IT’S RARE TO FIND a first book as accomplished and original, not to mention droll, as Laura Esther Wolfson’s collection of personal essays, For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors. Yes, the peculiar title does have a raison d’être, as do all of the allusions and offhand surprises Wolfson treats us to. The entire volume is a loosely woven tapestry, its brilliantly colored strands of experience threading through, appearing and disappearing. It becomes the tableau of a life — until, in this case, middle age: Wolfson’s work as a Russian and French interpreter and translator (two very different endeavors); her professional travels; her two failed marriages and regret over being childless; her disabling lung disease; her discovery that being Jewish means more than a taste for good bread. And all these strands impinge on one another.
A more conventional mind might have organized the contents as a linear memoir, sauntering through Wolfson’s early publications in college (reviews of dance performances in an upstate New York paper after renouncing a career as a dancer), to her discovery of Russian and her long stay in Soviet Georgia, and so on and so on. Instead we find a far more shapely and entertaining work, imitating the way life happens and is recalled: in luminous fragments, echoing and prismatic.
This book, which won the 2017 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction, is Wolfson’s first, but she is no newcomer to the world of letters. She has published stories and essays in literary magazines and been included in distinguished anthologies. But above all, she has dwelt on and in the Russian language, interpreting for “statesmen and scoundrels, who were not infrequently one and the same.” Early on, when she could jet around, she dealt with “[s]tate banquets at the Kremlin, mafia trials, forgotten literary masterpieces, KGB files declassified under Yeltsin (later to be reclassified under Putin).” And she translated a book “on Russian obscenities and criminal slang, [which included] rhyming ditties.”
Later, when her illness required a more stable life, she took a job at what she coyly describes as “a tall building of green glass at midtown Manhattan’s watery eastern edge.” One needn’t be a world traveler to recognize the United Nations, where she rendered “routine stuff, correspondence, treaties, and reports” from French as well as Russian. She is wisely reluctant to name names when it comes to the realm of diplomacy, and she is just as reluctant to do so when discussing the alleged working methods of “a well-known two-person team (American husband, Russian wife) […] who retranslated most of Russian literature.” These are of course Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, whose procedure, to our author, “sounds an awful lot like the way generations of schoolboys got through Latin and Greek, by relying on a ‘trot.’ […] This couple can do over, yes, but can they simply do?”
The reference to the above couple appears in one of the more rueful essays, “Losing the Nobel.” She was offered the opportunity to translate two works by Svetlana Alexievich, the celebrated Belarusian compiler of 20th-century Soviet oral histories chronicling World War II, the war in Afghanistan, and the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. “Novels in voices,” Alexievich calls them. The two had already met when Wolfson served as Alexievich’s interpreter at the 2005 PEN World Voices Festival in New York City and found herself euphoric about the latter’s extraordinary work. Alexievich must have been impressed as well, because she kept in touch and soon after gave Wolfson’s name to her agent. In spite of her boundless admiration, Wolfson declined the offer. She was not in good health. She had a full-time job she needed, partly for her medical expenses. “I chose my writing over hers — isn’t this what creative people are supposed to do, sacrificing whatever they must so as to clear space for their work? […] I had to live another ten years to find out exactly what I’d passed up.” She’s referring, of course, to Alexievich’s 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature.
The taste of rue flavors many of the essays: a wry, philosophical wonder at the turns life takes, at how we conspire with circumstances to make the wrong choices — which always seem right at the time and may indeed be right for a while. Wolfson’s first husband, Aleksandr, seemed very right, as did his family, who lived in the Soviet “hinterlands.” His mother treated Wolfson like a daughter and stayed in touch long after the young couple had moved to the United States and separated. The marriage seems to have foundered for several reasons, not least of them language, which paradoxically bound them closer and maintained a certain divide. “In the US, we discovered that marriage conducted in a foreign language afforded certain advantages: we could stand at a shop counter discussing a prospective purchase without the vendor listening in and engage publicly in secret exchanges of all kinds.” But Wolfson suspects that her use of the Russian word for “garbage” to describe the broken electronic devices her husband retrieves from the street and fixes played a significant role in their breakup. Surely more significant than linguistic or cultural differences was the fact that during a half-dozen or more years of married life, Aleksandr was never quite “ready” to have the child Laura wanted so much.
Ironically, while Laura can’t wait to have a child, she assists her Russian sister-in-law, Julia, in the opposite effort. Given the scarcity of certain personal hygiene products in Georgia, Julia pleads with Laura to leave her used diaphragm as a parting token. “‘I’ll boil it in the big soup pot,’ Julia said, with a nod toward the kitchen. ‘To sterilize it.’ […] To refuse her request would be mean-spirited.” Years later, after her own divorce, Laura learns that her gift had been effective.
In her second marriage, readiness is no longer an issue: her lung disease would make pregnancy life-threatening. As she waited in a schoolyard to pick up her sister’s small boy, another child’s father gradually approached her and uttered a very 21st-century pick-up line: “Whose mom are you?”
