A Book of Great Worth

Jul 17, 2012

A Book of Great Worth consists of a series of interconnected stories that centre on author Dave Margoshes’s father, Harry Morgenstern (alias Margoshes) and his Galician Jewish roots in New York. Although the collection has the distinct feel of memoir due to the inclusion of real names, dates and historical events that lend authenticity to incidents, Margoshes in the “Afterword: Listening to My Father” describes the stories as fictive for the following reasons: the first-person speaker of memoir is not always present; the focus is placed not on the narrator’s experience but on that of other characters in the story and, most importantly, events have been rearranged to make them function more effectively as stories (249). Although some of the stories, such as “The Proposition” and “The Farmhand” dramatize events that happened before Margoshes was born and therefore rely on stories that have been passed down to him, in others, such as “The Family Circle” and “Music by Rodgers, Lyrics by Hart,” we are acutely aware of a perceptive child narrator either on the fringes or inside the reminiscing adult writer. Of course, any retelling of events from the past is necessarily fictionalized through the narrator’s selection and arrangement of the facts, and this reasoning similarly underlies Michael Ondaatje’s decision to designate as fiction his recent largely autobiographical novel, The Cat’s Table. So Margoshes, in classifying A Book of Great Worth as fiction rather than memoir, places himself in an arguably new but venerable tradition along with one of Canada’s most loved writers.

In “Afterword: Listening to my Father,” the adult-speaker takes centre stage as he recounts his memory of a journey he took as a thirteen-year-old – including a long walk, subway ride and bus trip – to meet his father in a far-off city where the latter was attending a conference, and considers how his mother may have intended the journey to become a form of “male bonding” (240). He recalls his mother’s note left out for him after school, her suggestion that he eat something before he goes (he eats an apple, an ordinary enough item in the context, though Derrida would argue otherwise), and “listen to [his] father”:

At that age, thirteen, I’d somehow gotten out of the habit of listening to him; it was a patience I now realized I needed to relearn. I started again to listen to my father that weekend: I’ve been listening to him – even over the thirty-five years since his death – and trying to get it right, ever since. (248)

In this key narrative, which functions simultaneously as ‘story’ and ‘afterword,’ Margoshes confides in the reader his desire to tell the story of his roots and to “honour” his father. The best way of achieving the latter, he concludes, “was to get it right” (250).

The portrait of Harry Morgenstern that emerges is one of a “fundamentally decent man” presented “in morally perplexing situations” (249), but there’s much more in these stories, including the writer’s loving but not uncritical portrait of his mother, Berte, and an assortment of relatives and colourful characters. What I enjoyed most about the stories is the way Margoshes uses different kinds of irony to convey something of the subtlety and incongruity of life and its unknowing cast of characters.

Consider the characterization of Harry Morgenstern’s reaction to his daughter Esther’s sudden fever when he comes home inebriated in “The Bargain.” Here Margoshes dramatizes the oxymoronic inner dialogue that takes place inside his father’s head, and the latter’s shaky resolution, as with the Devil himself, not to drink too much again:

Being a devout atheist, he had no god to direct prayers to, but that didn’t prevent him from composing them on occasion, and in that brief pause in the doorway, he proposed a bargain with the universe. If only Esther would be spared, he would never again allow himself to be so drunk – as drunk as he had been that night, so drunk that he had done himself harm, that he had delayed, not thought clearly, even if only for a few moments; so drunk that he might have done others harm – never again would he allow himself to be that way. (160)

Examples of situational irony are plentiful, from Morgenstern as a young farmhand finding himself entangled in a set of love and hate triangles (“The Farmhand”) to the young newspaper columnist under the pseudonym Yenta Schmegge (which amusingly translates as “gossip” and “hot air”) who in his starter letter to himself as editor fabricates a fantastical situation involving a woman who has fallen in love with a “Red Indian” who claims to be related to “the lost tribes of Israel” (“The Wisdom of Solomon”). In both stories, tensions escalate in dramatic proportion as the characters act out their dilemmas.

