A Chance Encounter

The fiction of Helen Weinzweig

Sometimes a sentence is so potent, so jam-packed with meaning and images and music, you have to stop reading and look up from the page. You glance nervously around, searching for a way to unleash this sudden rush of giddiness into the world. You regret not having a loaded machine gun to fire into the sky. The fourth page of Helen Weinzweig’s slim first novel, Passing Ceremony, from 1973, contains one of these sentences: “Leon’s face with the heavy nose keeps getting mixed in with the minister’s features.” After I read those words, having picked the novel up at random in the back of Balfour Books, in Toronto, I closed the covers, feeling like I’d been doing something illegal. I knew that I had to read every sentence she wrote.

Why did this particular sentence have such a strong effect? “Heavy” is not an exceptionally original or profound description of somebody’s nose. But a man named Leon — with a “heavy nose” and standing next to a minister — what strange, sombre beauty that image contains. And then we realize that Leon’s “heavy nose” is not fully his, as it “keeps getting mixed in with the minister’s features.” We become aware of a certain weakness in Leon’s identity. We see that the centre of his face, his point of heaviness, the thing that keeps him tethered to the ground, is seeping into the face of another person. That the other person happens to be a religious authority does not seem insignificant. Maybe Leon has found God? Or is it another kind of minister altogether? A minister of finance, say? Or a minister of education? And who is observing Leon as his features begin to meld into this other person’s? Is the observer drunk, which is why Leon’s nose keeps getting “mixed in” with the minister’s? Or maybe it is the observer who is afraid of losing his or her nose and has simply projected this fear onto Leon and the minister.

It was only after I had read Weinzweig’s second novel, Basic Black with Pearls, from 1980, and her 1989 collection, A View from the Roof, that I could see how this one strange sentence encapsulates much of her project as a writer. For Weinzweig, a nose is never only the nose of the face it protrudes from; it is also the nose protruding from the person who looks at it. One could pick almost any scene from her work and find a similar sense of boundary leakage — a psychic muddling of characters and spaces that makes it difficult to know where one person begins and another ends. In Basic Black with Pearls, for instance, Shirley Kaszenbowski describes her affair with a mysterious secret agent. Her narrative is punctuated by chance encounters, which lead her backwards in time to the landscapes of her impoverished Toronto childhood. Strangers on the street speak to her in garbled versions of her own voice. At one point, Shirley finds herself transported into Pierre Bonnard’s Dining Room on the Garden, hanging in the Art Gallery of Ontario. A girl emerges from the wall of the painting — “her figure obscured by a tall blue vase of red roses” — to tell a chilling story about her abusive father. Then she disappears back into the wall. In Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Dream Story (which Stanley Kubrick adapted years later as Eyes Wide Shut), Dr. Fridolin’s fantasies blend into the urban landscape of Vienna. Similarly, Shirley’s Toronto is a place where the imaginary and the concrete exist simultaneously. As her internal monologue and the outside world merge, the reader follows a logic that leads under layers of the city into unexpected depths of memory, fear, and desire.

In Weinzweig’s short story “A View from the Roof,” from 1972, the seeping of one psyche into another is expressed in more naked terms. During a Conference on Education in the Americas, in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, we are guided into the head of Betty Adelman, the wife of a prominent Canadian psychologist who is there to deliver a keynote address. On the balcony of their hotel room, she is seized by a fear of being consumed by her husband of twenty years, which mutates into a desire to escape from the world:

If he would only take his hand away, if he would remove the weight from her shoulders, if he would only let go of her, she could leap off the balcony across the slit of an abyss and when last seen, why she was right here a moment ago, the children would go about their future, remembering her, for what?

Both the tragedy and the triumph of “A View from the Roof” is that Betty is unable to jump off the balcony. Indeed, to be alive in Weinzweig’s fiction is to be oppressed, contorted, and rearranged by the psychological weight of the other, along with the enduring presence of the past. The only alternative is to disappear into nothingness.

