In Heathcliff’s Footsteps
Tamar Yellin comes from England’s North Country, where Heathcliff the sad hero of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, haunts the desolate moors. Her evocative, beautifully written collection, Kafka in Bronteland and Other Stories (The Toby Press, 2006, $14.95) describes some of the Kafka like souls who live in this overcast landscape, exiled from their true selves, imprisoned by torpor and confusion. At its heart, these stories, set in a place where it is not always easy to be a Jew, aim to capture the trials of living in exile. The narrator of the title story, watching the local Muslim kids go off to Koran school, remembers tales of how Jews used to live, and, having missed a sense of Jewish community in her own life, is “filled with nostalgia for something I never had.”
In “Return to Zion,” a father named Odysseus prepares all his life for a great journey back to the Holy Land. But his journey is as mythic as his name. “This is a true story,” Yellin reminds us at the end. Of course we know that. We have all known people – and not all of them are Jews – who never succeed in journeying to their Promised Land.
This theme of prolonged alienation, thwarted hopes, and missed chances turns up throughout the collection: In the aging daughter who sleeps chastely in her mother’s bed; the mistress who shows off the jewels her lover has given her but never gets the one gold ring she really wants; and the abandoned father longing for his Italian son.
Some of the stories have the feel of character sketches: highly personal, perhaps autobiographical, preliminary drawings for novels yet to come. The author actually seems to acknowledge this in A New Story for Nada, where she admits that she may have reached a stage for new passions.
“Moonlight is the most compelling talc in the collection. Here, an art critic builds a brilliant career by studying a certain Victorian painter, a man mad for moonlight, “for lanes and lakes, beaches and bridges, ships and mansions.” The artist has collected skulls, crystals, peacock feathers. The delights of his gifted eye became with time like objects in a still life, symbols of death. One modern collector eventually burns his now un-sellable paintings. But then the critic- narrator resurrects the painter’s reputation and enriches his own:
I do not tell them the real reason why I seek out his work. Why 1 will travel miles… merely to obtain a glimpse of something I have… seen before. I re-enter the labyrinth; once more I am standing in the moonlight of his endless dream. I am as lost as he is. And it fills me with wonder that failure can be so beautiful.
In this one paragraph, all the lonely, bitter, alienated people who roam in Heathcliff’s footsteps are made splendid. The “endless dream” of the return to Zion is re-awakened. Exile becomes sustaining.
It is no small accomplishment that the further away from her personal narrative Yellin has journeyed, the closer she has come to writing the truth of all of our hearts.