One of the events that reveals Morgenstern’s liberal-minded views perhaps ahead of his time occurs in “The Barking Dog.” Finding himself out of work following the Depression and outbreak of war in Europe, Morgenstern joins an uncle’s silversmith firm and befriends a young man, Shel Goldman, whose mysterious love poems about unrequited and forbidden love turn out to have been directed at a male lover (implicitly Morgenstern):

On one of their early walks, Goldman’s hand brushed against my father’s sleeve and my father’s arm involuntarily jerked.
“You have nothing to fear from me, Morgenstern,” Goldman said.
“My dear Goldman, I didn’t think I had.”
“I thought perhaps you . . .” the younger man began.
“Certainly not. That was the farthest thought from my mind.”
“I can assure you, Morgenstern . . .”
“Don’t say another word, Goldman.” (209)

This expertly fashioned dialogue conveys the earnestness and integrity of the homosexual Goldman and the generosity of Morgenstern, who we learn in the next paragraph later makes a point of touching Goldman’s arm to please him in this small, physical way.

A review of this collection would not be complete without a discussion of the marvellously ironic title story, “A Book of Great Worth,” in which the magnanimous but not infallible Harry Morgenstern becomes fond of Anna, a young woman looking for her so-called brother, Abraham Diamond, a poet. Although Berte immediately suspects that Anna has been abandoned by her lover, Morgenstern proves in this story to be the more naive of the writer’s parents. His kindness towards this stranger and his willingness to take her into the house speaks much in his favour. With the same curiosity as is evidenced by his love for weighty books – Shakespeare and, “inexplicably,” the American Civil War (190) – Morgenstern is enamoured by the mystery of the attractive young woman and, as is implied, might have considered Anna in a more romantic light were it not for his loyalty to his wife. On the last night before Anna is sent away by an irritable Berte – suffering from a difficult pregnancy and incipient jealousy – Harry and Anna share a closeness during which they discuss a leather-bound “book of great worth” that Morgenstern has picked up at Fusago’s bookstore, and her query whether it has been written in “Eskimo” provides just the right note of unwitting hilarity and ridiculousness to spice up the drama (192).

I enjoyed this book for its wit and human drama. Although the memoir-as-fiction approach resembles Ondaatje’s in The Cat’s Table and Running in the Family (1982), Margoshes’s style is less mannered and tends towards the colloquial, which is appropriate, since the narrator comes from a tradition of journalists. Nevertheless, some passages are full of poetry: the country scene in “The Farmhand” wherein “the sexual frisson and intrigue dart[ ] like dragonflies after mosquitoes beneath the slowly turning fan in the Pearlman porch” (30), and the description of the smells of the Lower East Side of New York, “a heady mixture of cooked cabbage, baking bread, sweat, sour meat and horse manure, spiced by the sharp salt aroma of the bay wafting inland on a cool breeze, and enjoying the pastel light of the setting sun that softened the hard edges of the tenement-lined streetscape” (16) draw me right into that world. Finally, the brilliant characterization and love for humanity in this collection will, I predict, win over the hearts of many readers. p

gillian harding-russell has published three poetry collections, most recently I forgot to tell you (Thistledown, 2007). The chapbook Maya: Poems for the Summer Solstice (Leaf Press) and the holm Stories of Snow (Alfred Gustav press) came out this year. Poems have recently been published in Windsor Review, The Antigonish Review, and Goose Publications (an online nature and environmental journal). Poems are forthcoming in the anthologies The Not Forgotten (Hidden Brook Press, 2012) and Poet on Poet (Guernica, 2012) .

A Book of Great Worth
by Dave Margoshes
Regina: Coteau Books, 2012, ISBN 9781550504767, 252 pp., $18.95 paper
Reviewed by Gillian Harding-Russell

Buy A Book of Great Worth at McNally Robinson Booksellers

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