Book review: For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, by Laura Esther Wolfson
Laura Esther Wolfson’s essay collection, the Iowa Prize in Literary Nonfiction winner, is composed of dreamy, reflectional, sometimes confessional pieces of memoir. An interpreter and translator by profession, the idea of translation and the role of language in life, love, questions of identity, relationships, and everyday interpersonal interactions is its common thread. Russian and French are her acquired languages, and she came to them in interesting ways, particularly Russian. Wolfson lived and traveled for work in various former Soviet republics, including Georgia, meeting her first husband in Tbilisi.
This ex-husband figures strongly in her storytelling, in part because she acknowledges that her Russian is strong thanks to “the husband method.” The marriage was crumbling as she worked on translating a book of Russian slang and gulag-speak, and that time in her life is a powerfully depicted moment as she realizes change is coming.
There’s another uncomfortable but all-too-common life theme running through these stories, and that’s of chances not taken, opportunities lost, and the regrets that time can make clear from these. Wolfson describes life after political change creates a boom in translation demand, and in her youth feeling professionally fulfilled taking interpreting jobs. As time goes on, she suddenly becomes afflicted with a degenerative lung condition and poor or no health insurance as a freelancer. Her marriage to the Russian speaker has ended, and she muses bittersweetly over pieces of it, including how he helped her advance her Russian skills as she continues working on translation projects and moving forward as everything she knew about life has changed, including breathing. Only language remains as a touchpoint.
Wolfson navigates certain subjects multiple times, making this feel somewhat less like a cohesive collection and more like one compiled from essays written for herself, on topics and events that she needed to get out of her system (which she more or less confesses to, in one of them.) It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s sometimes repetitive.
“Losing the Nobel” might have been my favorite, in which she interprets for an author who was then little known in the west, Svetlana Alexievich. Around this time Wolfson makes a decision that will affect her for a long time to come. Maybe because I was also reading The Unwomanly Face of War at the same time as this one, but I found it a very well done piece that leaves you with a lot to ponder about roads not taken when it’s finished. And she does a very worthy sort of mini-profile of Alexievich, while also taking issue with some misunderstood translation she came across in her book, Voices from Chernobyl.
There are so many graceful, well crafted lines in these pieces. I loved most when she wrote about her experiences and travels in the Soviet Union, or how it feels to visit a place you’ve been to before, Montmartre in her case, and recall the other times you were there – other times in your life with other people. She ruminates on these things in a way that feels like hearing an intimate interior monologue. It’s very striking writing.
It’s now over a year and a half since I last spoke to that friend; we had a falling-out. But when I walk down that narrow street lined with bolts of cloth for sale, I feel as if we’ve just talked, much as you may think momentarily on waking that someone long gone from your life has just paid you a brief visit, an impression that is merely a vestige of the night’s dreaming.
Another frequent theme is Jewishness and what it means to identity and family history. This is common memoir material so maybe it felt tired to me for that reason, which isn’t really fair on my part since every person’s story is different. As it’s her specialty, Wolfson’s stories about Judaism and those she encounters in connection to it are viewed through the lens of language, including an older writer desperate to have his work translated into English at last, or her attempts at learning Yiddish and its complex Eastern European roots.
I loved the way language is a thread sewing everything together in her stories. She writes intelligently about language and identity and culture being so inextricably bound together, and the ability of language to stoke memory and feelings of place, or the strange confines certain tongues force us to abide by.
Elsewhere, I got a little bored with the same topics, of knowing where a thread was going as soon as it began. Still, there’s a lot of great writing here, a lot of history, and a fascinating look at so many areas of life through the eyes of someone who’s looked at it all through so deeply through language.
Speaking to someone in Vilnius, Lithuania, where she takes an intensive Yiddish course, she describes this exchange:
“Sonya got married and moved to Spain,” she said, adding a grammatical fillip that made the phrase “got married” function like a Russian verb of motion (a category usually limited to forms of “walk,” “ride,” and “fly”), transporting Sonya to the land of castles and castanets on a magic carpet woven out of language.
I loved learning things like this. Some strong writing and a lot to think about in these essays about growing older and wiser, illness, love, language, change and memory. Verdict: 3/5
For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors
by Laura Esther Wolfson
published June 1, 2018 by University of Iowa Press
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
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