By Elizabeth Buzzelli
DRIVING WITH DVORAK:
Essays on Memory and Identity
By Fleda Brown
University of Nebraska Press
If the unexamined life, as Socrates said, isnt worth living, then Fleda Browns is truly a valuable life. Her new book: Driving with Dvorak: Essays on Memory and Identity, could have been a memoir, except that it isntexactly.
What it is are snapshots -- or maybe better -- X-rays from an ordinary life: father, mother, two sisters, three husbands, children, a retarded brother who dies young, a decaying summer cottage on Michigans Central Lake, other American places: east, west, Midwest. Scenes from a womans life, a poets life, that dive beneath the surface to return with reasons, discoveries, new understanding, new pain, new acceptance -- all the bits of life that make us human beings.
First there is the father, a prominent person in the book and in Browns life. In the title essay, he is old, he is angry, and she goads him as she did as a teen. Her sin? She used too much dish soap while washing dishes. She is 44, a grown woman, and doesnt think she has to tolerate his fits of anger, his penuriousness, his inability to act in his own best interest, and even his self-loathing. She talks back only to have him yell, By God, Ill hit you. Maybe this is where the book begins, with a need to know this man, this husband, this father. Then maybe to learn something valuable about herself.
What she can share with her father is music. Therefore Dvorak, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky. Not in an intellectual joust but in the silent ways music connects person to person, down in what Brown calls an inarticulate core.
TRACING A MELODY
Of all the essays in the book, this one comes closest to posing a question about her life and then answering it. But look at me now, she challenges as she drives along, grown, independent, still with the baggage of the past. Again there is music. Adagio to largo; childhood to present time, she traces the melody a family hums throughout time. Every family a different tune, maybe hers more discordant than most. Then she tells us ... art sends you back to memory, where it came from. You cant have the original which maybe never was the right thing, but you can have this. And soft, the little wisps, rising from the lake: the angels, the annunciation. You have to bow your head, to receive it, all of it, down on you, its sheer trumpets, clarinets, the joy of its French horn.
In Walls Six Feet Thick the memories of summer homes is used as a way into knowing her mother. First there was the decaying houses on Central Lake, then on to others in her life. Childhood to age. In one she is a young girl, in another a grandmother. But her mother haunts these pages, this woman ...Who has mostly managed to stay out of sight until now. Her mother is the misfit; the girl who resents her husbands family for their easy grasp of life, who takes out her anger in pathetic smallness when her sister-in-law is far into dementia, scoffing at her, the woman who no longer knows enough to get under a blanket to keep warm.
Later in the book, the smallness reverberates back on this cringing, crying woman, remembered by her daughter with a mixture of anger and disgust and love. The woman dies alone. The father got the news she was dying but ignored it, didnt tell his children, until she was gone. And Brown is left, later in the book, facing what he ultimately stole from his children: their last moment with their mother. And stole from her the children bending above her, their last I love you.
KILLING THE CATS
Of all the essays in this book, Returning the Cats touched me most, on level after level. Brown and her husband, Jerry, have taken in two cats. Theyve tried everything to love their animals but the cats are laws on to themselves. They pee and poop in the house. They hide when they have to go to the vet, scratch and claw when their nails are cut. They arent warm and loving. They must finally go to the humane society and Brown takes them, confronting one of those horribly painful choices were all forced to make from time to time, despite good intentions, despite what wed like to believe about ourselves. Brown uses the salve of an allergic son-in-law to quell the guilt good people feel when they fall short of their own moral expectations. But she has deeper anxieties over letting her cats down. She has the memory of her fatheryet againas he cruelly kills kittens their mother cat has had because he was too cheap to have her spayed, and then doing worse as Brown cowers in her room, trying not to hear.
That a name is put to why her father is the way he is, so near the end of his life, cant be made to matter. Anger runs too deep. That he was a tenured professor, took on the largest questions of the world and tried to find solutions, haunts her. At last, wanting to find excuses and finding them too late, or seeing them as too weak, she asks, Who knows what channels may lie in his mind that lead away from pain and toward the joy? Hes smart enough to have figured how to carve them.
Dont expect morality tales here. Nothing is that easy. Badness is confronted with wonder that it exists at all. Good is savored. In this non-linear examination of a single life, Brown delivers biography through philosophy and a poetic voice never consciously poetic.
Driving with Dvorak is a truly glorious and intelligent achievement; the biography Ive always wanted to read, where connections are drawn and savored, where academic distance doesnt take the place of emotion, where layers lie loosely over profound depths that glitter up through the years and hours, through the characters that people and draw the outlines of this single life.
Elizabeth Kane Buzzellis next novel, Dead Sleeping Shaman, will be in bookstores in May.