By Lawrence W. Di Stasi & Margaret Weisz Di Stasi
Bolinas, CA: Sanniti Publications 2012, 216. Pp. $16.95
“--no, really—a manuscript.” These are the opening words of Lawrence Di Stasi’s “novel/memoir,” and with this opening he nods to the long history of prose fictions about secret and forgotten writings -- letters in bottles, messages from beyond -- a history running from Cervantes to Defoe to Hawthorne and beyond. In this case, the manuscript is one left behind by the author’s mother Margit Weisz Di Stasi. He tells us he waited years after her death before reading it. Then he presents her narrative, and interweaves it with his own commentaries, recollections, speculations, and denials. Here is a summary of some main points in Margit’s story:
A Hungarian duke and duchess take on a Jewish couple as servants. They turn out to be very splendid servants whom the duke and duchess favor and enrich. Their second child, a very beautiful girl named Esty, grows up alongside the duke & duchess’s only son Vonny.. When the parents realize that these two are in love, they marry off Esty to an unprepossessing cantor named Alfred. Esty and Alfred have a daughter. As World War I approaches, Alfred goes to America to find a safe haven for his little family with well-to-do relatives. While he is gone, and just prior to the beginning of hostilities in the war, Esty and Vonny meet by chance.
Under the pressures of war, separation, and long-suppressed desires, the duke’s son sleeps with the Jewish bride. Vonny dies in the first battle of the war, not knowing he has left Esty pregnant. Their baby, a girl, is born and named Margit. After the war, Esty joins her husband Alfred in America. They eventually have four children, of whom Margit is the second. When Margit arrives at the threshold of adolescence, Alfred violates the girl in her bed. When she grows up, her father forces her into a marriage with a Jewish man she does not want. He dies young, and Margit rejects both Judaism and her father, marrying an Italian she has met while working as a very successful hairdresser.
The mother’s narrative is both naïf and canny. Her belief in the superhuman beauty of the noble patrons comes directly out of children’s literature. Her description of her father’s abuse of her, down to her graphic recall of his erection when he enters her is remarkable for its vividness, and even more remarkable when one considers that she intends to leave this manuscript to her son.
The son, whom Di Stasi presents as himself tout court, has more than a little trouble dealing with his mother’s candor.
not that ma, say it isn’t so.
but she has it written so it must be, the bastard, she cursed him her whole life as a bullying, unforgiving bastard.
Sometimes he is the father, other times the not-father, though sometimes it is Vonny who is the not-father. It is not always clear to the reader which proper name to apply to these canceled titles. The narrator conveys his own perplexity as well, so the reader may at times believe that the real subject is that perplexity itself. Sometimes, as above, he is objecting. Other times, he is more than supportive. Sometimes the story gets lost in the analysis.
Sometimes, however, the story is all too clear. Towards the end the narrator describes how Margite was oppressed by the presence of her older sister Ella. Her spirits only lifted
when her older sister left; when unopposed she could tell me[her son] again, the truth again, about her father, about my father:
“your father…he never let me move when we made love, not a muscle.”
i squirmed, trying to suppress the pictures…, but she kept adding more: “if i moved, he’d accuse me of being with someone else, learning from someone else.”
enough, that’s enough i wanted her to stop, but she plunged gaily on, telling me how many times he would wake her to do it to her unmoving; how it was only with the not-father [the Italian she married after Max died] that she finally came to know what it was to truly come. i wanted her to stop. But she kept it up, her voice unstopped now kept flowing, marveling how he seems able to go on endlessly this not-father with such control like bowling he pulls out before he comes, jesus i want her to stop but she drones merrily on while i drift away thinking how strange that at first after my father died she spoke about him as if he were a saint, Christ, she leaped into his coffin when he died wailing that she wanted to die too, towards which i was the skeptical one then remembering his feet of clay but not now, it’s her pissing on his feet of clay and me praying her to stop i have no idea what of this is true and what is her chameleon self telling herself how it was now that she’s taken on the coloring of not-father and thus the obligation to be his heart, soul, and pecker the peckerhead. As chameleon to my father before him she became Italian, spoke Italian, cooked Italian, leaped into his coffin Italian, so now with peckerhead she’s become peckerhead American—cooks jello pudding, turkey white bread, margarine, plans menus around football games on tv, thinks about his regular vacations, and seems to get freer than ever while in fact getting herself ever more tightly bound, as five years ago when she left him and moved into an apartment for three months vowing she’d never return, until he called one day begging as he’d done each day since he left to come back, only this time dropping the phone with a bump and a moan—heart attack! it worked, she rushed to rush him to the hospital, stayed with him overnight, and never left, which maybe to her was freer, a progress of sorts: where my father would’ve just ordered he back, this one had to entrap her with his angina.
This passage, indeed this whole work, is an extended meditation on intrafamilial sexuality, its traumatic forms, and its lingering nimbus of post-traumatic effects. The abused mother here abuses the son, introducing him to intimacies of her relationships with her father who abused her (her not-father, really, since her actual father was the mythical Vonny), her husband who had sex with her in the same oppressive style as her not-father (and who was the father of the narrator), and her second husband (the narrator’s not-father), the one man who gave her sexual pleasure. All of this, summarized in the paragraph I have cited (along with her peculiar responses to these husbands, responding to her Jewish husband as if she were Italian, and to her Italian husband as if she and he were peckerheads, or jello-pudding-eating Americans), provides the obsessive texture of his ruminations and investigations.
Readers of Di Stasi's Una storia segreta will find it easy to see threads and wires leading from that account of mass humiliation and collective secrecy to this account of private shames and abuses and confusions, of a family that does not know how to talk to itself about itself but manages, as in Una storia, to leave itself a letter and, later, to decipher it. Di Stasi has confronted every kind of demon that can weave itself a fabric of lies and avoidances, from the largest and most blatant to the smallest and most private. These texts constitute one long act of courage. If I had a medal of honor in my gift, I would award it to him.