Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Can't We Be Friends? The Sly, Sublime Writings of Katharine Weber

By Levi Asher on Tuesday, July 19, 2011 11:16 am

The remarkable novelist Katharine Weber has published her sixth book, her first work of non-fiction. The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family's Legacy of Infidelities is a memoir with a subtitle that evokes the great Broadway composer George Gershwin, who played a key role in Weber's family past.

But Weber is a novelist, and her faithful readers will not approach this new book as a diversion but rather as the sixth entry in a series marked by creative and stylistic variation. None of her previous five novels resemble each other in terms of storytelling approach, tone or setting; she has reinvented her mission as a novelist with each work, and the memoir is clearly the latest step in this progression.

The notion of a Katharine Weber memoir raises immediate questions, because she has always played with real life and fiction in her novels. Her characters play with real life and fiction too. Her well-loved first novel Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear presents a young female narrator so full of verve, affection and enthusiasm that she has to constantly contain herself and rein in the power of her imagination. The tension between Harriet's beckoning sense of romantic possibility and her impulse to control herself and appear polished to others supplies the core of this character's voice. Weber's second novel The Music Lesson offers a heroine who willingly falls for a charming criminal's thin veneer of lies, preferring not to abstain from the great sex that accompanies the story. Her third novel The Little Women, a jaunty comic tableau, then presents an entire family of incorrigibly fanciful souls, spinning together in the whirlwinds of their half-composed psychological theories and illusions. Her powerful fourth novel Triangle also explores what it means to live a life defined more by fiction than by reality, and her fifth True Confections, her broadest comedy, takes the form of a legal affadavit by a woman who is obviously straining at the boundaries of truth.

Many of these works capture the voice of a child's mind, though the "child" may be in the body of an adult. Some writers eschew parent-child relationships (Charles M. Schulz of "Peanuts" comes to mind, since he never drew a parent or an adult in a "Peanuts" comic strip). Katharine Weber is his opposite, as far as subject matter is concerned. Without a parent or grandparent to defy, disappoint, become enraged by, look up to, accept gifts from or give help to, a Katharine Weber character wouldn't know how to live.

Adult relationships (of friendship and, mostly, love) play a major role in all of Katharine's novels -- indeed, her characters often appear to be uncomfortably glued to various life partners -- but they exist alongside family or parent/child relationships and follow the same patterns of anxiety, betrayal, forgiveness, acceptance and defiance. Parents, in Weber's world, create the moral reality from which we must diverge. The push and pull of all of our future relationships may emerge from the formidable negotiations we conduct with our mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers.

Given this constant focus, it's no surprise to any loyal reader of her novels that Katharine Weber barely appears in her own first memoir. The Memory of All That is the story of the people who created her: her father (who did not live up to Katharine's standards for a father, nor anybody's), her mother (who is, refreshingly for a family memoir, neither a villain nor a central focus of the book at all), her lovable and wealthy grandfather James Warburg (of "those Warburgs") and, for the big finale, her talented, dynamic grandmother, the Jazz Age celebrity Katharine "Kay" Swift, who wrote the Broadway musical Fine and Dandy and the song "Can't We Be Friends?", then left New York City to rediscover herself in the Wild West with a cowboy husband, inspiring her to write a book that became the 1950 Irene Dunne/Fred MacMurray comedy Never A Dull Moment, and who finally returned to New York in time to form an inspiring relationship with her namesake granddaughter. Kay Swift was a Broadway composer in her own right, but she is most vividly remembered today for having been George Gershwin's lover and close friend in the period just before his sudden early death.

This memoir's subtitle is "George Gershwin, Kay Swift and My Family's Legacy of Infidelities", but infidelity is only one of the crimes a parent or grandparent can commit that will shock a child, and in fact The Memory of All That drops breadcrumbs leading back to all the themes in all of the Katharine Weber novels that preceded it. I can't think of a better way to introduce this satisfying new book than to briefly review, and quote from, the works that built up to it. Here, in chronological order, is the Katharine Weber oeuvre:

Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

The first novel is all voice. It begins with a letter:

Oh, Benedict,

It's been five days since your touch. Your touch, hell, your rib-crushing hug at the security checkpoint. I think I have a bruise, Dr. Heimlich, would you mind taking a look at my clavicle? Have I told you how easily I bruise? How easily I bruise: Once, when I was maybe seven and I was walking with my grandmother, my marvelous grandmother, Gay, across 59th Street to the Park, I darted out into the street at an intersection. She grabbed my wrist, for fear of what she called Come-Arounders -- cars turning the corner at a high rate of speed and disregard -- and by the next day I had developed a perfect set of her fingerprints. I thought it looked as though a freshly printed felon had taken my wrist in the middle of a book. (Did you know that when I was little, I wanted very much to be an FBI agent?)

