By Kathleen Spivack
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 304 pages
By definition you cannot speak about unspeakable things, so writing about them in a novel called “Unspeakable Things” presents significant problems. Author Kathleen Spivack solves these by letting some things get lost in the haze of time, while obscuring others behind the curtains and closed doors that are so common in this novel. Some scenes she merely sketches, but others appear in brilliant color: vivid, entertaining, and often quite frightening.
The date is the early 1940s, and Herbert a former civil servant in Vienna, has relocated his family to New York after the Nazis herded his homosexual son onto a train headed to a concentration camp. While his wife mourns him from her bed in a mental hospital, he tries to help other refugees make their way to America. His other son is code-breaker in Washington, while his daughter-in-law Ilse works hard to pay rent on the tiny apartment where he lives with her and his grandchildren, Philip and Maria.
Herbert has always been an idealist: a lover of music, a proponent of Esperanto and the brotherhood of mankind: in short, one of those European bourgeois intellectuals who could not quite bring themselves to believe that Hitler would unleash a second devastating war on their continent. The love of his life is his cousin Anna, known as the Rat: “A rat who could not stand straight when she walked, who moved slowly, painfully with a little cane. A rat with the most beautiful eyes, the most seraphic smile, a rat with the face of an angel, made more beautiful by the imperfections.” She married a Russian count but stayed in touch via letters and long-distance chess games. Then, one day, she’s deposited at his feet while he is in the New York Library with his grandchildren. Still characterized by her “exquisite ugliness,” she’s smaller than eight-year-old Maria, whose bedmate she becomes. Anna regales her with stories — about her life in Russia, about Rasputin, about the days before the gathering war erupted.
Before Anna’s arrival Herbert and his family seem fixed like the harried black-and-white figures caught in a wartime camera lens. After she materializes, things begin to move, if only slowly. She is, it seems, a catalyst, a benign rat like Ratty in “The Wind in the Willows,” who just by being Ratty helps the Mole sort himself out. If so, then in this novel the role of the stoats and the weasels is played Felix, a truly loathsome pediatrician who terrifies little girls, calling them “bad girls” and first molesting them then molesting their impoverished mothers in lieu of a fee.
In private, he cross-dresses while he works on Hitler’s dream of the master race by culturing human body fragments. His most promising are the tops of the little fingers of the members of Vienna’s Tolstoi Quartet. Without their fingertips they can’t play their string instruments. But what did they play before? The same classics, beautifully performed. And how did they live? Near each other, with wives who catered to every whim, including sleeping on the floor so their instruments could share their beds. Like Herbert and his family, they seem almost mechanical in the way they are trapped by the assumptions and lifestyle of prewar Europe. In New York none of them can get traction on a new life. Dimly they know it’s there — but where exactly?
The naivete of the members of the Tolstoi Quartet, even their hair-raisingly difficult journey from Bremerhaven to New York, is cleverly distanced so they contrast amusingly with Herbert, who for all his sweetness, is not so painfully innocent. Distancing indeed often produces surprisingly funny moments to lighten the darkness of the difficult scenes associated with Felix — though even he, happily feeding liverwurst to his cultures, garners a giggle or two.
Kathleen Spivack is a poet, and her previously published books include volumes of poetry and a memoir titled “With Robert Lowell and his Circle.” In this, her first published novel, her poetic skills are evident in the precision and evocative language, her control of the tone — which is a harmony of darkness and wit — and her steadiness of focus on her characters. While some of the unspeakable things in her book can be a hard read, her characters are a delight: each clearly drawn, each an individual, and almost all of them — though not including Felix — lovable. The great gift she gives her readers is a simultaneous picture of New York and Central Europe at particular historic moments, including the halcyon days of early-20th century Austria, the chill and grittiness of New York in the 1940s, and at the end of the novel, another bourgeois haven where Herbert and his family can pursue their ways.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.