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Literature and Political Theology

Dream Life Book: On Susan Taubes’s Divorcing

Taubes’s novel continuously asks how we distinguish—if we can—between dreams, life, and books. Who or what speaks to the one who dreams? To the reader of a novel? Are dreams and novels and other kinds of books various mediums through which the dead speak? Can we hold this to be true while still honoring the dead as dead?

       Sophie Blind, the protagonist and sometime first-person narrator of Susan Taubes’s Divorcing, is described variously as dreaming, dead, a character in a play or in a book. The narrator, at this moment unnamed, seemingly omniscient, or at least with access to all of Sophie’s thoughts, ruminates in the mode of indirect discourse so vital to the realist novel. Whether the wandering debate is Sophie’s or the narrator’s, the questions posed mirror the difficulty of the novel itself: what is the difference between dreams, life, and books? At first dreams are said to be better than waking life because “in dreams there is not this sense of idleness, staring at your hands surrounded by mute objects. In dreams something must always happen: a bird appears on the window sill . . .” (94).

(This seems exactly right to me. Something is always happening in a dream, even if it is one’s inability to complete a task. I can’t fit all the scattered pieces of clothing and jewelry, all the books and papers, back into the suitcase; objects proliferate, tumble and roll across the floor, off the ledge of the train platform on which I have spilled them.)

As Sophie Blind “blundered into awakening”—again it is purposively, dreamily unclear if the language is her own or the narrator’s—a pronouncement is made:

Dream has its own time. While one is dreaming one does not know this of course; that it will end. In dreaming one assumes it will go on indefinitely, as in living—a reasonable delusion based on life experience: life goes on indefinitely until one is dead. Only dreams end. And in this respect loves and plays and stories are like dreams: they end (94).

(This seems wrong. I spend a lot of time in my dreams trying to wake myself up, trying to make them end. I prefer the idleness of hands surrounded by mute objects to the inexorable unending chase.)

Yet for Divorcing’s narrator, again almost indistinguishable at this point from Sophie Blind, it is not yet clear what is preferable—ending or not ending, movement or idleness, knowledge or ignorance (“in dreaming one assumes it will go on indefinitely . . . Only dreams end”).

        With an accelerating dream-like logic, in which the voice changes from third to first and then to second person, this passage, from the very close of the first part of the novel, seems to decide:

Books were better than dreams or life. A book ended not like life, abruptly; not like a dream, with a clumsy struggle and sense of deception; but gracefully and knowingly, preparing you for the final period. Between life and dream there was not much difference really, however the two wrangled, struggled, played tricks on each other. A book was something really different. To begin with, you know where you are: you’re in a book, and whether the setting is Paris or New York or the moon or not specified at all, you know you are in a book. Perhaps you’re on a plane, perhaps you’re in a village in the Balkans reading a book in a hotel room, reading or writing, in someone else’s room, or in your own kitchen when the children are asleep. You can be dreaming and not know it. You can be awake and wonder if it’s a dream and not believe it. But a book is simply and always a book—you can be sure of that. And with a book, whether you are reading it or writing it, you know that you are awake. The question does not pose itself (94-95).

(I have had dreams that I was writing a book.

Once, after days gorging on Nietzsche, I dreamt I was writing On the Genealogy of Morals—word for word even though in life I hadn’t yet read it. But somehow I knew it was Nietzsche’s words I was putting down, frantically, on the page. I woke up, nauseous. I didn’t read any more Nietzsche for a very long time. And when I started up again, I couldn’t stop.)

Shifting again to the third person, the narrator tells us that this ontological surety—“with a book, whether you are reading it or writing it, you know that you are awake”—makes Sophie Blind want to write a book: “In a book she knew where she was. Because, however baffling and blundering and ambiguous, a book was a book” (95).

        Divorcing is as “baffling and blundering and ambiguous” as a book can be. As I’ve said, the narrative voice shifts continuously; we don’t know, often, if the narrator and the character, Sophie Blind, are one or distinct but we also don’t know if they are awake, sleeping, or dead. The book moves from what seems to be the near present—although always a dreamlike one, always potentially a view from beyond death—to the future and the past. There is the distant past of Sophie Blind’s childhood in Hungary; the ship that takes her from Europe to New York; childhood and adolescence in the United States; school; trips back to Europe after the war; courtship, marriage and parenthood; affairs; the seemingly endless attempts to get her husband, Ezra Blind, to agree to a divorce; visits with her psychanalyst father in Garfield, New York; others with her mother, transplanted from Budapest to suburban New Jersey; life after the divorce, back and forth between the United States and Europe, sometimes with, sometimes without her three children. But none of this is given to us in chronological or any other discernable order. The logic is that of a dream: who or where you are constantly shifts; you see yourself from the outside even as you experience yourself from the inside; everything occurs in the present even when it is also known to be past; movement is abrupt and associative rather than smoothly chronological. There is no dead time, yet the dead are everywhere.