So much in this delightful opener presages Weber's future career. There's the breathless high tone of that precious salutation: who begins a letter (or a novel) with a sigh? The famous grandmother is here, and the chorus of conflicting internal voices, and how easily she bruises.

I bet many people consider Objects in Mirror their favorite Katharine Weber novel, and every book that's followed it has seemed to radiate from its warm, engrossing Henry James-ian core. If you haven't begun reading Weber yet, the first novel is a good place to start, and therefore it's great news that her publisher has just released a new paperback edition of this evergreen. (After much careful thought, though, I've decided that Objects in Mirror is not my very favorite of her books, though it certainly is good enough to have been. The winner of that tournament is revealed below.)

The Music Lesson

Weber's sophomore effort The Music Lesson establishes early in her career that she won't be repeating herself, at least not in terms of narrative style or fictional approach. Patricia, this novel's heroine, is not delicate or cloistered like Harriet of Objects. Already toughened by a rambling life as the daughter of a Boston cop, she wanders to Ireland where she becomes involved with an IRA operative and a stolen, immeasurably rare Vermeer painting. "The Music Lesson" (the story involves a lot of art, and virtually no music) feels like a brisk yarn, even an exercise in suspenseful plotting. One feels the author tugging at her boundaries here, itching to break free of the limits of a "sensitive" writer by pulling off a small marvel that winds up to a great ending. Weber must have placed the incomparable Vermeer at the center of this plot as an aesthetic challenge to herself, and in this sense The Music Lesson shows off her bravery. Here's the scene from Katharine Weber's second novel in which the heroine finally gets her hands on that treasured Dutch painting:

I hate glass. I cannot be more emphatic about it. I hate it. [...] No painter I can think of ever intended his paintings to be viewed through a sheet of glass mounted a quarter inch above the paint surface. In most museums, the lighting is so terrible that looking at paintings under glass isn't much different from looking at reproductions. If anything, it's worse.

The public doesn't know any better. The public, for the most part, probably hasn't noticed the way glass has become ubiquitous. The public glances at the art and then stampedes to the gift shop anyway. Well, what can I say? It's the same public that has come to accept sex with condoms. The principles are quite similar. We live in an age of risk, where it is no longer safe for a painting in a public collection to be regarded with the naked eye.

I set her free of that hateful glass, and then, before I put the panel back into its frame -- an excellent Dutch frame, probably eighteenth century, very severe black wood, it's precisely the right frame for the painting, not one of those "I am a masterpiece" ornate gilt plaster jobbies in which some museums mistakenly imprison their seventeenth-century Dutch pictures -- I just sat with the simple painted panel in my two hands and I looked and I looked and I looked. And anything that might happen to me when this is over, however it ends, will be worth that hour.

The Little Women

After much difficult deliberation, I finally decided that The Little Women, a hilarious, affectionate and highly unique novel about a lovably innocent set of three sisters, is my favorite of all Katharine Weber's works. This book opens with a shocking event: a nerdy but functional family of five has been shook by the revelation that the allegedly trustworthy mother was carrying on an impulsive sexual affair with a young stud. Strangely, the revelation seems to upset the sensible father only mildly, but it rocks the girls' world, and this novel is about everything that follows.

Pointedly narrated in fictional form by the middle sister, the story within a story includes (by virtue of a deal "explained" early in the book) bursts of commentary at random intervals from the other two sisters, either cheering the author on or decrying her descents into fictionalization. Here's one of these interruptions (AG and MG are the narrator and internal authors' two sisters, who are reading the "book" in progress):

Reader's Note: You're Kidding! AG
Reader's note: Are you sure about this? MG
Author's note: This is a work of fiction.
Reader's note: That's what you keep saying, but did it really happen this way? You can't just pull that "It's a novel" stuff whenever it's convenient for you to avoid accountability. AG
Author's note: The reader who has been distracted by this marginal commentary is urged to return to the narrative without delay, having been reminded by these notes that this is a work of fiction which has been somewhat inspired, as is the case with many if not most novels, by actual events.
Reader's note: So a novelist has no accountability? AG
Author's note: See Author's note above.

