Friday, December 13, 2019

Margarita Khemlin's Klotsvog

Margarita Khemlin's novel, Klotsvog, is a subtle portrayal of a complex heroine, Maya, who displays both positive traits, such as perseverance and self-confidence, and negative ones, such as selfishness and unfaithfulness.  Over the course of a long and difficult life, Maya's perseveres.  Like other Jewish Ukrainians, Maya grows up against the general background of devastation related to World War II. Her extended Jewish family has experienced both the war itself, and the holocaust, and now repeatedly encounters antisemitism in the post-War Soviet Union.  In fact, Soviet antisemitism is so pronounced that Maya's daughter somehow manages to develop a grammar school antisemitism that puts her at odds with her mother.

Maya's personality avoids easy categorization.  She is shrewd, but only modestly educated. In fact, her inordinate pride in her limited teacher training usually comes across insecurity.  Sometimes she accept the limits of her consciousness. For example, early in thee novel she writes hese days there are a lot of Brazilian and other television series, and everybody's knowledgeable about how things happen in life.  At that time, though, I had only  myself and my son Mishenka.

  She is often strong-willed, but doesn't always work outside the home, and often depends on men to move forward in life.  She is beautiful, but her beauty never quite translates into an easy life.  She has no doubt that she is Jewish, but often tries to overcome that fact.

Overall, Klotsvog's novelty is related to the fact that it tells a deeply personal story about a woman's life as daughter, mother, lover, wife, and worker, while simultaneously describing the historically conditioned life of a Jewish women living in the shadow of a specific historical catastrophe. Stylistically, Khemlin is at her best when she demonstrates the limits to her heroine's ability to understand her own life.  The awkwardness of her first-person prose illustrates her struggle to make sense of her place in the world.  For instance, she both acknowledges her attractiveness but wonders why she can't use that attractiveness to better advantage by stating:  "I was extraordinarily indignant that my situation didn't allow me to completely reveal my feminine essence." Elsewhere, she recognizes her Jewishness even as she tries to distance herself from the penalties of that birthright. "The problem of the future fate of the Jewish people--of which I was constituent part due to my birth--rattled me."  In this sentence and elsewhere, Maya accepts the awful idea that her particular people may have a dark "fate," but also tries to emphasize the fact that she only shares that fate by virtue of the accident of birth. 

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Margarita Khemlin's Klotsvog


I won't say my relations with Kutsenko were despicable from the beginning.


Love or no love, a woman should be with a man.

People lack the persistence to live.

It's extremely complex to get through to a consciousness fogged by alcoholism.

Why stir up what's unfixable?

Nothing in nature changes.  Unlike in a human.

Former husbands are capable of a lot.

He lost his mind.  And searching for an insane person is a nasty business.

There's not much space inside a person's psyche, though.

That's a law.  Coercion never leads to anything positive.

Yes, you never know what kind of cruelty to expect from children.

As an elderly person, I'm calm knowing that life is the exception and death is the rule.

The dead are living, too, in the great beyond.  And sometime it's unclear who has things better.


"The house is burning but but the clock still keeps


"I'm not inclined to baby talk here.  My family, they perished.  I'm alone, without kith or kin.  I save myself--though very badly--with jokes and banter.  I think it would've been easier if I'd perished with them."

"You know what, lass?  You could marry me.  I'm a person who's been through things and seen things.  And I'm not old yet, either.  You can't scare me with death and Siberia."


He repeated reliable sources from the highest circles, that the Soviet authorities weren't fascists after all and would only send certain people away.

..she read the Bible and knew a lot about Jews, but wasn't at all against her son living with me.

We used to play Beilis in the caves.  For old times' sake, you might say.

And don't pretend you don't understand.  Jewish words cost you nothing.  But oh, they could cost him so much.  But oh, they could cost him so much.  They could bring him death.

"You go first, they won't touch you, you don't look like a Jewess."

"And furthermore.  If you're going to pay attention to bad words directed at Jews, you'll have a hard time living."

He was taken.  They decided he'd been talking about some kind of Jewish clocks he was allegedly dreaming of inventing so they'd so they'd show the time properly to Jews.  But not to other Soviet people.

Ella show a glance at Mrik and ran off to her room.  Probably to write down new information about Jews.


He a good person and honest, it's just a bitchy woman landed in his life and completely broke him.

Blyuma burst out sobbing.  Very unattractively too.

Of course there could be no talk about love here.  This was the usual male impermanence.

As a mother and a wife, I constantly thought about the hard times that slyly lay in wait.


I talked with the kindergarten teacher, with prophylactic goals.

As for his antics, that's not important. We'll let that stay with me.  You're not a doctor to discuss it, but after all, I'm a pedagogue.


I was forced to leave my job, again so as not to cultivate nepotism.


Figures with zeroes spun in my head.  It seemed like the zeroes were always throwing themselves at my neck and suffocating me.

Of course you can't keep secrets in a communal apartment.

And he started laughing.  He started laughing in a bad way, without the right zeal, as if he had to.

And everything would have been good other than, naturally, Fima's behavior.  He systematically pestered me with conversations about his family that perished.

Fima opened the bottle like he wasn't hurrying, but his eyes were in a big rush.

I gave Ella a box on the ears with my forced ambivalence.  It's unclear how much that cost me.

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