HERMA by MacDonald Harris


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Another (perhaps the most ambitious) of Harris' meticulous historical/metaphorical novels, this decorative yet lusterless book brings together Belle Epoque opera singing, early aviation, the San Francisco Earthquake. . . and a fanciful demonstration of Marcel Proust's dead-on instincts for the existence--and meaning--of androgyny. Herma is a Southern California child at the turn of the century who, unforced, displays a fabulous, uncanny talent for real vocal mimicry: she can sing the hymns from church and manage to incorporate almost every distinctive voice in the congregation as she does so. Bought a phonograph, she duplicates Melba, even Chaliapin--much to everyone's astonishment. But there'd be even more astonishment if everyone knew what else Herma can do--because, when she wants to, Henna can become ""Fred,"" standing naked before a mirror and forcing out a male organ; and Fred can in the same manner become Henna again. (Herma-Fred-ite, you see.) So, with Fred as manager--obviously they're never seen together or at the same time--Herma goes on to take the world of song by storm: in San Francisco Caruso teaches her ""soul"" in singing (when the Earthquake hits, he worries about his trunkful of shoes and cigars, his cases of Veuve Cliquot); Pucinni writes The Girl of the Golden West with her in mind; she's the inspiration for a Melba-ish dessert, ""Fraise Henna""; she upstages Maggie Teyte in Paris, where she's also taken under the wing of Proust (the only one who guesses the real Herma/Fred connection). And as Fred, he/she has been busy too (though at different times): learning to fly an airplane; bedding bosomy older women; finally volunteering for the WW I Lafayette Escadrille. That Herma must approve of Fred's life, and vice-versa, is one of the subtle and potent charms of the trope here; their success is necessarily, if thornily, complementary. And, as in previous Harris evocations, the convincingly vivid locale-and-time tableaux make for a scenic tour of great attractiveness. But, also like the last few Harris novels, this is again a book that seems held open by door-stops of novelty and clever expertise, not one aired by inherently fresh narrative winds. While striking, it also oddly lacks zest, often seeming self-hypnotized--to the point of pedantry--by its themes: that Harris is a crafty puppeteer is impressively clear, but, increasingly, he seems content merely to display the strings. So, while full of rich diversion for those interested in its various period subject-matters, this is finally a disappointing novel, without the genuinely, slyly disorienting exploration of sexual confusion which energized Patrick White's The Twyborn Affair.

Pub Date: Sept. 28th, 1981
Publisher: Atheneum