Smell the cabbage

by Alina Zienowicz, 2008 (from wikimedia commons)

I can’t stop thinking about the sauerkraut.

I’ll give you the scene. A young woman in her Toronto apartment. Some workers arrive to fix the plumbing downstairs, and one comes up to turn on the water. Our heroine is wary: her pantry contains a crock of “out-of-control” sauerkraut. Once the plumber is back downstairs, she overhears, through the floorboards, “there’s definitely something rotting up there,” and wants to run down to explain: “how I hate the stink too, how I wish I could just dump the whole fucking crock into the compost…but that I can’t, because, you see, because of my grandfather.” And then there are two increasingly desperate pages of “because.” “Because his house is up for sale.” “Because the man poured pickle juice on his fried rice…” “Because I don’t speak Low German or German or Ukrainian or Russian or Dutch.”

In the closing moment, she’s “kneeling in front of the sauerkraut scooping the scum into a blue plastic cup… holding my breath in the stink and my nose is running and I’m wiping it on my sleeve and trying not to sob too loudly as the plumbers gather their tools below.”

In last week’s entry I mentioned Alayna Munce’s novel When I Was Young & In My Prime (Nightwood Editions, 2005). Though I have been reading some poetry I keenly want to write about (specifically pieces in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012), I can’t yet shake When I Was Young. It lingers—I hesitate to say “like the smell from a crock of fermenting cabbage,” but that is kind of what I mean. In a good way.


To recap, Munce’s book follows the narrator’s life in the city, where she works two jobs and struggles in her marriage. Meanwhile, her grandmother, Mary Friesen, recedes into an Alzheimer’s-fogged existence. Grandfather Peter also begins to decline. So, one narrative tracks the wobbly launch of a life, the other tracks the recession of two other lives, and the place where the novel finds its richness is where the two meet, in our narrator’s heart and mind.

We are dealing with a narrator who is determined to not let her grandparents’ lives—or their suffering—slip away unstudied. Not unnoticed, but unstudied. She writes poem sequences based on fragments of their history. She extrapolates from old diary entries of her grandmother’s and slips into her mind, her voice, in a time before the narrator’s life began. She does the same with her grandfather. I’m not sure how Munce pulls this off. It might have come across as false, or too cute. Instead, we sink into the voices, while also remaining aware that this is only the narrator’s clumsy attempt to glimpse her grandparents’ secret lives. The tension between these two states of awareness, for the reader, is quietly effective.

I suspect we’ve all looked at a close relation from a previous generation and thought, with a mixture of fascination and dismay: their life is a mystery to me. Because their tale is the precursor to our own, it’s also ours, and we yearn to know it. Munce gently steers her narrator into that usually impenetrable universe: someone else’s existence. It does not feel like invasion so much as homage, a rare empathy. Story being applied to one of its chief purposes, I daresay one of its chief obligations.


The narrator’s effort to learn from her grandfather how to make sauerkraut—before it’s too late remains unspoken—calls forth vivid associations. Once, my cousins asked my maternal grandmother, Babci (our informal version of the Polish babcia), to teach them how to make pierogies. They arrived at her house on the appointed Saturday afternoon. They found the kitchen table laid out with rows of meticulously trimmed ovals of dough. They found bowls brimming with fillings: potato-and-cheese, sauerkraut-mushroom, meat. Their job: to place a dollop of filling into the centre of each round of dough, fold the dough over and pinch it closed. Pierogy assembly.

We still laugh about this, but the incident also troubles me. Did Babci not believe they truly wanted to learn? Did she not want to give up her secrets?

In my thirties, I told this same grandmother that I’d begun to study Polish—a language none of my 16 cousins spoke either, so which, in a single generation, had disappeared. She said, “Why you want speak Polish?” She waved a hand dismissively. “Polish difficult language. You soon forget.” I wanted to say, so I can ask you more questions, better questions, and understand the answers. So I can get a glimpse of how a Polish mind, trained by a whole other system of grammar, works. How it feels to use my mouth in a Polish way, to make Polish sounds. Because I’m half-Polish, I wanted to say, and since you and I talk in broken English, since Polish—which I’ve heard spoken around me my entire life—sounds to me like garbled mutterings, I hardly know what being half-Polish means.

I started too late: my Polish (it is a difficult language) did not progress quickly enough. Babci died in 2006. (I wrote a Lives Lived piece about her for the Globe and Mail. You can read it here.) Now her thoughts about so many things—as well as her particular technique for pierogy preparation—exist somewhere out of time, out of my reach.

