In Rebecca Goodman’s novel Forgotten Night (Spuyten Duyvil, 296 pages) the unnamed narrator–we will call her N hereafter–is searching desperately but determinedly for a Madame Brissac. The reader is immediately enlisted in the search and will never leave N’s side, not even after putting the novel down. The night of the title may be forgotten, but this novel will remain forever in memory, a touchstone whenever World War I or the Holocaust is recalled.
N is one of those people you are irresistibly drawn to but are wary of. You are afraid for her. She knows that she’s looking for Madame Brissac, a name that has come to her from her grandfather Joseph’s tattered diary of WWI. But N is not an adept seeker, inquiring here and there, assailed by distractions, often in the form of artists of dubious motives. Nor is it clear in the beginning exactly what she hopes to learn from Madame Brissac. Who is Madame Brissac anyway? She would be a descendant of a fellow youth N’s grandfather encountered in 1907 in flight from Romania, where a peasant uprising focused its hatred on Jews. Does N find Madame Brissac? That is for each reader to decide, because Madame Brissac is not merely a person. She is the bearer of N’s hope that out of the senseless carnage of WWI and the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust some meaning will emerge.
So the quest for Madame Brissac gives the novel its narrative drive. Quest novels, from the Odyssey to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, are familiar. forgotten night defies easy classification, as elusive in genre as it is hypnotic in its originality. What, to cite Wittgenstein, are its family resemblances? Several can be noted, but with great caution, because we are talking about cousins, not siblings. In style it often calls to mind Gertrude Stein at her most gnomic, or her adopted son Hemingway’s clipped precision. Thematically it is related to James’s compelling theme of American innocents in the Old World, where every Isabel Archer will meet her predatory Osmond. Because N is a writer, working, as it were, on the novel we are reading, the book belongs in the ranks of metafictions about the struggle to capture in an ongoing text a fragmentary past. Think, for instance, of Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.
It is in its treatment of objects of experience that forgotten night most notably excels and is most original. The following paragraph renders N’s memory of a joyous festival that took place the night before.
“Time stopped–the beginning of ritual–the annihilation pondered without space and time–we exist in it. The night a sacrifice. Abundant in the last–exile–the structure of loss. The text, the body.”
This passage, and other similar ones in the novel, defies gloss because it is an uncanny amalgam of language and object, words and presences, syntax and broken melody. In its metaphysical resonance it is a dream deeper than the objectivism of the imagists.
Here is another kind of object of experience unforgettably rendered in the novel. White wine, glass after glass of white wine. You could call the wine a motif, but motifs eventually reveal their function and meaning. This wine does not. It does not reveal itself in the redolence of its terroir. It is not celebratory, certainly not Eucharistic. It does not unfold some hidden essence like Hopkins’ “inscape.” Is it Kant’s Ding an sich, the thing itself independent of any perceiver? Perhaps, but it seems desperately to want to be numinous, something we must come to understand, understand deeply. But we cannot. The novel has a number of such obdurate objects. Why? Because N inhabits a world where many objects have lost their references, where fields of semiotic associations have collapsed under the assault of senseless war and unthinkable genocide.
Here is a very different kind of object of experience. N is taken to Colmar to see the famous Isenheim altarpiece by Grünewald, her guide Luca, himself a seductive artist of the grotesque. She understands the basic iconography of the altarpiece, terrible suffering in the name of redemption, understands its special placement in a monastery hospital for sufferers of hideous skin diseases, the body of Christ itself gangrenous and green. But what is a 21st century Jewish woman to make of this? She may well be mindful of the analogizing of Christ’s suffering to that of the Jews in the Holocaust, photographs of the bodies of victims sometimes laid out as upon a cross. She may be familiar with Chagall’s crucifixion series, depicting the suffering of Jews. She knows that the altarpiece has itself been a victim and fugitive of war.
“This piece caught in shifting borders. Taken, Hidden. Displaced. Where had it been when my grandfather came within sight of these borders? Without sight of this or any other sense of how this iconography had been used to conquer and divide.”
N’s visit to the museum ends in flight. “I wanted to leave, to get out of this place.” What might have been a revelation of the central Christian mystery has become an object of revulsion, diseased, despoiled by the centuries of suffering and savagery that have occurred since its creation, suffering and savagery that its iconography has contributed to.