Weinzweig’s work has seen a resurgence in popularity recently. In 2014, the House of Anansi reissued Basic Black with Pearls, followed by Passing Ceremony in 2017. NYRB Classics followed suit, releasing Basic Black with Pearls in 2018. These new editions help confirm Weinzweig’s importance in twentieth-century literature. The New York Times, for example, borrowed Weinzweig’s own language in calling Basic Black with Pearls “a phenomenon of paradox,” while the National Post wrote, “Weinzweig’s absurdist take on the existential novel anchored by female experience should be required reading.” The online literary magazine The Millions declared the nearly fifty-year-old work “a book for this moment.”

Weinzweig was not an obscure figure in her day, but she did not reach the heights of ­international literary stardom. Passing Ceremony, which Anansi originally published not long after it was founded, was met with enthusiastic reviews. Basic Black with Pearls was a relative success, winning the Toronto Book Award and finding its way onto many women’s studies and Canadian literature syllabuses. A View from the Roof was nominated for a Governor General’s Award. Still, in a 1997 essay in Atlantis, the poet and literary scholar Ruth Panofsky described Weinzweig as “one of Canada’s marginalized writers of fiction.” Her unjust neglect, Panofsky said, “is due largely to the surreal, often bleak vision that informs her writing.”

But Weinzweig had little interest in catering to a wide readership, perhaps because she came to fiction so late in life. In her twenties, she married John Weinzweig, who would go on to become one of Canada’s most celebrated modernist composers. She spent much of the following two decades committed to nourishing his career and raising their two sons. When her children had grown up and left home, she found herself with time on her hands. A therapist suggested she try writing. She had always been a reader — her alma mater was a tuberculosis sanatorium in rural Ontario, where she spent two years as a teenager reading everything in sight — but she had never taken writing seriously.

Putting pen to paper in her mid-forties was a revelation: literary composition would be not a passing hobby but a life-changing obsession. We see echoes of this in Basic Black with Pearls when Shirley Kaszenbowski muses, “Perhaps I ought to try my hand at fiction. I would have to be careful: for me the power of the written word is so great that there would be the danger of my believing what I imagined.” Shirley’s fear of entering into an imaginative world with no exit speaks to a larger preoccupation in Weinzweig’s work. Her characters often dance precariously between reality and fiction, flirting with psychosis.

The fraught territory of the past is a place Weinzweig returns to again and again. At one point, Shirley — once more thinking about becoming a writer — envisions her creative process as an endeavour similar to psychoanalysis. “It was no use pretending that I could tell anyone else’s story,” she says, “so I might have to tell my own. For that I must rely entirely on memory.”

Weinzweig’s fiction is layered with early memories, which appear in various shapes and incarnations. She was born Helen Tannenbaum in Warsaw in 1915, the only child of an unhappy couple, living in constant fear of pogroms. Her father, a hot-headed Marxist, abandoned the family when Helen was a girl, and she immigrated to Toronto with her mother at the age of nine, arriving in Kensington Market speaking only Yiddish. In what was then the city’s Jewish quarter, her mother ran a hair salon, constantly struggling to make ends meet. Theirs was an unstable existence. Her mother had three husbands, and in between her marriages a slew of men came in and out of their flat. Violent eruptions and hounding landlords were the norm. At the age of fifteen, Helen returned to Europe in search of her father, a traumatizing event that she explored in both her novels and numerous stories. Even when Weinzweig’s characters are materially well off, they live a fragile existence, chronically pursued by such childhood traumas. “I am always drawn back to poverty,” Shirley confesses in Basic Black with Pearls.

In 1967, several years after she took up writing, Weinzweig contributed “Surprise!” to The Canadian Forum. She was fifty-two and a published author for the first time. The story is a satirical portrait of a marriage between a Gentile and a Jew, culminating in an argument that could have been plucked from an Edward Albee play. “Do you take me for one of your pioneer women,” Sonja Ferguson asks her husband, “out in the wilderness, tending the hearth in a log cabin, while you’re trading with the Indians?”