(I often dream my dead parents and brothers and sister–my surviving brother and sister are sometimes there too. There is no way to tell this that isn’t baffling and blundering and ambiguous. My father died nine years before my mother did, but in my dreams, he is there, with me, trying to take care of her as she is dying. The first feeling—overwhelming relief. He’s there. He will help. Then anger—where has he been? Has he been alive this whole time? Was he sick, almost dead, in a coma, and only now well? Was he hiding? Just from me or from all of us? But in the dream I insist to myself, I remember the funeral. I remember the casket, even though I didn’t see it put in the ground. What is that memory, my dream self asks? Did I dream it? Am I delusional? Insane?

In other dreams, I can see him and sometimes my mother can see him, but no one else can. Is he a ghost? Can he still help us?

But then, wait, mom is dead too. None of this can be real. I want so much for them to be alive, even as I am angry, but I remember, vividly, their dying. And I remember telling people that they are dead and I am mortified, terrified that I have been lying about their deaths for years and years and years. Because here they are, my mother lying in bed, my father standing by her in a nightshirt, and somehow they have been here the entire time, even if I couldn’t see them, was kept from them, had imagined them away.

The worst moment though, the most very painful, is when I realize that I am dreaming. Everything makes senses then—and it is devastating.)

        Sophie Blind’s parents are alive, miraculously, in the wake of World War II. Her father brought her to the United States to escape the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews of Europe. Her mother stayed in Hungary, experienced its destruction, piles of the dead lining the streets, yet she lives. The person who does not survive Sophie Blind’s childhood, her immigration, her life after the war, is Sophie. The child Sophie never leaves Hungary. Yet at the same time, dreams, memory, the book keep her alive.

        The penultimate section of the novel closes with another wildly, necessarily enigmatic paragraph.

It was a strange venture for Sophie Blind to write about what it was like to be a child in Budapest. The person who would be writing it wasn’t there, not as she was now. She was writing in English in a New York City apartment. The child was in another country, in another language. She who was writing had not been there, couldn’t be there then. But she could go back. Sophie Blind now in New York could go back. The child cannot, never having left. There is always that part which remains, continues, captive in its moment, and another that escapes. Someone else has somehow entered into the coming moment, a shadowy figure hurrying along a train platform with a suitcase, clutching her handbag and coach tickets. A woman in a traveling cape or a child holding on to her, they blur in the steam rising from the wheels, hastening along the train platform to their coach, one among the crowd of figures, passing, unregistered, as a gentleman sitting by the window of one of the first-class coaches looks up from the page of a book to rest his eyes for a blank instant and returns to his reading (146-47).

In the section that follows, the last in the novel, Sophie Blind tells her children that she is not afraid of death—of dying yes, but not of being dead. The novel ends as it begins, with death and a transatlantic flight, but also with dreams and books.

        Sophie Blind is no longer the child in Budapest speaking Hungarian. Sophie Blind in New York, speaking English to her friends and her children, could go back, but not on a train or a ship or even a plane, only in a book. A book read by a gentleman in a first-class coach; a book I have read a number of times in places I cannot remember because when I read, I am in the book. But I am also in Budapest with the child Sophie, in New York with the writer, philosopher, lover, friend, divorced mother of three, Sophie Blind, in transit with all of these Sophies, moving between present and past, life and dream, lost lives and lost selves, returning to the living dead child who both is and is not Sophie Blind, refusing the end that same Sophie Blind claims only comes to us in books.

(Do I fear that if I put my dreams in a book they will end? That I will never see my dead parents again? Who is less dead, who more alive, the dream figure or the character in a book?)

“Proof or no proof I’m afraid I’m really dead.” So says Sophie Blind to Ezra. In the following section, Ezra mutates into Nicholas, their friend, her former lover. He finds her dead after the car accident which kills her early in the book: “. . . I find your name under Accidents de route. Why didn’t you drown yourself at least? Wasn’t your life wretched enough?” She tells him he doesn’t know anything about a woman’s life, to which he responds, “Will you never accept that you are a fiction?” (146–147).

(Is it worse to be dead or a fiction? What does it mean to be a fiction within fiction? Is the close of the book the end? Is death? For whom? Can memory, dreams, fiction, keep anyone or anything alive? Do they also kill? Do they kill and let live in the same ways, or are there differences that are vital?

I don’t know the answers, but in novels, as in dreams, someone or something speaks to me, across time and place, across worlds. It might not matter to them—if there is a them—but it matters to me. It’s what I live for.)


Death of an Author

Readers who insist on interpreting Susan Taubes’s novel Divorcing as a veiled autobiography misunderstand the novel’s radical irony.

Free for the Taking: Susan Taubes and the Lure of Literature

How much freedom can literature offer? Is the act of interpretation complicit with mastery and violence? This essay suggests that these questions are at the heart of Taubes’s novel Divorcing.

Imagining God

God’s recurring appearance in Susan Taubes’s novel Divorcing confirms the work’s alarming in-sight about the seductions of patriarchal authority while also dramatizing fiction’s imaginative power.

Dream Life Book: On Susan Taubes’s Divorcing

Taubes’s novel continuously asks how we distinguish—if we can—between dreams, life, and books. Who or what speaks to the one who dreams? To the reader of a novel? Are dreams and novels and other kinds of books various mediums through which the dead speak? Can we hold this to be true while still honoring the dead as dead?

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