Susan Taubes’s fiction is animated by an unbearable awareness of death. Her first and only novel, Divorcing (1969), had the working title To America and Back in a Coffin. (An apt title, but deemed unmarketable and rejected by her publishers.) Like her contemporary Ingeborg Bachmann, Taubes’s fiction transposes existential mysteries with aesthetic ones. (There are other similarities between the pair: both published only one novel; both novels feature a love interest named Ivan; neither writer would live to see fifty.) Long out of print, Divorcing will finally be reissued by NYRB Classics this month. Taubes’s foreshortened oeuvre—this novel, an unpublished novella, a handful of stories—offers a range of formal precarities that mirror states of inward collapse. Fiction seemed to give shape to her own vulnerability. A lifelong depressive, she took her own life mere weeks after Divorcing was published. Her close friend Susan Sontag later suggested it was Hugh Kenner’s New York Times review that finally pushed Taubes over the edge. “Lady novelists have always claimed the privilege of transcending mere plausibilities,” he’d written. Sontag herself would identify the body.
The protagonist of Divorcing, Sophie Blind, an academic and novelist, may or may not be alive. “I died on a Tuesday afternoon, struck by a car as I was crossing Avenue George V,” she tells us early in the novel. She is in Paris with her lover. Her charmless marriage to Ezra, a cruel and charismatic intellectual, awaits her in New York City. Her death seems less biological fact than act of imaginative liberation, the pulled escape hatch of a highly pressurized consciousness: “My body growing enormous, its thousands of trillions of cells suddenly set free, spread, speeded, pressed jubilant, rushing to the seven gates of Paris.” As a narrator, she inhabits a kind of third space, quantum uncertainty, neither living nor dead, neither present nor past.
The novel’s first half is a study of the Blinds’ failed marriage, a tilting relationship freighted with years of deception and three precocious children. Taubes has created an unctuous, carnal, brilliant, despicable foil in Ezra. (In his preface, David Rieff writes, “For those who remember him, or have read the many recollections that have been written about him, the portrait of Ezra is an uncannily accurate description of [Susan’s husband] Jacob Taubes.”) His pettiness and bullying are indexed with excruciating clarity:
Ezra complained; Ezra was appalled by beads and clay and stuff and rags and paint, especially children painting on the wall… For a long time she refused to believe in Ezra’s transformation. Was this Ezra talking through his nose like his father? He grew a belly, developed strange ailments, he screamed at the sight of a crack in the wall, anything spilling, a missing button; it had to be repaired immediately.
The familiarity of domestic turmoil gives way to Modernist phantasmagoria. Lyrical fragments of New York City life shade into fever dream set pieces: in one, a rabbinical courtroom drama is enacted in which Sophie begs for condemnation (her crimes include “eating fried octopus, cock sucking, animal worship”); in another, she meets with an LSD researcher who has only recently attended Sophie’s funeral. “Entelechy, my dear,” she advises, “that’s the ticket. The purposive universe. The burgeoning processive, dynamic continuum.”
This experimentalism relents in the novel’s more straightforward second half, in which Sophie recounts the history of her Jewish family in midcentury Budapest. We learn that she fled with her father to America before the war, while her mother chose to remain behind with another man. (There are intimations here of the divorce she will repeat with Ezra.) Her eccentric family is rendered in pungent detail: Grandpa Ripper completing “complicated calculations to prove how rich he would be now if he had invested his money differently”; Aunt Rosa recalling how she’d escaped the city during the war, “leaping on a moving train in her nightgown.”
Though her mother later joins Sophie in America, a gulf has opened between them. The source of the wound reveals itself in oedipal flashes: “You were born and it was over… He fell in love with you, you know the story. He gave you all his love, he took from me the little words of endearment and gave them to you, my little fish, my canary.” Her father, with whom she takes Sunday walks, is warm, self-mocking, often overbearing. His contradictory nature—he is an atheist psychoanalyst active in the Jewish community—appeals to Sophie’s own sense of unfixedness. Like his daughter, he is baffled by the vacuous novelty of American life: “He really didn’t know himself what was demanded of a woman in this new and changing world; what a woman should be, and his daughter in particular.”
Published in 1969, Divorcing heralded the rise of the lean, epigrammatic fiction of the mid-’70s, such as Renata Adler’s Speedboat and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. The critic Katie Roiphe has referred to them as “Smart Woman Adrift” novels, works in which a youngish female figure “floats passively yet stylishly through the world.” While the specifics of their execution differ—Adler is funnier, for instance, and Hardwick more mandarin—they share a set of aesthetic and tonal hallmarks. Each is impeccably controlled, wry, anxious, socially engaged, aphoristic, and alert to incongruity. There is everywhere a sense of imminent collapse, of doom that generates a specific interest in endings. Adler’s narrator in Speedboat, Jen Fain, offers a pithy summation of the desperate fleetness of this sort of fiction: “the momentum of last resort.”
Divorcing anticipates the allure of this stylish disaffection. Sophie’s cosmopolitanism, her coolness, her sexual appetite, her exhaustion, her intellectualism and indifferent glamor would become recognizable literary capacities, appealing features of a modern protagonist. Far from mere posturing, these sensibilities were governed by the shared disorientations of the postwar period. Their articulation required newer, more ambivalent forms. Smallness, idiosyncrasy, waste, dread, anecdote, illusion, none was an impediment to fictive or analytical richness. The fragment was in fact a much larger narrative unit than writer or reader might have suspected. It offered a kind of raid on appearances. What Hardwick said of Adler applies also to Taubes: her style is her meaning.
But neither style nor meaning fully adhere. Divorcing is caught between two forms, that of the bourgeois realist novel, rich with domestic incident and historical sweep, and the emergent fragmentary novel’s network of apprehensions. Whenever the book leans into its traditionalism, the shards of Sophie’s consciousness seem to push upward through narrative skin, unruly and eager to return. These invisible pressures contribute to the novel’s perplexing in-betweenness. Is it a traditional form rent by some barely contained disorder, or an ambitious experiment contorting itself to the dimensions of familiarity?
Incipience compels a unique audience. Divorcing is the stuff of literary cults. It is vivid and inchoate, its surface slick from recent molting. It is fascinating and flawed, a gathering of antithetical forms, sheered edges, leaps of faith. It is tremendously anguished, a hair shirt in which beautiful forms have been woven. Its abrupt ending seems unfinished, as if Taubes were at last stymied, unsure how to stick the landing. But there is fascination here alongside much confusion. The novel seems to me both apprentice work and minor classic. That it has vanished for so long is remarkable. (Such things are mysterious; the founder and editor of NYRB Classics, Edwin Frank, has said that Divorcing was recommended through an online suggestion box.) It is easy to feel gratitude for its return. As with Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, a thematic companion, its following stands to grow with time and word of mouth. Some works are merely reissued; this feels more like a resurrection.
Dustin Illingworth is a writer in Southern California.