Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

Edith Pearlman ( and writes intelligent, perceptive, funny and  beautiful stories. She is the author of three previous collections, VaquitaLove Among the Greats and How to Fall.  Her themes are the predicaments — odd, wry, funny and painful — of human life. Her characters are sophisticated, literate, relatively affluent and often musical. They travel, they read, they go to museums and concerts: they take pleasure in what the world offers. They’re also principled, and moral responsibility plays an important part in their lives. Pearlman’s prose is smooth and poetic, and her world seems safe and engaging. So it’s arresting when, suddenly, almost imperceptibly, she slips emotion into the narrative, colouring it unexpectedly with deep or delicate hues.

In Inbound, 7-year-old Sophie becomes separated from her parents on the street. The mother thinks she sees her daughter, carrying her colourful new backpack, in a crowd watching a pavement performer. She pushes the stroller with Lily, their younger daughter, over to join her, not yet realizing her mistake: ‘She’d lift Lily out and all three would have a good view of the mime — he was deftly climbing an invisible ladder — and of the delighted children, particularly Sophie in her new backpack and her old turquoise jacket, only that kid’s jacket was green and she was taller than Sophie and her hair was yellower than Sophie’s, much yellower. Only an unnatural parent could mistake that common candle flame for her dear daughter’s pale incandescence.’

These emotions are love and fear, a mother’s shame at allowing this to happen, but Pearlman doesn’t limit herself to the darker emotions. She has a finely developed sense of the absurd, and comic moments ripple through the narratives. In Aunt Telephone, Pearlman describes a social milieu. ‘The party was given by the Plunkets, family therapists: two fatties who dressed in similar sloppy clothing as if to demonstrate that glamour was not a prerequisite for rambunctious sex.’ Thematically, many of the stories are explorations of the postwar Jewish diaspora. Pearlman’s characters struggle with relocation and disconnection, the complexities of cultural, religious and linguistic loyalties.

Vaquita is about Marta Perera de Lefkowitz, a Polish-Jewish doctor who trained in prewar Prague. She has become minister of health in a troubled South American dictatorship. Principled and courageous, Marta knows that her liberal politics will result in her arrest, and another exile.

“A trumpet of gunfire interrupted the list. The minister and her deputy exchanged a glance and stopped talking for a minute. The gunshots were not repeated.

“ ‘They will deport me soon,’ Señora Perera remarked.

“ ‘You could leave of your own accord,’ Caroline said softly.

“ ‘That idea stinks . . . ,’ Señora Perera said, but she said it in Polish. Caroline waited. ‘I’m not finished meddling,’ the señora added, in an inaudible conflation of the languages. ‘They’ll boot me to Miami.’ ”

Another story, Allog, concerns an apartment house in Israel. Its tiny immigrant community of inhabitants includes Marta’s friend, an opera singer. This soprano ‘spent most of her time writing and revising letters to the home she’d left.’ Though she has reached the promised land, her letters are filled with longing for the place and people she has left behind. ‘Come to me, Carissima,’ she writes to Marta. ‘Bring your damned parrot. Come.’ Her move to safety has not severed the connection to a beloved world.

The lovely Purim Night describes a 1947 celebration at a displaced persons camp in Germany. The residents are mostly Jews, awaiting admission to other countries. The war is over, but shortages still abound, and there are no supplies with which to celebrate the holiday. ‘As for the meal preceding the party, it would consist of the usual dreck: watery spinach soup, potatoes and black bread. Eisenhower had decreed that the displaced persons camps be awarded 2,000 calories per person per day; decent of him, but the general couldn’t keep count of newcomers, they came in so fast.’ Nevertheless, the refugees are fueled by hope: everyone has survived, everyone is dreaming of new homes in Israel, America, England, and invention thrives. The holiday is celebrated by wildly creative means.

The next story, The Coat, is about Sonya and Roland Rosenberg, the directors of the camp. Now married, and in New York, they try to inhabit the new city and their new identities, while living in a furnished apartment sublet by a mysterious landlady. An elegant man’s overcoat, found in the armoire, becomes a catalyst for Sonya’s imaginative constructs about immigrants, revealing her instinctive respect for the vanished world. Sonya begins to wear the coat herself. ‘She did not think of the coat as lawfully hers, oh no. But in its illicit protection she became a personage. Immigrant men hoping to adapt to the New World were buying fedoras and secondhand broad-­shouldered suits. Unwittingly they looked like gangsters. In print dresses their wives resembled charladies. Sonya, American by birth, graduate of a teacher’s college and an accounting course, never out of the country until she was past 50 . . . Son­ya was preserving the Old World of Ringstrassen, universities, coffeehouses, salons, museums, bunds and diets and parliaments and banks.’

Who are these people, in a new country? What do their lives mean here? Where do they truly belong? Relocation of all sorts is a recurrent subject here: Inbound, the first story, is about a lost child on a family trip, and Home Schooling, one of the most luminous, is about a family that moves from Cincinnati to Boston. The move is made for medical reasons; the father, a classical violinist, suffers from a serious illness. The mother, the twin 10-year-old daughters and their aunt spend the winter in this unknown place, while school, and everything else, is held in abeyance. The narrating daughter describes the household: ‘When not in the hospital for treatments given by those fishy doctors, my father slept in the front bedroom with my mother. A congregation of mahogany furniture kept them company. On the highboy stood a stag line of Dad’s medications. Mom’s perfume bottles flared their hips at the pills. The violin in its case lay flat on top of a lower dresser. We didn’t ask who was substituting for Dad in the quartet.’ Again we’re caught up in a stream of beguiling details — the congregation of furniture, the perfume flirting with the pills — as Pearlman describes a world that’s familiar, beloved and fascinating all at once. But once more she slips in an emotion — this time, sorrow — which permeates the landscape, leaving it known but dreaded, familiar but unbearable, a place we never want to inhabit, but do.

Pearlman’s view of the world is large and compassionate, delivered through small, beautifully precise moments. Her characters inhabit terrain that all of us recognize, one defined by anxieties and longing, love and grief, loss and exultation. These quiet, elegant stories add something significant to the literary landscape.  Dip into these short stories at your leisure.

392 pages in Lookout Books paperback edition

ISBN 978-0982338292

Edith Pearlman

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