Kafka in Bronteland and Other Stories by Tamar Yellin
Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
29 August 2006
It is now inescapable that our old absolutist ideas of literature—the idea that works can be rigorously divided into the realist or the fantastic—just do not hold. The trouble is that all the terms we invent to try to encompass this strange hinterland don't seem to work either. Old favourites like "slipstream" and more recent inventions like "interstitial" fill a perceived need from the side of the fantastic. You stand safe and bulwarked within science fiction or fantasy and survey all those mainstream works creeping towards you, and declare, yes, that has to be slipstream, that has to be interstitial. But stand outside the redoubt and the situation is not so clear.
Most of the stories in Tamar Yellin's first collection are clearly and unequivocally realist fictions. All could, indeed, be read as such. Yet every so often there is a shift in perspective, a sudden lurch in the way the world is viewed, which makes you hesitate. The best illustration of this unease with the solidity of the realist world is the story "Mr Applewick." When he was younger, Mr Applewick read science fiction; now he leads a solitary and scrupulously ordered life as a piano tuner. In his workshop everything is dust free and in its place. At night his pleasure is to watch the stars through his telescope—he was once nearly the first to spot a new comet. But now the order is leaching away. Although Yellin doesn't use the word entropy, this is clearly an entropic story. Mr Applewick starts to find the tools of his trade misplaced within his workshop, though nobody but he could have been responsible for the disorder. When he dies (there's a lot of death in this collection) it is discovered that his workshop is a filthy mess, his telescope is broken. Reading the story, we have existed unknowingly between the world as it is, and as Mr Applewick perceives it, though we have no sure way of deciding which one is real.
Though usually not so explicit, there is a similar disconnect between world and perception running throughout the collection. "Waiting for Rain" is a story about a young woman trying to make no impact upon the world, but discovering that her perception of herself is imposed upon the world, as we learn when we read: "The whole town could be a mirage and be gone tomorrow. It quivers on the edge of crisis, like a mirage." (p. 107). This theme, our lack of impact upon the world, our almost ghostly retreat from an unwelcoming existence, is repeated in several of the stories: in "Mrs Rubin and her Daughter" about an overbearing mother and the cowed nonentity of a daughter she leaves behind, and in "Uncle Oswald" about the fading away of a man who tries to be larger than life.
Often the disconnect is specifically related to Jewishness. "Return to Zion," the opening story in the collection, is set in suburban England, but it is an England with which the central characters barely connect at all. The patriarch of the family is Odysseus, who spends his life planning ever more elaborate routes for the journey to Jerusalem he will never make; at one point he even seems to be building an ark. His wife Penelope, meanwhile, enjoys the romantic attentions of each of the three Cohen brothers in turn, each of them whispering of a different sort of life they will never experience. And in the midst of all this the son, our narrator Telemachus, realises that he has no place within the family or, by extension, within the Jewish diaspora.
Tamar Yellin, who writes spare, beautifully controlled and elegant prose, is particularly good at Jewish voices. Not in the sense of caricature, of exaggeration, there are no "oy vey"s here; but each story subtly suggests the outlook and character of her narrators. As much is conveyed in the way the story is told as in what is actually said. It is, when you think about it, a narrative style particularly suited to her repeated theme of the distance between perception and the world. But this comes across most strongly within her Jewish characters, as if they are already sufficiently divorced from normal society to be part-way to a different world. If I then go on to add that this attention to voice also comes with a clear literary sensibility, it should not be taken to imply anything mannered or artificial in the way her characters speak. But over and above the naturalness of the voices there are recognisable literary influences, and these are not straightforwardly realist influences. Besides Mr Applewick's diet of science fiction, another character is discovered reading Asimov. In what is, for me, the best story in the collection, "Moonlight," we follow the story of a late-Victorian artist who enjoyed a brief renown and a long decline, as told by a contemporary art critic cursed by his own failure to create and drawn to the subject of the artist precisely because of failure. But there is something mysterious and inaccessible both in the life and the art. The pictures we are told most about are a series which explore the same subject obsessively: a woman, seen always from the back, in a moonlit lane or alleyway. Though there is nothing overtly threatening in the image, I am surely not alone in finding the pictures touched with a menace remembered from M.R. James's "The Mezzotint."
The clearest literary reference, however, is to Franz Kafka, who makes two appearances in these pages. In the final story, "A Letter from Josef K," we read a letter from prison from the victim of Kafka's The Trial. But this is a prison in which Josef has become fat on good food, his cell door is never locked, and there is no wall around the prison, just a low hedge. He stays not because he is confined but because he is as complicit as everyone else in the system. As a brief coda to the novel, this is a sleekly chilling fable.In the title story, a Jewish woman living in Haworth and slowly making a connection with a local Moslem woman finds herself intrigued by a new arrival in the town. His name is Kafka, and he looks exactly like the photographs of the Czech writer. She never actually meets him, and he does not speak, so we cannot know whether he is Kafka, or some relative, or whether it is all just a coincidence; but depending on the choice we make as reader is whether we accept this as a realist or non-realist fiction. The hesitation, in the end, is down to us.