For a writer who has staked out his literary territory somewhere between Franz Kafka and Edgar Allen Poe, and who typically weaves Jewish themes into his work, the name Norman Ravvin — with its etymological allusions both to Poe’s “raven” and the word “rabbi” — seems almost too linguistically appropriate to be cited as the author of Sex, Skyscrapers and Standard Yiddish, a masterful new collection of short stories recently published by paperplates books of Toronto.
Norman Ravvin recently explained to this reviewer how he had come to write each of the seven stories in the book — stories that are by turns comic, off-beat, ironic, absurdist, modernist and frequently evocative of a vanished Jewish world. Several present the immigrant’s point of view, bizarrely juxtaposing two cultures.
Consider, for example, “Doomed Cinema,” a tale about two New York agents eager to buy an historic movie theatre in Colorado for an American theme park. To close the deal, the story’s Canadian protaganist, whose family owns the dilapidated property, goes off in search of his crazed cousin, Mark Harris, who has signing rights over it. An amnesiac, Harris turns up in a New Orleans hospital, where he has been sharing a room with a dying native, the last of his tribe, who has been teaching him the dead language that Harris now speaks exclusively.
In “Glendale, North of Alhambra, East of Burbank,” the first-person narrator travels from western Canada to Los Angeles to arrange the funeral and settle the estate of F, his late great-aunt. F had supported herself, at least in part, through a legalistic scam “in which she went into a store, pulled some piece of stock down on herself, and then cut a wicked settlement in lieu of a lawsuit.” Even in death, F is surrounded by litigious possibilities as the doctors at the hospital where she died won’t admit that her life-support machine had come unplugged during an earthquake and her bed had rolled across the room “like an out-of-control chuckwagon.”
But the narrator doesn’t particularly care, recalling that F tried to prevent the posting of a money order to his grandmother, stuck in wartime Europe in “1935 or thereabouts. One of those nasty, ominous years. If F had gotten her hands on the mail that day, I probably wouldn’t exist.” From his great-aunt’s last effects, he takes only a picture of his infant mother, consigning the rest to the trash.
“I’m a real lover of mysteries, and puzzles that won’t resolve,” Ravvin explained. “My characters often find themselves trapped in mazes that sometimes have to do with family life and sometimes have to do with who they are. The mazes do not have escape routes and the mysteries do not resolve.
“I also like to deal with the question of cultural crossing: what it means to move from one world to another, and how some of us, because of our pasts, feel that we’re caught between one world and another. Some of my younger characters especially are really trapped; the maze that they’re caught in is figuring out how they relate to their parents’ world, which is often the world of Europe before the war.
“Some of the older characters are in search of some unrecoverable past — sometimes it’s a European past — or some aspect of Jewish life that they feel has somehow gone missing from their daily lives. It’s the same element that makes so many people go back in search of their ancestral homes.”
In the hauntingly ironic story “A Jew’s House,” a Pole living in a house that once belonged to a Jewish family encounters an American on the street who is seeking his parents’ former home. Although the Pole knows he is living in the house in question, he pretends ignorance and the seeker leaves dejectedly. Seen from the Pole’s hostile perspective, the American Jew seems little more than a weak, nostalgic fool.
Reflecting several of Ravvin’s trademark themes, the closing story “Expatriate” describes the attempts of a businessman to recover a painting stolen from his family during the war, which turns up in an exhibition of wartime looted art in Moscow.
“I am describing a predicament, or a position, about which I have some sensitivity,” Ravvin said. “It has to do with being contemporary and relevant, and the need to contend with Jewish history and the European cultures of our parents. I try to map the gap between then and now, between there and here. I like that stretch. I like to move within those limits.”
Both of Ravvin’s parents reached Canada from Eastern Europe in the 1920s; his father ran a furniture store in Calgary. Born in Calgary some 34 years ago, he attended the local Peretz school, where he strengthened his knowledge of Yiddish, and later attained a doctorate in Holocaust literature. He has taught literature at Toronto’s Erindale College for the past three academic seasons, and begins teaching creative writing at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton in September.
A first novel, Cafe des Westens, published when he was just 27, focuses on four generations of the Jewish Binder family. It begins with Polish villagers planning the trip to Canada, and describes their grown children and grandchildren, who psychologically overlay the Polish village upon the modern city as they stretch between a booming urban present and an invisible past in which their roots lie.
A second novel, as yet unpublished, is a mystery set in Vancouver called Fat Tuesday.
Ravvin is an admirer of authors like Leonard Cohen and Mordecai Richler, who have successfully transmuted the Jewish-Canadian experience into literature. “I’m also a big lover of the American beat poets like Kerouac, and I really enjoy Allen Ginsberg’s poetry — that willingness to really scream and shout.
“And of course I’ve been influenced by some of the people you mentioned — in particular, Kafka and Poe. I love Poe. I’m always returning to him. He’s a mad genius. And there are numerous other maze makers that I like to read today, people who write empty mysteries with no resolutions.” ♦