[NYRB; 2023]

When she drowned herself at the beginning of her fifth decade, Susan Taubes’s body was identified by her friend and intellectual companion, Susan Sontag. A few years later, Sontag wrote the short story “Debriefing,” which was published in the journal American Review and memorializes Taubes in the character of Julia. Sontag’s voice in the story admonishes her friend Julia, “You shouldn’t ask yourself questions you can’t answer . . . Even if you could answer a question like that, you wouldn’t know you had.”

Tellingly, the subject of Taubes’s own novel Lament for Julia (unpublished during her lifetime but available now from NYRB) is none other than Julia Brody (née Klopps). The novel, dancing just out of reach of both the comic and the gothic in a time signature best attributed to the grotesque, accomplishes exactly what Sontag’s voice warned against. The questions Lament for Julia asks are utterly unanswerable, or unknowable at best; Julia’s identity is rent asunder, and her life’s story narrated by a nameless “incarnal presence” who is nevertheless “grafted on Julia,” “exist[s] with and through Julia.” This nameless, sexless narrator vacillates between self-presenting as Julia’s companion, protector, taskmaster, voyeur, and, at times, even pimp. Through all incarnations, however, he remains both inviolably separate and hopelessly inseparable from the sensing, feeling body of Julia. The result is a case of divided subjectivity, mind from body, which Taubes simultaneously puzzles over and pokes fun at in her narration—a sly riff on René Descartes sits on the page next to a fevered existential crisis. 

Essentially, Taubes’s novel is a case of “I in the third person,” both literally in its narration and metaphorically in its relation to her own lived experiences. Acquainted from childhood with the patriarchal pedestal of Western rationality—her father was a Freudian psychologist and her husband an academic philosopher, and she earned her doctorate at Harvard in the 1950s—Taubes lived and wrote in a world where women were etched against the presence of men, inseverable from their roles as wives and mothers. Julia Brody is a reflection of this reality, as the parasitic “I” recounting her story realizes he has cultivated her for a predetermined destiny ensuing from her sex. “All these years I had labored in the void trying to make Julia into Julia, when her true destiny was to be wife to a certain Peter Brody and mother to a series of unknown creatures. She belonged to them, lived through them. How simple it was!” Moments such as the final sentence here belie the slyly comedic presence of Taubes herself in the novel’s doubling, or, rather, tripling, of identity.

Despite the sanctimonious narrator’s pronouncement to the contrary, there is nothing simple about the representation of gender roles in Lament for Julia. Through the voice of the voyeuristic, disembodied “I,” Taubes details Julia’s puberty, courtships, marriage, childbirths, and extramarital affair. Woven through all these hallmarks of the “female” experience is a thread of domestic ideality, entrapment, and disillusionment. The sexless, disembodied narrator makes the important choice to gender himself as male—“My physical image of myself is a very thin gentleman in black with a cane”—which colors the entirety of his recollections of Julia’s coming-of-age, marriage, and domestic life. His squeamishness at her carnal state is almost always in tandem to her femaleness, from her first period to her sexual encounters to her four pregnancies. After her first period, his anguish is so acute that he can only see her through the lens of impregnability: “Julia had become a generatrix of children of blood, a voluptuous flower overflowing with seed, crying to be fecundated.” Through each of these moments, Taubes is unrelenting in her characterization of Julia exclusively from beneath the shadow cast by this masculine gaze.

Yet, despite his pointedly filtered gaze, Taubes guides her “gentleman in black” to a conclusion that contradicts his resolute satisfaction with the simplicity of domestic bliss. As his constant vigilance inevitably culminates in the observation of Julia’s dissatisfaction with “belonging” to a man, children, and house, he asks himself: “Is it possible that Julia did not really want to be a woman, was not a real woman? . . . But was there such a thing as a woman? I began to doubt it; an effigy hung with little boy fancies, that’s all it amounted to in the end.” Again, the equivocality of this voice belongs, on the narrative level, to the sexless narrator, but on a comically figurative level to Taubes herself, exposing the perverseness of Julia’s life rendered through a masculine gaze. The same equivocation can be found in the narrator’s ultimate conclusion regarding Julia’s discontent. “Julia was poured out on the altar of the household gods.”

While gender roles shape both the novel’s plot and narration, Taubes also plumbs the depths of identity, memory, and self. The simultaneous third-person account of the physical Julia and first-person narration by her conscious, disembodied “parasite” propel an ongoing rumination on the (ir)reconcilability of the two. At one point, the narrator insists, “No, we couldn’t live together. It was Julia or I.” At another, he asks, “Why couldn’t I break out on Julia in the form of a rash?” Estrangement plays a role here, estrangement of the mind from the body, or of the earthly from the divine. Taubes’s intellectual expertise in mythology, philosophy, and religion are apparent, and become the driving forces for the exfoliation of Julia’s identity throughout the novel. There are almost two narratives running parallel to one another. The narrative on the page follows Julia’s childhood, coming of age, and maturation into adulthood through the gaze and voice of an incorporeal narrator; the metaphysical narrative transposes Julia’s own self-reflections and recollections into a disembodied, estranged incarnation of herself.

By the end, though, whichever narrative one chooses to read, Julia disappears. We are told this at the outset from the very first lines of narration: “She is gone. Julia has left me. For good now, I think.” How and why? We encounter at last, head-on, the unanswerable question Lament for Julia asks. Taubes seems to suggest that Julia’s disappearance is inseparable from the gaze that has described her, instructed her, reproached her, bemoaned her, and reveled in her for the past 125 pages. The very act of reconstructing her past, of constraining her within a series of memories and events, has resulted in her disappearance. “I don’t know where Julia ends or begins. I don’t know where she is. Lost. Out of time . . . This is Julia’s vengeance on me, to bury me alive in her past. I tried to put a hedge around her and I fenced myself in. She escaped me.”

Sontag’s memorialization of Taubes as the character Julia in “Debriefing” recalls Taubes’s own doubling of herself as Julia Brody. By the novel’s end, Julia has disappeared—Taubes, too, eventually disappeared. Who hemmed her in? What constraints were used to build the fence that entrapped her? Is Lament for Julia Taubes’s vengeance on a world that prescribed gendered roles, dismissed or refused to publish her writing, and stopped seeking answers to the questions she asked?

Cara McManus is a professional modern dancer and the Remainder Buyer at indie bookstore Book Culture in NYC, and teaches in the English Department at the City College of New York.

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