MODUS VIVENDI by Deirdre Levinson


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Memories and musings--some affecting or striking, some arch or portentous--by a college teacher slowly recovering from the death of her infant son. ""I'm not my old self these days, as you see; I have to go armed to my classes with wrench and crowbar, yerking at the texts like a thrall on an assembly line. Grind, grind, grind, on thy cold gray stone, O nose. . . ."" So writes Queenie Ansell, nÉe Quesky--N.Y.C. English instructor, wife of untenured teacher Eli, mother of daughter Poppy, and mourning parent of baby ""Toto,"" recently dead of a coronary birth-defect. Queenie blames herself (and Eli too) for the tragedy: because of money worries, she had to work throughout the pregnancy--so she took pep pills (a possible cause of the defect) to keep going. And, in dealing with her guilt/grief, Queenie recalls the past: her lower-class Jewish/English childhood circa 1940, with an overbearing mother (""Self shrinks, shrivels; soul faints with shame""); her feminist determination to pursue achievement instead of marriage, defying ""all their efforts to trivialize and deactivate me by pitting my gender against my spirit""; her unromantic N.Y. engagement to colleague Eli--a tender but fragile sort with foul parents, a gross weight problem, and a near-psychotic pill addiction; the birth of Poppy, tenure/money tensions, and the Toto tragedy. (""He will never bend to smell the rose, his heart will never leap up at the sight of a rainbow."") So now, even a year after Toto's death (a sabbatical year abroad), Queenie finds it difficult to function--though she'll rediscover some joy in sessions with a garrulous shrink (a semi-cartoon) and adoption of a Cambodian orphan. Throughout this dense novella, Levinson attempts to blend a variety of narrative styles and tones--from preciously literary to mordantly ironic to baldly sentimental. The result is wildly uneven--a quietly vivid line often followed by a verbosely labored one, moments of grimly funny domestic nightmare undermined by sardonic overkill. And, despite the built-in pathos of Queenie's loss, her relentless, allusive self-dramatization sometimes becomes off-putting. Still, despite the constant distraction of Levinson's show-offy, effortful prose: talented work, with flickers of genuine anguish and insight amid the verbal strainings.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Viking