For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors
by Laura Esther Wolfson
This title was previously available on NetGalley and is now archived.
Pub Date 01 Jun 2018 | Archive Date 01 Jun 2018
University of Iowa Press, Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction
Laura Esther Wolfson’s literary debut draws on years of immersion in the Russian and French languages; struggles to gain a basic understanding of Judaism, its history, and her place in it; and her search for a form to hold the stories that emerge from what she has lived, observed, overheard, and misremembered.
In “Proust at Rush Hour,” when her lungs begin to collapse and fail, forcing her to give up an exciting and precarious existence as a globetrotting simultaneous interpreter, she seeks consolation by reading Proust in the original while commuting by subway to a desk job that requires no more than a minimal knowledge of French. In “For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors” she gives away her diaphragm and tubes of spermicidal jelly to a woman in the Soviet Union who, with two unwanted pregnancies behind her, needs them more than she does. “The Husband Method” has her translating a book on Russian obscenities and gulag slang during the dissolution of her marriage to the Russian-speaker who taught her much of what she knows about that language.
In prose spangled with pathos and dusted with humor, Wolfson transports us to Paris, the Republic of Georgia, upstate New York, the Upper West Side, and the corridors of the United Nations, telling stories that skewer, transform, and inspire.
“This book is about many things: love, language, love of language, the meaning of home and country and family. Mostly, though, it’s about the subtle, perennial tensions between the lives we think we want and the lives we actually make. For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors is poignant, sophisticated, and as soulful as it is brainy. I admire it immensely.”—Meghan Daum, judge, Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction, author, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion
“Set variously in America, France, and the former Soviet Union, these interlinked stories have a certain magic about them. They speak of loss and disappointment, of foiled ambitions and failed marriages. And yet there is something uplifting about them—owing no doubt to the author’s reserves of talent and wisdom.”—Daphne Merkin, author, The Fame Lunches
“This is a marvelous collection. What lifts it so far above the usual offerings is something I can only call soulfulness. Wolfson’s prose is like strong Russian tea; it has a depth of flavor that only a long, devoted steeping in life and literature can produce.”—Emily Fox Gordon, author, Mockingbird Years
“Laura Esther Wolfson’s first collection is one of the most accomplished and inviting debuts of a personal essayist in years. She has translated, in effect, her psyche and those she encounters with rueful honesty for our reading pleasure. I found it a real page-turner.”—Phillip Lopate, author, Against Joie de Vivre
“A woman sits musing on all she has lived through—her two marriages, her lifelong desire to write, her relation to the Russian language, the lung disease that is slowly overpowering her. Searching for the right distance from which to make large sense of it all, she adopts a tone of voice that is richly reflective of all that has gone before. This voice lives on in the reader’s mind long after the last page of For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors—an unusually stirring memoir—has been turned.”—Vivian Gornick, author, Fierce Attachments
Average rating from 5 members
Laura Esther Wolfson writes in this essay collection, the Iowa Prize for Nonfiction award winner, dreamy, reflectional, sometimes confessional pieces of memoir heavily focused on several themes. An interpreter and translator by profession, the idea of translation and the role of language in life, love, identity, relationships, work, and everyday interpersonal interactions is the topic that felt like a constant. Russian and French are her acquired languages, and she came to them in interesting ways, particularly Russian. It's more unusual for an American, born in the country to parents who were also born there, to become fluent in Russian. Wolfson lived and traveled for work in various former Soviet republics, including Georgia, meeting her first husband in Tbilisi.
This ex-husband figures strongly in her storytelling, in part because she acknowledges that her Russian skills are strong thanks to "the husband method," that is, she learned a lot from living with and loving him. The marriage was crumbling as she worked on translating a book of Russian slang and gulag terms, and that time in her life is a powerfully depicted moment as she realizes a change is inevitably coming.
There's another uncomfortable but all-too-common life theme running through these stories, and that's of chances not taken, opportunities lost, and the regrets that time can make clear from these. Wolfson faces down the reality of life after political change creates a boom in translation demand, and when in her youth she felt professionally fulfilled taking interpreting jobs, even for high-profile people and events. She suddenly finds herself afflicted with a degenerative lung condition and poor or no health insurance as a freelancer. Her marriage to the Russian native speaker has ended, and she considers pieces of it, including how he helped her advance her Russian language skills so far, as she continues working on translation projects.
Wolfson navigates a couple of subjects multiple times, making this feel somewhat less like a cohesive collection and more like one compiled from essays written for herself, on topics and events that she needed to get out of her system (which she more or less confesses to, in one of them.) It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's sometimes repetitive.
"Losing the Nobel" might have been my favorite essay of the bunch, in which she interprets for an author who was then little known in the west, Svetlana Alexievich, and around this time Wolfson makes a decision that will affect her for a long time to come. Maybe because I was also reading The Unwomanly Face of War at the same time as this one, but I found it a very well done piece that gives the reader a lot to ponder and consider when it's finished. And she does a very worthy sort of mini-profile of Alexievich, while also taking issue with some incorrect, misunderstood translation in her book, Voices from Chernobyl.
