Saturday, August 30, 2008

Irene Dische/THE EMPRESS OF WEEHAWKEN

Elisabeth "Mops" Rother is a Catholic German matriarch of the first class, in every possible way. Born at the turn of the 20th century, Frau Doktor Rother allows herself to be married to a formidable Jewish surgeon (who converts to Catholicism for her, of course), is thus spurned by her aristocratic family, and finds herself in some uncomfortable situations as the Nazi grip starts to close over Germany.
I was not interested in politics. I didn't listen to the radio. I didn't like our Uncle Adolf. I didn't want to hear his voice. When we turned on the radio and he was giving a speech, I liked to say, 'There he goes again, screeching like a middle-aged woman going through the changes!' (26)

She is, however, indomitable, and successfully moves her tiresome family--her husband, her daughter, and her maid--to Weehawken, New Jersey. This is her story, and that of her daughter, Renate, and her grandaughter, Irene--or, as it were, the novel's author.

The voice of the German Matriarch is, for most of the book, nearly flawless and very often laugh-out-loud funny. For this triumph alone the book is worth reading. But the fictionalized and supremely sin-conscious Frau Doktor Rother would have diagnosed her own creator, her granddaughter, Irene, with the Sin of Self-Indulgence. At least 50 pages narrates the exploits of Irene in a voice it is difficult to hear as a grandmother's. There is simply too much Irene, at least 50 pages too much Irene, without esplanation and in too close detail, in a story that should have been about Elisabeth. Meanwhile, we lose decades of Elisabeth's own story as the narrator's focus shifts. Furthermore, the tone of the Irene narrative is so self-celebratory that it dismantles the careful character construct Dische had wrought for her indefatiguable narrator, Elisabeth Rother. To celebrate oneself at the cost of one's narrator's integrity: a grave Literary Sin indeed. A sad detraction from an otherwise highly enjoyable novel.

2 comments:

ChrisEldin said...

I just started reading this. I was wondering how she was going to pull off the voice.

Am very interested though!!!
Many thanks!!! I'll post a review as soon as I can.
:-)

Anonymous said...

I read this book & was fascinated. I can hardly explain why, but I could not put it down. So far, 2 friends have read it & they say the same thing-amazing.