by Martha Anne Toll
In our current moment, a chorus of “nasty women” has flooded social media with grievances. Unfortunately, these grievances recur with grim regularity. But even before modes of communication expanded and modernized, storytelling was the constant, the vehicle to voice oppression. Fiction has always been a means for coding muzzled, transgressive complaints.
Codes play both a literal and metaphoric role in Basic Black With Pearls, a brilliant Mid-Century novel by Canadian Helen Weinzweig. The book has just been reissued by the New York Review of Books, with an illuminating afterword by Sarah Weinman.
Born in 1915, Helen Weinzweig emigrated from Poland to Canada at age nine. She was raised in poverty by a single mother in Toronto. As a child she spent two years recovering from tuberculosis in a sanitorium—where books became her best companions—and at age seventeen was reunited with her estranged father in Milan. Their meeting resulted in something close to a kidnapping, in which he didn’t allow her to leave for months, a trauma reflected in a strange interlude in Basic Black. She never saw her father again.
In 1940, Weinzweig married the most prominent Canadian composer of his day, and spent her married life in service to his career. “At first Helen stuck to traditional roles of muse, helpmeet, mother of sons, housewife,” writes Sarah Weinman. Helen’s husband “was the creative force, the one whose art needed the space for nurturing. (‘Both John and I lived his career,’ she once said.)” Weinzweig published her first novel at age fifty-eight. Given her mastery of the form, it is tempting to speculate that in a different era, she might have been able to take her writing seriously at an earlier age.
Basic Black concerns a “traditional” Toronto woman, Shirley, married with two children, whose clandestine liaisons with a man code-named Coenraad take place around the world. Coenraad works for an American spy agency and divulges where Shirley can find him (Kyoto, Tikal, Montreal, Scandinavia, for example)—through a series of clues in National Geographic magazines that only Shirley can decipher.
The novel opens with Shirley’s first decoding failure. She has flown to Guatemala for an assignation, and Coenraad has not materialized. “Night comes as a surprise in the tropics,” she begins. “There is no twilight, no preparation for the disappearance of light.” She returns reluctantly to Toronto, her home town, where she relives her stark childhood–“The city is mined, for me, with the explosive devices of memory.”
Shirley continues her quest for Coenraad in Toronto, testing the limits of her intuition. She recounts their trysts with specificity and longing, Coenraad’s elusiveness a persistent trope.
…when he was in danger, he told himself, if I get out of this alive, I will never let her [Shirley] go. But of course he did. Over and over. Still, I have become accustomed to waiting. It’s not so bad: I always have something to look forward to.
On one level, Basic Black is an exploration of relationships and their failures. Shirley’s early love for a boy named Max, for example, is broken up by his mother. Later, Shirley hears he has been injured diving and is confined to a wheelchair. If Max’s mother
had left us alone then Maximilian need not have broken his back and I need not have married a man who reminded me of him. Zbigniew. The fault is not his….. Zbigniew has done nothing wrong. He never breathes in my face. The fault is not his that I cannot look into his unclouded eyes, that I cannot meet the gaze that once commanded a squadron…Any agitation on my part brings to the bedroom two men in white.
Shirley considers Coenraad the perfect lover, but their relationship is not without its ups and downs.
I am forced to contrast our meetings in cold climates with those of warm zones. In countries around the equator our love is at its hottest….Everything we eat is spiced with aphrodisiacs. We have never had a harsh word in São Paulo or Rangoon or Palermo. Nor do we speak about matters that might cast a shadow across our sun: about hungry men, dying women, disfigured children; about arrests at night and executions at dawn…. In the colder regions something goes wrong…we quarrel easily…. In Stockholm, he was so easily irked and I so quickly wounded, that he sent me to Edinburgh ahead of schedule.
Coenraad’s views on the relationship are more muted.
Coenraad said, Lucky for me I didn’t know you years ago. And I, weak-kneed and seated replied, Oh but I wish we had! My life would have been fulfilled! Exactly, he replied, you would have been fulfilled, but I would never have amounted to anything.