There are so many graceful, well crafted lines in these pieces. In terms of themes, I loved most when she wrote about her experiences and travels in the Soviet Union, or how it feels to visit a place you've been to before, like Montmartre in her case, and recall the other times you were there - other times in your life with other people. She ruminates on these things in a way that feels so much like getting a glimpse of someone's very intimate interior monologue, and it's very striking and powerful.
It's now over a year and a half since I last spoke to that friend; we had a falling-out. But when I walk down that narrow street lined with bolts of cloth for sale, I feel as if we've just talked, much as you may think momentarily on waking that someone long gone from your life has just paid you a brief visit, an impression that is merely a vestige of the night's dreaming.
I also loved the way language is a thread sewing everything together in her stories - maybe because I also work in languages, although it wasn't such a passion or talent for me as it was for her in her beginnings of study and career. But I've come to some of the same realizations as she has, about language and identity and culture being so inextricably all bound up, and the ability of language to stoke memory and feelings of place, or the strange confines certain languages force us to abide by.
In other places, I got a little tired of the same topics, of knowing where a thread was going as soon as it began. Still, there's a lot of great writing here, a lot of history, and a fascinating look at so many areas of life and the world through the eyes of someone so deeply steeped in language.
Another frequent theme is Jewishness and what it means to identity and family history. As it's her specialty, Wolfson's stories about Judaism and those she encounters in connection to it are viewed through the lens of language, like an older writer desperate to have his work translated into English at last, or her attempts at learning Yiddish, and that language's connection to its Eastern European roots.
Speaking to someone in Vilnius, Lithuania, where she's taking an intensive Yiddish course, she describes this exchange:
"Sonya got married and moved to Spain," she said, adding a grammatical fillip that made the phrase "got married" function like a Russian verb of motion (a category usually limited to forms of "walk," "ride," and "fly"), transporting Sonya to the land of castles and castanets on a magic carpet woven out of language.
I loved learning things like this. Some strong writing and a lot to think about in these essays about growing older and wiser, illness, love, language, change and memory.
With a title that reminds the healthy Russian magical realism, this collection of essays written in an equally healthy self-irony touching upon less healthy episodes, personal and intellectual adventures in the Russian language is a journey that ends up too early. I personally would have want more word-crafted explorations, because once you are opening the box of intellectual encounter you don't want/can't stop it so fast.
Besides the personal search of meaning, the essays do have fine observations about language(s), the social and political pressures of the professional translators or dealing with hard to write or pronounce maladies. Not all of the essays are equal, but all do have episodes which contains polished worlds made of words.
In fact, for a long time I did not enjoy so much simple explorations of intellectual mussings, as the ones about reading Proust while commuting. Trivialization of a monument of the French/world literature, my mother would have judge instantly. I rather say that once you are part of the mind/intellectual games, you can see so much beauty in the act of reading Proust while commuting.
More than once, it was hard for me to accept that Laura Esther Wolfson decided completely free to learn and specialized as a translator into the Russian language, without prior strings - family, especially - attached. Therefore, her adventures in the world of language do offer a completely different perspective than in the case of someone with a certain previous connection. 'Cognition is a zero sum game (...): the additional effort required to comprehend and formulate in a foreign language is substracted from the capactiy to recall when it's over, you run a search on your recollections only to realize that the conversation has left shockingly few traces. When you leave your native language, your breathe a different substance, and like a mermaid who comes ashore, you cannot comfortably stay for long. Your native depths keep calling you home'.
Language is for her the way to take control over the reality and her identity. When she is trying to create her own Jewish story, it is through language that the deep encounter takes place, as she goes to Lithuania to learn Yiddish.
Awarded the Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction, For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors - you have to read the book to understand the meaning of this mysterious title - promises hopefully more books by Laura Esther Wolfson. Personally, I would love to read more from her soon.
When Wolfson describes a translator’s most difficult task as “staying faithful when what is going on is deliberately unclear”, she addresses any writer’s task: staying clear amid many infidelities. But narrative nonfiction does stray – the genre turns, so often now, on allusive connection. Wolfson’s pleasure is her return to the through-line. She knows what she means; she says it clearly.
Her exposition of regret comes by scope and frankness – marriages (2), fallow decades, ill health, lost vocabulary. It takes living to tell these truths, and her expertise alone is a kind of relief. This is not the chimera of first love, or loss. But her accumulated tally, high and heavy, is tender. The collection’s highlight, “Infelicities of Style” is, startlingly, about mastery and ballet but turns on the mystery of great teachers’ generosity. What she is really writing about are occasions of human kindness.
Some of characters are canonical (Proust, Balanchine, Tolstoy, and Svetlana Alexievich), but many are personal, her 1st mother-in-law, an editor named Lloyd Geduldig, husband #1 (Aleksandr) and #2 (Tristan). The latter are so fully realized that I’ll struggle to think of Mr. B. without Lloyd ever again.
What else could a translator and writer want? Per Wolfson, there are two words in Hebrew for book, buch for secular texts and sefer for sacred. Thanks to her, we travel through both. It’s the best book I’ve read all year, and I’ll spend all year mailing it to friends. Will the University of Iowa Nonfiction Prize always be this good? Maybe. But in the meantime, read everything with Wolfson’s name on it.