Close Encounters: Henry Kreisel’s Short Stories
by Michael Greenstein
Geometrically, the title of Henry Kreisel’s collection of short stories, The Almost Meeting, could refer to a hyperbola or the vanishing point of two parallel lines, an important image in his two novels. Biographically, the title can be seen as the convergence of the European and Canadian experiences in Kreisel’s background. Thematically, the title points to the failure of characters to get together, as in The Rich Man, where Jacob Grossman meets Tassigny and his own Austrian family but fails to communicate the truth, or in The Betrayal, where the meeting of Held, Lerner, and Stappler has tragic consequences.
The first story, "The Almost Meeting," depicts a near encounter between two writers, Alexander Budak and David Lasker. Having received an encouraging letter from Lasker, whom he has greatly admired, Budak attempts to contract the elder poet and novelist on a visit to Toronto. Throughout his failed quest the doppelgänger motif reverberates much as in Kreisel’s second novel, The Betrayal. Kreisel, Lasker, and Budak all explore the same theme: "fOften in his writing people of different nationalities came together and almost touched, only to find themselves pulled apart again" (12). This thematic magnet has a structural counterpart, for the external Lasker-Budak plot is interrupted by the details of Budak’s first novel, in which an immigrant by the name of Lukas (an amalgam of Lasker and Budak) marries Helena against her family’s wishes. Her father disowns her and her two children, but they are reconciled after Lukas abandons her. Torn between his love for his grandfather and the need to find his father, the boy, who is really David Lasker in this autobiographical novel, searches across North America for his father, but fails to meet him. After this description of the novel, the outer frame is restored by reference to Lasker’s letter: "An almost meeting is often more important than the meeting. The quest is all" (17). Despite the letter, a phone call, and a visit to Lasker’s house, Budak does not succeed in confronting the man who is evidently his father and whose Kafkaesque deferments frustrate his son’s hopes. Indeed, the repeated description of Lasker’s handwriting as "the intricate web spun by a long-legged spider" (17) suggests the snare of an almost meeting. In Toronto, Budak has "the strangest feeling of déjà vu": "That store looked exactly like a little grocery store up in Yellowknife where I once waited for my father. Someone told me he always came there at a certain time, but he never showed up" (20). Thus, through a series of facing but not touching mirrors reflecting ad infinitum, and through a synecdochic inner plot that recapitulates the larger frame of the story, Kreisel succeeds in creating a mise en abyme for the values of opposing generations of immigrants.
The opposing values in the next story, "Chassidic Song," belong to a liberal Jew, Arnold Weiss, and an orthodox Jew, Joseph Shemtov, who find themselves seated side by side on a flight from Montreal to New York. They establish contact by means of the shibboleth, Farbrengen, a Chassidic gathering to sing. "Arnold Weiss heard himself speak, the words shaping themselves almost involuntarily, as if it was someone else’s voice that was speaking" (27). Like cadences in a writer’s mind, the "voice" of the past frequently inhabits the souls of Kreisel’s protagonists, who are haunted by the Holocaust. As a child, Weiss had first heard the word from his grandfather, Moses Drimmer, so the Chassidic Shemtov interprets his use of the term as the Chassidic voice of Drimmer speaking through his secular grandson. After Weiss has finished his story, Shemtov recounts his own escape from Hitler, who had not spared the rest of his family. An embittered Shemtov rejected God: "For ten years, the Presence withdrew itself from me, and I withdrew myself from the Presence" (34). Later , in a Montreal Chassidic song of joy, this repulsion changes to a permanent attraction, and this Chassidic song shared by Shemtov and the grandfather constitutes an almost meeting between the two spheres of Weiss’s existence.
Drimmer’s name reappears in the third story, "Homecoming1," by far the longest story in this collection. Subtitled "A Memory of Europe After the Holocaust," it attempts to come to terms – through a Kafkaesque dreamscape – with the demonic aftermath of the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. Having survived the Holocaust, Mordecai Drimmer returns to his Polish Village in search of any remaining members of his family. A kind of medieval creaturalism pervades this morality play from the opening simile, "The little dirt road wound along like a moving snake" (39), to the "grotesque, rag tattered" Polish peasant (45), to the lengthy description of the writhing worm that Drimmer handles and inspects. But many other elements contribute to the macabre atmosphere as the somnambulant Everyman makes his way towards Narodnowa. The first section, for example, focuses on Drimmer’s encounter with a bigoted peasant who rejoices in the annihilation of Polish Jews and who believes that Drimmer answers to the descriptions of the devil figure that his priest has so often spoken about.
In the second section, the stranger (another central word in these stories) approaches the town in the rain and sees a church spire."'It was as if he were walking through a dream, seeing things, feeling things, but perceiving them as through a gently-swaying screen of gauze, now very clear, now hazily shimmering, and never quite real" (51). During this surrealistic pilgrimage, voices and visions flash through Drimmer’s waking dream, as his ghostlike mother also sleep-walks, "tripping lightly, as if she were dancing, her feet hardly touching the ground" (53). The cemetery juts out into the road, becoming a part of it: "No barrier divided the dead from the living" (53) in this abstract and unreal world. The church welcomes him home diabolically when the two gargoyles on its spire free themselves from their pedestal. "From a niche in the tower two gargoyles stared down at him, their eyes screwed up curiously, their lips pursed into a scoffing pout, their bodies twisted and warped like a misshapen root" (55). Eventually he passes these gargoyles, a beggar, and a dog, and discovers that his uncle is still alive, the only other remaining member of his family. Rachel, the woman who guides him to his uncle’s apartment, becomes his companion by the end of the story, and the two of them who have suffered so much will try to build a new life in a new world.
