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November 23, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds

S.S. Proleterka

A Novel

Fleur Jaeggy

Translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen

New Directions: 122 pp., $17.95 paper

Can fiction tell us about our lives? Yes. Can it tell us how to live? No.

By its very nature, fiction is free of laws, free of fact. You think you are reading about individuals, but in the best of novels, you're not. You're reading about something bigger -- individuals in a particular time, place and class.

Fleur Jaeggy's characters, a 15-year-old child and her 70-year-old father on a cruise to Greece, live in a tight emotional bandwidth between "equilibrium and desperation." It's their last chance to know each other, generously allowed by the girl's mother, long divorced from her father.

Jaeggy writes in partial sentences, and she gives objects lives of their own: "Objects rebel sometimes. Objects, like rooms, think." "All the rooms know. Likewise the portraits." "It was the Steinway's wish to come to stay where it is now." Jaeggy's characters are watched by these objects as they lie, wobble and waffle.

Imagine the task of translating such a novel, whose language depends on an understanding of meaning and context more fluid than currency exchange rates.

When translator Alastair McEwen writes "the sound would come coiling out," he knows it has to have the same snap, crackle and pop now as five, 10, 100 years from now. And he makes sure it does.

*

St. Ursula's Girls Against the Atomic Bomb

A Novel

Valerie Hurley

MacAdam/Cage: 254 pp., $19

"But your personality came with you," thinks 18-year-old Raine Rassaby. "It was like a package deal to Florida -- kind of chintzy but you were supposed to see what you could do with it -- grow and change and turn yourself into someone quite marvelous."

Raine's problem, not unlike Don Quixote's, is that she is crazy, suffering from what she calls "scrupulosity." She has picnics in the park with the seven deadly sins. She believes in the possibility of a world without nuclear weapons. She is obsessed with the evils of the world. The Holocaust, Hiroshima, she feels all of history's disasters acutely.

But she is also a saint. A senior at a Catholic academy in New York City, she believes the world can change, and to this end she creates a group, St. Ursula's Girls Against the Atomic Bomb. No one comes to the first meeting. Then the group picks up speed.

Valerie Hurley tells Raine's story: She's somewhat like a grown-up Eloise, raised on the Upper East Side by a concert violinist mother and an astronomer father who are rarely home.

Raine decides to become Jewish, in honor of her Slavic grandmother, Vakey. Thank goodness there's Mary, the Greenlander hired by her parents who is forever performing rituals to raise her ancestors and who cannot bring herself to discipline Raine because she is convinced that the spirit of her dead grandfather lives in Raine.

Raine keeps a journal, which is found and read by her school counselor, Al, to whom she has been referred by the Mother Superior because she's about to be kicked out of school. In her journal, she reveals her wisdom about the world, garnered from park benches and her lone protests in front of military academies.

Al's own life is not so fabulous. His wife is leaving him for someone a little less dead. And so Al is reluctantly drawn into Raine's world. She tells him about Pavel, the boy with whom she has fallen in love and who may or may not be real. Then, on a trip to see a missile silo with Pavel in Nebraska, Raine gets pregnant.

Raine, as created by Hurley, is a deeply misunderstood heroine. "I'm just so deeply in love with the dogwood tree that it actually discusses things with me, " she tells her horrified father. "When you love something, it responds to you. It's one of the Seven Laws of Noah."

Her father replies, "Don't you have exams coming up?"

In this remarkable novel, Hurley leans back and gives her charming character full rein, filling readers with hope and possibility.

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