MARCH 14, 2020
EIGHTEEN YEARS IN the making — Judith Teitelman’s description of the “circuitous” route that her novel, Guesthouse for Ganesha, took toward publication makes it likely that this story was destined to be published now, at the precise moment that a divisive cultural milieu would most welcome its arrival. This romanticizing of the creative process suits a story in which words like “destiny,” “journey,” “vision,” and “consciousness” frequently resurface. A story in which a Hindu deity not only decorates the book (designed by Michael Kellner) but directly narrates part of it. A story prefaced by a Rumi verse (translated by Coleman Barks) and an explanation of the Hebrew alphabet’s second letter, which signifies that “the created world is meant to house the spiritual within it.”
Thirteenth-century poet Rumi is a popular choice for epigraphs. The Persian mystic’s words introduce novels by such accomplished writers as Orhan Pamuk and Khaled Hosseini, whose stories are often set in conflict-ridden landscapes, personal and political, and focus on the universal power of love. Teitelman’s choice of epigraph crystallizes her intention to explore archetypal themes — an ambitious choice for a debut novelist.
Guesthouse for Ganesha’s prologue immediately establishes the dual threads which weave this story. Readers meet Esther when she has a vision of Ganesha; each character’s consciousness is evident, Ganesha’s observations italicized to distinguish them from Esther’s experiences, and their perspectives alternate throughout the novel. Ganesha’s use of language is lyrical and fragmented, an abundance of ellipses with the text justified to look like long poems. His attention revolves around his relationship to Esther — her spiritual needs, readiness, and cookies. (With even a superficial search online, readers with no experience of Ganesha will learn of his penchant for sweets.) When someone in Esther’s life offers her a cookie, Ganesha warms to them, whether or not their generosity impresses Esther.
Esther is not easily impressed. Following the prologue, readers observe her arrival in Köln in 1922, her struggle to communicate in Yiddish exacerbated by her youthful inexperience and impatience. At 17 years old, she has left behind her large, poverty-stricken family in Przeworsk, Poland, and seeks work as a seamstress.
Seamstresses rival governesses for their prominence in historical fiction. The mechanism of their labor offers a convenient parallel to the kind of movements that one makes through life: following a pattern, ripping out mistakes, and rote repetition toward completion. When the stitching is accompanied by the idea of assembly — as in dressmaking or quilting — there are additional layers for a novelist to explore via the gradual accumulation of a lifetime’s decisions, pursuits, and disappointments.
Enduringly popular are the novels in which needlework is decorative, as with Tracy Chevalier’s embroiderers in A Single Thread (2019) and Whitney Otto’s quilters in How to Make an American Quilt (1991), or artistic, as in Elizabeth Berg’s The Art of Mending (2004). Other fictions afford the stitchers professional success and recognition, as with Jennifer Chiaverini’s Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker (2013) and Nicole Mary Kelby’s The Pink Suit (2014). The craft crosses geographic and cultural divides, as in the Brazilian setting of Frances de Pontes Peebles’s The Seamstress (2008) and the Moroccan setting of The Time in Between by María Dueñas (2009; translated by Daniel Hahn). Less common are the fictions which consider the daily grind of piecework, but even in these instances, a woman with a needle can explore the artistry alongside the craft, as with Celie in The Color Purple (1982), whose needlework leads to unexpected fulfillment against a backdrop of poverty.
Teitelman’s portrayal of Esther’s work sways from an accounting of the number of buttonholes sewn in a day to a list of specific stitches she employs in more creative assignments: “Split stitches. Line stitches. Chain stitches. Picot stitches. Herringbone, stem, and flat stitches. Bokhara couching. Knotting. Fishbone. Point de Russe. Double Leviathan. Mountmellick.” Esther’s steps and her breaths are occasionally described in relationship to her stitches (i.e., their even nature). At one point she observes the “seams” of her existence, and when stressed she turns to routine in the way that she turns to a sewing pattern, the way that another woman might turn to prayer. (Esther considers herself a cultural, rather than a religious, Jew.)
Although Esther begins with piecework, tedious and strenuous, she soon receives more interesting assignments. Perhaps this was a functional decision on the author’s part — even the classic 19th-century writers selected privileged observers and middle management, as in the English mill-workers’ stories by Elizabeth Gaskell, or Little Dorrit in Charles Dickens’s novel, rather than focusing on the industry’s subsistence workers. Perhaps readers are meant to interpret Esther’s successes as rewards bestowed via Ganesha’s interventions, as he is responsible for removing obstacles from people’s lives. She is competent, dependable, and fortunate, although she must relocate and establish new connections. And after she has obtained documents in the name of Etta Göttlieb, a German citizen, to obliterate Esther Grünspan from the official records, she works consistently.
Readers’ connection to this novel depends entirely on their relationship to Esther, as readers have access to Ganesha only through his relationship with her. For readers to wholly invest in Esther, her characterization has to be developed methodically and evenly, just like Esther’s stitches. Teitelman’s character development relies heavily on archetypal allusions and prioritizes romanticism over realism.
