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Johanna Kaplan’s Miraculous Ear

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Donald Weber reviews an author whose work might not be so well-known in Britain.

Johanna Kaplan arrived on the literary scene almost fifty years ago as a superb interpreter of American Jewish life at mid-century, a time of social mobility, yet also an era haunted by the still raw traumas of the past. Loss of Memory is Only Temporary gathers her deeply felt, bitingly satirical stories, published mainly in the 1970s, along with more recent stories, which focus on her own family history.  This expanded collection enables readers to appreciate Kaplan’s sly yet wondrous art, her power to dramatize what she terms the “grief-pierced” emotional tones of the modern Jewish experience.

Kaplan’s stories explore the comedy and pathos and resentments of Jewish families reeling from the pressure of dark memory, unsettled by displacement, even in the best of all possible new diasporas, the shtetls of the north Bronx and Upper West Side, where most of her stories take place.  “How could I not be drawn to the paradoxes and disruptions that stumble through generations of Jewish families’ lives”, Kaplan explains, about her core subject.  Like her alert, ironic, “smart-ass” young women protagonists, in her best stories, Kaplan becomes “a spy”, an alert “eye” paying close attention.  As a shrewd observer of the Jewish families, Kaplan “infiltrates even the most private spaces”, exposing her chosen tribe’s foolishness and narcissism with empathy and insight.      

In this respect, Kaplan’s voice–“her miraculous ear,” in the critic Pearl K. Bell’s apt assessment–reminds me of Anzia Yezierska and Grace Paley.  Like these canonical authors, Kaplan imbibes her young women’s verbal energies, above all their ability to see through pretension and the boundaries of provinciality. This is Kaplan’s great achievement:  exposing the self-absorption of characters who remain fixed–fixated–by modes of identity linked to the merely fashionable, spouting counter-cultural ideologies as a badge identity. We overhear the self-convicting voice in Kaplan’s hilarious skewering of Rebecca Belkin in the 1975 novel Other People’s Lives (included in the collection) forever attached to her memories of the revolutionary 1930s and in the figure of the charismatic 1960s self-styled guru Ezra Slavin in Kaplan’s Edward Lewis Wallant Prize-winning 1980 novel, O My America

Writing about Yezierska’s immigrant heroines in her stories of the 1920s, Kaplan speaks of Yezierska’s “avid young women protagonists [who] contend with extraordinary energy” against an inhibiting world that thwarts their desires. In Kaplan’s key insight, Yezierska’s heroines seek “to become visible in dignity.”  Kaplan’s avatar Miriam in “Suntanned or Sour, It Makes No Difference” avidly seeks a kind of dignity as well.  Miriam is “unhappy and unhappy” at summer camp; displaced from the sounds and smells of New York, she misses the “hot, empty city”.

Miriam comes alive performing in a camp play about the Warsaw Ghetto, a transformative experience that raises her consciousness about the meaning, and legacy of Jewish memory. In the process, she also re-embraces her deepest self as a city girl, now out of her element in the dull country. As in many of Kaplan’s stories, Miriam’s naïve–and hilarious–family remains clueless about her emergent self, her discovery of how she might be in the world.  In revenge or, perhaps, as an act of self-preservation, Miriam “would keep all her aliveness a secret” –in effect becoming one of Kaplan’s “spies” capturing the inanities of the adult world.     

In the title story “Loss of Memory is Only Temporary,” Kaplan’s heroine, Naomi, summons an inner aliveness against her inane aunt, a surrogate mother who remains fixated by the traumas of the past and who keeps picking at the scars of a family tragedy.  A psychiatrist with a rich and grounded professional and personal life, Naomi sees through her aunt, who is visiting Naomi in the hospital where she works, to check in with “the stone,” in the aunt’s ungenerous nickname for her niece. Each, we might say, is “grief-pierced” by memory, but it is Naomi who has been able to move on from unspeakable loss; over time she has learned how to perform a healing office for her patients and, it appears, herself.  Naomi’s sharp, smart-ass voice consistently bewilders her aunt, who keeps returning, with unconscious cruelty, to the shards of their shared trauma. Kaplan skewers the aunt, who remains incapable of insight, let alone family feeling; projecting onto her niece, she herself embodies a stone. In the end, Naomi, named “Nechama” in Hebrew (her “real name” conferred by her well-remembered mother, fulfils her Jewish namesake by becoming a source of comfort and healing.

Kaplan’s achievement, what continues to make her fiction important, is the creation of “ferociously observant”, embattled, yet avid young women possessed of a complicated consciousness. With remarkable insight and empathy, Johanna Kaplan, like the characters in these stories, troubles the surfaces of Jewish family life, revealing an emotional landscape marked by loss and grief and trauma.  In the process Kaplan recuperates the distinctive–and now slowly disappearing–Bronx voices of mid-twentieth-century Jewish New York. Both old and new readers will relish Kaplan’s brilliant art of ventriloquism.     

Loss of Memory is Only Temporary: Stories by Johanna Kaplan is published by Ecco/HarperCollins.

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Donald Weber writes on Jewish American literature and popular culture.  His current project is a book on OTD cultural expression titled "On and Off the Derech: A Family Story."  He divides his time between Mohegan Lake, NY and Brooklyn.
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