implied is often more effective than what is stated. Writing fiction gives a strong sense of structure, and a feeling for narrative dynamics, the way a story has to move, keep unfolding, with something wonderful about to happen around the bend, on the next page, or the next. I think all those things have influenced the way I write biography.

 

What is the central theme of Lions of the West?

When I started writing the book I thought the central subject was the complex combination of poetry and beauty with the brutal story of Indian removal and the Mexican War. But as I proceeded with the book I came to see several sub-themes. One was the way deeply flawed and mostly ordinary people grew into greatness at the right moment in history. For example, Sam Houston was a bully, a drunk, and a dueler, when he was young. Yet in the Texas War for Independence he sobered up and became the great military leader and statesman that history recognizes. These leaders were made by history as much as they made history.

Another theme that emerged as I wrote was the way many leaders used westward expansion as a way of avoiding the unpleasant issue of slavery. Thomas Jefferson, for example, believed that expansion of the country into the western territories would cause slavery to wither away naturally. Other politicians, instead of confronting the thorny issue, chose to divert attention by the annexation and settlement of the West. When California was acquired there was nowhere farther to go. The events of the next decade, the 1850s, culminated in the Civil War.

 

What was the greatest surprise to you in your research for Lions of the West?

There were lots of surprises. For example, I didn’t know before that Jefferson was an inch and half taller than George Washington. Washington is always portrayed as a physical giant of a man. I did not know that Jefferson was so shy he almost never spoke in public. He never spoke at the Continental Congress, yet he wrote the Declaration of Independence and is the voice of the Continental Congress and the American Revolution.

Perhaps the greatest surprise was Kit Carson. I did not know that he never learned to read or write. For all his fame he had to dictate his letters and have letters read to him. Yet he had a photographic mind, could remember any land or trail he’d ever seen, and knew many Indian languages as well as Spanish and Canadian French. He was physically small, but probably the greatest scout and mountain man of them all.

 

Are there any themes in Lions of the West that seem relevant to contemporary issues?

Many of the controversies of the first half of the nineteenth century are still with us. The battles over “internal improvements” is still being fought between those who believe the federal government is the only institution that can build infrastructure, highways, canals, railroads, harbors, airports, versus those who want less government, arguing these things will somehow take care of themselves if the federal government will not interfere. Of course this controversy is closely tied to resistance to taxation. Disputes about involvement in foreign wars then are echoed in the arguments in our time about the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

What are your future projects?

I have just finished the sequel to the novel Gap Creek, called The Road From Gap Creek. And I’m thinking of a new novel also, set on the Appalachian Trail.

 

Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich by Mark KriegelHe was the sad-eyed wizard of the hardwood, wearing floppy socks and scraggly hair upon his head, the prodigy child of his father, Press Maravich. To a generation he was known as Pistol Pete, a soulful magician with a leathery, orange globe ricocheting from the tips of his fingers to the tips of his toes, the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history—a legend.

This is a Hollywood story, and it starts simply: A car drives through the streets of Los Angeles. It is March 2, 1994, and behind the wheel sits a man who has found a level of success that eludes the desperate majority here. Simon Lewis is a film producer and, at 35, an accomplished one. His is not a household name, but it is becoming an industry one. He makes light stuff mostly, and brings it in on time.

Forget Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey and Gerry Spence. The greatest trial lawyer in American history was the incomparable Clarence Darrow.

For that matter, forget Perry Mason, Matlock and Atticus Finch, too, because Darrow was also our greatest fictional trial lawyer.

Your most recent book, Missing Lucile, is about your grandmother, who died long before you were born and, in your own words, was no one very significant. Surely you must realize that grandmothers, especially insignificant ones, are unusual subjects. Not exactly bestseller material. Did you expect only grandmothers to read your book?

I would be delighted to know that grandmothers were reading my book, but believe it or not, I wrote it for a general audience. Missing Lucile is about my father’s mother, who died when he was a little boy. All his life he missed having a mother—that loss colored his relationships with his wives, his children, his friends, even the choices he made professionally. It was the first thing I think I ever really knew about him: that he didn’t have a mother, had never had a mother as far as he was concerned. And when, at the end of his life, he was talking about obsessively about his childhood, and his missing mother, I decided that I would try to find out about her for him.