Shirley examines her encounters with Coenraad from multiple angles, as if she were selecting choice fruit from a market. She places her meetings with him within a broader canvas. Hearing Greek music, she wonders–
Did Theseus abandon Ariadne because he no longer loved her; or, as one legend claimed, because his ship was blown out to sea?
On another level, Basic Black is a tour of loneliness with strong feminist overtones. She considers what happens to women who are prevented from reaching their educational and professional potential, who are forced by societal norms or economic necessity into loveless marriages and involuntary child rearing. The harsh loneliness in Basic Black resonates with Stoner’s isolation in John Williams’ eponymous novel, and with the brutal singlehood of Anita Brookner’s heroines, who lack the chance at love for which Shirley grasps. Shirley finds herself surrounded by loneliness:
I began to notice that there were others like myself, as one with crutches is aware of those similarly crippled. I passed an old woman in a tweedless coat and galoshes with metal buckles; I passed a Chinese boy in a quilted black silk jacket; I passed a curly-haired teenager who, despite the cold, revealed nipples under a sheer blouse, I passed a man who must have just come off the boat…. There were more. We solitaries came towards one another, passed….
Basic Black also interrogates broader issues such as war, cultural displacement, fantasy versus reality, sanity versus insanity; light versus shadow. Weinzweig brings the full range of artistic tools to her writing, deploying a rich set of metaphors that resonate on multiple planes. Through metaphor she reflects the joys and heartache of human interaction, the impossibility of absorbing life’s challenges—
Music, it is said, is the perfect art. It, too, is an abstraction, at the very least, of vibrations, of wavelengths, of such and such frequencies, of so many overtones, of semitones and quarter tones; yet none of these components, as with fragrance for a wasp, accounted for the rising tension I felt as I listened to Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies….
…the music is sad, life is sad, the plight of all lovers is sad, but here we are, in the dance, the music urges us on, faster, faster, yet there is no hurry, we can dance our lives away.
In addition to these broad themes, Weinzweig layers her personal history beneath the narrative. She explores the world of her childhood—left behind—“In Yiddish a man who kills your feelings is the same as a murderer.” She considers the world of her adult, married life: “I have deduced from Coenraad’s indifference to certain domestic gestures that I have made from time to time that it goes against the grain of romantic love to bring to it the trappings of marriage. When we are together no stockings hang, no shirts drip; no water boils, no bread is buttered.” Finally, she explores the world she would have her heroine, and perhaps herself, inhabit—“After a while I felt I was walking in forbidden territory; I had a sense of danger that comes when one asks why is there no one here but me?”
Basic Black With Pearls unfolds with the deliberate elegance of a budding flower. No spoilers here, but it’s fair to say that Weinzweig so fully immerses the reader in Shirley’s mind that it is too late by the end to question the veracity of what has come before. With this expert sleight of hand, Weinzweig delivers a masterpiece of compressed/repressed emotion. Her economy of expression is breathtaking. In less than one hundred and sixty pages, Weinzweig covers the world, while simultaneously remaining laser-focused on who and what Shirley is. Shirley too has a code name with Coenraad, which is Lola Montez. But as it turns out, she is far more complex and nuanced than her alter ego.
With its quiet, luminous intensity, its relentless questioning of how a woman should be, Basic Black With Pearls is a book for this moment.
Martha Anne Toll’s nonfiction has appeared in The Millions, NPR, Heck, [PANK], The Nervous Breakdown, Tin House blog, Bloom, Narrative, and Washington Independent Review of Books; her fiction in Vol.1 Brooklyn, Yale’s Letters Journal, Slush Pile Magazine, Poetica E Magazine, Referential Magazine, Inkapture Magazine, and Wild. Her novel in process, represented by the Einstein Literary Agency, was short listed for the 2016 Mary Rinehart Roberts fiction prize. She directs a social justice foundation focused on preventing and ending homelessness and abolishing the death penalty. Please visit her at marthaannetoll.com; and tweet to her @marthaannetoll.