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Rosmarie Waldrop’s Novel of the In-Between


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Rosmarie Waldrop’s Novel of the In-Between


Because Rosmarie Waldrop is best known as an innovative poet, translator, and publisher of experimental writing, “The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter”—first published in 1986, and now republished by Dorothy—has been described as a “poet’s novel,” a phrase sometimes used to praise the quality of the prose (“X writes with a poet’s attention to language”), sometimes to warn away readers who actually expect a story. This is a poet’s novel in the former sense, but it’s also a novelist’s novel, so let me begin by emphasizing how powerfully traditional it is.

This is a novel, like many great novels, about infidelity. The aspiring singer Frederika—the perpetually frustrated mother of Lucy Seifert, the book’s narrator—sleeps with Franz Huber, a charming music teacher eager to accompany her arias on the piano, within two months of her wedding to Josef Seifert, in 1926. It is also a novel about paternity (is Franz or Joseph the father of Lucy’s elder twin sisters, Andrea and Doria?) and the repetition and repercussions of transgression across generations: Andrea will enter a nunnery, marrying the lord; Doria becomes “a busy mother of five”; while Lucy—definitely Josef’s child—will emigrate to Providence, Rhode Island, where she is writing this book. Lucy is also conducting an affair of her own, living with the gentle, abstracted Bob while sleeping with the jolly and itinerant Laff. The novel in part consists of Lucy’s letters to her sister (or possibly half sister) Andrea, who has long since left the convent. Lucy is confronting her family’s past, but she’s also reckoning with historical catastrophe, especially because Franz was a Jew, a fact of debatable importance when he gave horns to Joseph in the Bayreuth of the nineteen-twenties—“He’s Jewish,” Josef says of Franz before the affair, “but he is alright”—and a fact of mortal importance by the time of Lucy’s birth, in Kitzingen, when Hitler was making Germany great again.

A novel of desire and scandal and the interplay of personal and political circumstance, “The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter” is also about the problem of narration, the gaps in knowledge that a smooth story conceals, the oversimplifications involved in tidy, geometrical plots. Lucy—a pianist acutely aware of the compositional importance of felt silence—is, from the beginning, suspicious of beginnings. (“How to get at their story? Do I even know their terms?”) Indeed, the title of the novel declares Lucy’s fear of reducing a life to a single event. Before she emigrated, Lucy would look at the Schwanberg and recall the mythological origins of her birthplace: “The mountain seemed blue and near enough to identify the castle where Pippin’s daughter dropped her hanky, the one action out of her whole life I know about because it led to the founding of my home town, Kitzingen.” (An abbey was to be established wherever the princess’s hanky landed; a shepherd named Kitz located it along the River Main.) All Lucy knows of Josef’s mother is that she slapped him with a wet towel for playing with matches in the barn. Of Frederika’s father, Lucy has been told only that he refused Frederika singing lessons. Is Frederika herself to be remembered exclusively for her affair with Franz—reduced, like King Pippin’s nameless daughter—to a term in a drama between men? Lucy needs to make sense of her past, render it communicable, but she’s weary of the violent foreshortening on which narrative depends.

Lucy’s (and Waldrop’s) solution to this problem—or rather, her way of acknowledging it structurally—involves a technique that I’ve never encountered anywhere else, a formal strategy that does seem related to Waldrop’s brilliant work as a poet: her method of destabilizing section headings. (There are more than a hundred sections in this short book.) The section headings are often the beginnings of sentences that continue into the section itself:

BUT THE GRASS GREW AGAIN

under Frederika’s feet. Just when it turned brown outside, when mallows signaled the beginning of autumn. Her ice broke. Her laughter bubbled up between the floes. . . .

And/or the headings are continuations of the last sentence of the preceding section:

But first, before Franz got back,

THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG

came round.

These phrases function both as discrete headings—as titles—and as parts of a larger syntactic unit, or they are momentarily one thing and then the other, staging a grammatical tug of war, a standoff between flow and fragmentation. They name and undermine naming all at once, and in this sense these enjambed headings are Lucy’s (and Waldrop’s) ambivalence about storytelling writ small. By heightening (and, through their playfulness, lightening) the drama of segmentation, the headings remind us of the contingency involved in dividing a life up into periods; they make us feel, along with Lucy, that narrative is about imposing an order, not just recounting one. The titular phrases emerge from their sentences and dissolve back into them in a rhythmic declaration of the provisional nature of any story. They at once make the novel stutter and allow it to go on. (That fascism is a deadly extreme of narrative reduction, sorting the fatherland from its enemies, makes Lucy’s suspicions more than personal).

Maybe this is a “poet’s novel” in the sense that Waldrop is particularly invested in calibrating the story Lucy tells with the story of Lucy’s telling; she makes you aware of the text as an object, as a construction, not just as a clear window onto experience. For a poet, “realism” is at least as much about the reality of the work itself, its status as a made thing (a “machine made out of words,” as William Carlos Williams put it) as it is about the vividness of the world that the words denote. But now that I’ve anticipated and worried this classification—“The first reactions to The Hanky were not exactly encouraging,” Waldrop has written, “not really a novel, a ‘poet’s novel’ ”—let’s kick it away. Waldrop is a writer who defies categorization, who will not rest under any title. To quote one of the headings in “The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter” that comes to a full stop: “BETWEEN, ALWAYS.” For Lucy, this is largely a lament; for Waldrop, it is a generative principle.

This essay was drawn from “The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter,” which is out from Dorothy, a publishing project, in October.

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