David Rieff on Anguish and Suffering in Susan Taubes’s Divorcing
"She was far more than the doomed artist."
As there are cult books, so are there cult people. What mysterious alchemy vaults people who were largely ignored, or at least by their own lights insufficiently valued, in their own time to this privileged niche in the imagination of their posterity is never fully explainable and is not to be confused with reputation in the conventional sense. For viewed coldly, the accomplishments of these cult people are almost always slim rather than thick. But this only adds to their fascination and to the aura that surrounds them, as if their lives were meant to illustrate the acuity of Mies van der Rohe’s dictum that less is more. These are men and women who attract the interest of posterity through some combination of charisma (always), physical beauty (more often than not), and, at the risk of sounding somewhat heartless, also more often than not death at a comparatively young age. Musing on one of these cult people, their admirers often exclaim, “’ink what she would have accomplished had she lived.”
Divorcing, quickly forgotten after its publication in 1969, has yet to become a cult book, though it has all the qualities of one, but its author, Susan Taubes, was very much the sort of brilliant, glamorous, doomed person I have been describing. Indeed, the typology of the cult figure fits her so well as to be almost discomfiting—her charisma, her Garbo-esque beauty, but above all, that sense, universally subscribed to by those who were close to her, that she found the burden of being itself too crushing and that her relation to the world always was a radically contingent one.
Candor is called for here: I am not speculating about this. In the early 1950s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Taubes and her then husband, the rabbi and philosopher of ideas Jacob Taubes, were the closest friends of my parents, Susan Sontag and Philip Rieff. Their children, Ethan and Tania, were my friends and contemporaries. And after both the Taubeses and my parents divorced, and after both had moved to New York, Susan Taubes and my mother remained intimate friends, a friendship that was only ended by Taubes’s suicide in November 1969 barely a week after Divorcing was published. It was left to my mother to identify her body. Much later, she told me: “I will never forgive her . . . and never recover from what she did.”
A book, the Romanian aphorist E.M. Cioran once wrote, is a suicide postponed. But in the case of Divorcing, not postponed by much. A few weeks before her death, Taubes wrote in her journal: “I am sitting in my room. I go out. I come in waiting for time to pass. In about two weeks I will drown myself.” My mother, though, always thought that the proximate cause of Taubes’s suicide was the bad reviews the novel received, above all a savage and, from the vantage point of today, a startlingly misogynistic notice from the critic Hugh Kenner in The New York Times, in an era—how long ago it seems and what a good thing it is that this is no longer reliably the case!—when a thumbs-up or thumbs-down in that paper made all the difference to a book’s chances. But whether this was true or not in the most immediate sense, all of Taubes’s work and much of her life (or so, again, my mother thought: I am channeling here more than I am opining) were rehearsals for her own death. That was certainly the case with Divorcing, a title that Taubes had not chosen but only agreed to when her publishers rejected what had been her working title: To America and Back in a Coffin.
Hindsight is not just twenty-twenty, it is usually invidious. And even if it weren’t in this case, I want to manumit Taubes from her admirers. She was far more than the doomed artist, or some early recondite precursor of Renata Adler (though in a certain sense she was indeed that as well). Yet it is difficult not to read most if not all of Taubes’s work—the only obvious exceptions being African Myths and Tales and a book of Native American myths called The Storytelling Stone, which she compiled between 1963 and 1965—as episodes in a series of rehearsals in prose of her own death. She had always been fascinated by the memoir from beyond the grave—the title, in fact, of Chateaubriand’s masterpiece of that genre—and her work, beginning with her university thesis on Simone Weil, her still-unpublished novella called A Lament for Julia, and the handful of stories she produced, has death as its driving force.
Even in reviews, the leitmotif of the grave is given pride of place, as when she wrote about Jean Genet’s play The Blacks and called her review “On Going to One’s Own Funeral,” though the play is broadly about white racism, and specifically about a murder and a trial, at the conclusion of which there is death but no funeral per se. Later, a revised version of this review would appear in The Tulane Drama Review under the more appropriate title “White Masks Fall.” The editors’ choice in that case was surely correct. But despite what one presumes was the obvious commercial rationale—Divorcing may not be the most inviting of titles, but as Taubes’s editors surely pointed out to her, To America and Back in a Coffin is a profoundly off-putting one—her original title actually does justice to the book she wrote, if not necessarily the book her editors wished she had written.
It is important to be careful. Divorcing is not only about the end of a marriage and a woman’s struggle to extricate herself from the various holds, psychic, sexual, and otherwise, that her husband continues to try to maintain over her, but neither is it only a novel about death. To the contrary, the book assembles several narratives under one novelistic roof, sometimes masterfully, sometimes unsteadily. In it, the relatively straightforward, almost memoiristic story of the attempt of the narrator, Sophie Blind—Taubes had a weakness for giving her characters somewhat didactic names—to extricate herself from her marriage fades in and out of a modernist conjuring act in which what is dream and what is reality are made deliberately unclear. The book actually begins with a section in which Sophie informs the reader that she is dead and that only thanks to this can she tell the truth. Alive, she insists, she just wanted happiness, adding that all women do (for all its originality and the antinomianism of its narrator, Divorcing can be jarringly of its time). But dead she can care about power and about truth. And with that prologue, the novel begins in earnest.
