Court and Spark

Painting of a woman's head resting on a sarcophagus, overlooked by a stone angel and a stained glass window

Munch Museum

Edvard Munch: The Angel of Death, 1893

In September 1969 Susan Taubes returned to Budapest, the city where she had lived until the age of eleven. Standing outside her childhood home amid the bustle of the late-afternoon rush hour—the veranda bright with plants, the bushes still filled with berries, the wrought-iron gate closed—Taubes was overcome by a feeling of “beauty and grief, unbearable.” “Intolerable,” she wrote in her diary, “that I should stand here as another, denied access to the house; intolerable to stand here after thirty years of disembodied rootless wandering.” Confronted with the ghostlike vestiges of a former self, Taubes found herself impelled to turn away: “A frozen memory now thaws suddenly into live, raging, devouring monster of time.”

Taubes’s fiction is suffused with such moments of disorientation, her characters caught between past and present, fantasy and reality, dreaming and waking. From childhood Taubes had questioned “the commonplace assumption that a person has a self, soul or core of some sort which he is born with and carries with him from cradle to the grave.” Having moved from one country—and language—to another at a formative age, she was convinced that an individual is not one singular entity but a “fleeting changing multiplicity.” Lament for Julia, an extraordinary novel that Taubes described as “about the bafflement of an angel or merely an exalted consciousness, incarnated in a woman,” takes this idea to a darkly comic extreme. Its disembodied narrator, a “celestial spark” of sorts who envisions himself as a “very thin gentleman in black with a cane” yet whose destiny has been entangled with that of a woman named Julia Klopps since her birth, attempts to tell the story of Julia’s life in a futile effort to make sense of their shared, yet split, identity. Despite his privileged vantage point—sometimes by Julia’s side or watching over her from above, sometimes lurking inside her body or attached to her forehead “like a miner’s lamp”—his understanding is flawed, his ability to reconstruct her personal history fallible: a working title for the novel was Remembering Wrong.

Lament for Julia opens with a howl of anguish, like that of a betrayed lover: Julia has vanished, and the narrator is, almost literally, rent asunder. Trying on her skirts, dwindling into nothing, this “princely parasite” is forced to confront the question that drives his account of her troubled childhood, adolescence, and adulthood: “what was I without her?” At first, the narrator’s voyeuristic fascination with Julia’s body, his prurient anxiety over her burgeoning sexuality, and his simultaneous adulation of her as a virgin and bride recalls Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, or the predatory pursuer of Anna Kavan’s Ice. The narrator considers Julia his “prisoner,” his “creation”; by turns he plays father, husband, and pimp, while she remains elusive, the subject of his fascination, disapproval, bemusement, and, increasingly, envy. But as the narrative progresses and their relationship becomes clearer, the dynamic shifts. By leaving, Julia has coolly stepped beyond his clutches, putting an end to his attempts at control. “I fancy she is my puppet,” he ruefully admits, “when in fact Julia leads me by the nose.”

In Gnostic tradition, the creator of the universe was a potentially malevolent demiurge who trapped a “divine spark” within human beings; Julia’s failure to apprehend her spiritual essence blocks off her path to self-knowledge and condemns her—and the spirit—to the miserable materialism of the earthly realm. His desperate attempts to redeem her mirror a sense of moral urgency felt by many thinkers of Taubes’s generation to transcend the hypocrisy, conformity, and violence of the postwar, postnuclear world. Yet if the spirit represents Julia’s ideal ego—the perfect self to which Freud considered the narcissist to aspire—his inability to save her from a meaningless life of bourgeois frustration marks a crushing failure that undercuts the novel’s commedia dell’arte surface.

Like Taubes’s groundbreaking novel Divorcing, Lament for Julia lays bare the arbitrary forces that shape the direction a life can take. Its prevailing tension lies in the conflict between the narrator’s expectations for Julia—that “she was made to belong to a man, to adorn him like a jewel”—and Julia’s own desires. Taubes’s short stories also often depict women who are desperate to reject the roles ascribed to them and radically remake themselves. Julia’s dissatisfaction in her marriage to a man who likes to drink her breast milk and declares himself “addicted to work” is echoed in “The Gold Chain” by Rosalie’s strident wish to become pregnant by someone other than her ineffectual husband, and in “Easter Visit”—a gemlike piece whose poignancy belies its shock value—by the illicit lovers carving out a space to confess and act out fantasies far removed from the drudgery of their ordinary lives. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud articulated his idea that our lives are governed by the competing drives of Eros and Thanatos. Whether fantasizing about being eaten alive so as to mingle with a lover in a hawk’s belly, committing infanticide in a wedding dress, or pledging marriage to Death himself, Taubes’s heroines exemplify her own belief, as expressed in a letter to her husband in 1950, that “human passions are dark dark things.”