Just past the middle of the novel N moves abruptly from the Alsatian border region with its tormented history to an unnamed island. Fictive islands, from Ithaca to Prospero’s domain to C.S. Lewis’s floating and fixed islands in Perelandra seem always to be haunted by archetypes of enchantment, confrontation, decision and discovery. So it is with N’s island, where she will experience in many ways counterparts of her Alsatian adventures. For instance, in Alsace she was subjected to a horrific festival that combined the grotesquery of commedia dell’arte with the ghoulishness of Walpurgistnacht and the horror of Kristallnacht, all described in one of Goodman’s triumphs of hallucinatory vividness. On the island she experiences in dramatic contrast a lively celebration of joyous dance and Romani music. And again, in Alsace all informants and doors that might lead to Madame Brissac remain closed. On the island N, in transports of imagination, is admitted to two houses of deep if ambiguous significance. In one an emaciated homeless young girl cowers, in another memories of family warmth are recalled. But the important element common to both houses is that they are at once unfamiliar and suggestive of a memorable past–the kind of experiential fragmentation we have seen hinder N’s quest from the beginning. Meanwhile, on the island resides another artist, a filmmaker whose work confronts, much more directly than did Luca’s in Alsace, the horrors of Nazism, brilliantly mnemonic but finally to N unbearable.
At last, on the island N encounters Madame Brissac’s daughter Sophie, who in reciting her own personal history of persecution and displacement, manages at least to clarify the intertwined histories of N’s grandfather Joseph and the lost youth, Isadore Brissac, a victim, it is revealed, of the Holocaust. Can Sophie unravel for N the meaning of war and genocide? Does she understand her own migration from Alsace to the island and her compulsion to return to her origins in an Alsatian village? Perhaps in some oblique way the two women’s sharing of unknowing is itself meaningful and even reassuring. To know that one has not missed some telltale word, object, aura that would have unfolded itself like an iconic banner across the winds of indeterminacy.
And finally the ocean, which at least as far back as Thales has been proclaimed the primordial element, mother of us all and the one who will never deny us. That is where we last see N, in the culmination of a number of oceanic passages that modulate into lyric harmonies we have not heard before.
I have promised myself that I would not list the many glories of the novel that I haven’t touched on, like Eros lying like a sly serpent just below the surface of the novel, striking just once. I also promised myself that I would not leave readers of this review awash in superlatives, burdened by exhortations to read and reread this book. Instead, I will finish with a summation that may be more personal than interpretive. Particulars are eminently important, of course. We are reading about a 21st century Jewish woman immersed through family history in the recall of a war of ghastly carnage and of a genocide that has for three quarters of a century challenged our understanding in every way. Still, in my response to N’s brave and desperate quest I find most harrowing not exactly its grim historical materials, but something even more terrifying. That a person can be so ravaged by profound losses–of knowable terrain, of verifiable family memory, of any sense of purpose in the long marches of war and genocide–that she will lose her grasp on commonly held reality, that even ordinary objects will lose their persistence. Dream and quotidian will collapse into episodes of hideous vividness. Texts and cartographies will become unstable. A sense of the past will collapse into temporal muddles of doubtful memory. N will lose not just her identity–Jew, American, writer–but her very self, her place in the world as a functioning sentient being with a coherent consciousness. The recovery of self, call it soul if you prefer, that is the nature of N’s quest at its deepest level. Many, I believe, would say that it is the agenda of our postmodern world.
–Eugene K. Garber, author of Maison Cristina (2021)
Excerpt from Forgotten Night
I looked into the mirror in the bathroom–no one stared back. I held my hand out to the empty mirror–the image of nothingness. I stood back–my make-up on the counter fell into the sink.
I picked up the lipstick. I held it up to my mouth–but I couldn’t see my mouth in the mirror. I couldn’t feel my mouth. I couldn’t find it. It had disappeared.
I dropped the lipstick. It crumbled in the sink.
I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t shout. I couldn’t.
I tried to find my face. But my eyes had disappeared.
I found the fragment of lipstick broken at the stem.
What I wanted to say. What I couldn’t articulate. The language elusive.
I held my hand out to the mirror, holding on to that fragment of lipstick–of what I wanted to say to this emptiness–the vacant mirror. The reflected nothingness. Of what I wanted to write. I held the fragment of lipstick up to the mirror.
What does violence mean?