Sophie, of course, is not dead, not in the next part of the book anyway. This first section of the novel is an anatomization of Sophie’s marriage to Ezra, and flits from parts of its beginning to parts of its end. For those who remember Jacob Taubes, or have read the many recollections that have been written about him, the portrait of Ezra is an uncannily accurate description of him in all of his charm, intelligence, cruelty, and priapism. The man who would later write boastingly to a friend, “I am impossible,” was just that and worse, especially toward women. In the novel, Ezra berates Sophie, then tells her that he loves her for precisely the qualities he is berating her for, then berates her again. Meanwhile Sophie is tallying up the legacies of her marriage all the while imagining her own death, at one point fantasizing that she has died and that Ezra and her lover Nicholas have come to identify her body and as they wait exchange erudite views about Judaism, Heidelberg University, and a painting in Chartres Cathedral. Such exchanges are everywhere in Divorcing. It is in many ways a novel about erudite people written for erudite people, to the point that Sophie notes that when she spanks her son Joshua in front of Nicholas, the way that her lover formulates his distress over her having done so is with a reference to Franz Kafka.
It should be too much, above all for a reader in the 2020s when the large consensus among even non-woke academic intellectuals is that these forms of erudition and this inventory of references mask all sorts of oppressive structures, and badly need, as the jargon of the day has it, to be interrogated. And even for the reader who is indifferent or hostile to such contemporary proscriptions, and I’d wager that there are many more of these than are willing to show their heads above the ideological parapet at this particular moment, the range and sheer quantity of intellectual and philosophical references are likely to be overwhelming. This should not be confused with pretentiousness. Divorcing is a novel overflowing with arcana, but its portrait of psychological pain is so searing, so universally recognizable, and Sophie’s efforts not to succumb to it so convincing, that the cultural references are more like background music than barricades, background music to a funeral that is also a movable feast. Contemplating not just her former husband and her former lover but her own family from beyond the grave, Sophie is sardonic. “I am dead,” she comments. “They can all relax and celebrate.”
To the psychic brutalities of Sophie’s conjugal life, add the deforming legacy of family. It already seeps into the early part of the book, including in the burial scene in which, at the graveside, Ezra says to Sophie’s father, “At her funeral at least she is decent,” and her father does not demur. But about a third of the way into Divorcing, Sophie the unreliable narrator of the breakup of her marriage gives way to Sophie the entirely trustworthy narrator of her childhood as part of the extended high-bourgeois Jewish Landsmann family (another telling name) in pre–World War II Budapest and later Vienna. Taubes is deftly savage in her portrait of both her overbearing psychoanalyst father (modeled, as Ezra was on Jacob Taubes, on her own father, a distinguished psychiatrist of the period in Europe and later in the United States) and her mother who is sedulously and unapologetically unfaithful to him, and eventually divorces him and marries a much younger man. All of this takes place just before the union of Nazi Germany and Austria in 1938. It is followed by an equally straightforward section that takes up the story of Sophie and her father after they have emigrated to America. After that, though, the realistic narrative once more gives way to a phantasmagoric one.
As in the early parts of Divorcing, Sophie is dead; at least presumed to be: intentionally, it is not entirely made clear. Ezra, Sophie’s father and mother, and eventually Sophie herself speaking from her coffin appear before a Hungarian rabbinic court. Sophie’s entire life, from early childhood to wretched marriage, is debated in increasingly hysterical terms. In the end, the court grants Sophie her divorce, after which Taubes wrenches her narrative back toward realism of structure and tone, though not of chronology. Sophie is with Ezra during their marriage, she is in America in the years after she and her father emigrated, she is back in Budapest, then in America once again. Toward the end of this section, Sophie has a kind of reckoning with her mother, but it is without reconciliation or even understanding.
After that, the book tails off: Sophie with her children, Sophie writing her novel in New York, Sophie headed back to Europe again. This is unquestionably the weakest section of Divorcing. To me, it reads as if Taubes had not quite known how to gather all those interiorities and externalities, and lay them out once more with the same force and inventiveness that she musters again and again in the novel. Or perhaps she was bowing to an editorial desideratum for an ending that at least left open the possibility of redemption. Both explanations are the purest of speculation on my part. It may simply be instead that because Divorcing is neither fully a realistic novel nor exactly an experimental one, no ending would have been entirely satisfactory. Instead, the reader is left with what Taubes in the penultimate sentence of the novel calls “the anguish of abandoned dream places.”
It is tempting to take refuge in the observation that had she lived Taubes would of course have gone on to write better books. But then about what writer can that not be said? I do like to think that she would have found a way to harness the ecstatic qualities of her writing which are so striking in her truly remarkable letters to Jacob during 1951 and 1952, when she was largely in Europe and he was studying in Jerusalem with the great scholar of Kabbalistic Judaism Gershom Scholem, and of which there are a few intimations in her university thesis on Weil (the letters were published in Germany in 2014). But despite its limitations, Taubes’s novel has stood the test of time. There were many interesting experimental novels written during the same period in which she was composing Divorcing. It hardly seems controversial to say that today very few are worth reading. Divorcing is one of these rare exceptions.
David Hume is supposed to have said of Rousseau that he was like a man walking around without his skin on. The same, I think, can be said of Susan Taubes, which is what caused her such terrible suffering in life and which also makes Divorcing, whose deepest subject is anguish, at once so relentless and so remarkable. This is a novel that bleeds.
From Divorcing by Susan Taubes, with an introduction by David Rieff. Used with the permission of NYRB. Copyright © 2020 by David Rieff.
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