Readers of Divorcing will be familiar with the contours of Taubes’s life, which can be traced, in fragments, throughout her fiction. Born in Budapest in 1928, she moved to the United States in 1939 with her father, Sandor Feldmann, the author of Freud-inflected studies on sexual pathology, mannerisms of speech, and nervous disorders, while her mother remained behind in Hungary with her new husband. Several of Taubes’s stories feature absent mothers and domineering psychoanalyst fathers: Dr. Rombach, who attributes his teenage daughter’s coldness to “a compensatory mechanism in overcoming your strong oedipal attachment to me,” or Dr. Sigismund in “Swan,” who commits his patients one by one to an asylum for fear of their seducing his daughter. Finding a language and beginning to write, in these stories, is often associated with the fraught transition to adulthood: For Marianna Rombach, who can “spend hours just paging through the dictionary,” words help her stay grounded in reality, while Griselda Sigismund’s eerie fictions—written on scraps torn from her father’s prescription pad—presage the uncanny events that follow.

Simone Weil, a lodestar for Taubes, wrote that “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” Taubes experienced her “continuous estrangement” from the home and family of her childhood—many of her Jewish relatives did not survive the war—as a “malnutrition or nervous disease.” As a child, she wrote epic poems in Hungarian, and later reflected that she had never truly felt at home in English. That estrangement became her major preoccupation across her life and work. It is manifest in her academic interest in atheism, particularly Weil’s profound religious experience of the absence of God; in her refusal to engage with organized religion (despite her husband’s devout Judaism, she was suspicious of “any mass belief and tradition,” and preferred to “build my own altar”); and in her fictional explorations of states of limbo, where time is suspended and fairy-tale logic reigns. Taubes considered surrealism “the true realistic novel of this generation.” Just as Divorcing cuts between everyday scenes, historical experience, and dream images, her short fiction shifts registers with relish, often fragmenting into hallucinatory endings that leave the reader unmoored.

Taubes later claimed that she had begun writing “sporadically, clandestinely, and with a bad conscience.” Her father “regarded writing as a sickness”; her husband, the philosopher Jacob Taubes, “disapproved on religious grounds.” She married Jacob when she was twenty-one and spent the subsequent decade moving between Europe and America, pursuing a doctorate in philosophy and bringing up two children. Her first, unpublished novel, Downgoing, drew on their short courtship and portrayed a young couple’s tense negotiations over the place of religion in their marriage; she also compiled two anthologies of Native American and African myths and folklore, an interest that sprang from her work as a curator at the Bush Collection of religious artifacts at Columbia University.

In 1961, living alone in New York and with her marriage falling apart, Taubes joined a circle of women writers led by her close friend Susan Sontag, whom she had met while living in Cambridge, and the Cuban playwright (and Sontag’s lover) María Irene Fornés, who met regularly in one another’s apartments to share work in progress. These women were the first readers of Lament for Julia; their invigorating exchange confirmed Taubes’s decision to leave her job (teaching comparative mythology and religion at Barnard College) and reinvent herself, to create the conditions that would allow her, finally, to devote herself to writing. When asked by an agent to compose a biographical note to accompany the manuscript, Taubes listed her studies at Bryn Mawr, Geneva, Paris, Jerusalem, and Harvard; her essays on Genet, Heidegger, and Camus; a dissertation titled “The Mystical Atheism of Simone Weil”; and four years on the faculty of Columbia University. The final line read: “left New York and husband to live in Paris with my children. And write.” A handwritten postscript added: “Probably better not stress my academic career. Anyway it’s over.”

From the autumn of 1962 Taubes continued to revise the novel in Paris, where she spent most of the next two years, immersed in New Wave cinema, electronic music, and voracious reading. “In N.Y. I am a mess, a misfit,” she wrote to Jacob, but “here one can cultivate one’s eccentricity creatively.” Her attempts to find a publisher for Lament for Julia were frustrated. Galvanized by a recommendation from Samuel Beckett, who called her an “authentic talent without doubt,” Éditions de Minuit offered to publish a French translation, but American publishers were wary and the only house that expressed interest promptly closed down. “It seems undefined, implied central European settings make editors uneasy,” she wrote to a friend.


Over the 1960s Taubes reignited her interest in drama, taking classes with the French mime Étienne Decroux and working with Joseph Chaikin’s avant-garde Open Theater. She completed Lament for Julia, wrote several short stories, and began Divorcing at the Radcliffe Institute while on a fellowship specifically aimed at women writers whose work was stymied by family or economic constraints. Among her application materials is a letter of recommendation from Sontag, calling Taubes “an extremely gifted writer, and a person of exceptional depth and seriousness…she needs encouragement badly.” Taubes was found dead on November 6, 1969, a few days after the publication of Divorcing. A few years later, Sontag dissected Taubes’s last months in a story, “Debriefing,” about a neurotic friend who shocks and infuriates those around her by committing suicide. Her name, tellingly, is Julia.

Adapted from Francesca Wade’s introduction to Lament for Julia, by Susan Taubes, which will be published by NYRB Classics on June 6. Divorcing was reissued with an introduction by David Rieff in 2020.

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