 

That’s very generous. But let’s be frank, why would anyone else want to read a book about your father’s mother?

My goal was somewhat more audacious than finding information about my father’s mother. I decided I would try to find her. The woman herself who had been missing for 75 years. Lucile. So you could say this book began as a pair of impossible tasks: 1) that I would “find” a person I had never met, and who had been dead for decades, and who had left little behind in terms of a personal record. And 2) that I would give another person something he’d been missing nearly all his life.

 

What a presumptuous idea!

The presumptuousness of this project was almost as startling as its possibilities for sentimentality, but writers are presumptuous. We presume that what we know, or think we know, or want to know, is something other people will want to hear about. We have to be presumptuous, or we would never write anything. But with that presumptuousness comes the terrible responsibility to be worth listening to, to have something to say that is, actually, worth hearing.

 

It sounds like you had a real battle on your hands in this case.

Well, yes. Because not only was I proposing to write about my grandmother, about whom I knew next to nothing, but I was proposing to write about a woman who, in the eyes of the world, did not “matter.” She was not famous. She was not historic. She had done nothing spectacularly horrible—had not murdered anyone, or been a drug addict, or a child abuser. Nothing spectacularly horrible had been done to her: she was not murdered herself, or maimed by an accident, or the victim of a monstrous crime. Nor had she saved anyone, discovered a cure for anything, painted pictures or been on stage. She had not even married twice. She was a woman from Cincinnati, Ohio, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, a woman of her times, maybe somewhat ahead of her times, because she had gone to college in 1907, had been for a while a businesswoman, and had gone to France after WWI to help with the reconstruction.

She came back to Cincinnati, married, had children. Got cancer. Died.

She was, as Virginia Woolf would have described her, a person to whom things had happened. And this is exactly what I found so monumentally challenging about her. As Woolf puts it in a “Sketch of the Past”: “Here I come to one of the memoir writer’s difficulties—one of the reasons why, though I read so many, so many are failures. They leave out the person to whom things have happened. The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: ‘This is what happened’; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened. And the events mean very little unless we know first to whom they happened.”

And that was exactly what I was proposing to do–to discover this woman, my grandmother, Lucile, to whom things had happened.

 

Did your reasons for writing this book—by the way, what should we call it, since it’s not exactly a biography, or a memoir, or fiction?

Let’s call it an uncertain book.

 

Did your reasons for writing this uncertain book change as you were working on it?

I certainly had my personal reasons for searching for my grandmother—I wanted to try to make my unhappy elderly father happy, to give him what he had been missing for 75 years, and by doing so give myself some of what I had been missing as his daughter. But I had my own pressing artistic reasons as well. And to be honest, these artistic reasons were my real motivation for writing this book.

What I wanted to address is the presumption that lies at the very heart of memoir and biography: That by telling the story of another person’s life you are capturing the person herself.

As Virginia Woolf also said, and this is from Orlando: “A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have many thousands.”

How on earth can you capture the many thousand selves of another person?

I managed to find a lot of facts about the things that had happened to my grandmother Lucile. I had a box of small objects that had belonged to her, which I tried to use as a kind of historical DNA to reconstitute her. I had photographs. I had a letter she had written, a few pages of diaries, statements other people had made about her. I had her college transcript. I had her wedding ring. I had my own genetic relation to her, and the shadow of her that had hung over my childhood. But I did not have her. I never had her. Even for an instant. And I knew it.

 

So is that what this book is about, not knowing someone?

Yes and no. Because once I accepted that the subject of a biography—the person to whom things had happened–is always going to be missing, I had another question: So what? Does that mean you have to give up writing about her? Can you write about someone anyway—even someone who doesn’t “matter”–and do it honestly, even when what you don’t know vastly overshadows what you do, like a magic mountain looming behind a boulder in a meadow?

 

You could have written this book as fiction, that seems a fairly obvious answer to your question. You could have made up what you didn’t know. Why didn’t you just call the book Missing Lucile: a Novel?

That’s true. I could have written this book as fiction—but had I done so, I would not have directly addressed another question, which began to seem more and more pressing to me: What if you really do want to find the person herself, what you can find of her, that person to whom things have happened? And what if you want to claim that this person, this ordinary, unimportant person, did matter, if only because she was once alive, as alive as you yourself are now?

