Mucking Around in the Past — A Review of “What they Saved” by Judy Bolton-Fasman

IN ITS ESSENCE, THE FEMINIST literary scholar Nancy K. Miller’s  memoir encompasses a genealogical quest, excavations into attics and makeshift archives, and attempts at sorting drawers. Miller, the author of more than a dozen books, is the distinguished professor of English and comparative literature at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. her industry culminates in two topsy-turvy trips to Kishinev, now the capital of Moldova, then her ancestral home in Russia. at its most brilliant, Miller’s book is a writer’s memoir – a book brimming with passion and intelligence – a book that makes the weary and often opaque process of writing about one’s family story appear more translucent. And yes, even buoyant. Miller achieves what every memoirist strives for. her story engages the reader because she uncovers an unvarnished truth by sifting, assembling and ordering, and then willingly reordering the facts of a life, of many lives. “despite my intense desire to know the truth, however partial or incomplete,” writes Miller, “I am forced to recognize that the process of finding the story continues to change the story.” And therein lies the fun of reading this book, which casts both writer and reader as avid detectives at credibly formulating Miller’s story.

The motivation for writing “What They Saved” took hold of Miller after the death of her father, Louis Kipnis, a first-generation American born in 1906 “close to the memory of the immigrant experience,” who excelled in school and became an attorney. Within the alternate vastness and claustrophobia of a long marriage, he was a constant presence in Miller’s life. But he effectively had no extended family – having lost touch with a brother who moved to Arizona in 1934 – and she spent her childhood under the “leafy” part of the maternal family tree. The old world, “gloomy” Kipnisses were represented by a solitary maternal grandmother who barely spoke English. Louis’s only sibling Sam found relief for his son Julian’s severe asthma out west. The move severed contact between the brothers, leaving a gaping hole in the Kipnis family story, as well as in Miller’s imagination. in light of her deep connection to her mother’s family, after her father died she saw no point in keeping the Kipnis name – a name for which Miller had no seemingly natural affinity.

But K for Kipnis is her  stalwart middle initial and the K stands ramrod straight, distinctive between her first and last names. Miller may be the bloom on the family tree, but Kipnis are the deep, buried roots. To find the Kipnisses, Miller sifts through familial and “urban archeology.” Her father’s high school report card, long-forgotten photographs stashed in drawers. “Little by little,” writes Miller, “I’m moving the contents of the drawer into a shareable story.” In Miller’s case, “little by little” translates into years of yearning and questing. It was easy to get mired in research and more research, to become distracted with travel from New York City to meet long-lost cousin Julian in Memphis. Miller’s father died when she was 48 years old. Twenty-two years later she writes that she “has something like a recognizable story line – a familiar immigrant’s tale of displacement and renewal [of which] I have already assembled the bits and pieces of a scattered archive and gathered them into a design of my own.” Miller’s idiosyncratic narrative – nonlinear yet distinctly chronological – pivots on the discoveries she makes as a memoirist.

She strews aphorisms throughout her story. Early in the book she informs her readers: “The hardest thing to find is what you think you are looking for.” Miller was initially confronted by the silence of ignorance cum mystery when it came to her father’s story. Yet she sensed that there were signposts from her father’s past that she had yet to recognize – pictures of austere relatives, her paternal grandfather’s correspondence to a friend in Yiddish about buying show tickets, that same grandfather’s correspondence to and from a Lower East Side synagogue. There were pictures of her mysterious uncle Sam Kipnis snapped in the Arizona desert. Miller learns that he was the elected mayor of a small district of Phoenix. But how will she connect the dots in this story? Her stepson, a scientist, offers a strangely apt word to bridge the disconnect – splines. “Splines,” explains Miller, “fill in the blanks between isolated points, construct a complete object from limited information.” The notion of splines leads Miller to another insight about writing memoir: “You don’t necessarily know what it is you’ll want to know.” That’s why Miller finally unearthed information about Kishinev. Just the sound of the word propelled Miller from the “glamorous vagueness of ancestral myth – Russia – and into the banal realities of historical factness, the concreteness of geographical DNA.” Emerging information about Kishinev and its pogroms makes a trip there imperative – a trip underscored by her observation: “In the matter of quest, location means everything.”

In Kishinev, Miller is an Amerikanka looking for her babushka. Her translator asks anyone she can collar if he recognizes the pictures that Miller brandishes of her grandparents. While not exactly paralleling Jonathan Safran Foer’s satiric novel, “Everything is Illuminated,” the overall bumbling feel of the trip calls up some of the mishaps in the novel. In Miller’s case there are missed ferries, strange museum guides and a reckless driver who speaks no English. In fact, Miller goes back to Kishinev a second time to attempt to excavate what lies “‘under the story,’ as my yoga teacher likes to say about meditation. Maybe that should be a term: understory – not ‘backstory,’ with its overtones of Hollywood gossip and glamor. The understory. That would suit these characters in my family, who are something like understudies – practicing for parts that they never quite get to play on stage, or not for long.”

The understory is very much the bailiwick of a memoirist. One could say that there is an understory in every photograph, every letter, every business contract that Miller comes across. She has also, in essence, created her own geniza – a repository of her family’s historical and holy artifacts. What is a geniza but the accumulation of life’s holy and ordinary detritus? A sacred heap of stuff, which brings the reader to Miller’s next assertion: “The truth of the past comes in pieces, but not all of the pieces fit together.” Miller finds far-flung cousins in Canada who expand the Kipnis story, but don’t provide a through line. Uncle Sam worked for gangsters in New York. When he moved to Arizona he owned a bar, probably jointly with some of those old mobsters. Why hadn’t Lou Kipnis bothered to visit his brother when he made business trips out west? Did Sam and his son Julian really serve in the same Air Force unit during World War II ? Sam told himself this story until he believed it so thoroughly that he convinced a local reporter to write about him.

Self-conflation – the struggle to establish a personal multiculturalism (which is not the same as its notorious cousin self-aggrandizement) may get in the way of constructing a coherent family story. But the helter-skelter way that a life plays out is key to understanding the functioning of memory. “In retrieving the past, there is no straight line.” Miller comes up with a neater, more selfcontained mathematical descriptor of mucking in the past – asymptotic. An asymptote is a line that a curve perpetually approaches. But in the end the asymptote and the curve never meet, they never touch. There are objects and more objects retrieved from dusty archives and lined drawers that never quite touch. How do ticket stubs, wedding invitations, birthday cards and old prescriptions convey a life, define an identity? I think Nancy K. Miller continuously poses those questions when she notes: “ …the past continues to reshape our ideas of who we are in the present.” This marvelous memoir pinpoints the elusive phenomenon whereby memories get through to our consciousness and how they ultimately influence our lives. Capturing moments of transformation is what happens over and over in an adept memoir like “What They Saved.” Miller’s intent is not to establish a definitive family history – but to scatter the incidents and events that she unearths the way memory itself functions.

A version of this review was published in the Jerusalem Report

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