Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber

June 9, 2007 at 2:41 pm (Book review, books)

Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber is subtitled, “A Ring of Stories.” In each tale, there is embedded a specific link to the next. Looking for these connectors becomes part of the pleasure of reading this book. Ordinarily, I might look with suspicion on a device that comes perilously close to gimmickry, but somehow, Silber pulls it off with great wit and charm. The “ring” becomes yet another reason to be captivated by this slim, highly original volume.

“My Shape”proves to be a great story with which to kick off this collection. It is immensely readable. The voice of Alice, the protagonist, is almost chatty, as though she were rambling through her life story for the amusement of some friends. I found this straight-ahead, almost breezy narrative style extremely appealing, as is the narrator herself. But in the next three stories, “The High Road,” “Gaspara Stampa,” and “Ashes of Love,” Silber introduces us to characters who are increasingly complicated and not always easy to like.

And then, with the title story, she takes what I thought was an inspired imaginative leap: She portrays a family of 19th century American missionaries as sympathetic, decent people about whom we come to care deeply. This is not how I, at least, might have initially expected to feel about missionaries; the stereotyped view has them imbued with an unalterable sense of righteousness, invading an alien culture in order to impose a Western system of belief on the poor benighted natives. I think that what Silber achieves in this story is almost miraculous: she takes this preconception and stands it on its head. Several readers and reviewers have said that it is their favorite in the collection; it is certainly very dramatic and powerful. While reading it, I felt privileged to be in the presence of these simple paragons. Also, I had begun to tire somewhat of the self-indulgence exhibited so freely by characters in the earlier stories, like Duncan Fischbach , Gaspara Stampa, and even Alice herself. All those heated, overwrought passions, all that inward turning narcissism!

With regard to both “Ideas of Heaven “ and “Gaspara Stampa”: I think of historical fiction as one of the few avenues by which we prisoners of time can travel into the past. I’ve read many historical novels, but I had never encountered historical short stories until reading Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett (National Book Award Winner, 1996). In her collection, Barrett alternates the historical stories with the contemporary ones, much as Joan Silber does in Ideas of Heaven. The title story, “Ship Fever,” is about the Irish Potato Famine and the resulting emigration of numerous Irish nationals to Canada and the United States. The description of the shipboard experience was horrific enough that I have never forgotten it. As with “Gaspara Stampa” and “Ideas of Heaven,” I felt impelled to research the historical underpinnings of the story. And, as with the aforementioned two stories by Silber, I got totally caught up in events due to a combination of vivid description and believable and sympathetic characters.

I think one of the trickiest aspects of writing historical fiction is creating believable dialogue. This is especially true if the work is set in the distant past. It seems to me a dicey proposition, trying to re-create colloquial vocabulary and patterns of usage, not to mention slang, from the vantage point of many years down the road. Silber handles this challenge by using somewhat formal (but not archaic) diction which she then employs in sentences that are brief and to the point. Also, she relies almost exclusively on first person narration. The reader becomes privy to a long running interior monologue, which in turn presents the double advantage of minimizing the need for dialog while giving the reader a window deep into the soul of the character.

Gaspara Stampa lived from 1523-1554. It was a brief but colorful life filled with a passion and incident. (I had never heard of her before reading this story.) The actual narrative seems on its surface little more than a catalogue of frustrating and ultimately unfulfilling love affairs and yet I found it very engrossing. I especially enjoyed the vivid recreation of 16th century Venice, with its salons, gossip, and secret and not-so-secret intrigues. (There is a nonfiction book set in 18th century Venice called A Venetian Affair, by Italian journalist Andrea di Robilant. It too offers a splendid recreation of that time and place, and a luminous love story as well.) Here is a passage that sums up Gaspara Stampa’s philosophy quite well, I think:

“ I thought of Petrarch, how he suffered, and how for twenty years he longed for Laura without every living out that love. He made his home in the perfection of that yearning. I would rather….have what I just had. I would rather live in the particulars.” And she proceeds to do just that, with a vengeance!

As for poetry written by Gaspara Stampa: yes, the ache and the sadness are palpable, but I think that it is really difficult to translate verse from one language to another while retaining with any precision the beauty of expression found in the original tongue. Shakespeare is my chief reason for being glad that I was born into an English-speaking culture.

