A dazzling memoir by the nonagenarian novelist who discovers along the way a most damning document among her family’s papers.
It takes more than 260 pages for Calisher (Sunday Jews, 2002, etc.) to tell us the details of this document—a receipt for an 1856 life-insurance policy, bought in Richmond, Virginia, by her grandfather for two of his “servants” (i.e., slaves). The author, devastated by the discovery (“I am hangdog, ebullience gone,” she writes), ends this wonderful, lyrical account with a tattoo—a bugle summons, thrice uttered: “Remember the slave.” What leads us to this tattoo is some of the most lovely language imaginable—Emersonian in its richness, Nabokovian in its evocativeness. She begins the first of her several major sections—unnumbered, unnamed—with a memory of her father telling her that her grandmother had never kept slaves. (Later, Calisher says she believes her father wanted her to find the document.) And then she begins her journey into the tangled wood of her family’s history. She remembers the German and broken English she heard in childhood (her Jewish grandfather had arrived from Germany around 1827), and many of the early pages are spiced with German words and phrases (usually translated). She gradually moves along history’s pathways, diverging here and there, returning always to the main road. When she nears painful moments (an estrangement from her brother), she temporizes, waits. But who cares? For on nearly every page of this journey is a sentence you wish you’d written (e.g., “But humility is a prism, all of whose sides a child is not yet equipped to see”). She alludes only occasionally to her adult history—to two marriages, the birth of a child, a writing career. What matters here—what really matters here—is that complex web of family; and she discovers in its intricate silkiness a small but purely poisonous spider.
A masterpiece of memoir: a volume that soars, sings, and sobs.