The Fiercely Despairing Fiction of Susan Taubes

A woman lies dead, decapitated by a passing taxi on a Paris street. Or maybe she is just dreaming. For a moment, she is window-shopping in Paris, but then she is in her lover’s bedroom in New York and her grandmother’s apartment in prewar Budapest. Dead and alive, American and European, insightful and sightless, the woman is aptly named Sophie Blind: Sophia is the Greek word for wisdom, but the surname Sophie took from her tyrannical husband is a testament to her bleary vision.

Divorcing

by Susan Taubes

New York Review of Books, 288 pp., $16.05

“She opens her eyes with enormous effort,” begins Divorcing, the flustered 1969 novel that the Hungarian-Jewish philosopher Susan Taubes published scarcely a week before committing suicide. The book, reissued by New York Review Classics this fall, is full of failures of sight. Even when Sophie wrenches her eyes open, “she doesn’t see a thing.” Soon, she makes out soft flecks like “stars, snow falling, blossoms, rows of wild chestnut trees in bloom.” Then again: “She can’t see anything now. Actually she sees too much and too fast.” A room dissolves into a medieval hunt depicted on a wall-hanging, which in turn dissolves into a rainy street. Third-person description fractures into a love letter that is intimately second-personal, or Sophie’s narration collapses into her psychoanalyst father’s reminiscences of his father, a famous Hungarian rabbi. The text streaks from Sophie’s memories of her childhood in Hungary to her drab days in drizzly Paris. At one point, the prose fragments into a play.

We know to doubt the whirl of pictures and fantasies that flit through Divorcing in part because we know that it is a fiction, and a dizzyingly hallucinatory fiction at that. And Sophie is equally suspicious of what she sees: After all, she has “studied philosophy, epistemology, published papers on the problem of verification.” Perhaps because of her philosophical tics, she remains unable to graduate from skepticism to full-blown belief in her life. Thirty-five and dissociative, she is trapped in a soured marriage and saddled with three whiny children. Her husband, Ezra Blind, is an inveterate womanizer and a failed academic who makes a pass at every woman he meets, including the family’s teenage babysitter. For her part, Sophie has a series of almost mechanical affairs with men who don’t really interest her; for years, she feels, she has sacrificed her most central ambitions.

Divorcing, in contrast, is defiantly ambitious. Intent on tallying the total of its protagonist’s many losses, it wheels from one tone and topic to another. As it shifts from Sophie’s bitter tussles with Ezra to the majestic Budapest of her childhood and back again, it cannot quite decide what kind of book it wants to be. At times, it reads like a second-wave feminist chronicle of domestic dissatisfaction, at times like a high modernist elegy for a Europe that no longer exists (and may never have existed). In neither mode does it wholly succeed in recovering the sight that Sophie forfeited when she became a Blind, but in both it evinces a fierce and despairing intelligence.


Divorcing was ahead of its time not only because it dares to suggest that marriage blinds and blinkers, but also because it is an early exercise in something as anhedonic as autofiction. Like the anesthetized narrators of Ben Lerner’s 10:04 and Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, Sophie is more an observer than an occupant of her own desires. She is so uninvested in her own pursuits that she is unfazed even by the news of her fatal accident. “I am dead. It’s in the newspaper,” she reports dispassionately from the afterlife. If she often switches between the first and third person, it is in part because she regards experience as something to be philosophized about, not something to be inhabited.

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