Frieda Arkin

"Hedwig and Berti"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 16, 2005)

"Kesslers were settled in Pomerania and Brandenburg by the sixteenth century, possibly earlier, and now of course are scattered throughout Germany and Austria and God knows what is happening to them. Probably just a few tatters of family left. And then, there's that one who's got to America, Hedwig's brother Bruno. All, all, she's told Harry, every one of them in the books she's got in the trunks."

Hedwig and Berti by Frieda Arkin

Hedwig Kessler is so obsessed with her family's history, its successes over many generations, and its contributions to the arts, that she decides the only person worthy of marriage is, in fact, one of her own Kessler relatives. Marrying her shy and diminutive first cousin Dagobert, known as Berti, the Valkyrian Hedwig plans never to leave the Charlottenburg villa which her family has occupied for generations—until the Nazis come to power. Escaping to London with Berti, the imperious Hedwig totes the family history along with her in two trunks, arriving at the doorstep of her cousin Harry Eisenstein, a Londoner who works in a pawnshop.

Hedwig and Berti quickly take over Harry's small apartment, stashing the trunks behind the door of the only bedroom, the one they occupy, as Hedwig makes herself indispensable, preparing delicious German meals and tending the household until Berti can learn English and find a job. Since the divorced Harry is lonely, and Berti never opens his mouth, Hedwig's domination is unopposed. Steadfastly ignoring the news from Germany and refusing to believe that things could be as bad as they really are there, Hedwig manages to keep the family afloat, selling a few of the items from the family boxes when they need cash. When she leaves for Germany after the war to check on the family holdings, she finds that "every Kessler she sought was gone. She [has] lost the flavors of her past," except for what she has saved in her boxes. When their strange, dark, and hairy daughter Gerda is born, Hedwig pays little attention to her.

Disregarding the conventions of plot, Frieda Arkin, the 86-year-old author of her second novel, creates strange and oddly intriguing characters, who seem to take over control of the book, just as Hedwig takes over control of everyone's life. Gerda, always at odds with her mother, is a ferocious child who quickly develops a passion for the piano and eventually becomes a prodigy, an extremely difficult one, as she is a "fury at the piano" playing every piece her own way, often at full volume. Berti, self-effacing to the point that even the author finds little to say about his life until late in the book, manages to find a job as a veterinarian's assistant, discovering that animals love him, a new experience. Hedwig is perpetually unhappy. Harry enlists in the army.

The focus of the novel is constantly shifting, from Harry and his life at the beginning of the novel, to Hedwig, when she finds a new flat for the family and leaves Harry's apartment, and then either to Gerda, as she develops a musical career, or to Berti, shifting back and forth throughout the passage of thirty years.

Just as the focus on characters changes, so do the settings. Hedwig uproots the family several times, moving the family from England to New York and then to Kansas, always toting the precious boxes, always unhappy, always feeling isolated from the Kessler history which has formed the basis of her life. The constantly shifting perspectives regarding characters and their impermanent locations is somewhat startling for a reader accustomed to tight narratives, though it parallels in many ways the dislocations of emigrants whenever they move to new places. For characters like Hedwig, finding the "perfect" place and "perfect" new life is impossible—she has left her perfect life behind in Germany.

Filled with oddly charming characters, the novel is full of surprises and quirky humor. Arkin never demeans her characters, no matter how absurd they may seem at times, and she does not satirize them. Instead, she shows the characters in action, the wry humor arising from their very human characteristics and the difficulties they have individually dealing with themselves and their own worlds. Arkin lets them roam freely, rather than imposing on them some preconceived idea of how they should behave.

The ultimate resolutions of their lives—Harry, Hedwig, Berti, and Gerda—are a result of their own choices combined with the uncontrollable accidents of fate. Ultimately, everyone does what she or he can to make a life, and destiny determines the rest. Filled with ironies, twists, and warm humor, even for her very memorable dark characters, Arkin's novel moves quickly and resonates long after the book is closed.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews


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About the Author:

Frieda Arkin's work has been twice selected for Best American Short Stories and her first novel, The Dorp, was published in 1969 to wide critical acclaim.

She attended the Juilliard School of Music and received her Master's in anthropology from Columbia University. She has written five cookbooks, a gardening book, a number of poems, and articles for Woman's Day, The Christian Science Monitor, The Massachusetts Review, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, The Yale Review, and Yankee magazine.

Frieda Arkin's short stories have appeared in journals including The Massachusetts Review, The Kenyon Review, and The Yale Review. After a long hiatus from fiction, when she turned to raising a family and writing a series of cookbooks, Frieda joined the late Andre Dubus's writing group, prospering under his mentorship while completing Hedwig and Berti.

She lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

 

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