In the July 15th New York Times Book Review, in a review of Alexander Chee’s book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, J.W. McCormack writes: “In Chee’s telling, the writer’s life always lurks just beyond the page…” I’m always interested in the writer lurking just out of reach and the relationship of the book to the writer’s life. I don’t mean that I expect incidents to reflect personal experience or characters to be modeled on friends and family. There’s a much more subtle relationship that I’m interested in.
For the past 18 months I’ve been on the reading committee for the new Jewish Fiction Award given by the Association of Jewish Libraries; the winner announced this past spring was Rachel Kadish’s novel The Weight of Ink. The book is set in London in the 1660s and today, an example of what I call a “split-screen” novel. In the historical plotline, Ester Velazquez is a young woman working as a scribe for an eminent blind rabbi. Women were never scribes; it’s an endeavor hedged about with strictures and tradition, closed to Jewish women who, in any case, usually didn’t receive much education. In the modern part of the story, the rabbi’s papers are discovered hidden in an old house and a Cambridge scholar is hired to examine this unusual treasure trove. The reader knows that Ester is the scribe; that knowledge dawns on the Cambridge scholar and her assistant only slowly. From hints and clues they piece together Ester’s remarkable life. The reader always knows more about Ester and the ending is bittersweet as we realize that her life will never be fully known by the researchers.
I’ve heard Kadish speak several times about the genesis of the novel. Her comments made the connection–for me–between the writer’s life and the story she tells. Before she knew what the story would be and where it would be set, Kadish thought about the women whose pens and voices were mostly silent through the centuries. What if a Jewish woman had had a chance to write and make her voice heard on paper and explore her philosophical interests in correspondence with the great philosophical minds of her day? How could it transpire that a woman have that opportunity? What would her life look like? So the title, with its nod to the transgressive nature of Ester’s life, is quite appropriate. Ester and the rabbi carry the weight of their arrangement, the secret that sets her apart from her contemporaries and from the London Jewish community. It’s a great story with compelling characters in both plotlines.
Kadish’s interest in telling such a story is the personal connection, the writer lurking beyond the pages. I believe that every novelist sets out to solve a problem and the novel is the result. Not a problem in the sense of something needing to be fixed, but an artistic challenge, an effort to represent ideas on paper in a way that rings true. The nature of that challenge comes from the writer’s life: the mixture of lived experiences and concerns lurking behind the creative process that drives the resulting story.