Put things in the saddle, and readers often come along for the ride. An effective way to get your pages turned is to start with the striking image of a material object and then trace its provenance and resonance through the lives of a novel’s characters. In Bharati Mukherjee’s The Holder of the World, a contemporary Massachusetts woman’s fascination with a precious diamond pilots the plot back to seventeenth-century India. The Grand Complication in Allen Kurzweil’s new novel of that name is an exquisite timepiece said to have been designed by master horologist Abraham-Louis Breguet for Marie Antoinette. And Susan Vreeland sets Girl in Hyacinth Blue in motion by pondering the pedigree of a painting attributed to Vermeer.
A blurb–”compelling and inventive”–attributed to Vreeland graces the cover of The Deadwood Beetle, the second novel by Mylène Dressler. Her first, The Medusa Tree, shared a publisher, MacMurray & Beck, with Vreeland’s popular book. Dressler’s latest work, produced by a new imprint, BlueHen Books, proceeds, like Girl in Hyacinth Blue, from the mystery surrounding a physical object once owned by Dutch Jews murdered in the Holocaust. But Dressler’s inventiveness with things Dutch is not entirely derivative. Though she has lived in Houston, where she teaches at the University of St. Thomas, since 1989, she was born in The Hague. At 264 acres, the University of Texas’s J. Frank Dobie Ranch is not quite the size of her native Holland, but it is where, as the Dobie Paisano Writing Fellow, Dressler will spend next spring working on her third novel.
The Deadwood Beetle begins in an antiques shop in Manhattan. When Tristan Martens, a retired professor of entomology, wanders in one day, he is astonished to discover a sewing table that once belonged to his mother when the family lived in Rotterdam. He queries the owner of the shop, Cora Lowenstein, about the table, but she insists that, as an heirloom from her husband’s aunt, the item is not for sale. Determined to retrieve the table, whose underside still bears a sentence he inscribed as a child, Tristan schemes to overcome Cora’s resistance. He meets with her repeatedly, to coax her into parting with the piece, but, instead of helping him acquire the table, Tristan’s courtship of Cora merely makes him fall in love.
Though a decade has passed since she left him, after 30 years, Tristan still misses Agnes, his former wife. She and their son Christopher have become evangelical Christians and now live in Houston. Christopher, a reformed junkie, assaults his infidel father with exhortations to come to Jesus and Texas. As far as Tristan is concerned, the only good thing about the Lone Star State is Dr. Michael De Bakey, who saved his life with triple bypass surgery. Now in his 70s, Tristan is a lonely scientist trying to contend with the exigencies of the heart. He is attracted to 54-year-old Cora not merely because she controls his late mother’s sewing table. Her elegance and poise seem so at odds with his own uncertainties, and with her twice-weekly visits to the White Oak LifeCare Center in Connecticut, where her comatose husband, Sandor, a talented pianist reduced to a vegetative state by a botched operation, has been confined for more than two years. During the course of the novel, Dressler’s narrator divulges dramatic secrets about his European past–a father who collaborated with the Nazis and a mother whose thwarted romanticism found expression in the names she gave her two children: Tristan and Isolde. Seventy-three percent of Holland’s 140,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust, the highest percentage for any occupied country, and The Deadwood Beetle reverberates with questions of individual accountability, for the Nazi atrocities and, more generally, for the fate of other human beings. Tristan abandoned the Netherlands at 17, but despite his success at reinventing himself as an American academic, he is still the son of a war criminal. Does Tristan’s responsibility to Cora, a half-Jew, include the obligation to tell the truth?
As with Henry James’s splintered golden bowl, the sewing table remains central to the proceedings, as plot device and controlling metaphor. Beneath the table, a childish hand has scrawled an inscription, twice, in Dutch: “Als de Joden weg zijn is het onze beurt.” Cora provides an English translation (“When the Jews are gone, we will be the next ones”), but, though she praises the statement for being “clear and honest,” she cannot resolve its ambiguity. As a sensible American, she interprets the assertion positively, as an affirmation, like John Donne’s “No man is an island,” of the universal stake that each of us has in the other. She in fact likens it to the legendary declaration by German clergyman Martin Niemöller, who was imprisoned for–belatedly–opposing his nation’s genocidal policies. She quotes an abridged version, but the full pronouncement–an eloquent argument for contesting injustice against anyone–reads: “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.” Though it is otherwise undistinguished, even shabby, Cora displays the table among the posher pieces in her store as a continuing caveat against emotional isolation. Its insistence that we are all implicated in the fate of others is a lesson that Tristan, who lives alone and for himself, must learn to take to his failing heart.
However, Tristan, who, as a boy in Rotterdam, actually wrote the words beneath the table, analyzes the statement differently, as an assertion of anti-Semitism. “When the Jews are gone, we will be the next ones” expresses the envy of a man frustrated by his lack of opportunity and hopeful that the removal of a despised minority will open up possibilities for him to prosper in Dutch society. Young Tristan was copying down his father’s hateful sentiments, but Cora reads them now as an enduring and inspiring declaration of altruism. “Frankly, I see all of history condensed to a pencil’s point of logic and understanding,” says Cora, but Dressler’s point is that logic and understanding are more elusive than she imagines.
When Tristan, now a respected American scholar, returns to Rotterdam to attend his mother’s funeral, he vaunts his success at transcending ignominious origins: “I had become a man of education and profession and distinction. I was methodical, conclusive, decisive.” Yet the novel’s sentimental premise is that taxonomy merely camouflages anarchy, that a career spent classifying species of beetles is a calling but not a life. For all his distinction as a leading coleopterist, Tristan is an emotionally arid, lonely old man, more comfortable with dead insects than live human beings. He is more lucid about the oddities of his parents’ marriage than the failures of his own. Dressler highlights her portrait of Tristan as sad scientist with one of the novel’s few false touches, a 26-year-old character named Elida Hernandez who is the retired professor’s final and most diligent graduate student. An immigrant from Mexico who received American citizenship the same year Tristan did, Elida is a Latina doppelgänger to her Dutch mentor. She, too, abjures personal relationships in solitary pursuit of entomological discoveries. Yet her periodic intrusions into Tristan’s seclusion serve to remind him of the human warmth he has relinquished. When Elida cajoles Tristan into spending Christmas Eve sharing pozole with her exuberant extended family, the event provides a lesson in conviviality. Yet the Hernandez family remains a stereotype of Latin ebullience, and Elida’s presence in The Deadwood Beetle is merely a device for drawing information out of Tristan that is useful to the reader.
From conversations between Tristan and Elida, we learn that the 8,000,000 species of beetle–one quarter of all animals–constitute the most successful adaptation to life on this planet. For her doctoral dissertation, Elida focuses on a desert beetle that survives by mimicking its predator, the wasp. Tristan speculates on imitation as a universal principle, one that enables immigrants to assimilate, children to mature, and subject peoples to thrive under Nazism. Under the sewing table displayed in Cora’s shop are two identical inscriptions, one copied by young Tristan from his sister Isolde, who was following their father, who was echoing the racist ideology of Holland’s invaders. For all the economy and grace of its adaptive author’s adopted English, The Deadwood Beetle is hardly original. Not only does it echo other plots built around material objects, but it also recalls Harry Mulisch’s The Assault, a 1982 Dutch novel about the complex consequences of moral choices made under the Nazis. But whatever its provenance, Dressler’s book resonates with thoughts that cannot be swept under the table.
Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at UT-San Antonio.