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Lament for Susan

The rediscovery of Susan Taubes risks trapping her work within the prison of contemporary autofiction

Blake Smith
July 17, 2023

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

The New York Review of Books regularly offers readers new editions of a supposedly neglected masterpiece, and in some cases the first publication of a never-published, almost unknown work, which we are suddenly summoned to praise. Those of us who are not in the room, or the groupchat, where decisions about what reputations are to be revived or made can meet the injunctions of the NYRB press with earnest good faith in their latest dispensations (“now is the time to read Magda Szabó—take Agota Kristof away!”); with cautious, sifting, suspicion; or with outright rejection, on the grounds that what the editors declare a “classic” is almost certainly a subcanonical instance of Europe’s endlessly dying modernism or its American imitations.

Readers who pick up such a book are told in its introduction how the author was unjustly ignored—but championed and cherished by a few special luminaries we’ve heard of and by whose taste we’re meant to be lead. We don’t hear much about the editors who rejected the manuscript, or the reviewers who panned it, much less why it might have been that they were right. Something like 99.9% of books are crap—which still leaves us with unreadably, uncountably many to consider. There is a tremendous critical pleasure, however, in reviving a forgotten book and author. It allows the critic that supreme feat of secondary egoism: to hoist his reputation by raising another’s, to show erudition and perspicacity while presenting them as charity and empathy (I rescue the mistreated writer from oblivion, and feelingly convey how they suffered in obscurity).

The indirect self-presentation of the critic by way of introducing the author is also a claim on our future by way of explaining their past. We are told that the author was ignored because the past was flawed—perhaps prejudiced against them on grounds of race, sex, or sexuality, or merely unable to comprehend their forward-looking art. We are hardly likely to be informed that the author was simply not as good as some of their contemporaries, or lacked certain extraliterary skills essential for success (e.g., ass-kissing and self-promotion), or, indeed, was a genius precisely for looking backward—for being the desperate rearguard of some disappearing manner of excellence rather than a thwarted would-be progenitor of the present.

What the critic says about the present, and how the formerly neglected, now recovered, author was a beacon flashing toward it, is a call upon the future to have less of whatever malign influences smothered the author in their day and more of the benign influences that have rescued them in the present—it is a call on us to take sides with some trends and against others. In some sense the form of such introductions, however delicately indirect and humane, is a kind of madlib-template for a Cultural Revolution-era political poster, urging us: “Uphold ___ ! Smash ___!” Or, at any rate, “Seize the trend!”

Susan Taubes (1928-69)—wife of the notorious philosopher Jacob Taubes (1923-87), whose affairs and cruelty drove her (and others) to suicide—is in many ways an ideal candidate for such critical reappraisal. Both members of the couple, born in central Europe and ultimately immigrating to New York, were part of a trans-Atlantic intellectual circuit that included figures like Susan Sontag and cut across academic and literary worlds. Under the name Susan Feldman, she was the editor of collections of African and Native American tales that, although out of print (and likely out of step with our current moral-aesthetic sensibilities), remain good reading. Her husband—whose writings on Paul and messianism were long a hidden influence on continental philosophers like Alain Badiou and Slajov Zizek (this is a genteel way of suggesting plagiarism)—has recently been the subject of a thorough biography by Jerry Z. Muller. Both his own writings and the couple’s extensive, intensely intellectual correspondence stand a good chance of joining the idiosyncratically composed semi-canon of 20th-century European thinkers about whom grad students and Twitter anons alike feel compelled to develop opinions, with or without doing the reading.

The Taubes couple are thus both “obscure,” in the sense of being not yet familiar to the average reader, assigned in college classes, etc., but also not unfamiliar, insofar as they can be linked to known contexts. “If you like Walter Benjamin…” the blurb might begin—or “Sontag recommends!”

Reading Susan Taubes, moreover, can be framed as a kind of feminist compensation, or even revenge, for the recent ascent of her morally grotesque husband into our intellectual awareness. Three years ago The New York Review of Books republished her novel Divorcing, which reworks the material of her miserable marital life, and which was originally published just before she took her life. Introduced by Sontag’s son David Rieff, the novel, by virtue of its content and context, has an obvious appeal apart from any literary merit—reading or at any rate buying the book is like lighting a candle to a saint.

Now NYRB has published Taubes’ previously unpublished novella Lament for Julia in a volume that includes several of her short stories, many of which deal with themes similar to those of Divorcing (such as a brutal retelling of the Medea story, in which a woman, confronted with a philandering husband’s demand for divorce, murders and apparently eats their children), introduced by Francesca Wade. Wade sets readers up to read Lament for Julia as “an extraordinary novel” that draws on Taubes’ personal suffering and points forward to the obvious masterpiece Divorcing while also standing as a “precursor to contemporary autofiction,” by which Wade seems to mean that Taubes was mostly writing a thinly disguised version of her own life.

Lament for Julia seems to have little to do, in fact, with the world of contemporary autofiction, or what Wade really means by autofiction, which is the massive center of the current literary establishment taken up by degreed white women—and those of other races and sexes who have became degreed white women in spirit—writing about their dissatisfactions. This is a point in the novella’s favor!

