Some novels are likely to be better on a second reading. Novels like Michael Ondaajte’s In the Skin of a Lion, in which style and detail are more central than plot, reward rereadings, and I suspect the same is true of Emma Richler’s strange new novel. An otherwise heartbreaking love story, Be My Wolff keeps the reader at a distance through its style, its interest in scientific fact and in folklore, and its turn always to some story other than the one at hand. While the third-person narration is roving and kaleidoscopic—it jumps quickly into perspectives as divergent as Charles Dickens, Tsar Alexander I and a rat named Rat—there is a sense that the novel is trying to hide from itself. The characters observe each other obsessively, but the real pain of their lives hides from them. It is as though one is witnessing a series of coy psychoanalytic sessions whose deeper meaning the reader is required to connect and draw out. Conversations are derailed; nested stories are returned to; love is hiding grief, or grief is a part of love: the point is, further interpretation is required of the reader, who sifts through—wades through—the detritus of these lives.
Be My Wolff is Richler’s third novel and her first in a decade. She is an actor-turned-writer living in London, but, as the third of Mordecai Richler’s five children, her Canadian roots are deep. Her first novel-in-stories, Sister Crazy and her second novel, Feed My Dear Dogs, both feature an eccentric family of seven whose bright children expound on historical and scientific ideas in a digressive way. Be My Wolff is her first work not centring on the fictional Weiss family, a family with parallels to Richler’s own.
The first few pages of exuberantly loving description give clues to the rules of the novel. Rachel and Zachariah lie in bed together like new lovers, marvelling at each other’s forms and having eccentric conversations about such things as Rachel’s feelings about the word “loins.” Rachel explores her lover’s scars and “old wounds”:
Rachel believes in it, the laws of pattern formation and how they are universal: whatever she sees, crystallising, a landscape of fractals, of emergence and symmetry, her world falling happily into shape … For Rachel Wolff, quite simply, there are patterns everywhere, she can’t help it; she is an illustrator, naturalist, cartographer—and her eye, a kaleidoscope.
The novel is full of such ideas: patterns and fates, symmetries and details. The sentences are often long, sometimes unwieldy, and the vocabulary draws on such obscure or unfamiliar lexicons—scientific, boxing related, Victorian English and Russian—that the novel includes two glossaries. On the next page, musing about Zach’s ear, Rachel again acknowledges that
the laws of growth and rhythm account for a strange universality of forms, sensitive and shifting and responsive to the invisible, a template, a pattern, the ghost of all things.
There is a template for all things. The laws of pattern formation are universal.
Rachel and Zach are not new lovers, though, and have in fact known each other intimately since they were small children. Zach was adopted into the Wolff family after being introduced by a beloved aunt. So Zach is a foundling, raised by Wolffs, which is just the sort of pun Richler delights in throughout her novel. Puns are clues to fate, and fate is real, so the characters and the roving narrator treat wordplay with the seriousness of a person in a manic psychosis.
Because Rachel and Zachariah are (non-blood-related) siblings living as a couple, they become objects of scrutiny, which becomes tragically crucial in the end. Zach was once a professional boxer who quit because of injury, and they both write books while she teaches the odd art class and he works at a boxing gym. Meanwhile, they remember their lives together as she tries to repair relations with their father, Lev. These main plot points are easily summarized, but the subplots, which careen through historic time, are less so. Numerous stories are nested within the novel, including several Russian folktales involving the love between sisters and brothers, the Battle of Borodino, boxing matches attended by Charles Dickens, as well as the backstories of our own characters. Richler gestures toward realism by offering the conceit that these are stories invented and elaborated by Rachel and Zach.
The main storyline is set in what I take to be present-day Camden Town, but there are few clues to the ages of our protagonists, and few cultural and technological markers to give a strong sense of time within the novel. Thus, these lovers are so timeless that they might also be ageless, and Be My Wolff, despite its love of story, has little in the way of traditional, novelistic plot until the final 50 pages, which, not incidentally, are the most engaging pages of the book. Two of the older Wolffs have recently died, and this gives the novel a sense of elegy. Their days are not punctuated by the natural rhythms of routine, but by whimsies. In one scene, Rachel explores a museum and has a madcap conversation with a fish. The overall effect is of suspension, timelessness, infinitude, unreality—the feelings associated with intense romantic love.
“In the end, we know so little,” a character muses. “Scenes and moments, she thinks. And song. How often [they] will burst into song. The soul in all these things, the moments and songs.” We are meant to read the novel as a fractal: a fractal has an infinitely complex structure and each of its parts is a replica of the whole. Russian nesting dolls are one image used to describe this, coastlines another. Within each nested story many of the same features are repeated: foundling boys, boxers, “scribes,” sister-brother pairings, violinists, intelligent rats. The soul is somehow to be found in all these moments and scenes, and in unfamiliar or oddball words such as “boxiana” and “boximania,” which are gifts to a word-loving reader. The fractal structure and the timeless feeling the novel creates turned this reader into a pattern seeker, treating all things as meaningfully pointing to some whole. I came to feel deep affection for these Wolffs trapped in their luckless loop, because in all of its parts, Be My Wolff is an exploration of the deep, animal bonds between people.
For her earlier novels, Richler was both praised and criticized for her digressive style. In Be My Wolff, again we see Richler’s literary quirks, her signature pattern: she continues to write digressive, associative prose that sometimes seems to be more interested in historical facts and weird vocabularies than in its own characters. These are poetic instincts, rather than storytelling ones; the same features that make Be My Wolff at times a frustration also make it an astounding delight.