Inspired by a missing period in poet Elizabeth Bishop’s journals, Wieland (Land of Enchantment, 2015, etc.) imagines her adventures in France on the brink of World War II.
Although the bulk of the action takes place in 1936 and ’37, we first meet Elizabeth as an undergraduate at Vassar in 1930. She relishes conversations with her roommate, Margaret, as involved with painting as Elizabeth is with poetry, and envies Margaret’s relationship with her mother; Elizabeth’s has been in a mental institution since she was 5. Elizabeth already drinks more than is wise, but that doesn’t keep her from connecting with Marianne Moore, who becomes her mentor, and from attracting the attention of Robert, a sweet young man she could maybe love, if she were interested in men. By the time she sails for France in 1936 with her well-connected friend Louise, the two women are lovers, or at least, Wieland has implied that in the oblique style that characterizes the entire novel. It’s equally unclear why the three German women they meet in Douarnenez have left Berlin, nor do things become clearer in Paris. There, Elizabeth meets Sylvia Beach, Natalie Barney, and German deputy ambassador Ernst vom Rath, whose assassination (the pretext for Kristallnacht) is alluded to but remains as murky as everything else in a finely written but frustrating narrative. Wieland creates an unsettled, dread-soaked atmosphere appropriate to the period, with ugly scenes of Jew baiting and inexplicable German rage, but it’s no substitute for character development. The facts that Elizabeth yearns for her lost mother and that Marianne Moore has urged her to engage with the world don’t seem adequate to explain why the poet agrees to help French aristocrat Clara smuggle two Jewish infants to safety in a Paris convent. A hasty wrap-up that whisks from 1938 to 1979 in 25 fragmentary pages reinforces the impression of an author not quite sure what she intends.
An intriguing but imperfect attempt to translate the subtlety and poise of Bishop’s poetry into prose.