Wolfson can infuse the most ordinary occasions of daily life with a startling poignancy, such as the above, or, through her vivid imagery, lift casual facts out of the banal. As a young woman exploring Paris she notes a house in Montmartre where the composer Erik Satie once lived and kept two pianos, “one on top of the other, giving new meaning to the word ‘upright,’ although in my mind’s eye, the one on top is, in fact, upside down, pedals waving gently overhead like the fronds of some giant houseplant.” Even a daily subway ride can be transformed: “The commute is a golden border at the beginning and end of each workday that sheds some of its shimmer onto the leaden expanse in between.” The magic happens because she reads and annotates a few pages of Proust, “the minute perceptions captured and sliced lengthwise to reveal their delicate innards and seeds,” during her daily trek to the UN.
Occasionally Wolfson’s choices turn out to be absolutely right; witness her pursuit of writing despite the difficulties it presents. Writing is not easy for anyone, but Wolfson’s health demands a protocol that with her ubiquitous wit she manages to make funny as well as daunting. The title “Dark Green and Velvety, with a Dusting of Cat Fur,” refers to her couch. “[H]ere I am: back on the couch. Not the psychotherapeutic couch. Not the casting couch. The writing couch […] [m]y writing process now involves a great deal of sleeping.” Her eleven-syllable lung condition makes it impossible to write “for more than an hour and a half without pausing for a nap. In fact,” she confides, “half an hour of shut-eye intervened between the end of the previous paragraph and the beginning of this one.”
Before she starts she places the essentials beside her on the couch: notes, books, tissues, ChapStick, flash drive, glass of water, et cetera. The great Italo Calvino felt the same way about reading. In his novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, he gives instructions for settling down with a book:
Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat […] Stretch your legs, go ahead and put your feet on a cushion, […] on the desk, on the piano […] Take your shoes off first […] Adjust the light so you won’t strain your eyes […] Cigarettes within reach, if you smoke, and the ashtray. Anything else? Do you have to pee? All right, you know best.
But writing is more demanding, as Wolfson attests: “I open the computer and off I go: write, sleep, write, sleep, write. This is the ideal sequence: three stints of writing intercut with two of sleep. It adds up to some four or five hours of writing, spread out over six or seven hours total.”
Another essay tinged with faint regret describes her realization, in a very secular household, that she is a Jew. The only indication of this in her childhood is bread. Every so often her family visits an old bakery in Syracuse’s former Jewish neighborhood, now mostly empty lots, and comes away with delectable smelling bags of bagels, bialys, challahs — far superior to the Wonder Bread of her schoolmates’ lunchbox sandwiches. “Bread, I sensed, was a surface manifestation of something deeper, a difference that remained impossible to grasp […] Apart from bread, what were the other signs that we were Jewish?”
Not until years later does she begin to seek answers, prompted by her living next door to a small brick building on New York City’s Upper West Side, where on certain nights well-dressed people gathered. Clearly a synagogue. Her interest piqued, she begins reading about and studying Judaism, even taking a course in Yiddish, which, oddly enough, given her talent for languages, she never masters to her satisfaction. She reads not only the Torah, but also the works of major Jewish-American novelists. Still, as with marriage, it doesn’t totally work. She never quite feels “at home in a Jewish house of prayer […] at home in the house of Judaism.”
But her studies lead to a friendship with a much older Jewish woman whose story is set against the violent upheavals of life in the USSR. Which in turn leads to a Russian émigré writer in Chicago, who in turn has a story of a Lithuanian. The ramifications go on in shaggy-dog style, deepening and widening, with no end in sight. When the end does come, it turns out to be a Russian memoir that needs a translator. This is hardly the first such occasion. Story piles on story as Wolfson moves along, connecting with anyone Russian who comes her way: cabdrivers, a masseuse, most with a tale or a potential book.
In the final essay, “Other Incidents in the Precinct,” she ponders, with the lightest of touches, her lack of success at marriage — why, what does it mean, should she even consider it again? She begins apparently far afield, yet close to the bone, as it were: “That spring, I went to my fourth dentist in three years. Why did I change dentists so frequently and so frivolously? My formative years gave no indication that I would engage in such behavior.” She can find no answers, but since her chosen form is the essay, questions need not have answers. They need only to take us down a beckoning narrative path — which includes her departure from her second husband, attended by the police, as well as her discovery of her father’s first marriage, before coming full circle to end in the dentist’s office.
Laura Esther Wolfson may not have managed to get all she wants, but she’s succeeded triumphantly in her passion to write. She has lived richly in two cultures and cultivated a sensibility informed by all that came her way. Her book is a response to her choices among life’s offerings. “My experience of marrying and splitting, and again marrying and splitting,” she writes, “though regrettably vaster than that of most people, is still meager as a basis for generalization […] Still, I will draw some conclusions, because what else can I do with these experiences now?”
Lynne Sharon Schwartz is the author of the novels Disturbances in the Field, Leaving Brooklyn, the memoir Ruined by Reading, and many other works of fiction and non-fiction. Her third collection of poetry, No Way Out But Through, was published in 2017 by the University of Pittsburgh Press Poetry Series.