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Her Lover May Not Exist, but Her Doubts About the Patriarchy Are Real

BASIC BLACK WITH PEARLS
By Helen Weinzweig
156 pp. New York Review Books. Paper, $14.95.

Here is the truth: I hated reading this book. I also haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. And I’m not sure either of those statements would obtain had it not arrived bearing the mantle “a feminist landmark.”

For a welterweight, “Basic Black With Pearls” packs a punch. Its bona fides include the Toronto Book Award, bestowed upon its original publication almost 40 years ago, and its reissue now, anointed a classic by its publisher. The author, Helen Weinzweig, born in Poland in 1915, emigrated to Canada as a child with her mother, published her first novel at the age of 58 and died in 2010. It speaks to the slippery grip of this daring, vexing book that I found my thoughts often straying from the story and wandering instead toward its author. I almost wrote “its mother.”

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Motherhood figures queasily throughout these sometimes frantic, sometimes enervated pages, which trace the zigzag journey of Shirley Kaszenbowski (née Silverberg, alias Lola Montez), as unreliable a narrator as they come. We meet her in “the tropics,” where she’s hoping to meet her lover, Coenraad, a spy for an organization we know only as the Agency. Supposedly they rendezvous in all manner of exotic locales via a system of coded messages, but from the start we have reason to doubt. Shirley’s incomprehensible description of the code, along with her readiness to perceive bits of communication in anything and everything — in-flight magazines, the utterances of strangers, street signs, shop displays, pitchers of cream — as well as her repeated mistaking of strangers of diverse physical types for her lover in disguise, undermine her credibility even as we fly from Tikal to Toronto: the site, she is convinced, of their next tryst.

While the novel maps Shirley’s obsessive searching within a gray urban grid, its real journey is subterranean, taking the form of peregrinations through her jumbled psyche. Every now and then, between tales of decapitated women, women bound and gagged, women forced into sexual slavery, we are reminded that she is a wife and mother, that somewhere in this very city live the husband and “dear darling children” she has either abandoned or fled. We’re treated to fantasies of harried mothers, whoring mothers, suicidal mothers, impoverished mothers, impostor mothers and indifferent mothers pulling their little girls along the sidewalk. We catch fractured memories of Shirley’s own mother, who was “given to sudden attacks of hysteria.” “When I look in the mirror,” she says, “I see my mother’s tragic face.”

And what is Shirley’s tragedy? She complains of hunger, yet to please Coenraad abstains from nourishment. She imposes a handicap on herself, affecting a limp as part of the machinations deemed necessary in order to find her lover. She wants to write fiction and yearns to paint, but permits herself neither. “I am afraid,” she explains, “my success would endanger our love.” Even expressing her thoughts is verboten. “I was about to expatiate on the phenomenon of paradox, when I remembered that my philosophizing causes Coenraad to lose his erection.” On the particulars of sexism and misogyny, Weinzweig can be superbly caustic.

Here is the question: If the protagonist volunteers for her own victimhood, can it be called a work of feminism? The more reasons we’re given to doubt whether Coenraad even exists, the more Shirley seems implicated in her own romanticized self-abnegation. And yet there’s something admirably ornery about Weinzweig’s refusal to deliver a straightforward novel of empowerment, a narrative of liberation, a role model — as if insisting on a flawed heroine is itself an act of resistance. One might even call it a phenomenon of paradox.

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