Many of the characters and scenarios found in Weinzweig’s novels make their debut appearances in her short stories, which often feel like training grounds for testing out new voices and themes. Zbigniew, for instance, the husband whom Shirley has abandoned in Basic Black with Pearls, is the focal point of “Homecoming,” published one year prior. We also see her explore what would become the central idea in her novels — the blurred line between reality and fiction — in “Circle of Fifths,” where three characters discuss absurdist theatre: “All that business in the play where reality is an illusion and self-deception is the truth . . . where fantasy and fact are indistinguishable. . . . It was as if knowing and not knowing were the same state.”

It is Passing Ceremony that is Weinzweig’s most experimental work — and her riskiest. In his introduction to Anansi’s 2017 reissue, James Polk, her original editor, describes receiving the manuscript in a ribbon-bound box used for custom-made jewellery. Inside was “a stack of quality bond paper, perfectly typed, with a note advising me to throw the pages into the air and arrange them as they fell.” Ultimately, the order of the pages was not defined by a random toss — Polk worked rigorously with Weinzweig throughout the editorial process — but the novel still crackles with the energy of chance. Its form seems built from mysterious, unconscious forces rather than willpower or any sort of adherence to convention.

As a whole, the powerful novel resembles a shattered reflection in a mirror, each page a different-sized shard of a splintered psyche. There are no chapter headings — just clusters of words in various jagged shapes. Some pages feature only one or two sentences, or a few lines of dialogue. Others are crowded by long breakless paragraphs. There are characters — a closeted groom; a father-in law back from Mexico, with his eighteen-year-old wife and newborn; a woman dead in the bathroom, trying to scratch out her husband’s eyes — but such ­distinctions are rendered almost inconsequential by the evocative writing.

A Rosedale wedding party, in “a gray stone mansion,” provides the atmosphere: We are led down twisting hallways, laden with sinister oil paintings. An amalgam of voices comes in and out of focus, as if our senses have been blurred by too much champagne. The darkened rooms make it impossible to decipher who is speaking or how close they are. Someone whispers about seducing a suicidal woman: “She who was at death’s door an hour ago, will be screaming with ecstatic pain, wishing she could enter oblivion with my cock inside of her.” Another mutters deranged wedding vows: “Abandoned yet haunted by all of you, every night a nightmare of vanished faces, I take her, take thee, a small life, to have and to hold against my impossible longing.”

There is a Kubrick-like horror in this mansion. Upon entering, you become unhinged from reality. Are the voices in these Gothic rooms speaking to us? To anyone? Perhaps crying out to a lover who has stumbled off drunk? Or is the scene inside these walls some sort of ritualistic ceremony, where members of a dissolute tribe speak in tongues to their bourgeois God? Are we simply hearing one voice chopped up into hundreds of agonized wails?

Before my chance encounter with Passing Ceremony, I had been avoiding fiction altogether. A numbing sense of fatigue had begun creeping into me every time I opened the newest bestseller in a bookstore. How can our world — so destabilized, so madly unsure of what comes next, so unhinged from this carnival of climate change and advanced genetics — be reduced to the tidiness of chronological order that still dominates fiction these days? Just think of all the literary characters brought into print this year, with their snappy dialogue and clear thoughts — as if anybody in the last decade has had a clear thought. Weinzweig’s sentence about a man named Leon and his nose — his nose that is also somebody else’s nose — was the reassurance I needed. Done right, even the briefest of descriptions can encapsulate the surreal and disorienting nature of consciousness.

A couple dozen pages after we encounter Leon and his nose, a slick, high-minded seducer shares a few tricks of his trade:

Conversation is important to these women. That’s what they rub themselves up against. They want their minds fucked first.

I tell her I own an original Magritte. She’s mad for surrealism. Has she read Breton’s Manifesto: I have an early edition: in French.

André Breton is mentioned here in jest, as a posture of high culture, but it is clear that Weinzweig shares a serious kinship to the French Surrealist. Railing against the conventions of the contemporary novel, in 1924, Breton wrote, “Our brains are dulled by the incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown known, classifiable.”

Weinzweig died in 2010, at the age of ninety-four. Even before Trump was elected and our planet’s imminent destruction had become an inescapable focal point, she wrote with a prescience about the alienating nature of these unstable times. There’s a reason people are returning to her work now. Her art was committed to unshackling us from the illusion of any form of certainty — to keeping the unknown, unknown.