Apr 20, 2017
In geveb is fortunate to have a devoted and diverse readership who read the texts we publish deeply and thoughtfully. We are always curious to know more about how you read the texts we publish from the contemporary perspectives of your own lives and work (within or outside the field of Yiddish Studies), and how those perspectives inform the ways in which you interact with, interpret, and are challenged and inspired by the texts we publish.
In this new occasional series, we ask readers to write responses to texts published in our journal that resonate with them in some way, personally or professionally. This article is the first response in this series. If you have read something on our site that you would like to respond to, or if you would like to suggest someone who might be interested in responding to a piece on our site, please contact us. The response may be in the style of the analysis below, but we also encourage readers to respond in other styles and forms. Our ultimate aim is to let our readership express themselves and share their reading experience, to create a public discourse around the material we publish. We are especially interested in responses from readers who may not think of themselves as writing from within the field of Yiddish Studies; we hope this series offers a space to explore how Yiddish culture and scholarship on Yiddish resonate outside the academic field.
In the essay below, Lia Friedman reads Blume Lempel’s “The Debt,” translated by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, in light of contemporary representations of, and conversations and policy about, abortion. She writes, “My interest in this piece partially stemmed from timing—I read and responded to it in the dizzying weeks after the election and Women’s March. As a lifelong advocate for women’s reproductive rights and a student of literature, I was intrigued by Lempel’s unconventional treatment of an abortion story.”
A recent immigrant, laid off from her job and facing a family member’s unanticipated and insurmountable healthcare costs, seeks an illegal abortion. A contemporary reader might know what to expect, based on depictions of abortion in cinema and television, 1 1 See this fascinating overview of depictions of abortion in cinema, or read this review of Obvious Child (2014), which Amanda Hess, writing in Slate, called “the most honest abortion movie I’ve ever seen.” as well as political discourse; these narratives tend to be invested in both the alleged dangers of the (incredibly safe) procedure as well as narratives of internal conflict based on perceived moral stakes. Yet Blume Lempel’s story “The Debt,” which takes place in Paris between the two World Wars, feels preternaturally contemporary precisely because it depicts this taboo subject without resorting to many of the tropes employed frequently even today.
“The Debt” follows an unnamed female narrator-protagonist surrounded by other anonymous patients of a prewar abortion clinic. In the very first paragraph, Lempel writes that the protagonist “was not thinking of the danger ahead,” setting the tone for the rest of the story. Dispensing with the clichés, Lempel instead offers a new script for this subject that focuses on specific details, images, and sensations.
Lempel, who emigrated from Galicia, Poland to Paris in 1929 and fled to New York on the eve of the Second World War, wrote against a background of repression. The story does not explicitly name the political reality that underlies its character’s situation: the abortion the narrator obtains is certainly illegal. After World War I, France’s government, concerned about a decreased population and hoping to bolster the birth rate, passed a 1920 law that suppressed information on contraception and declared all forms of birth control to be abortion and in 1923 prohibited the import of any contraception. However, before World War II, Parisian law enforcement took a relatively lax approach to the laws on the books. Women of means—especially rich English women—traveled to Paris to obtain illegal abortions; one source estimates 50,000 illegal abortions in Paris each year through the 1930s. During the Nazi Occupation, however, the Vichy régime made abortion a capital offense and between 1940 and 1942 executed a number of providers.
Abortion narratives tend to put their protagonists in a tight spot. They imagine all options as bad and morally fraught. “The Debt” has a premise that could easily go down this road, but Lempel subverts expectations.
For instance, many abortion narratives involve crooked or predatory doctors working under unsafe conditions; this story features female nurses in what seems like a well-run and well-trafficked professional medical setting. 2 2 We live in a world where obtaining an abortion is increasingly difficult- one thing that strikes me about this story is the what I perceive as the safety and ease of the abortion. There are no back alleys, rusty instruments, predatory doctors. And yet this is 100 years in the past. Furthermore, the role of nurse is aspirational for the narrator. Early on, we learn that “[s]he herself had always wanted to be a nurse,” and at the very end of the story, after reminiscing about an encounter from her childhood, she breaks back into the present by asking, “‘Is it still possible for me to become a nurse?’ ‘Of course it is,’ the nurse answered. ‘Two years of study and this vomit basin will be yours. With all the trimmings.’” Certainly this passage contrasts the fantasy of becoming a nurse with its less-than-romantic reality, but this answer midwifes a world of new possibility for the narrator.
