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Book Review : Author Has Rebuilt Lives That Most Shaped Her Own

January 23, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

Breaking Bread by Joyce Reiser Kornblatt (Dutton: $16.95)

"Through art, we are able to break bread with the dead, and without communion with the dead a fully human life is impossible." Though epigraphs are often just decoration, W. H. Auden's line is the backbone of Joyce Reiser Kornblatt's book, a spine from which her prose radiates in an intricate web of nerve and muscle.

Extrapolating boldly from scraps of actual information and slivers of experience, she has rebuilt the lives that most shaped her own. Since people only come to know one another through a series of encounters, breaks in the chain are inevitable even in the most intimate and long lasting relationships. We're amazed when a pillar of the community elopes with his secretary, when the banker speculates with trust funds, when the quiet neighbor is revealed as the head of a crime ring. We thought we knew them.

Kornblatt would be less astonished. Blanks and lacunae are her specialty; the obvious and visible only the place where her understanding begins. Never dogmatic, she offers the reader choices and options, inviting our participation in her fiction.

Conjuring up the life of her grandfather, she hypothesizes a childhood for him in Czarist Russia, perhaps not as it was but as it might have been. All she needs is one small fact. His mother was known in her village as "The girl with the long face"; a woman so drawn to grief that she became a professional mourner, hired for a pittance to add her wails to those of the bereaved at funerals. That isn't much to go on, but these meager clues are enough. "In this legend I am inventing," the author's great grandmother becomes a child of five, sweeping a garden shed when two drunken peasants invade the yard and brutally murder her father as mindlessly as if they were swatting a fly.

A Terrible Difference

The child loses her voice, then slowly regains it with a terrible difference. From that day on, the ordinary child's cry of fright or rage becomes a howl of loss, the acceptance of death "incorporated into its timbre, the mourner's cry." The girl Simca begins to haunt the cemetery, her talent for anguish growing the way a young artist responds to color, a musician to sound, a writer to words. There, at his mother's grave site, Simca meets her husband, the village revolutionary, a tailor's apprentice who can see the blood of the martyred in a length of red thread, a kindred spirit whose despair is broader and deeper than her own. The writer's beloved grandfather becomes the child of this union; an entire family history spun out of a single phrase without the help of albums, anecdotes or memories. In that vanished "girl with the long face," Kornblatt uncovers the source of her own tendency toward gloom.

The second segment of the five in "Breaking Bread" is a recollection of a refugee neighbor, a concentration camp survivor known as "Flo" to the families who lived in the same Pittsburgh apartment. When the author meets her, Flo is contentedly married and a mother, struggling to put the horrors behind her, certainly not confiding them to the 6-year-old American girl who visits. Grown up, that 6-year-old will devise an elaborately detailed collage of her glimpses of Flo's life, using as the centerpiece Nikita Khrushchev's visit to Pittsburgh in the autumn of 1959. In a desperate, melodramatic climax to years of trying to achieve her sister's emigration from Poland to the United States, Flo throws herself onto the hood of Khrushchev's limousine. You don't forget a woman like that, not even after she moves a continent away to a tract house in Phoenix.

Invading Your Dreams

Those childhood visits with their vague allusions and significant gaps turn you into a novelist. Flo continues to invade your dreams until her story becomes part of your own autobiography. If the scenario is fantasy, it's no more fantastic than the actual lives of such refugees, "a dozen women, a town's worth . . . scattered over the world like crumbs from History's sweaty hand."

The sections called "Daniel," "Susan," and "Lila" explore and reconstruct the worlds of three other persons whose lives successively intersected with the writer's and formed the woman she would become. Daniel is the golden boy of her school days; gentle, handsome and gifted, clearly destined for all the world's rewards but unable to accept them when they're offered. Susan is a casualty of the 1960s, an object lesson and a warning. Lila even in death is a survivor and a symbol of resilience and self-reliance. These are the people who counted most to the author, and through them we see her grow into maturity.

Remarkably objective, lyrical but unsentimental, "Breaking Bread" is autobiography by refraction, so subtle that we're unaware until the last page that the book is in fact a classic journal of self-discovery, valid not just for this particular author but for many women of the same generation and background.

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