The Little Women may be the most "Katharine Weber" of all Katharine Weber's works -- that is, more than any of her other books, it appears to represent her most exceptional and most characteristic impulses as a storyteller. When I first read this book, I assumed it must have been rooted in the author's own childhood, because it felt too personal and quirky to have been wholly invented. Now that I've read Weber's memoir and discovered that her mother was the middle sister of three, and that the three of them had to deal with the fact that their mother Kay Swift was known to have cheated on their father with George Gershwin, I realize that there is another dimension through which to view this tale. But, all that aside, The Little Women is also a spin on Louisa May Alcott, and a spin on Anton Chekhov -- and finally, of course, each reader will value this book according to its correspondence with his or her own life. Many, I think, will find resonance there.

Triangle

Triangle, which revolves around the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City in 1911, was the first Katharine Weber book I read, and on first reading I was suckered in by the author's ability to emulate an earnest writer of sober historical fiction. It took a few chapters before I realized what else Weber was up to. Triangle is no straight story, and the fascinating array of characters splayed about it's multi-generational narrative, which include a brilliant and innovative composer named George Botkin and his helpful wife, touch on many of the author's favorite themes: betrayal, jealousy, deception, personality disorder, the binds of family love. This may be the author's most effective novel, her most surprising tour de force (but then, every one of her books is a tour de force). Here's elderly Esther Gottesfeld at the beginning of the book, remembering the day when the factory burned:

So then I walked to the corner where I could see the sidewalk on the Washington Place side because I was looking everywhere for my sister, where she would have fallen, and there were bodies everywhere and I was looking at them to see her but I didn't see her. I saw so many girls I knew in the street like that, and some of the men, the machinists, the cutters from over by the window where the flames came in. Some of the girls I knew only a few days but others I knew for a while and it was such a big shock, one would be burned black like a cinder but I would know the boots or the dress, and then another would be perfect and still beautiful except dead from the fall.

True Confections

True Confections, the chronicle of a family-owned chocolate manufacturer in legal and moral distress, is Weber's funniest novel, and her wickedest, most Dostoevskian descent into the messy, messy depths of family love. I've written in-depth about this book elsewhere, so I'll just quote from it today:

Before I got into detail about what happened with Little Susies, let me explain a few more things about brand extensions. One of the brand extension areas that has been quite successful for a lot of established lines is a white-chocolate version, from White Chocolate Kit Kats and White Chocolate Twix bars to Reese's White Chocolate peanut butter cups. I have always been ambivalent about white chocolate. It is so often really terrible and cheap, very sugary and often gritty or chalky, with a predominant lingering flat note, that harsh telltale artifician metallic vanillin aftertaste. It isn't "real" chocolate. That's what so many people say, which is correct, though in true white chocolate there is substantial cocoa butter, and it is the cocoa liquor(this is the paradoxical term for the crushed and ground chocolate mass) that is missing. Unless it has been adulterated with vegetable fat swapped for the cocoa butter (which is actually a common practice, and makes for what is technically candy, not chocolate), true chocolate has a melt temperature that is almost the same as our body temperature. This, I believe, is one of the reasons we love chocolate so much -- it loves us back. It melts from the heat of our tongue. Of course it's sexy.

The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family's Legacy of Infidelities

I began this series of extracts with the opening lines of Katharine Weber's first book, so let's close with a single sentence from the final chapter of her new book, the epilogue following Kay Swift's exit from the stage.

Not one of my blood relations has ever asked me what I did with her body. She died in 1993, and I suppose I should stop waiting for someone to ask.

This remark is followed by a moving account of the scattering of the ashes, and I'm highlighting this single sentence because it encapsulates Katharine Weber's confrontational style. By publishing The Memory of All That, she is claiming Kay Swift's memory for her own literary legacy (as she well deserves to do, and she has also been writing about the Swift/Gershwin years on her own blog, and is working towards a new Broadway revival of Fine and Dandy). On the literary side, there can be no doubt that the sting of this sentence is meant to be felt by other actual members of the author's family, as well as by readers who may relate this story to their own stories in their own lives.

There again is that push and pull. How fitting that Kay Swift's best song is the sweetly poignant "Can't We Be Friends?", which revels in the tension of ambivalent love, the tension that powers all of this author's significant and highly worthy books.

1 Response to "Can't We Be Friends? The Sly, Sublime Writings of Katharine Weber"

by Michael.Norris on

Nice!

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