Lament for Julia, is a late-runner, not a fore-runner: a modernist experiment some decades after modernism, akin to—albeit much more skillful than—Sontag’s embarrassing first novel, The Benefactor (1963). Both texts, written at about the same time, read as if stiltedly translated from some European language. They are set in a vague, timeless continent, and narrated by icily, stultifying cerebral narrators removed from the world and discussing, mostly, their own thoughts. The novels are like quilts stitched together from bits of essays or short stories that should have been written instead; individual pages and passages are interesting, sometimes even incandescent in Taubes’ case, but no desire to read on is awakened in the reader by any stimulus of plot or character.

Lament for Julia tells the story of a rather unremarkable life—the typical stuff of a bourgeois novel (a woman’s unhappy childhood, sexual vagaries, and terminal malaise)—through what might be an exciting device: The narrator is her own disembodied consciousness. The trick allows Taubes infinite occasion for plodding Cartesian meditations on the relationship between body and mind, questions about whether the latter is sexed, speculations on how it lives on after its host or ward—and some genuinely arresting insights on what we now call gender, describing how the narrator/Julia playacts at being a woman, and feels at times as though she had been raised from childhood to be a “female impersonator,” as supposedly used to happen in Japan.

Even on the most incendiary topics, however, the narrator’s voice is usually cramped, self-serious, and formal—which makes for some implicit, unlively laughs at its pomposity—but there are rare passages where it expands into a vein of manic sexual energy qualified by irony, affirming-while-denying, or mocking men for believing women ever think like this, or mocking women for thinking like this. The effect is to dizzy the reader with urgently ambivalent pleasure and doubt about, for example, the myth of penis envy:

But enough of the melancholy topic of the cunt. The missing member was enough to disconsole me, even apart from the nightmares I projected into Julia’s concavity. I wondered how I could ever dream of Julia tackling any serious task. With what? When I watched the young men with eyes aglow planning sea voyages or writing satirical verse, I could almost see them shake their cocky snouts and semen-like spray issue from their mouths. I imagined they dipped their member in the inkwell when they wrote, beat time with it, caused cities to fall on its point: that not the thumb, nor the upright posture, not even the added convolutions of the brain, but the male spout was at the origin of all human accomplishment.

This astonishing comic whirl suggests Taubes could have, in another novel, outdone Roth—and short-circuited Sontag, who would not write her way out of The Benefactor’s bleak impasse of frozen self-consciousness until her undeniably terrific The Volcano Lover (1992), in which she manages to create plot, characters, and setting compelling enough to keep the people world of the novel from collapsing back into disconnected musings.

Unfortunately much of Lament for Julia, which feels long at just over a hundred pages, is taken up by the narrator’s flights of rhetorical questions, written in an idiolect made of the King James Bible and continental philosophy. For example, just two pages in, the abstract consciousness ponders his/her/its connection to Julia and his/her/its responsibility for her:

Why was she ever joined to me—Oh, miserable corruption—if I was not to restore her to innocence? … Julia has to lie in the hands of God, she shall be a gift as gratuitous as a grasshopper, as justified as a blade of grass. But what about me? My clandestine labor? My ugly intrigues? How shall I be blotted out?

There are successful, even delightful novels that have irritatingly pretentious narrators (Pale Fire, Confederacy of Dunces), and doesn’t everyone love Frasier? And there are, in contemporary women’s writing about women, many acclaimed novelists (Lauren Oyler, Sally Rooney, Rachel Cusk) who are praised for capturing what seem to be inner voices finely crafted to be excruciatingly insipid—which sometimes, when we read the author’s nonfiction criticism or interviews, turn out to just have been the very voice of the author all along. But it’s a delicate art, one Taubes had not yet mastered.

Her ambition—to capture the mind at work—to show how much thinking shudders any apparently ordinary life, how much the everyday is a wild night-ride, obscurely and powerfully ensorcelled with uncertainties, aspirations, and radical but soon retracted reinterpretations of the self—how much the apparently solid realities of embodied “sex” and self-identified “gender” melt and recompose continually in our thinking them—puts her in better company than the peers Wade appoints for her (that is, in better company than Wade).

She might be compared, rather, to Nathalie Sarraute at her beginnings, as she started to move beyond the already stale and formal experiments of the midcentury New Novel, redeploying them to tell what, in terms of plot, were the most mundane topics of the previous century’s realist novels (the ambitions of a social climber, the squabbles of the demimonde) in such a way that they became enthralling visions of inner life, conveyed in elaborate metaphors owing as much to prose-poets like Arthur Rimbaud and Henri Michaux as any forebear in fiction. Or further back, two generations before Taubes in central European literature, to Robert Musil, whose novella The Culmination of Love (1911) transforms the already apparently exhausted story of a middle-class woman’s affair into a kind of slide-show series of its protagonist’s ecstatic flights of mind. What’s most exciting in Lament for Julia is what it perpetuates rather than what it precedes.

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.