Love Bites – literary tidbits about love from Paris and around the world or a biting euphemism for saying love sucks? Or, is it something else entirely?
Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro come to mind after reading three of Elena Kaufman’s short stories posted on the digital publishing site Unbound. The writing style is similar, but there’s a worldliness in Kaufman’s characters, mixed with the almost tangible feeling of tension they carry with them as their stories unfold. It is the sensation of not belonging in a particular place that she captures so well.
Those writers would have to take their characters out of their prairie, suburban, backcountry lots and set them free in multicultural Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto, London and Paris, let them watch 1980s independent films with subtitles, visit museums, read obscure French fiction and subscribe to the shabby chic aesthetic you find in Wallpaper magazine.
Kaufman writes about the new bohemians, the kind of lost souls you find wandering the streets of Calais in pre and postwar romantic fiction during the first few decades of the 20th Century, displaced for one reason or another. If not for war itself, by elusive dreams, love, a need to escape with other creators and adventurers. Works like Gershwin’s An American in Paris (written in 1926), or Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight (1939) depict these scenarios. As in Kaufman’s short stories, lonely strangers connect in resort towns and familiar tourist spots like the Luxembourg Gardens – Sunday in the Park With Betty – as they drift across the European continent.
“A lot of the characters are also ex-pats or people who don’t necessarily belong in that culture and so there’s a clash between them and the place, or the people, or the language,” says Kaufman, like Juliana and Paul in Phantom Appendage, which Kaufman says was her favourite story to write.
The couple abandon “the city of lights for the city of rain.” They go from Europe to North America, leave Paris for a new home in Seattle, unlike in the earlier novels where the focus is on the move toward Europe.
Phantom Appendage in Paris
Phantom Appendage is about a woman who has just lost her love and she wakes up alone in Paris with a penis – “Yes, that’s right,” Kaufman confirms in her pitch video to Unbound. What happens in the ‘city of love’ – the cliché city of Paris that North Americans know – when suddenly a woman is alone, has a penis and experiences Paris in a different way?
In Phantom Appendage, Juliana wakes up in her new home with a unique addition, “It’s lying sideways, resting on her leg; an earthworm, pink and new, with one slit eye staring up at her.”
Reading the first couple of sentences of the short story doesn’t clarify much, so you accept it and you read on. She answers the phone “…still lying horizontal on the lumpy sofa. She poked her arm out from under the comforter to prod,” not the earthworm but other odds and ends strewn all over the floor. She begins to talk to Paul in Seattle, their new home and where she will be moving to soon.
“Honey, guess what,” she said, her voice cracked with sleep.
“I grew a penis.” she said.
Like the reader, her husband has to ask if it was “a dream penis.” Is she still dreaming?
Is the conversation real? Is it a joke she’s telling? Did she actually grow a penis? Where is this story going?
Because I know Kaufman’s story, I can’t help but wonder if it was like this for her and her physicist husband when they first got together, chasing academic opportunities across Europe – Paris, London, Hamburg, applying fresh paint to old walls and waiting for the other to arrive. Did she feel like she had to follow him like most women do in relationships? Is it about penis envy, or a lack of female empowerment? Maybe if she had the penis, he would be following her.
Kaufman herself identifies with these early characters so well even her email address fit the bill for a time; she was sending messages out to the world as a Canadian_In_Paris, perhaps indicative of not quite fitting in so well herself and having to hold on to her Canadian identity.
In the story, the couple continue with their conversation as if the phantom penis wasn’t mentioned. It’s only when you consider the title of the story that you come to the conclusion that the earthworm at the beginning is the phantom appendage. Because she uses the word phantom we can assume it’s only imagined; that out of her longing for her husband Paul, “a thousand miles” away, she grew an appendage from her imagination. But we can’t be sure.
We come upon an accident, foreshadowed by her descriptive style “– a slash of red –” in Triumvirate where Kaufman adds a kind of psychological thrill to the magic realism that we see in Phantom Appendage. The scenario focuses on normal everyday events that suddenly twist and we look at the scene and the story itself from a new angle, an unbelievable reality brought on by nature which leaves the main character walking around in a dream-like state.
