Yes & No: A Novel
About Yes & No: A Novel
Recipe for a Young Woman's Coming of Age:Open to Paris, 1969, one year after the French student uprising. Drop American graduate student Naomi Weiss into a broth of medieval history and contemporary political turmoil. Flavor with a slice of the twelfth-century love affair between philosopher Pierre Abˇlard and his pupil Hˇlo•se. Tie a hidden manuscript, dated 1137, into a bundle with a failed librarian who begs Naomi to transcribe his treasure, and an eminent professor who traded Jews to the Nazis for valuable books. Throw the bundle into the broth with a mysterious woman who can't remember her own story. Sprinkle with two French feminists who dream of starting a farm for women. Turn up the heat and cook for one semester.
Praise For Yes & No: A Novel
"An intimate chronicle layered with history, philosophical musing, and complicated emotion. Elegantly written, playful and deeply serious, full of youthful passion and mature wisdom: a beautiful book."Deborah Weisgall, author of A Joyful Noise
"A fiction that delights and challenges, a book you can't put down."
Larissa Taylor, professor history, Colby College
"Tatelbaum flings herself on life and history with amazing courage."
Kate Barnes, first Maine Poet Laureate
Excerpt from Yes & No: A Novel
Stand on the corner of Rue Monge and Rue des Ecoles on a chilly Paris morning. Watch for a girl to come out of her hotel carrying a briefcase, wearing knee socks and a triangular scarf on her head, a London Fog raincoat. You'll recognize the young American with long brown hair parted in the center. Her blue eyes observe everything without knowing what to do about it. You don't know what to do either, so you follow her.
She walks briskly, noticing trees, stooping to pick up a chestnut by the curb. The wind plays with the slit at the back of her raincoat, revealing a brown wool skirt. Follow her around the corner and enter the cafˇ across the street from the one she's heading for. Settle down in the front window with a demi of espresso. Throw off your trenchcoat and tug the edge of your beret over one ear. Then pull out your notebook, and begin the research you've been planning for ages. There's something buried that leaves you hungry. This girl you've never met might lead you to your subject, because she is young and not yet flavored with bitterness.
Time is a soup, you've always thought. History is simmering, still unfinished. You can toss anything into the stockpot. First choose the perfect young vegetables from the garden to scrub and peel and dice. Add them to the stock with garlic and bay leaves, thyme and peppercorns, flageolets and onion, a splash of wine. Someone will recognize that soup¨on of sage you threw in as an afterthought. Someone like the girl, who doesn't yet know what she will do for you, nor do you. Nothing is lost, not even work you can't remember without her help.
If emptiness can be called pain, there must be a memory to fill that space. Pain will not stand in for memory and still satisfy. The flavor of an untold story seeps up from the bottom of the kettle where it sits on a low flame, for centuries it seems. No words can express a self when no one hears. There are only bubbles struggling up through thick stock and escaping as steam. The trace of what can't be named has long since faded from the knife edge, the chopping block, the fingernails. She who peeled and diced, she, you, was once an I, giving the pot a stir, wiping hands on a smock and returning to write the story no one heard. The story was lost, and with it yourself, expunged by the pumice of time.
And so, alone as always, and looking for what has been misplaced, you are drawn to the girl going into the cafˇ across the street. She leans against the counter with a chocolat. The proprietor brings a croissant on a small white saucer. You can't see her there beyond the glass, any more than you can speak the memory. Nevertheless your pain is real, and your view of her grows real in your notebook. This time the story will not be effaced.
She sips in silence to hide her American accent from Monsieur Montreux, as if he wouldn't know by the knee socks. He polishes the mahogany bar with a damp cloth, eyeing her sideways. He stops to smoothe the thin line of his black moustache and tightens the white apron around his portly waist. She's like a daughter from the provinces, so refreshing after these Parisian women who parade past the cafˇ in high boots. This one is shy, new, this one is lonely. She licks the rim of her empty cup and gathers the last crumbs of croissant with a wet finger.
"Au revoir," she mumbles, tying a scarf under her chin. She pulls open the door. "Merci."
You, in the Cafˇ des Etoiles across the way, know what she hopes, what he thinks, what she says, what he feels. All is simmering on the burner. You stir with the one kind of language left to you, the deep song of time, earth, vegetables. You dissolve the old residue into her fresh young story, which begins now as she emerges from Chez Montreux and heads for the Sorbonne. She is lost from view in the sharp morning mist, but you know where she's going and what she will do. The story you once wrote down is lost, but hers you can record in a notebook empty of your own faded details. This girl, properly prepared, can speak where you have been silenced, can persevere where you have faltered.
You smile as she merges with the growing crowd at the open market, disappears between the cheese merchant and a stand loaded with onions. You feel the queasy lurch of her stomach as she passes through the iron gates of the Sorbonne and climbs the dim stairway to the lecture hall. Your pen takes over and begins to depict a life into which you might find your way. These Left Bank streets, labyrinthine and narrow, with their uneven cobblestones centuries old, are as familiar to you as the pain which has no name.
You go to the counter for another espresso. Back at the little round table, you take off your beret and shake loose your hair. You ignore the man at the next table who watches you as only a Frenchman can watch a woman. He doesn't know the importance of your research, as you reach for the core of time itself. How could he know what it means to suffer erasure before words ever reach your lips, or your pen? How could he know the joy of reading the forgotten story of your own life, spoken in a young woman's voice? He sees you as the body of a woman, but that is his story, not the one you need to retrieve. Voice...the voice...this story requires breath, tongue, and someone to listen. Requires I, which you lack. Requires grammar and vocabulary, an unfolding plot.
You glance at him. He smiles solicitously, waiting for you to put down the empty cup so he can offer more. But no. You shake your head. No more. You sip the last of your bitter coffee and turn to a new page. This is a story that requires a new page.