A wild, erotic novel—a daring debut—from the much-admired, award-winning poet, author of Flying Inland, A History of Yearning, and With Robert Lowell and His Circle: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz, and Others–a strange, haunting novel about survival and love in all its forms; about sexual awakenings and dark secrets; about European refugee intellectuals who have fled Hitler’s armies with their dreams intact and who have come to an elusive new (American) “can do, will do” world they cannot seem to find. A novel steeped in surreal storytelling and beautiful music that transports its half-broken souls—and us—to another realm of the senses. At the novel’s center: Anna (known as the Rat), an exotic Hungarian countess with the face of an angel, beautiful eyes and a seraphic smile, with a passionate intelligence, an exquisite ugliness, and the power to enchant . . . Her second cousin Herbert, a former minor Austrian civil servant who believes in Esperanto and the International Rights of Man, wheeling and dealing in New York, powerful in the social sphere yet under the thumb of his wife, Adeline . . .
And watching them all: Herbert’s eight-year-old granddaughter, Maria, who understands from the furtive fear of her mother, and the huddled penury of their lives and the sense of being in hiding, even in New York, that life is a test of courage and silence, Maria witnessing the family’s strange comings and goings, being regaled at night, when most are asleep the intoxicating, thrilling stories of their secret pasts . . . of lives lived in Saint Petersburg . . . of husbands being sent to the front and large, dangerous debts owed to the Tsar of imperial Russia, of late-night visits by coach to the palace of the Romanovs to beg for mercy and avoid execution . . . and at the heart of the stories, told through the long nights with no dawn in sight, the strange, electrifying tale of a pact made in desperation with the private adviser to the Tsar and Tsarina—the mystic faith healer Grigori Rasputin (Russian for “debauched one”), a pact of “companionship” between Anna (the Rat) and the scheming Siberian peasant-turned-holy man, called the Devil by some, the self-proclaimed “only true Christ,” meeting night after night in Rasputin’s apartments, and the spellbinding, unspeakable things done there in the name of penance and pleasure . . .”
On Writing Unspeakable Things
While living and teaching in Paris for the last twenty-five years, I had many encounters with unusual people, tortured by their memories of former lives and by their twisted experiences as refugees. Their living histories were told to me in smoky cafes, in bleak Parisian afternoons, on autumn streets, and in bed. As I immersed myself in their pasts, long-hidden memories of my own childhood in a family of refugees surfaced. Secret stories, people I had known, moments of suffering and awareness began to come back to me. I lived once more in the sado-erotic milieu of World War II intellectual refugees in New York.
I remembered, as a child, sharing my bed with Malka, a White Russian Countess who lived with us. Every night as I went to sleep, she would seed my dreams with tales of her sexual awakenings and the perverted ordeals she endured at the hands of a famous monk, during the time of the Czar. I remembered my grandfather, a prominent Freemason from Austria, holding court among the refugees who pleaded for favors in the darkened corners of the New York Public Library.
I remembered the German dwarf pediatrician and his desires for children and for their mothers who sold themselves to him. I remembered the unspeakable things that were never said, the whispers in the night, codes that were never broken, letters that were not received. And I remembered the overwhelming beauty of music that transcended our suffering and transported us to a New World we could not find.
I wrote a novel. I wrote it through lovers, I wrote it through my students, I wrote it in my solitude during the strikes that ripped across France. What emerged is a collage of history, magical-realism, sexual surrender, and the struggles and beauty of the people I loved.
Some may say that this book is too erotic, too strange, too surrealistic, or simply too outrageous. However, I do believe that the stories speak for themselves and should be told.
Thank you for reading Unspeakable Things.