As one of the ways we're working to make this blog more active, we've decided to post dialogues between two or more of our members on each of the nominated books. The form these dialogues take will be changing, as we work out how best to discuss the books at hand. We're start off this week with a brief exchange between Dan Green and myself (Derik Badman) on our Read This selection, Steve Stern's The Angel of Forgetfulness. We'll post the second part tomorrow.
Derik: I find starting out difficult. What to say first? Stern's Angel of Forgetfulness starts out with what amounts to a novella in itself. I was quickly interested in Saul and his isolation, his seemingly deliberate isolation. The major part of the novel follows Saul from one isolation to another: from the historical isolation he experiences on his walks with Aunt Keni, to the microcosm of isolation in Billy's house, to the societal isolation of the farm commune, to his academic isolation in New England, and his romantic isolation from Miranda. Matthew Arnold said that we are all islands, and Saul's life is like a island disconnected from any moors, travelling here and there but never getting anywhere.
In the end I felt like Saul really didn't get anywhere, and that's one thing that really attracted me to the novel. Too often narratives end with a pat closure of threads, as movie trailers so often say: something "will change their lives forever." Stern avoids this. After all the years and places, I felt Saul just ended up right where he started, in Aunt Keni's run-down fading ghetto.
In the end, it was the other narratives in the novel that disappointed. The story within the novel of Nathan and his travails and the novel within the story within the novel of Mocky the fallen angel left me wishing for... well, less. While the angel that loved the world so much he stayed is a fine counterpoint to Saul's isolation from the world, I never felt that aspect. Too often the Mocky's story had already been summarized in Nathan's story, leaving me with the feeling of an echo. That these two inner narratives are considerably smaller in length (more and more as the novel progresses) says that Stern did not perhaps not consider them as important or large in the story, yet I still ended up feeling that they took up too much space, or maybe not the right kind of space. The connections (beyond that of the plot device for the story within the story existing at all) seemed all too slight for me.
How did you feel about the different narrative levels, Dan? I'm curious if you found something more holding them together.
Dan: I like your description of Saul's various forms of isolation. It's a very apt account of Saul's situation, although I have to say I disagree that Saul "really didn't get anywhere." When he finally sits down to read "The Angel of Forgetfulness," he discovers a connection to both Nathan Hart and his own Jewish heritage--a different kind of connection than he's had through scholarship alone. He discovers that his isolation has been self-imposed (even though he has also found himself in a situation vis-a-vis Miranda Pratt that's eerily similar to Nathan's with Keni: sort of a schlemiel trying to woo the beautiful girl from above his station).
This is perhaps why I saw a closer relationship--a very deliberate echo--among the three stories than you did. (Some readers might think Stern takes too long to make the relationship clear--although there are lots of parallels and overlaps throughout the unfolding of the three stories--but I think leaving their connections less obvious until the end actually does pay off; it makes one want to go back over the stories again in order to more fully appreciate the way Stern has aligned them.) Because, in my reading at least, what Saul discovers most strongly is the Jewish heritage of storytelling, of making sense of a very troubling and often hostile reality through fable and fantasy. "Assured that I had my deceased aunt's blessing," he writes, "I began to feel that my task amounted to an authorized collaboration between myself and the vaporized journalist. I was engaged in writing a kind of pseudoepigraphon, already picturing the title page. . .I was in the tradition, wasn't I? Like Moses de Leon, who had plundered the apocryphal texts of Shimon bar Yohai and embroidered them beyond recognition for his Book of Splendor. As a scribe, I was also a fabulator. . . ." Saul finds his place as a writer of fiction rather than a dusty "scholar."
I found Nathan's story very compelling in its own right as a depiction of the Lower East Side a hundred years ago, although I would agree with you that Mocky's story, at least, does come close to wearing out its welcome. Still, if I were to read it on its own, I think I'd like it. It's only as the third level of narrative--taking us even farther from Saul's journey--that it sometimes provokes impatience. And I would argue that it's necessary to have this story in full, since it's Nathan's inspiration as a storyteller that's important for Saul.