Readers learn early on that Esther left home after her fiancé left her at the altar, so her reason for being in the city is directly connected to her love and her loss. There are “pent-up tears” and “pages coated with tears and tear-stains,” even though Esther is described as having “an ever more indurate heart.” Descriptors abound (like “gossamer” and “diaphanous,” “perplexing” and “billowing”) and the vocabulary is uncommon. Word choices like “nigh” and “bleak,” “reminisce” and “smoulder” appear to be at odds with the jacket copy which suggests that Ganesha “chooses to highlight [Esther’s] story because he recognizes that it is everyone’s story,” whereas ordinary rather than elevated language would have emphasized Esther’s universality.
The romanticism is inherent in the story and evident in the use of language, and it also consumes other elements of the novel which could have been employed to build readers’ confidence in Esther’s story. It is relatable, for instance, to learn that Esther, new to Köln, finds comfort and familiarity in walking a regular route along and around the Rhine River at the heart of the city. Her solitude, more so her loneliness, is recognizable and she repeatedly executes this pattern: “Once established, her steps never varied, every evening the same […] six kilometers in total.”
Esther’s perspective can be more difficult to access because she is withdrawn, initially because she is coping with the loss of her fiancé and, as the years pass, because she is avoiding detection, as a Jewish woman increasingly at risk in a fascist society. A thorough and detail-oriented editing process would have captured the overuse of color palettes as shorthand for description in scene changes (when Esther doesn’t seem particularly aware of color, and perhaps rightly so, given the times she inhabits) and the repetition of pet words like “bitterness” and “exhaustion” (along with more than 10 instances in which Esther bites the inside of her right cheek). Experimentation with sentence or paragraph structure could, instead, have communicated fatigue, and better engaged readers’ sensory experience.
The ways in which Esther’s character veers from the stereotypical roles for women in this setting are interesting, however, and her dedication to self-realization is remarkable:
She had long forgotten — before this irrational war and hiding and running while standing still — her very self, her wants, her desires, her essence. Who she was at her core. So much of the last nearly two years had been spent fabricating a new reality, a new name, a new identity, and stories of a life she had never lived. Esther had become lost in the process. Like an ingredient in a cake mix folded into the batter where only the slightest hint of its presence remains.
She resists and refuses maternal responsibility in an era where this was uncommon. Which is even more curious because she eventually has children (to say more would spoil the plot). Where Guesthouse for Ganesha appears to be a novel preoccupied with universals, it feels like a very personal story. If readers have an ancestral Esther in their experience, they will be more likely to connect with this tale. This era of history is rich and compelling: readers follow Esther chronologically from 1922 through World War II. A creative work covering the Holocaust and all the chaos that characterizes that era requires deft handling. The decision to elaborate on a single devastating act, while summarizing other events, has broader repercussions. And Esther is extraordinarily fortunate in many ways, despite her social isolation:
It took little effort to be invisible. Even with a one-year-old who soon became a two-year-old. Even with people on practically every corner with the charge to find you, to grab you, to send you away, it was not so very difficult to maintain a cloak of insignificance. To continuously walk behind thick layers of indistinctiveness that softly melds you into the surroundings, so your coat becomes a doorway, shoes, merely cracks in the cobbled sidewalk; hat, a bird fluttering through the trees.
The concept of survival being effortless is seductive, but Esther’s experience of the war affords her unusual opportunities. Perhaps this highlights Esther’s resilience and determination. Perhaps it implies that had others made this kind of effort, they could have survived also.
In other instances, however, Teitelman’s use of irony is refreshing. At one point when Esther conceals her Jewish identity by adopting Catholicism, she faces censure from the community for her adopted religion; Protestantism is more acceptable, but the community is obviously unaware that she is a Jew. And although Esther has successfully repressed, for many years, her grief over her fiancé’s abandonment, eventually she is overwhelmed in the presence of another woman’s grief; the woman’s beloved is a Nazi, and his outlook is fiercely and regularly defended by the same woman. This kind of complexity makes Teitelman’s story even more provocative.
Readers who are drawn to stories about maintaining faith in challenging times, particularly those with religious views rooted in a pluralist approach to theism rather than any single system’s tenets, will find Esther’s epiphany moving. The relationship between the two strands of narrative, one human and one deity, invites readers to consider the relationship between the secular and sacred in their everyday lives. And the interstices in Teitelman’s narrative, where specific religious systems connect and collide, suggest a comforting movement toward harmony. Most importantly, Esther survives; hers is a hopeful tale.
The kind of story that Judith Teitelman was inspired to write, throughout those 18 years, is the kind of story that readers crave in the face of a resurgence of fascist and isolationist policies. Readers connect through story and, when that seems impossible, retreat into story: in this sense, narratives are survival tools for storytellers and audiences. Narratives which create a space for courage and resistance are vital and essential. And Esther’s insistence on being her whole and true self — “I must be who I am and only that” — is invigorating. A few more thorough edits over those 18 years would have clarified her story, but it’s still a story worth telling.
Marcie McCauley is a graduate of the University of Western Ontario and the Humber College Creative Writing Program. She writes and reads in Toronto, Canada, living on traditional territory of the Anishnaabeg, Haudenosaunee, and Huron-Wendat — land still inhabited by their descendants.