 

So what can you do? Is there an alternative?

That is what I wrote this book to find out. And though it is highly debatable that I succeeded in writing a book that would satisfy a reader looking for a biography, or a reader looking for fiction, I did put right at the center my own uncertainty about who my grandmother was. And right beside that uncertainty I put my desire to try to know her anyway. And in the end, this is what I found out: That it is in the act of wondering about another human being that we may come to know her best. Wondering about someone else, looking for clues based on the things that happened to her, and a few things she said, or did—that she liked the word “ribald,” for instance, and read the poems of Heine, and raised chickens, and didn’t wear jewelry—musing about patterns and inconsistencies, that’s what you can do. If you want to find another person, that’s where she is—present within the act of being wondered about. Because as soon as you start wondering about someone, she’s not altogether missing anymore, whether she’s been gone for 75 years or just since yesterday afternoon.

 

But it seems there must be catch here somewhere.

The catch—and it’s a big catch—is to stay honest about what you don’t know, about what you wish you knew, and about what you imagine you know about another person. The danger of any biography is losing sight of how much fiction is going on when you try to write about someone else. It’s fiction we can’t help—we are always going to project ourselves onto other people when we try to understand them. But it’s fiction we should stay clear about.

If we can stay clear about our own uncertainties, then we have a chance at a three-dimensional image of that person we’re trying to understand. Or at least a more nuanced image.

 

Are you saying that focusing on what you don’t know about someone else may be the best way of trying to understand her? That’s a rather radical claim, don’t you think?

A book isn’t worth writing unless it’s radical in some way, though it can be quietly radical. And who’s to say that writing about your grandmother can’t be as radical as writing from the point of view of a cockroach or writing a novel in pieces that a reader can arrange in whatever order she likes? There’s nothing more boring, in a book as well as in life, than something that proves to be just what you think it is. If I have devoted my writing life to anything, it’s to writing books that appear to be one thing and are not really that thing at all.

 

But back to being radical—and perhaps we should point out here that you are a suburban middle-aged woman with a husband, two children and a dog, who votes in every election and believes, more or less, in a two-party democratic system—how are you defining radical, at least in terms of your book?

I am talking about changing the way we think about biography. I am advocating uncertainty as a way to write about someone else. When I see a book described as “the definitive biography of so-and-so” I feel faint. Given the multiplicity of informational sources we have nowadays, most of them contradictory–from blogs and Facebook and Twitter to CNN and Google and Wikipedia to self-interviews–one might be forgiven for thinking that the conventional, unilateral idea of biography would be falling out of favor. But most of us still expect a single product when we read a biography; we are expecting “the life” of the subject. And we want a story “worth reading,” which often means survivor stories, celebrity tell-alls, exposes, confessions. Stories, frankly, that we already know. Those stories have their place, of course, but there is room for a more questioning attitude when it comes to biography.

 

Questioning how?

In the act of wondering about someone else, we take a step out of ourselves for a moment, we step forward to encounter another person. What a radical thing to do! Especially when we acknowledge that it is not the person herself standing there, but a kind of shadow based on who we want to know. A ghost. A silhouette. Our idea of that person.

That idea, that shadow person, has its own dimension, its own vitality, its own ability to shift and change based on how well we’re able to question our perceptions. That idea is animated by our desire to know the person it’s based upon, and that idea is equally animated by our frustration and despair when we’re forced to admit that we cannot, ultimately, succeed.

 

Why despair?

Despair because if we can’t fully know another person, it stands to reason that we cannot fully be known ourselves. We are all mysteries. And perhaps that, finally, is the real job of biography–to acknowledge the mystery of being human, again and again and again.

 

Where did you first run into Edward Kennedy?

At Harvard College.  He had been bounced out the year before I entered for arranging to have a classmate take his Spanish exam for him.  Kennedy returned to the college after a stint in the U.S. Army in France during my sophomore year.  It didn’t seem to me that he was chastened, particularly.  He struck me as a tall, slapdash would-be jock interested mostly in the club scene, good natured but fundamentally empty.  He liked to drink and he liked the girls. When he decided to run for the U.S. Senate at 29 I was shocked.  More, bemused.

When did you begin to reevaluate?

