Mahler and Sons
Mahler and Sons, Nathan Childers, Varinoma Press, 1998, San Luis Obispo
Mahler and Sons is the latest work by that remarkable man of letters, Nathan Childers. It is, among other things, a novel, and can be read as such. The story line of the novel is simple enough. Earnest Mahler is a well-to-do merchant; his son, Morris, works for him in the family business. Earnest is widowed and remarries; his new wife, Valeria, is much younger than himself.
The ostensible themes of the plot are the conflicts between Earnest and Morris, Morris’s concern that his inheritance is in jeopardy, and the concealed affair between Valeria and Morris. Much of this is seen indirectly since Valeria is the viewpoint character.
Valeria has several concerns and interests which dominate the book. She does not want to choose between the two men and does not want to have to choose between them. She wants peace between them. She wants to make sure that her son Robert is the ultimate heir of the business. (She does not know and does not care who Robert’s father is – it suffices that he is a Mahler.)
There is a third man in her life, Rudolf, her former professor. He does not appear directly at all; he only appears in the letters that she writes him. These comprise a significant part of the book, perhaps ten percent. The letters are a mixture of reflections on her situation in life and on literary theory.
Her struggle in the soul is over her perception that she, like the business, is part of the common inheritance and property of the two men. She feels that the idea that she is common property ought to be galling and yet it does not gall. As she puts it to Rudolf, when men invest themselves in their business they end up being owned by it rather than owning it. She says she feels that the truth is that she is not their shared property; on the contrary she owns them.
One can read the novel for pleasure and profit; however there is more. This is not surprising, given the author. The preface to the book quotes Jacques Derrida’s opening line in Dissemination:
This (therefore) will not have been a book.The exchange of letters explores what it means to be a book. Many modern authors, Derrida among them, conduct a guerilla warfare against the structure of the book. In the end these campaigns come to nothing; despite its opening line Dissemination is a book, one not terribly different from other works of exposition. It is not possible, Rudolf says, to do otherwise; one cannot escape the tyranny of text.
Naturally, perhaps inevitably, the letters are a commentary on the book itself. That is, they comment on the structure of the book that they are in, on how it is not a book and yet how it necessarily must be a book.
There are grace notes. The book has an index. (Who ever heard of a novel with an index?) It is, however, a very peculiar index, an exploration of what an index to a novel might be. Instead of references to textual appearances, e.g., Morris Mahler appears on pages such and such, thematic text is indexed.
Also as a grace note, certain key passages are repeated in the book. No attention is called to these passages, either within the text proper, or within the index. The meaning of these passages depends on the context in which they appear. One can tease out the contexts in which a particular passage appears; it often happens that these contexts form a little short story in their own right, one that is often markedly at variance with the main themes of the novel. (This may be the case with every such passage; however some of the resulting “short stories” are quite obscure.)
The work is not, however, simply an exercise in auto-exegenesis, something which Rudolf rightly dismisses as being both impossible of achievement and sterile in execution. Nor is it simply a collection of literary tricks. The little devices lead back to the main story; they amplify it and give it dimension. As Rudolf remarks in one of the letters, one cannot escape the tyranny of the text – one can only gain freedom by surrendering to it.
This page was last updated January 9, 1999.