Re Disturbed by Her Song by Tanith Lee, writing as and with Esther Garber and Judas Garbah (Lethe Press, 2011) and Fatal Women: The Esther Garber Novellas by Tanith Lee (Lethe Press, 2013)
by Jean Roberta
Lethe Press, which often sends me free books for review, has now released two reprinted collections of short fiction with a subtly erotic and queer flavour, written by Tanith Lee in the guise of several alter egos. I had read her fantasies before, but her earlier work was never like this.
(While carrying on a doomed, long-distance relationship with a woman in another town in the mid-1980s, I spent three hours on a bus reading Sung in Shadow, Tanith Lee’s version of Romeo and Juliet. I was completely pulled in. I realized that I couldn’t discuss this book with my girlfriend in any depth because she wasn’t much of a reader, and that was exactly why a story about doomed love seemed so appropriate to keep me occupied while I was in limbo between her home and my home. But that is another post, or review.)
Tanith Lee is a legend among fantasy writers and the author of over ninety novels. Her work has been attracting a cult following since the 1970s, when she sold her first book to DAW Press. Her tales are elaborate, and her words are as carefully chosen as precious jewels.
Recently she has been writing stories and novellas under the names of a whole family of alter egos. In “Meeting the Garbers” in Disturbed by Her Song, Lee claims:
“I first met the Garbers in the 1990s; that is, I met Esther [who then ‘wrote’ two books], and her brother, Judas. Anna didn’t turn up, though she subsequently sent me a polite and kindly note.”
Why Anna chose to send the author a note instead of “turning up” is a mystery. None of the Garbers (two Jewish sisters and their half-Arabian half-brother, who spells the family name differently) is real, but apparently they “exist” for a reason.
In an afterword at the end of Fatal Women, a collection of novellas written by “Esther Garber,” Mavis Haut (a scholar who has studied Lee’s work) explains:
“When Tanith Lee writes as Esther Garber, we hear a voice that belongs to a well-defined personality. . . This new writer-in-residence sets Lee free from her better known writing past and opens the way to new directions.”
Actually, the writer “Esther Garber” seems to me to be more of a chameleon than a “well-defined personality,” but she usually writes in the first-person, and her stories seem more intimate, realistic and low-keyed than the more operatic novel series by Tanith Lee as herself.
All the stories in Disturbed by Her Song and Fatal Women include same-sex relationships, so the use of several writing personae (including that of a gay man) serves the illusion that these stories are based on the direct experience of characters other than the author.
In "Alexandrians," a story in Disturbed by Her Song, Judas Garbah remembers his neglected childhood in Egypt, and the male friend of his mother who noticed him and explained something:
"I'll teach you two new words. A woman who loves another woman is called for an island, Lesbos, a Lesbian. But a man who loves another man is called for Alexander, who was the son of a god, and loved men, and for his city by the sea, Alexandria. . . . Will you be an Alexandrian, Judas?"
Judas was unable to answer that question at the time, but as an adult, he remembers this conversation and the tingling touch of the man who paid attention to him.
There is very little explicit description of sex in these stories, but they are drenched in eroticism and mystery, which seem closely related. “Esther Garber” is a mistress of the “what-if” story, in which a central character’s yearning for another person, for a mutual relationship, and for the freedom to love in public is repeatedly disappointed, but which becomes a long-term obsession.
The title story of the earlier book, Disturbed by Her Song, is about a one-sided lesbian crush, a kind of non-relationship which takes over the life of the central character.
Georgina, a minor singer/actress, first meets fellow-actress Sula Dale when both are in their twenties. Georgina is impressed with Sula's performance in a classical Greek play. Georgina tries to cultivate a friendship with her, but Sula doesn't respond. Over decades, Georgina dreams about Sula and wishes she could sing for her. After several unsuccessful relationships with other women, Georgina writes a play for Sula to star in. Sula is grateful for the work, but doesn't seem to remember meeting Georgina before.
So does Sula ever recognize the devotion of her greatest fan? Never. At the end of the story, Georgina walks out of a restaurant where Sula has failed to recognize or acknowledge her.