There are days when I’m as skeptical as my grandmother was about all this hanging on, cluttering ourselves up with the past. Are we just being sentimental? Trapping people inside our greedy imaginations? Then I read a book like Munce’s, her narrator’s loving, painful itemization of the changes in her grandparents’ lives, their belongings, fragments of history, minor facts. The mason jars, stepladder, hat boxes and butter forms hauled up from the basement for a garage sale. Grandma’s ruminations on the saying it’s all downhill from here: “I couldn’t for the life of me remember whether the phrase is meant to be uplifting or melancholy.” Grandpa’s five languages, “if you included whistling.”

I read this and feel a resurgence of a kind of faith. I ask myself where it’s been. What has happened in my life—and in my craft as a writer—to make me forget that the main thing is to take note? That behind everything we do, this one imperative: pay attention. Maybe I lose faith sometimes because the impulse to “pay attention” is often followed in my mind by: Okay, then what? Is it possible that in choosing to observe—meticulously, unsparingly—we avoid a duty to act? We shy away from a meaningful, useful response?

I finished reading When I Was Young a few days before the 19th anniversary of my Polish grandfather’s death. He died November 5, 1993. Various hospital stays punctuated his later years. Once my sister and I went to visit him in the Henderson, the hospital on the Hamilton mountain, an old building that back then had narrow, stuffy, yellow hallways. (It may still; I have not been back.) When we were saying goodbye, he sat up in bed, watery eyes wide and bright, and said, “I’m go with you. I’m no stay.” He pointed to a knapsack one of us held. “I’m fit in bag.” He grinned. He was joking, but he wasn’t. We held back tears, kissed him—three times each, cheek after cheek, the Polish way—and squeezed his mottled hand and walked out of the room, down the suffocating hallways, back outdoors, squinting into the daylight.

Sometimes action is beside the point. We couldn’t rescue our grandfather from his hospital bed or from his failing body. We could note his struggle, and carry it with us, along with all the other things about him that we remembered and knew. This is what we mean by paying attention. It’s what I mean. And then what? I don’t know. But we have to let the sauerkraut ferment, let the stench work its way into our noses.


Prescription: one fine passage a day

Mary Louise Parker as Henrietta Stackpole in Portrait of a Lady (1996)

Mary Louise Parker as Henrietta Stackpole in Portrait of a Lady (1996)

‘Henrietta was a literary woman, and the great advantage of being a literary woman was that you could go everywhere and do everything’

Years ago, when I was young and snooty and resentful of obligatory social engagements, I attended a work party with my then-boyfriend (his work, not mine). I found myself sipping wine in a well-appointed Ottawa living room with several wives who, to my relief, turned out to be avid readers. One of them said, “It’s weird, but nothing seems right, everything’s a little tougher, when I’m not in the middle of a good book.”

I wanted to take her by the hand and bring her home. She’d articulated something I’d always sensed but never consciously noted: That an interlude with a passage of fine writing can smooth out the edges, lessen the sting, wrench open the eyes. Forget the apple: a chapter, a poem, an essay a day, this is what is required. That Ottawa woman whose name and face I now forget got it: some of us use—some of us need—the written word as a binding force in life, offering a parallel narrative to backdrop our own, an army of company (and ideas, and even horrors) to trail us on our errands, wanderings, pursuits.

Welcome to my blog, which borrows the spirit of Henrietta Stackpole, a character—minor yet key—in Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady. I read this book last winter, holed up, nursing my newborn son. I would sit in an armchair, lie baby Henry on a wide flat pillow, latch him on, and prop the book on the pillow behind him. It is a coincidence that James and the baby share a first name, I swear. And don’t worry: this is not a blog about all things Henry James. Nor is it about how reading saved me in the early days of motherhood (though, yeah, it did). And it ain’t no book review blog. More like a book report. Informal and wide-ranging. I hope to share ideas, reactions and thoughts on what I’ve been reading. Nothing fancy or grand or—what is that annoyingly popular concept?—innovative. But it seems to matter. I aim to muddle through that watery space between the lines where most good writing leaves you, paddling and spinning, trying to figure out how you got there, where the shore is, what’s lurking beneath your feet.

Back to Henrietta Stackpole, our guardian angel. A friend of Isabel’s, the protagonist, Henrietta is a journalist “in the van of progress,” first introduced as a “high example of useful activity,” Isabel’s “proof that a woman might suffice to herself and be happy.” In the social context surrounding Portrait of a Lady, Henrietta is a lady possessing a shocking, almost distasteful sense of personal freedom. She comes and goes as she pleases; can attend the opera or stay at an inn without concern over which male figure, if any, serves as escort. James explains, with that hint of comic relief that accompanies most of his passages on Miss Stackpole, “Henrietta was a literary woman, and the great advantage of being a literary woman was that you could go everywhere and do everything.”

I fell for her from the get-go.

It is out of fashion these days to describe a fictional character with the heartiness that James applied to the task. Here she is upon first appearing to Ralph, Isabel’s invalid cousin, who had hoped to disapprove of her but was forced instead into a reluctant admiration: “She resulted, she shimmered, in fresh, dove-coloured draperies, and Ralph saw at a glance that she was as crisp and new and comprehensive as a first issue before the folding. From top to toe she had probably no misprint.”

