Saturday, September 22, 2012

I Thought I Felt Myself Crack: Review by DeWitt Henry of From the Umberplatzen: A Love Story by Susan Tepper

I Thought I Felt Myself Crack

Review by DeWitt Henry
Tepper’s 47 short shorts and/or prose poems (From the Umberplatzen: A Love Story) each one page or less, offer a linear narrative about an ambivalent, two-year relationship. In each section there is a dialogue between the woman narrator, Kitty Kat, who is from America and married, and “M,” her German lover in an unnamed German city with a park and a species of deciduous tree she calls “umberplatzen (“Of course that is not the true name of the tree. I can’t ever remember the true name”).

She has moved to Germany to escape her ex in America, though they are still married.  Her means of support are mysterious.  As she reveals, almost as an aside in the 47th section, M. used to teach physics at the University and travel a lot.  When they first met, presumably in the park, she’d joked about biological warfare chemicals affecting his brain, and he’d picked up on the joke. “They say it’s all chemical,” writes Kitty Kat, remembering. “His chemicals invading mine. Some sort of cross pollination.” The park too “had a kind of force field that drew us together.” They have separate apartments. Neither have children. He is divorced from a woman in France. We learn that he once studied medicine. Also that he’d once been a champion parachutist, but hates flying. He is virile and sexy, but above all he is witty, as is she. Both appear to be Catholic.

Nearly every section is structured on some topic of their disagreement: the trees, favorite movies, favorite paintings, hair styles, bird song, kites, shoes. They start off happily, then either she or he suggests an idea or a preference, the other disagrees, apparent misunderstanding or offense sets in, and they part. Then M. makes amends by sending some token or message across town, which arrives next day, and disarms or further perplexes Kitty Kat. Distance and intimacy are their necessary dialectic.

Kitty Kat can’t give up her past (her husband, her country), but revels in M. as her German holiday. For M. Germany is home and he wants Kitty Kat to share it with him permanently. Every now and then, despite their verbal parrying (much like the couples’ parrying in Hemingway’s “Cat in the Rain” or “Hills Like White Elephants”), there are lines of crisis.  “We stood there facing off. A kind of crossroads”; “You can’t boss me”; “You want a baby by yourself”; “I’m not ready for a ring.” In terms of story, as seasons turn, and as attempts to amuse each other wear thin, there is no big argument or break up scene, no final, bittersweet “wisdom.” But we know from the opening section that Kitty Kat has returned to her ex, who also sent messages and tokens across the time and distance (“My ex had sent me . . . three jars of peanut butter . . . He no longer hated me”), and that the 46 sections that follow, while wonderfully immediate, are fulfilling her promise to M. that “I will remember everything.”

Tepper’s ear is pitch perfect. None of the dialogue is attributed and put between quote marks in the usual way, but the reader is rarely confused about who is speaking. Her packed segments in dramatizing two witty, bright, and sexy individuals even seem to suggest a screenplay (Neil Simon meets Truffaut or perhaps Bertolucci). All the dialogue is there, as in this passage:
It’s my time. I don’t mind he said. I do. Women. And he shook a finger at me. Your body is my body. OK then I’ll buy your body. When my flat gets sold. M had laughed. To the coldest bidder he said. OK We’ll get beer. We’ll get beer and sausage. We’ll dance out the day into the night. He hugged me so hard then. I thought I felt myself crack.
This is a classic, unsentimental love story about ambivalence; it’s often comic; both characters are imaginative. There are moments of whimsy, astonishment, anger, and beauty.
Tepper asks the reader to work, and the work pays off.

****** This review was originally published in the Lit Pub

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