[New Vessel Press; 2021]
Tr. from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
This piece is a contribution to a two-part forum on Distant Fathers. You can read the first part here.
In Distant Fathers, writer Marina Jarre offers the reader a slow unraveling of the beauty of childhood. Jarre’s memoir portrays childhood as a time understood through sensation and stark moments of emotional clarity, even without a grasp on the most basic elements, like place, language, time. Writing through different moments of upbringing, Distant Fathers begins with young Marina observing her world as a child, saying, “This is the place without a name, same as any other places, and my time the same as others’ time.” As Marina comes of age during the course of the memoir, these once vague concepts begin to form and take shape, with the promise of structure in a chaotic world. However, in the book’s final section and now a mother, Jarre finds that meaning and objectivity offer little to unlock the secrets of the world. So, she returns to the mists of sensation, wanting to feel the rush of existence – as she did as a young girl – leaving readers with the suggestion that a childlike perception offers, perhaps, the best explanation of a life lived, of a life felt.
Distant Fathers depicts the wobbly, vulnerable parts of childhood set against the chaotic backdrop of World War II. Jarre’s memoir begins in Rigia, Latvia in the 1930s being shuffled between divorced parents, a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, as the country becomes more unstable and dangerous for Jews. After fleeing to Turin, her early adolescence sees her raised by her grandparents in Mussolini’s Italy; while her late adulthood finds her deep in the trenches of parenthood and marriage after the fall of fascism. Each of these periods of life correspond to sections of her memoir, as well as distinctive physical locations and different languages (German, Italian, French, and Latvian). The author writes, “Every language had qualities that were neither translatable nor interchangeable. In every language, I was different.” Jarre’s chronicling of her upbringing references the political inertia of the time as she stitches together own history. For Jarre, the personal and the familial are are tied together: “Places were often mentioned in the family, and they, too, carried time within themselves”
Time is an important concept throughout the book, with Jarre saying, “every language has its time.” Jarre’s childhood is written in present tense, which, as translator Ann Goldstein notes in the translator’s note, is “the tense of a child’s point of view.” Playing with tenses and their grammatical suggestions, Jarre invokes ideas of immediacy and the feeling of ungrounded footing; and childhood is portrayed as a time of vulnerability because of its reliance on adults. Jarre obsesses over rules and their promise of stability, even though she struggles to follow them herself. Jarre often depicts herself as a mischievous child who can’t seem to follow the rules, unlike her sweet sister, which angers her mother. At one point, young Marina wonders to herself about the relationship between childhood and adulthood, saying, “Adults aren’t afraid, that’s the difference between them and me. I don’t know if they’re right not to be afraid: they walk on the ice on the lakes. The ice creaks; who can assure them it won’t break?” Childhood often feels fearful, or as Jarre presents it, “In general I lived in a climate of ordeal.”
Jarre longs to grasp the weighty concepts which control the movements of the world in which she lives: religious identities, the particulars of her parents divorce, the rise of fascism and political uncertainty. She tells the reader, “In every place and in every movement, however, I looked for the means, the act, or the word to resolve my fears by myself.” But the reality is these concepts are unable to be known in childhood, too complicated at times even for the adults in Jarre’s life; and yet, young Marina is still a child ruled by them. As her parents argue, as her grandparents have differing ideas of God, and as a plan mounts to rush her and her sister out of Latvia as it becomes more dangerous for Jews, young Marina becomes evermore enraptured by the possibility of an adult world ruled by logic and order. A world with well defined meaning behind its movements, and the promise that merely growing into an adult – or perhaps simply outgrowing childhood – will offer the key through which to digest the world and the fearful reality of its ordeals.
With the realities of the world intangible to young Marina, Jarre’s childhood is shown as being perceived by physical sensation. Jarre tells us, “I let myself be carried from place to place like a package, and as soon as I arrive, I hastily dig myself a den.” In a childhood of transition and translation, meaning is less important than the ability to experience and hold a memory, with the promise that it can be unlocked and understood at another time. Young Marina often feels on the brink of escaping what she says is “the stupid sickness of childhood.” The reality of entering adulthood, with its long trenches of knowledge, feels certain yet still impossible. As Jarre says,
“I, too, will become an adult, but I can’t picture it to myself. It worries me – and I think about it often – that I will grow up suddenly, in a single night. How will I manage to find clothes the correct length right away, the next day? I’ll have to go and buy them myself, and the adults will make fun of me because I’m wearing children’s clothes that are too short.”
In this portion of the memoir – which floats by as mirages, instead of distinct scenes and events – the reader sees the child Marina relying on senses and stimuli. Jarre knows where she is as a child because she, “walk[s] with [her] eyes closed, differentiating the smell of various rooms as [she] pass[es] through.” Small, stark moments, like commenting on the penis of a monkey at the zoo to perturb her governess, encapsulate her childhood, and they’re passed onto the reader without the shape of a specific literary form. Jarre is not novalizing her childhood but instead showing what it felt like. She writes, “I crossed the room with my eyes closed, sniffing the odor of ghost, small, faint, gray smell that didn’t reach my nose but only the remote den in my head where I huddled.” Childhood, which makes up the bulk of this memoir, is a fog of feeling.
