Thirty-three Swoons–Martha Cooley

I read Cooley’s first novel, The Archivist, and admired the way she layered three different stories.  She uses a similar motif in Thirty-Three Swoons, which tells the stories of Camilla Archer and her niece Danny, their deceased parents, and a Russian director killed by the Communist government he supported through its rise, Seva Meyerhold.  The device for this interweaving is Meyerhold’s and Camilla’s doppelganger, a seemingly spiritual force that ties Meyerhold, Camilla’s father, and Camilla together.

Camilla’s father was a brilliant perfumist who married her mother after a long relationship just shortly before her birth, which her mother did not survive.  Camilla is haunted by her father’s inaccessibility and his favoring of her cousin, Eve, with whom Camilla and her father lived following her mother’s death.  Eve’s father, too, was inaccessible, and her mother dead.  There is a stepmother, but she is a vague presence in Camilla’s recollections who did not fill the gap either girl felt.

Enter family complication #3.  Eve, a good deal older than Camilla, became pregnant with no-one-knew-whom, and gave birth to Danny, whom she then seemed incapable of giving the closeness she lacked from her own parents.  Camilla and her husband, Sam, become surrogate parents until, unable to agree to have their own child, they amicably divorced and he had a son with his second wife, all of whom get along swimmingly.  Enter Stuart, Camilla’s gay best friend, and you have the full cast of characters.

Camilla co-owns a theater memorabilia shop with Sam, who runs a photography book business, and Stuart owns a book shop.  All of this leaves them with flexible schedules and interesting conversation set pieces.

So what’s the problem?  Eve has recently died of a sudden onset of spinal meningitis and Danny is not coping well.  She pushes Camilla to answer questions about her father to which Camilla has no answers.  Camilla herself is struggling with her feelings about Eve and her role in her demise.  Meyerhold’s double begins playing with Camilla’s dreams and brings to the forefront her unresolved feelings about her father while telling the reader about Meyerhold and how he ended up being executed by a firing squad after spending months in a Soviet prison.

There’s plenty of guilt to go around.  Camilla suspected Eve had spinal meningitis, but stayed quiet at Eve’s request.  She helped her terminally ill father commit suicide.  She ended her marriage because she refused to become a mother.  Her birth killed her own mother.  And Meyerhold’s double did not stop him from committing the errors that led to his death.

I know little about theater, which is a unifying theme, but the interwoven stories of guilt and mistakes that make a family should seem familiar to anyone who did not grow up in a bubble.

I look forward to Cooley’s third novel, but hope she experiments with a new device to express her keen insight into troubled hearts.

Finished 8/6/12


The Archivist: A Novel–Martha Cooley

Martha Cooley’s first novel, published in 1998, is a brilliant reflection on responsibility and history.  Judith and Matthias share childhoods of emotional isolation.  Judith was raised by her good-time aunt and uncle, her parents killed when she was an infant.  Matthias was raised by his God-fearing mother and emotionally retreating father.  Both were only children and both love language, particularly poetry.  Their names suggest their big difference:  Judith is Jewish, Matthias Christian.  The novel begins with a riff on Matthias name-sake, who was chosen to replace Judas.  There is no riff on Judith’s name, but Judith is the heroine who goes into the enemy camp, pseudo-seduces Holofernes, and cuts his head off, which she brings with her on her return to the Jewish camp.  This is no wilting flower namesake.

Cooley tells us early on that Judith is gone, a victim of suicide.  We see Matthias’ isolated life as an archivist for a major university, alone with the relics of the past in his personal and public life.  Into this isolation steps Roberta, a Jewish woman physically reminiscent of Judith and, as he learns, emotionally similar, also.  Roberta’s parents escaped Nazi Europe, converted to Christianity, and recently revealed the truth to Roberta.  Roberta, a poet, cannot cope with her parents’ lie, and she has focused on T.S. Eliot’s decision to leave his wife, incarcerated in a mental institution, and continue his relationship, by letters, with the American, Emily Hale.  Hale donated Eliot’s letters to Matthias’ university, his archive, to be closed until 2020.  Roberta wants access because she is sure those letters contain the key to Eliot’s hypocrisy, his Anglicanism in the face of his desertion of Vivienne.

Roberta’s request spurs Matthias’ conscience, because he has read the letters.  Eliot’s struggles echo his own as he chose to institutionalize Judith.

Now the middle of the novel.  We read Judith’s journal, written after she was institutionalized.  We do not see her irrational behavior.  We see her reasoning, her sorrow, her inability to cope with the losses and the collective and personal guilt, and her sense of betrayal as she watches Matthias pull away from her.

In the novel’s conclusion, Matthias copes with his decision to read the letters and Judith’s journal, meant only for her therapist, and Roberta’s desire to read the Hale letters.  Truths emerge like spring flowers and the ending is unexpected and sudden.

Cooley pushes into uncomfortable areas–the nature and extent of love of all types, the limits of collective responsibility and our sense of humanity, and the difference between truth and appearance.

I look forward to seeing what she tackled in her second novel.

Finished 7/8/12