Jascha Kessler, born in New York City but for the last 25 years an inhabitant of Los Angeles, has not prepared his reader for this newest volume. True, the professor of English at UCLA has recently published poetry and wonderful translations of the Hungarian Rodnoti and the Iranian Farrokhzad. But none of that measures close to the humor and human perceptions of these fictions.
Most of his 28 "classical" stories have been given the name of a Greek god or hero for title. What follows is always the transposition of the ancient stereotype into one of Kessler's culturally, as well as psychologically, contemporary settings.
For instance, "Rhadamanthys," one of the judges of hell obliging the dead to confess and then punishing them for their crimes, is a story about a cranky professor named Freud.
"Ikaros" is the story of Tuli Knoepflmacher ("Tall, thin, sloped shoulders. A muzhik's reddish-brown beard to his belt, matted and tangled."), who in the end jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge.
"Hermes," the god of cunning, eloquence and thieves, is about a man who loans his Bentley to a rich couple to tour Europe, and then proceeds to rob their New York mansion.
Kessler's inventions are never pedantic parables or thinly cloaked allegories. Much more, each of these fully developed little pieces brings alive, if not quite the truth, then at least a situation where it might be found today. Kessler's stories embody a mind closer to Europe but a language and point of view purely American.
The story "Corinth"--the ancient city was known for its luxury and licentiousness--takes place in posh San Marino, and mixes financial success with sexual failure in a tone somewhat reminiscent of John Updike. It shows a morally compromised corporate banker wondering about his business and his marriage while trying to remember a school lesson on tragedy and comedy and their difference.
At story's end, the narrator finds wife and foster son in bed together, the woman just about to mount the boy, and wanly excuses himself for spoiling their pleasure. "Then I shut the door carefully again."
Indeed, though many of his characters are intellectuals, men and women of brain rather than brawn, Kessler's best writing clearly evokes the tactile physicality of the human body: "She would wake me as the gray light edges the draperies with a ghostly, trembling frame towards dawn: She would be pressed up against my back, her long arms twined about me, her smooth, fine fingers tracing invisible circles on my belly, the sharp nails catching in my hair delicately, her firm, cool thigh thrown lightly over my hip and sliding up and down, so that as I rose heavily up from the deeps of slumber I'd sense pulsing against my flank the hot breath of that secret creature between her legs."
Such beautiful and commanding writing will make Jascha Kessler's "Classical Illusions" a group of stories many will want to read.