To return to “Ideas of Heaven”: this is a substantially more ambitious story than “Gaspara Stampa.” I think it succeeds on many levels: personal, psychological, historical. In an interview given shortly after Silber received the National Book Award nomination, her editor at W.W. Norton, Carol Houck Smith, said that she thought of these stories as “little novels,” as opposed to the more slender slices of life offered up in many contemporary short stories. Now, the stories in this book are certainly on the long side. At 57 pages, the title story approaches novella length.

Certainly “Ideas of Heaven” encompasses a large world of experience – perhaps one should say, of innocence and experience. In her note on sources, Silber refers to China Journal by Eva Jane Price . Pictured on the cover with her husband and their daughter Florence, Price – “Lizzie” in the story – looks stiff and unyielding, almost like a creature of another species. In this story, Silber humanize her character completely. When she talks about her fears and longings, I believe her utterly and ache with dread for her. And then there is her husband Ben. Here, he offers his rationale for taking up missionary work: “…people all over the world look at a dead bird and feel only dread for themselves and a natural horror of decay. I think they must always live with a taste of horror.” There is no hint of fanaticism in this statement; only humility, compassion, and a genuine desire to serve one’s fellow creatures. (To view photographs of Eva Jane Price and her family, type “Oberlin College Digital Collections” in the Google search box. In that site’s search box at the upper left, enter “Eva Jane Price.”)

And so they embark for China, Lizzie’s father’s anguished, almost Biblical injunction trailing in their wake: “Oh, Lizzie, why are you choosing to set off on this stony path? What have you to do with the Orient or the Orient with you? I had not thought two homebodies such as you would be so reckless.” Just how reckless – though with the purest of motives – would become apparent soon enough.

The fact that this story has its basis in fact makes it all the more compelling. Further information can be found at:

http://www.bris.ac.uk/Depts/History/Projects/Missions/Shansi

I have read this book three times; each time, I underlined something new. If I read it again, I will probably end up underlining the entire book!Here are some samples of the passages I marked out:

A reflection of a passenger on an ocean cruise: “There is an hour on any ship when twilight turns everything a bright and glowing blue and the horizon disappears, the sea and the sky are the same. The line between air and water is so incidental that a largeness of vision comes over everyone; the ship floats on the sky, until night falls and everything is swallowed in the dark.” [from “My Shape”]

“Suspicion, scorn, hotheadedness about money: these were not traits I admired. I had left other women over behavior much more subtle than this. But I saw that I didn’t care when Peggy was dead wrong. My feelings for her were independent of any opinion. They ran in a different channel; they had their own route. It was an odd, heady sensation to know this. I kissed her neck, in full sincerity.” [from “Ashes of Love”]

“Shutting up is a good research tool.” [from “Ashes of Love]

A man’s thoughts at his brother’s ordination: “During the ceremony, I felt confused and at the same time quite moved, as if a dog in a spangled costume had suddenly spoken profound and beautiful words.” [from “The Same Ground”]

Books discussed in this post:

Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber. W.W. Norton & Company, 2005

Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett. W. W. Norton & Company, 1996

A Venetian Affair by Andrea di Robilant. Vintage, 2005

China Journal by Eva Jane Price. Collier Books, 1990

I welcome recommendations for historical fiction; please feel free to comment.

4 Comments

  1. The power of understatement: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] terse eloquence. Mueenudin’s writing puts me in mind of other masters of the short form:  Joan Silber, Jhumpa Lahiri, and William Trevor among them. Also, with their air of quiet fatalism, these […]

  2. kathy d. said,

    I had not seen this section before linking to the main website. Am glad I did.

    I am so impressed at how much reading is done, the scope of it and may have to enjoy it vicariously, as I mostly read mystery fiction and lap it up as a cat does milk.

    So this is quite enjoyable.

    One novel that really exposes a missionary experience gone terribly wrong which is examined in great detail is “The Poisonwood Bible,” by Barbara Kingsolver.

    This is a terrific book which took Kingsolver ten years to write. She spent days on a paragraph.

    I wish that I could read a book a second time but there is so much new to read and discover.

    Kathy D.

  3. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] at Canasta – William Trevor Unaccustomed Earth and Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories – Joan Silber Little Black Book of Stories – A.S. Byatt My Father’s Tears – […]

  4. “The sequence of any fiction is, by its nature, the path of time evaporating.” – The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long As It Takes, by Joan Silber « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] chapter.) Her writing is superb, something I have known and come to expect since first reading Ideas of Heaven. Joan […]

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