A friend of mine, Professor Samuel Beer, who ultimately ran the government department at Harvard, had been retained by the Kennedys to prepare Ted for his primary debates in 1960 with Eddie McCormack.  McCormack was a tough-minded attorney general in Massachusetts, and his uncle, John, was the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.  Working with Ted Kennedy, Beer found him intellectually agile, well informed, and very hard-working.  At that point I was doing articles for Esquire magazine.  I did one on Ted — it was later reprinted in Esquire‘s anthology of the best writing in the magazine during the Sixties — soon after Kennedy took his place in the Senate.  I got to know him a lot better, made close friends among his staff, and continued to write about him and his family throughout the next forty-plus years.

What is new and different in your book?

A lot.  For example, I was able to convince Ted’s primary mistress throughout the late Sixties and Seventies, Helga Wagner, to speak freely with me and share her angle on vital incidents.  She was the person he called when he climbed out of the ocean after swimming back to Edgartown the night of the Chappaquiddick accident. Her memories of that historic exchange tell a lot.
Also, I have pulled together details of the blood feud between President Richard Nixon and Kennedy.  Kennedy became convinced — on good evidence — that his life was increasingly in danger as long as Nixon remained in office, and contrived to position his friend Archibald Cox as special prosecutor to dig into the Watergate burglary and surface the tapes that drove Nixon out of office. This is a unique news break.

What do you think drove Edward Kennedy?

Ultimately, in that troubled, stress-driven family, Edward Kennedy was an afterthought.  His whole life and career amounted to an effort to justify his existence, to live up to the perception he had of his far more gifted older brothers and his father.  The paradox, of course, is that Ted was in fact the one with the extravagant gifts, the brother with the imagination and skills and judgement to move a significant political agenda.  In time he became indeed a shadow president, the one legislator who could slow down or realize any president’s agenda.

Why didn’t he ever make it to the presidency himself?

I doubt that he wanted it, really.  He had enough problems — with booze, with women, with his first wife and his sick children, with his recurrent anxiety about getting assassinated — without taking on the nation’s. I was involved in Kennedy’s 1980 run for the Democratic nomination, from writing speeches to putting up his staff that February — and I suspect that he sensed that assuming the country’s worries would be too much.

Where else should the reader look to inform himself about Edward Kennedy?

Nowhere.  It is all here, the personal and the parliamentary.  And fun to read.

Thanks.  You give a wonderful interview.


I’ve written recently about the (potentially) unfortunate necessity of promoting yourself as an author these days. My own basic take on this situation is that the best way to promote yourself also happens not to be the kind of boorish and/or slimy stuff you think about when using the word “promotion.”

Rather, by taking a sincere interest in the community of writers/artists/whoever around you, by engaging with that community via participation in social forums, attendance at readings/events–essentially by speaking up and being a person–you can create a social context within which your own work has meaning. Really, it’s a stupidly simple attitude and perspective shift that can help you avoid despair, or at least some of it.

Anyway, someone who’s way ahead of the game with this kind of stuff is the author/filmmaker Michael Kimball. I recommend taking a look at his blog to see what kinds of projects he involves himself in and/or invents–it’s both inspiring and plain cool. One of the projects he’s gotten a lot of attention for (NPR interview included) is called The Life Story Project.

In her last years my grandmother Ida Mattern, when visiting my parents in the small town in Lower Saxony, could be seen sitting neatly dressed on the brown plush sofa, her back to the tall windows. A crocheted kerchief in her hand, she read the yellow presses and did crossword puzzles. She had taken to Boris Becker and tennis, and if he was playing, she watched the match on TV. Once every day, my mother took her on a short walk around the candy factory where my father worked, or to the nearby woods.

Past eighty, Oma Ida was frail, yet when I sat down next to her on the sofa, she grabbed my hand and squeezed it ferociously. I have the nose of my grandmother, a big nose. Sweaty hands run in our family. When we were done watching Boris, we sat in silence, with damp hands and eyes.

On photographs, she wears a grim expression, even in moments of familial harmony. Her highest compliment on her daughter’s cooking – and my mom was able to show her love only through cooking and baking – was “the hunger drives it in.” This was meant as a joke, and it always failed. Since her fifties, Oma Ida hadn’t spoken to her sister who lived nearby in the city of Hanover. Why she refused was not entirely clear to any of us. Maybe it was because Bertha was the more flamboyant, more successful one. She had a grand apartment, her daughter was a well-known dancer, and unlike my grandmother, she still had a husband. Oma Ida forbade her daughters to contact Bertha and never relented.