Then she fixes her eyes upon him and “there was something in their character that reminded him of large polished buttons—buttons that might have fixed the elastic loops of some tense receptacle: he seemed to see the reflection of surrounding objects on the pupil. The expression of a button is not usually deemed human, but there was something in Miss Stackpole’s gaze that made him, as a very modest man, feel vaguely embarrassed—less inviolate, more dishonoured, than he liked.”

Finally, upon further reflection by Ralph: “She was wanting in distinction, but, as Isabel had said, she was brave: she went into cages, she flourished lashes, like a spangled lion-tamer.”

James’s lush descriptions are enough to make me lament, a little, the sparsity of contemporary letters. I am currently reading, and deeply admiring, Toronto author Alayna Munce’s novel When I Was Young & In My Prime (Nightwood Editions, 2005). It’s a compassionate study of a young woman struggling through early adulthood (two jobs, faltering marriage) while, outside the city, her grandparents are declining. It’s also wonderfully natural the way it’s written and told, its diary-like passages interspersed with poem sequences that delve into issues raised during incidents that are recounted in prose. But Munce’s style is definitely of our time. We are introduced to Mom, Grandma, Grandpa, James and various other characters. We learn them through their words and actions and various talismans, through setting and implication, impression and voice, but we are not literally shown them: their size, their hair, their eyes, their noses, their hands. We writers don’t do that these days. And of course all that description was overbearing. It left no room for the power of suggestion, for the character to fit a heretofore undiscovered nook in your mind. Good for us that we’ve moved on: call it progress. Even so, when I turn a page and encounter Henrietta as Madame Merle does— “[she] surveyed her with a single glance, took her in from head to foot, and after a pang of despair determined to endure her. She determined indeed to delight in her. She mightn’t be inhaled as a rose, but she might be grasped as a nettle”—I glory in all that exposition. I pause and read the lines again, following their snaking through Madame Merle’s calculating mind. The nettle pricking. Henrietta flowering.

James clearly had a ball writing Henrietta. With apologies to James scholars, I can’t help but wonder if he was using her as a vehicle to poke fun at himself. The name is a flag, of course. And then there are her incessant efforts to report on “the inner life,” which becomes a kind of running joke throughout the novel: Henrietta’s ideas about the “inner life” are already set, we “the reader” understand, but she must pin down examples. She must poke about the English estates and the lives of their inhabitants. James plumbed his own society, the dramas (or types of dramas) played out in his own circles, for his novels: to peel back the “inner” life” for real was his literary calling. But of course at times—as for any writer—it felt ridiculous, futile, intrusive. The opportunity for gentle, though exuberant, mockery afforded by Henrietta must have been a welcome release.

(For a magnificent exploration of all that, even if you aren’t a James fan—and especially if you are a writer—read Colm Toibin’s The Master, a novel based on James’ life, a real digging down into the unsettling aspects of the author’s toil and trade. Click here for the Guardian review.)

Such is my theory. Henrietta is brilliant in that she’s both a break from all that painstaking psychic excavation—and with James as guide it can be remarkably painstaking—while at the same time a key source of revelation. The only forthright, trustworthy character in the novel, Henrietta is blunt and intrusive, at times hilariously lacking tact, and thus a caricature of a “modern woman” that I am willing to bet sets some feminist scholars teeth on edge. She exudes guts and principal; she’s without guile, and is the one person in Isabel’s life who cares about her without self-interest.

Henrietta was on the hunt. As was James. As am I. (And I daresay I can be just as awkward and cringe-worthy as she.) Nowadays, nobody I know needs the cover of being a “literary woman” to follow her nose, to explore the world. However, there are far too many women I don’t know directly, women in oppressive societies—and in restrictive circumstances right here in contemporary Canada—for whom no “literary woman” guise would help. I can’t read or write, pursue any autonomous endeavour, without my thoughts shifting the way of those women, without anger bubbling—and simmering equally on behalf of women in times past, the Isabels reduced to looking upon the bold, unusual Henriettas with admiration.

I was happy and lucky when I read Portrait of a Lady, a new mother in the throes of all that entails. I was also desperate. Desperate to engage my mind while my body was doing its work, while I was kept stationary for lengthy stretches, sating the baby’s hunger. James brought me England and Rome and Henrietta, in all her shimmering certainty. Her usefulness. The book led me out of the living room and my own ordinary dramas and duties while also bringing what was before me into sharp relief: exactly how, I don’t know, but the one effect makes the other possible. A good read leaves me both rinsed and brimming. It was important to find that hadn’t changed, though so much else had. It is no great discovery, yet it is a discovery, each time it happens: The book is a gateway. A literary woman can go anywhere.