The Dark Music of Time

A local poet and memoirist delves into magical realism for a first novel in a minor key.

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Unspeakable Things by Kathleen Spivack

Published by Knopf, 290 pages, $26

Kathleen Spivack has infused her debut novel with the exoticism of poetry, the form for which she is best known. The characters are refugees who’ve fled Hitler’s Europe for 1940s New York, and they partake of a savagery that veers into the surreal. There’s Countess Anna, a woman known as the Rat, who is beautiful but hunchbacked; she had a brief, rivetingly erotic affair with the Russian mystical monk Rasputin, whose handprints remain on her body. She turns up at the doorstep of her cousin Herbert, who has lost a son, Michael, to the camps; his spirit hovers over the family as Herbert tries to help fellow refugees. Then there’s the Tolstoi Quartet, who kept Mozart and Beethoven alive against the Nazis’ promotion of modern music, sleeping in bed with their beloved instruments while their wives slept on the floor. But the musicians can no longer play, having had their pinkie fingers severed by the enemy before escaping to the States. Their fingertips wind up in the hands of Felix, a sadistic pediatrician who keeps bottles of body parts and dreams of genetically engineering a master race—that is, when he’s not abusing young patients like Herbert’s granddaughter Maria, who mentally retreats into a self-protective cocoon she imagines as a kind of death. Spivack concocts a glittering picture of many horrors, echoing the unspeakable things unfolding across the ocean, while managing to include some surprising, almost perverse tenderness.

From page 237: Music played from the open refrigerator. The afternoon passed from dusk to night. The contents of the apartment seemed to swirl in the milky, darkening light. It was as if they were enclosed in a jar, a jar containing elements of life: oxygen, a watery, permeated air that nourished them as they swirled slowly, counter-clockwise, thrumming to the universal tone of A—A-live—as did the groups of cells where life or semilife was being formed. A city held them, and beyond that city a continent, a planet.

 


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