Thursday, August 1, 2013

Turtle Diary, by Russell Hoban

"Two things of opposite natures seem to depend
On one another, as a man depends
On a woman, day on night, the imagined

On the real. This is the origin of change.
Winter and spring, cold copulars, embrace
And forth the particulars of rapture come."
                                                     --Wallace Stevens
                                                      (from Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction)

The journey through books can sometimes be an uncanny thing. As I was reflecting on my recent read of Turtle Diary, I was thinking how apt this epigraph was. It only gradually dawned on me that it was the epigraph of an entirely different book, which I was more or less concurrently reading. On the face of it, the books bear no relation to each other. Turtle Diary is a short novel told in intertwined voices by two more or less lonely people living separate lives in London, circa 1975. The Particulars of Rapture, where the epigraph actually resides, is an extended and scholarly meditation on the book of Exodus by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. And yet it turns out that one book has very much to say about the other.

Turtle Diary is not a love story, at least not in a conventional sense. And it has a rhythm that we do not expect from more conventional tales. Things that we might think impossible to accomplish are managed relatively easily, while things that might seem quite manageable are actually nearly impossible for our protagonists. They are conscious of need, but they are also conscious of their own necessities. A middle-aged life, as both of these characters make clear, is already at least "half-baked". It can't be molded into just any old shape anymore. The near solid edges have to fit together. Salvation must come in an unconventional form, as it does for the Israelites in Egypt. It gives not much away to say that for William G. and Neaera H., the deus ex machina comes in the guise of sea turtles.

William and Neaera are not exactly opposites--rather too much alike in some ways, William thinks. But they do represent masculine and feminine principles all the same, and according to Wallace Stevens and to Avivah Zornberg, the particulars of rapture are dependent on this mysterious embrace of opposites. Although other things happen in the book, it is their particular comingling that will launch change.

Zornberg, I think, has much to say about what precisely is ailing these two. It isn't just loneliness, although that is an aspect of it. In her understanding, Egypt in Exodus represents the place of constriction, paralysis and silence.

"This is the fundamental issue of Exodus: how to be redeemed when Egypt, that enervating soulscape, has one in its pincer grip? From such a perspective, Israel in Egypt cannot be redeemed--no separation is possible..."No slave ever escaped Egypt" (Mekhilta) What makes release possible, or, in midrashic language, what makes the people fit for redemption? What is the turning point in the history of unarticulated misery? And what, again in midrashic language, is the secret of redemption?"

How one person--or one people--escapes this pincer grasp is what both these books set about to find out.

When I bought this novel, the salesclerk happened to have read it and spoke enthusiastically about it, but said, it is bleak, though. I told her that bleak didn't bother me. What's odd, though, now I've read it, is that, though it does indeed have its bleak moments, it's nowhere near as bleak as another Hoban book I've read, The Mouse and His Child. And that was a children's book. Talk about your constriction and paralysis. But as John Clute is quoted as saying in an intro to Turtle Diary, all of Hoban's adult books are tales "of glorious escape from physical and psychic bondage".   And, spoiler alert, even a clockwork mouse in a children's tale has some hope of that sort of redemption.

(The illustration above is from the edition of the book illustrated by Hoban's then wife, Lillian.)

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