The Gollux and the Clockmaker: An Appreciation of Paul Harding’s Tinkers

Presented at my book club, Dec. 2, 2014

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Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales. He was six feet four, and forty-six, and even colder than he thought he was. One eye wore a velvet patch; the other glittered through a monocle, which made half his body seem closer to you than the other half. He had lost one eye when he was twelve, for he was fond of peering into nests and lairs in search of birds and animals to maul. One afternoon, a mother shrike had mauled him first. His nights were spent in evil dreams, and his days were given to wicked schemes.

Wickedly scheming, he would limp and cackle through the cold corridors of the castle, planning new impossible feats for the suitors of Saralinda to perform. He did not wish to give her hand in marriage, since her hand was the only warm hand in the castle. Even the hands of his watch and the hands of all the thirteen clocks were frozen. They had all frozen at the same time, on a snowy night, seven years before, and after that it was always ten minutes to five in the castle. Travelers and mariners would look up at the gloomy castle on the lonely hill and say, “Time lies frozen there. It’s always Then. It’s never Now.”

The cold Duke was afraid of Now, for Now has warmth and urgency, and Then is dead and buried. Now might bring a certain knight of gay and shining courage – “But, no!” the cold Duke muttered. “The Prince will break himself against a new and awful labor: a place too high to reach, a thing to far to find, a burden too heavy to lift.” The Duke was afraid of Now, but he tampered with the clocks to see if they would go, out of a strange perversity, praying that they wouldn’t.

Tinkers and tinkerers and a few wizards who happened by tried to start the clocks with tools or magic words, or by shaking them and cursing, but nothing whirred or ticked. The clocks were dead, and in the end, brooding on it, the Duke decided he had murdered time, slain it with his sword, and wiped his bloody blade upon its beard and left it lying there, its springs uncoiled and sprawling, its pendulum disintegrating.

In Tinkers, Paul Harding offers us the oldest kind of story known to humankind, a myth, or fairy tale, constructed out of many of the same elements as James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks. It’s the oldest kind of story because it is the kind of story we most need. It plumbs depths that naturalistic fiction never reaches; it challenges our feeble attempts to explain and understand the world in which we live and the people we love.

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Shrew Lit

Haim Watzman

At first glance, The Taming of the Shrew looks like the Shakespeare play most irrelevant to our times. I know, the butchery of Titus Andronicus is hard to swallow, but that play doesn’t end with a long speech about the virtues of hacking your enemies to pieces. Kate’s paean to wifely submission is certainly the most embarrassing classic English text that any actress today is ever called on to declaim.

No one knows why the Bard chose to write this play. He lived apart from his own wife, so he had no reason to seek revenge. But I have a theory. I have no documents or scholarly tradition to support it, but I can cite in my favor a writer’s intuition. Shakespeare was a writer, I’m a writer. QED Shakespeare and Watzman think alike.

In this play Shakespeare was protesting the female tyranny over literature. In his day, it was personified in Queen Elizabeth, which according to reliable sources such as the film Shakespeare in Love told him what plays to write and when. In our day, publishers cater to women because, they say, women purchase close to 70 percent of all books.

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Tel Aviv Ennui: Yael Hedaya’s “Accidents”

Yael Hedaya’s Accidents is an intriguing, maddening novel of contemporary Tel Aviv-intriguing in its astute portrayal of the relationships between its characters, maddening in the shallowness of its vision. During the weeks I spent reading it, I wanted it to end so that I could move into a different, more profound fictional world-but neither could I put it aside until I’d read everyone of its 547 pages.

(I read the novel in the original Hebrew, but has been published in English in a translation by Jessica Cohen. Hedaya was named a finalist for the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for this book; my book, A Crack in the Earth, was a finalist for the 2008 award.)

The time is the 1990s. Yonatan is the middle-aged bestselling author of two novels, but has been melancholy, lost, and unable to write since he lost his wife in an automobile accident. He lives in an apartment in central Tel Aviv with his pre-adolescent daughter, Dana. He meets Shira, whose recent first novel was also a bestseller, and who lives not far from Yonatan and Dana. Shira has been through a number of relationships, most recently with thoughtful, considerate Eitan, but finds herself falling in love with Yonatan, who, truth be said, is not really such a nice guy. The loss of his wife may have given him a good reason to be cold and aloof, but it turns out he’s always been that way. In the end, however, he melts; Shira moves in. Shira is also caring for her ailing father. In the meantime, Dana faces chick cliques at school, and gets through her early teenage years.

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The Intellectual Defense Forces

If you want to bone up quickly on any subject ranging from molecular biology to gender studies to Maimonides, where do you go? If you’re lucky enough to be able to read Hebrew, you know where—you pop over to the nearest book store or library and dig through the booklets published by the Broadcast University.

Israel’s universities may be in decline and their humanities faculties heading for intensive care, but this is one bright corner, and the light comes, of all places, from the army.

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The Family as Text: Tamar Yellin’s “The Genizah at the House of Shepher”

Tamar Yellin has constructed a novel around an ingenious premise: that families are like texts. Just as ancient manuscripts of sacred books contain the same basic text but show surprising, odd, or idiosyncratic variations, so the members of a family, over many generations, share the same fundamental content but display individual peculiarities.

The Genizah at the House of Shepher (Toby Press 2005) follows the Shepher family over several generations, as the family produces variants on itself, and as the family guards a biblical codex—a bound text of the Bible—that reputedly contains some surprising and significant deviations from the standard version. The story is told by Shula, an adamantly single, no longer young textual scholar from England. She’s come to Jerusalem to visit her aunts, uncles, and cousins and find out more about the codex.

(Yellin won the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for this work. My book, A Crack in the Earth, was a finalist for the 2008 award and received an honorable mention. I’ll be writing about last year’s and this year’s finalists in the weeks to come—and I’ll be meeting the other authors this summer for a writers’ institute sponsored by the prize committee. I hope the authors will allow me the freedom to praise them when I think praise is due and criticize when I think that’s called for—and trust they’ll do the same for me.)

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