Two stories in the middle of this volume present a boy’s point of view. The first-person narrator in "Annerl"' a thirteen-year-old schoolboy, describes his education in the streets of Vienna at the hands of Annerl, a middle-aged chestnut vendor whose husband precedes her to the grave, thereby upsetting her destiny. In "An Anonymous Letter" the scene shifts to the New World as a boy discovers his father’s relationship to his mistress. Both open-ended stories offer brief moments of insight concerning the differences between an adult’s and a child’s viewpoints. These two stories together with "Two Sisters in Geneva," which has a Jamesean transatlantic theme, are the most straightforward works in the volume. "The Travelling Nude" differs markedly from the other stories both in the style and tone of its casual first-person narrator, Mahler, an artist in name and in training. For the first time, Kreisel refers to the second-person pronoun as a way of including the reader in the narrative process. Phrases like "but you'll admit" (107), "Oh I forgot to tell you" (108), "Let me assure you that I am as sane as you" (111), and "if you know what I mean" (116) intervene in each of the four short sections as Mahler tries to establish an almost meeting with his Canadian doppelganger. The outer frame of the distorted plot opens with the narrator worrying about how he is going to explain his loss of a good job to his father. "Now when he hears about the traveling nude, he’s quite likely to become momentarily deranged" (107). This introduction of madness, reiterated at the beginning of Section II, makes the reader question Mahler’s fantasy about a nude model who travels from prairie town to prairie town for the benefit of Alberta’s art students. After this "painting" of the traveling nude in Section I, Mahler backtracks in the second section to present his own personal history from art student in Toronto to his eventual position as lecturer at the University of Alberta. As in the first two sections, Section III opens enigmatically: "I resigned from this position largely because of the traveling nude" (114). There follows an explanation of this enigma: the puritanical denizens of rural Alberta reject Mahler’s exaggerated idea of the traveling nude, and he is forced to resign when his boss advises him to see a doctor. The final irony occurs when Mahler informs the reader of his model’s name, Valerie. Where Valerie shares the secrets of her female anatomy, the reader becomes the narrator’s secret sharer in Kreisel’s game of irony with artistic license challenging academic authority.
The final story, "The Broken Globe," examines the prairies more than any of the other stories; at the same time, it recapitulates transatlantic themes and the irreconcilable differences between an immigrant generation and its assimilated offspring. The narrator acts as a go-between for his friend Nick Solchuk, a geophysicist doing research in England, and Nick’s father, a farmer in Three Bear Hills, Alberta. Although Nick solves problems related to the earth’s curvature and although his room overlooking the Thames gives him a sense of distance and space, he misses the openness of the Canadian prairies: "He referred to himself, nostalgically, as a prairie boy, and when he wanted to demonstrate what he meant by space he used to say that when a man stood and looked out across the open prairie, it was possible for him to believe that the earth was flat" (135). In contrast to his son’s modern scientific outlook, Mr. Solchuk believes in the fundamental flatness of the earth: "... the shape of the world he lived in had been forever fixed for him by some medieval priest in the small Ukrainian village" (137). The narrator-mediator between these two world-views leaves England’s "nature humanized" for Canada’s expanses: "... the land became flatter until there seemed nothing... to disturb the vast unbroken flow of land until in the far distance a thin, blue line marked the point where the prairie merged into the sky" (139). This narrative vanishing point, an almost meeting between two theories of the earth’s shape, prepares for the interchange with Mr. Solchuk and the broken globe. As a schoolboy, Nick had received the globe, and when he tried to show his father how the earth moves, the traditionalist smashed the globe. A confirmed empiricist, Mr. Solchuk points out the prairie’s earlier features at the end of the story to the narrator, who had earlier observed that 'all motion seemed suspended’ (139). "Look... she is flat, and she stands still" (147). Geometrically, the squashed globe resembles an ellipse whose foci are Europe and the Canadian West, history and geography, Kreisel’s past and present whose hemispheres almost always meet throughout his fiction.
1The title recalls Harold Pinter’s play and, more importantly, the last section of Herman Broch’s The Death of Virgil. Like Kreisel, Broch fled his native Vienna during the Anschluss. Kreisel’s relationship to Broch and to the rest of the Jewish Viennese intellectuals — Karl Kraus, Wittgenstein, and Elias Canetti — is a fascinating topic that remains to be explored. Broch and Kreisel both employ the theme of sleep-walking in their fiction. Broch and Canetti studies crowds and mass psychology; Kreisel frequently contrasts the emptiness of Canadian space with the crowds of Europe.
All references are to The Almost Meeting and Other Stories (1981).
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