Summer Read: Hot-Blooded Saga of a New York Immigrant
Anna Fishbeyn’s debut novel, The Matrimonial Flirtations of Emma Kaulfield (Arcade Publishing, 2017), is a seriocomic tale of romantic passion told by a Russian-Jewish immigrant to America. While a work of fiction, the story clearly has roots in real-life international politics, as well as in the author’s own life. (Note: Some spoilers follow.)
Emma (born Elena “Lenochka” Kabelmacher), the book’s titular heroine, would not exist if not for a shift in American policy toward the Soviet Union back in the 1970s — specifically the introduction of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Act of 1974. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington state and Representative Charles Vanik of Ohio (both Democrats) fashioned the legislation. The amendment ended American trade relations with countries in the Soviet Bloc that restricted emigration of religious minorities — especially Jews. Emma, who moved with her family to Chicago from Russia in 1982, sums up the policy with wry succinctness: “Russian Jews were traded for grain.”
Fishbeyn’s sprawling, entertaining book also has an autobiographical dimension. In recent weeks, the author performed her cabaret act, Anna on Fire and Uncensored at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Room, where she told a version of her life story that mirrors Emma Kaulfield’s in many respects. Like her fictional creation, Fishbeyn emigrated from Russia to the US as a girl. She was drawn to the arts while pursuing training as a statistician and adopted a sex-positive brand of feminism at odds with her Russian-American upbringing. Emma and Fishbeyn also clearly share the same maternal grandmother — an outspoken character, who is continually warning Emma about becoming an “eternal whore.”
Emma is an every-girl Rom-Com protagonist — a Bridget Jones, perhaps
Most of the action takes place in the late 1990s — when Emma moves to New York City from Chicago to study statistics at New York University (and to furtively study painting on the side). Back in Chicago, Grandmother selects a suitable young Jewish/Russian swain, Alexei (Alex) Bagdanovich, to woo Emma. On a visit to New York, Alex proposes marriage at the fashionable La Côte Basque restaurant (the same establishment where Truman Capote famously sabotaged the latter part of his career). Excusing herself to run to the ladies’ room, Emma instead winds up in the men’s — where she has a quickie sexual encounter with a handsome stranger named Ignatius (Eddie) Beltrafio. Emma and Eddie’s act of passion eventually pulls Emma into a romantic triangle that Fishbeyn teases out for a large portion of the novel. Engaged to Alex, Emma secretly embarks on an extended fling with Eddie that becomes increasingly torrid and fraught with danger.
On one level, Emma’s saga is that of an every-girl Rom-Com protagonist — a Bridget Jones, perhaps. But it’s also the tale of an immigrant trying to sort out her identity. Should she — or, for that matter, can she — become completely assimilated and thoroughly Americanized? Despite being an immigrant, Emma has fully mastered the English language, and then some — she also embraces Broadway show tunes and dates American men. Even so, she is still tightly bound to a family that is Russian to the core. Her desire to hold on both to fellow immigrant Alex and exotically American Eddie (a rising star at a major Manhattan bank) becomes emblematic of her larger personal struggle. Compounding the conflict is the fact that not only is she a Russian immigrant — but also Jewish. As a child in the old country, she became familiar with the scorpion stings of anti-Semitism. Emma, however, welcomes facing the bigots head-on. She believes this will give her life significance:
I felt my own life quaking with a silent mutiny against its current uselessness; the simple rituals of going to class, speaking on the phone to my family, musing over dinner, flirting, dating, chasing love – all stank of ordinariness and meaninglessness. And I longed for it again—the loud explosion of anti-Semitism to sear my flesh, to re-ignite my childhood pain.
Fishbeyn succeeds in large part because of her striking command of language.
At points, Emma Kaulfield is a darkly satirical comedy of manners — especially when people in Emma’s New York circle come in contact with the bumptious Kabelmacher clan. The comedic zenith arrives when Emma’s family prepares a dinner party for Eddie and his parents. The haughty and disdainful Mrs. Beltrafio squirms as Mr. Kabelmacher displays his “perfect ears”; Emma and her sister Bella launch their vocal rendition of “Sunrise, Sunset”; Emma’s niece Sirofima straps on tap shoes and Grandmother serves up her most exquisite delicacy: Cow-Brain Stew. Offsetting such comedic passages are flashbacks to some horrific moments from Emma’s (or, rather, Elena’s) childhood in Russia. Fishbeyn often presents these memories as poetic depictions of the paintings Emma creates as a young adult. There is great power in some of these sequences, especially one involving another Jewish girl who is sexually brutalized at a camp for children of Russian intellectuals. In addition to the contrasting scenes of comedy and horror, there is one sequence that is, perhaps, best described as audacious surrealism: A mortally ill iguana joins forces with our heroine to do battle with a would-be rapist who nicknamed his penis “Spiderman.” Seriously.
To Fishbeyn’s credit, all of these seemingly discordant styles and moods come together deftly, commingling naturally within a single narrative. She succeeds in large part because of her striking command of language. Her verbal dexterity would be impressive coming from any writer. Considering that Fishbeyn achieved it as a nonnative English speaker is astonishing. It may sound hyperbolic, but as I read Emma Kaulfield, the word that kept running through my head was “Nabokovian.” Consider the visceral, erotic imagery that Fishbeyn employs in a scene in which Emma recalls harvesting mushrooms with her mother at a camp back in Russia:
Dejection slips into my heart. Nothing is alive or edible or real – only poison, death, a grumpy angry forest – I throw my useless wand against the ground and suddenly my eyes catch Him: the King Bolete – Porcini – Beliy Grib. He sits proud and still, leaning like a retired general against a thorny shrub. The needles prick my skin and latch onto my hair, but still, with bare hands, I forge ahead and pull the Beliy Grib out whole, my fingers clenching its regal, portly stem. I found Him, I scream in joyous trepidation, tears tapping at my eyes, but my mother doesn’t hear. She’s singing to herself or is there someone else?
The final stretches of the novel are a bit hard to take. The love/hate and push/pull between Emma and Eddie become repetitive, but in a way it’s fitting. The reader, like the novel’s protagonist, becomes worn down by the ever-churning drama of the cross-cultural romance. Emma knows that her affair with her gorgeous goyishe guy is doomed, but she keeps coming back for more. Even as she understands that Eddie came from the womb of an inveterate anti-Semite.
“Time won’t cure me,” she tells her lover. “Can’t you understand: this thing, this anti-Semitism business is the mainstay, the all-consuming trope of my life.”
The Matrimonial Flirtations of Emma Kaulfield is a brash, flamboyant and highly impressive debut novel. I look forward to discovering what Fishbeyn will do for an encore.