While the story does not necessarily indicate that the protagonist will go on to achieve her potential, Lempel’s choice of language and imagery suggests a fertile ground for her development. The theme of reproduction permeates “The Debt”: the literal subject matter of abortion, print metaphors, water/womb imagery, and repetition of words and phrases throughout the story. Our narrator leads us through her process of birthing a creative identity rather than a baby—as an author, she’s sometimes ungainly in her use of figurative language, but proves fluid and resourceful. A dizzying slew of metaphors during the abortion procedure reflects the narrator’s tendency to reshape and reframe her identity. Our narrator goes from being light on the water (the strip of light coming out of nothingness is a startling fiat lux—or, rather, Yehi or), to the water itself—then the water becomes the calm and a curtain further estranges her from reality.
One category of metaphor to which the narrator often returns is print; when we first meet her, “She’d left all her doubts and self-pity in the sixth floor garret where they’d first taken root inside her, had abandoned them there like a stack of unsigned poems.” The “unsigned” alludes to the illegitimacy of her pregnancy, rather than describing her “doubts and self-pity.” She recycles the images of the clinic, as objects and actions in the story percolate into its telling. Where first “the nurse placed an ether mask over her nose” for the procedure, later, the nurse’s steps “swaddled thought like ether masks.” Even as the narrator lies passively, her constant adoption and incorporation of the scenes make her the creative agent in the storyline.
The narrator’s feeling of cultural estrangement filters into the narrative strategy of the story. While the third person narration clearly belongs to our unnamed protagonist—it incorporates her unfiltered thoughts—her feelings of ostracization prevent her from fully owning up to her story and using first person. She only ever describes herself in estranged terms; for instance, she describes the nurses “speaking of someone in whom she had not the slightest interest. They were talking about the girl lying on the table: such a young thing, four months pregnant.” Use of free indirect discourse blurs the boundaries between the different female characters at the clinic, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding identity. The lack of names lends itself to a repetition of pronouns, creating a chorus of she, her, hers.
Many of the sentences and descriptions could be about anyone and no one, strengthening the sense that our narrator tries on, imitates, and discards different identities. The only names used are the narrator’s account of when she proposes a sex-for-money transaction to an acquaintance and imagines the kind of French libertine who might do such a thing: “the idea entered her head unexpectedly; the words emerged from her mouth as if spoken not by her but by someone with the worldview of a Claudette or a Simone.” The narrator reveals her feelings of cultural estrangement several times—earlier, she thinks of her fellow patient: “The redhead was French. She had the art of love in her blood. She, on the other hand, was nothing more than an imitation, making a fool of herself by aping others.” The narrator compares the redhead to the subject of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s “La Grande Odalisque,” an Orientalist portrait of a concubine in a harem. The allusion to this painting, much like the “unsigned poems,” again displaces the description onto an object it less aptly modifies: our narrator, not the redhead, is the exotic foreigner selling sex to French people. Furthermore, Ingres painted “Odalisque” not out of direct experience with the subject matter, but to capitalize on the popularity of Orientalist art—and, notably, to pay a debt.
The theme of repetition or imitation recurs frequently, especially in relation to France and Frenchness. European attitudes towards Jews frequently depicted them as interlopers, borrowers, polyglots. The narrator’s Jewishness isn’t made evident through the story’s content, only through the language of its telling: perhaps lost in translation reading this story in English is that our foreigner in France writes in her mother tongue. Only the nurse’s directions appear in French; everything else is mediated through the narrator’s Yiddish. The French thus appears foreign in the context of the story, rather than Yiddish or Yiddishisms peppering a native-tongue document with “exotic” flavor.
While women are clearly the story’s locus, Lempel weaves in subtle and subversive critiques of men and the socio-politico-religious structures that systematically exculpate them. The story’s first male image appears in the narrator’s memory of a summer morning at the Sacre Coeur Basilica, which she recalls during her procedure. As she lies in the clinic, the narrator envisions the sacred Roman Catholic pilgrimage site; the highest point in the city of Paris and the site of the Paris Commune, the Basilica was constructed as a conservative response to Montmartre mores and revolution. The narrator’s memory begins with “the soft golden fingers of the sun” touching the Basilica and “groping…towards the statue of the boy, from whose stone member a falling stream was trickling.” As the narrator waits for anesthesia to take effect, she imagines that she “placed her mouth under the innocent member of the stone boy so that the cold water would spurt out over her face, her whole body.” The pairing of the Catholic cathedral and the abortion clinic is jarring to begin with, and Lempel’s description of the narrator drinking from the stone penis makes it even more transgressive. The descriptor “innocent” for “stone member” calls up thoughts of all the guilty ones—the reason the women of “The Debt” lie in the abortion clinic in the first place. Lempel enumerates them: the narrator’s “friend,” the redhead’s attentive lover, the talker’s nightmarish husband who wants to make love constantly. This subtle critique embedded in the religious imagery rejects tired virgin/whore and sacred/profane binaries, and instead presents a more neutral and ambiguous landscape.
“The Debt” was originally published on In geveb in September 2016. The story also appears in Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, a new collection of Blume Lempel’s short fiction published by Mandel Vilar Press and Dryad Press in November 2016.