Excerpt from Triumvirate:
As she turns the corner, a gust of wind knocks her sideways and she struggles to catch her breath. There it is, unravelled before her. A new story. An indelible image, but not a photograph, a painting or a film; this cannot be rewound, erased or destroyed. This isn’t caused by internal mishap: seconds lost while tuning a radio, or hands off the steering wheel, or an uncontrollable sneeze. No, this is about snow and ice and Mother Nature taking a life.
So there it is: crushed steel, smoking engines, red-streaked snow and a rescue worker with a giant’s pliers, ripping a door off one of the cars. Using the tool like a can opener. Inside is a man dressed (prophetically) in black, with his head flung back on the seat and a line of blood traced down his chin.
Twisted metal parts steam in big hills of snow. Or little mountains of snow. Whichever way she looks at it, it doesn’t matter because there it is: red on black on white.
It’s not necessarily the words themselves that trick us but our own imagination. Kaufman leaves out little pieces and allows the audience to get closer before they decide if something is dream, imagination or reality.
This is made even more evident with the use of dashes—a technique perfected by Hemingway in the dialogue-filled Hills Like White Elephants. What’s left unsaid is as important as what is said. Your imagination fills it in. You become an active part of the story. The scene or the idea will invariably be understood the way the author wants you to understand it, but it is never confirmed by the narrator or the characters.
The triumvirate, a power thought to be held equally by three separate but related people or forces, could refer to money, time and love, or love, marriage, and death, or Montreal, winter and snow (if you’ve ever lived in Montreal you would choose this one) or love, marriage and adultery, or the mistress, the wife and the husband-lover. It is likely the latter; although, none of them are described by their roles in the relationship and it’s not always evident who is the lover and who is the wife, or even that there is cheating going on.
Just as the crux of the argument between the American and Jig in Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants the words ‘abortion,’ ‘pregnant’ or ‘baby’—are never mentioned but the reader knows instinctively what the conversation is about.
Kaufman’s stories, including ones that are not in this series, are about people who are on the fringes of society. That seems to be the overarching theme in her work. “They may be overlooked,” she tells me, and she likes to write about “seeing them and showing how in reaching out, they are sometimes witnessed or rescued, or they rescue someone else.”
It’s about fitting in and finding a sense of home, she adds. All her characters share this struggle no matter where they live.
Kaufman’s Flare for the Dramatic
She writes with an Ernest Hemingway flair for the dramatic and uses some of the same techniques. Short, rhythmic sentences. Vivid imagery. Calamity intermingled with sensuality.
The fact that she makes use of dramatic techniques in her writing is not surprising because she studied dramatic literature at the University of Toronto (U of T) where she received the first of two masters’ degrees and sharpened her playwriting and acting skills. Kaufman got her second masters in creative writing at Oxford University and trained in the dramatic arts while in England.
As if following in Hemingway’s footsteps, she left Toronto in 2002 and ended up at Shakespeare and Company, the English bookstore in Paris made famous by Hemingway and other foreign writers as a place for expatriates to congregate, a home away from home. Kaufman found a home there too, with her husband, whom she met while working at The Fields Institute For Research in Mathematical Sciences at U of T. She started a theatre troupe in the store’s cosy backroom and left a legacy of the 10-minute play festival before she moved on to Germany where her husband is from.
Kaufman writes mostly about the places she’s lived, Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto, Paris, but says she finds it hard to write about them while still living there, so it may be a while before we see anything related to Hamburg.
When she moved to Germany she joined The Rover Rep Theatre as an actor and ran R3, a play-reading series. Her play The Furies was produced by The Hamburg Players, a group that she is still closely connected to. SubTerrain, Bitter Oleander, The Penmen Review, DeComp, Women in Judaism, and Dach Kammerflimmern are just some of the literary journals in which Kaufman’s stories have been published. Her monologues have been in Smith and Kraus and Heinemann Press collections and her plays have been performed at festivals in Winnipeg, Stockholm and Vancouver.
As recently as March, Divine Monster, a play about Sarah Bernhardt ran at the University of British Columbia. She is now writing a novel out of The Writers’ Room, Hamburg, titled A History of Walking, while promoting the Love Bites collection on Unbound in hopes of getting her literary tidbits published.