But, like all children, Jarre grows up, a reality which she describes as, “the astonishment of discovering that I, too, am getting older sweeps over me.” As Jarre begins to understand the lens to view the world, it comes into focus and begins to make more sense. As an older child in the memoir’s second portion, Jarre writes of her adolescence saying, “I had begun to study history in middle school; I had an excellent memory, and although, I was still very shy, I relaxed when I was explaining the connections between events, between causes and effects and the harmonious interpenetration of time and space.” The novel shifts to being written in past tense, suggesting the idea that, perhaps, this part of Jarre’s life belongs to a particular historical moment – she’s no longer recalling from a familiar fog of feeling but instead a specific time in Mussolini’s crumbling Italy. However, this place in history offers no grounding; chaos continues to ensue even when there there are explanations and concepts applied to the situation: facism, war, genocide. The major associations explored throughout the narrative are religion and nationality, ideas which dictate where people live and how they interact with each other, as well as becoming the instigators which control characters’ fates during World War II. However, these labels are still abstract. They make sense in book form, but applied in real life, in feeling, they still cannot be placed. Jarre writes, “I found the whole thing incongruous, I couldn’t see connections between events that didn’t correspond to my usual reading of history, which corresponded, instead, to cheering crowds and orderly armies.” Throughout the memoir, this idea of labels and identities being too complex and confusing to navigate is a running theme. Perhaps the ignorance of childhood isn’t the problem, and instead the concepts themselves are flawed.
Religion and nationality have major political implications, but they also drive the inner dynamics of Jarre’s family, particularly the divorce between her parents – her Catholic, Italian mother and her Jewish, Latvian father. Jarre writes of her and her sister, saying, “We are Latvian because we were born in Riga. Even my mother, who was Italian, had a Latvian passport because she had married my father. We were registered on our mother’s Latvian passport, and in school in the Latvian class we learned the hymn, God Save Latvia.” Young Marina confesses that no one has explained the difference between Catholics and Jews to her, and her young mind makes a point of contrasting her interactions with her Jewish grandparents and her Catholic grandparents for clues. Being a Jewish child ultimately dictates that she must flee with her sister and her mother out of Latvia for safety, leaving their father, who will be murdered in 1941. Her family won’t hear confirmation of his death until nearly ten years later, having been murdered with all other Jewish families in Latvia by Nazis, along with a younger half sister she never had the chance to meet. Even if Jarre understood the difference between Catholics and Jews, how could it possibly offer any explanation for any of these lived events?
In adolescence, Jarre is navigating a distinctive place in her relationship to sensitivity, and she begins to write, saying, “I kept a diary to narrate myself to myself.” She goes on long hikes in the mountains, replicating the feeling of a childhood, guided by stimuli, but with the promise of a trail – a path to follow and, through which, digest the natural world. She tells the reader, “Perhaps I had the sensation that events – happiness and unhappiness commented on and noted – were in fact within the category of the inessential; that the essential was to reveal itself later. Was this the secret that the two plotters were winking at?” She is barely out of childhood yet she is already doubting the value of a world of unlocked meaning, the promise of adulthood. Jarre offers this brink as representative of adolescence – the disillusionment of meaning’s promise of order and resolve.
The memoir’s third movement shows the reader Jarre as a mother in a more peaceful world. In motherhood, the weight of life is found in sensory, visual experiences. For Jarre, motherhood offers a grounding to the world, and, in a way, strengthens the importance of a sensory response, offering it validity. Watching the bodies of her sleeping children, Jarre understands the murder of her father and half-sister – she’s finally able to feel the whole of their loss. Jarre writes of an actualized adult life as a dream state, saying, “These dreams of mine are, in fact, exempt from the repetitiousness of destiny, a kind of invitation to forget the coolness monotony of events, to erase their outlines, to remove them from time, seizing only the imperceptible change, stationary like the vibration of a dragonfly’s wings on the iridescent reflection of the water.” Meaning – and in particular the idea of finally capturing it – have begun to feel a bit silly to Jarre. Embracing the visceral is not a childish pursuit; Jarre finds herself fully grown when birthing her first child. She relies on her senses to narrate the world like she did during childhood. Continuing the theme of dreams, she writes, “I suspect there’s something illicit about fantasizing on my own – at my age – a gratuitous fantasizing that yields nothing, neither a written page nor a hope of anything concrete.” What’s the fantasy here that feels illicit? Simply the idea that something is fruitless if it doesn’t end with a result, a distinct meaning. Instead, life is a languid sensation and childhood is an endless languid sensation, like a dream, perhaps once, and incorrectly, seen only as a phase on the way to adulthood.
For Jarre, reentering childhood through motherhood is a change in course suggested by the experience of pregnancy, a state of dual existence – the bodies of adult mother and child fetus combined. Jarre discards meaning and rembraces sensation as the predominant way to experience existence, which needn’t suggest any one thing nor illuminate an event to find its importance. Jarre finds the spectacular of living a life within the sensation of time moving around an individual.
Sarah McEachern is a reader and writer in Brooklyn, NY. Her recent work has been published in Catapult, Pigeon Pages, Entropy, Pacifica Literary Review, and The Spectacle. Her reviews, criticism, and interviews have been published or are forthcoming in Rain Taxi, Pen America, Split Lip, The Believer, The Ploughshares Blog, and Gulf Coast.