In a sad twist, my aunt and mother replicated the elders’ relationship. In the summer of 1977, when I was eleven, we went on vacation to Denmark and forgot to call Nadi on her birthday. We had celebrated in advance, just before we left, but Nadi never forgave my mom, and we were not allowed to ever set foot in her house again.

Sweaty hands and depression run in the Mattern family, and Oma Ida, on Christmas Eve of 1972, went into the infamous Landeskrankenhaus Lüneburg, a mental institution, and spent two more extended periods there, never fully shaking off her demons. Oma Ida was seeing skulls, was the message we received over the phone, and hours later – it wasn’t even dark yet – we celebrated Christmas for my grandmother’s sake. I feared that this mysterious illness was contagious. When my uncle and aunt drove Oma Ida off to the psychiatric ward, I was convinced I would be next.

From the few photos she was able to save from her past, young Ida with a large face, large eyes and thin blond hair is awkwardly smiling at me. It’s the late thirties in East Prussia, and in some of them, she is riding a bike. No one in the family had a car, and you either walked or rode your bike to town.

What I remember best, though, and later stole from my parents, is her wedding picture. My grandfather Willi, whom I never met, is balding at twenty-four. There’s a sweetness in his face, around the shiny brown eyes, that makes him look gentle, a sweetness my mom inherited. What the picture doesn’t show is what my mother never got over. She had already been born, and this wedding only sealed the family shame.



My grandfather, a waiter, and his family, had not wanted marriage, and hoped that the baby, my mom, would die before birth. Yet there must have been love between Ida and Willi. What kind I can’t fathom. Two years after my mom, Nadi was born. A year later, in 1942, Willi, who had been drafted, was shot dead far away from his village in East Prussia. My family has always been vague on details. I learned early on in childhood that these questions were taboo. They caused my mom to break down and cry at the kitchen table where she had been cutting beans. They caused my grandmother to lower her head and fall silent, to stick out her chin and knead her crocheted kerchief in her hand.

There was a strength in Ida Mattern that still frightens my mother. Oma Ida is never mentioned lightly in my parents’ house, as if she could still overhear us. When toward the end of the war, in the winter of ’44, the Russian army advanced, she left the house with her two daughters to never return. Their bus was attacked by fighter planes, their train was bombed, but she kept on going until she arrived in the West. After ‘45, poor and never welcomed by her new neighbors, she earned her living as a seamstress, before she finally received a small widow’s pension.

In 1998 she died at eighty-three. Because I was traveling from New Mexico back to Buffalo, NY, I didn’t learn of her death until a week later. In my mind she remains unburied, though I have since visited her grave.

Sweaty hands, depression, and a belief in the supernatural run in her family. Oma Ida maintained that there was more “between Heaven and Earth” than you could know all her life, and she had her reasons. My mother too, though trying at times to be religious, was drawn to her pagan side. In her teens, a wise woman read her palm and predicted she would marry and have two kids. “And she was right,” Mom would say importantly, having my sister and me for proof.

There must have been love between Ida and Willi. She never married again—never, as far as I know, even considered another suitor. In 1942, the death of her husband was too much to bear for my grandmother. She was twenty-eight, neglected her children, who often had to stay with relatives. Her house was tiny, built by an uncle and his men, and at night she sat outside on the stoop and cried. A week after the burial, she called out for him, called his name. She blamed her husband for his death, blamed him for abandoning her and the daughters. “Willi,” she cried. “Come back.”

And he came. My grandmother described the apparition as a whitish, milky light, not unlike a fluttering shawl coming toward her. She said she was frightened, and at the same time felt consoled. She couldn’t bring out a word until the light was almost upon her. Then she stammered an apology. “I’m sorry, Willi,” she said. “I won’t cry anymore. Go back. I’ll be okay. I won’t cry. Go back to sleep, dear.”

She had a strength that frightened us. She never let on how much she missed her husband, her sister, or the peace between her daughters. She never talked about her hospital stays. Only once in a while she said she was too tired to go on. “Let me die,” she said, and we would look at her in silence until she fell silent too. In most pictures, she wears a grim expression.