Considering that both characters earn a living as performers by using their voices, there is a kind of resounding silence at the heart of the story. The key to it is provided by an older man in the theatre world, someone Georgina respects. He tells a story within the story:
"'Once upon a time,' Marc said to them. . . 'there was a princess, outside whose high bedroom window a nightingale sang every night from a tree, a pomegranate, or perhaps a blossoming plum.
'While the nightingale sang, the princess slept deeply and well. . . However there came a night when the nightingale, for reasons of its own, did not sing but flew far away. In the morning the princess summoned a gardener and commanded that the tree be cut down. He protested, saying the tree was young, healthy and fruitful. But the princess would have none of that. She told him that all that one previous night a nightingale had perched in the tree, and her sleep had been very much disturbed by its song.'"
The group of friends who hear this story in a restaurant discuss its meaning, but no one has a brilliant epiphany, and each friend seems to learn something different from it.
A story in the newer collection, Fatal Women, explores the theme of a one-sided lesbian crush with less tragic intensity. In “The Umbrella,” Sarah, the central character, notices a young woman who often crosses paths with her. Sarah becomes curious about “The Sugar Girl” (who buys grocery items, including sugar). One rainy day, Sarah is able to offer the shelter of her umbrella to “The Sugar Girl,” who accepts. This incident, which would have been the opening scene in a lesbian romance, turns out to be bittersweet, since Sarah never sees the object of her crush again. The memory of what might have been haunts Sarah far longer than she might have been haunted by a past friendship or love affair.
As the narrator explains in the earlier story, “Disturbed by Her Song,” a love affair that never really begins also never really ends. The possibilities seem to shimmer in the air, suggesting another dimension in which dreams can come true.
The novellas by “Esther Garber,” collected under the title "Fatal Women," take place in various historical eras. They all seem influenced by the nineteenth-century concept of a “femme fatale,” the French term for a “fatal woman.” Wikipedia claims that this character:
“is a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations. She is an archetype of literature and art. Her ability to entrance and hypnotise her victim with a spell was in the earliest stories seen as being literally supernatural; hence, the femme fatale today is still often described as having a power akin to [that of] an enchantress, seductress, vampire, witch, or demon, having some power over men.”
Femmes fatale abound in the art and literature of the nineteenth century, when most real women had no economic or political power. A general suspicion that women could wield supernatural power actually seems to date from the witch-mania of the Christian Inquisition (approximately 1480-1700). Yet the theme of the fatal enchantress seems immortal, whether it comes from a fear of women or from women’s own dreams of power.
The “fatal women” in this collection are different from the nineteenth-century cliché in several ways: they are all sexually attracted to other women (although they must be discreet), and their stories span a period from the mid-nineteenth century to the aftermath of the Second World War, suggesting that “Esther Garber” is remarkably long-lived and possibly immortal.
None of these novellas deals with the supernatural in an obvious way, but there is a certain uncanniness in all of them. In the novella “Femme Fatale,” an Englishwoman has simply disappeared while travelling in France with her female lover, who is distraught. Did the absent woman ever really exist? If so, why do none of the locals claim to have seen her? The narrator, travelling with her own controlling female companion, is attracted to Iren, the one who is frantic to find out what happened to hers.
As in a horror movie, the landscape seems to be littered with subtle clues, and even objects (as in a Stephen King plot) have wills of their own. “Esther” explains:
“My companion, whom I shall call Munne for want of anything better, also had a little car. And in this being we had been driving—or the car had, it possessed a dark soul of its own—across the swooping plains of the region, littered with enormous rocks, and flayed by unsparing sunlight the color of bleached Sauterne.”
The mystery of the missing woman and the intentions of the demon car are never really resolved, but Esther has an epiphany about her own “disappearance” into a submissive role which is never openly discussed and is not exactly consensual. The casually insensitive Munne is a snob on several levels, and she equates the annoying passivity she sees in Esther with her Jewishness. In the time-frame of the story, the Second World War and the Holocaust are still in the future, and Munne’s attitude seems to foreshadow the real-life horrors to come.
“Le Jardin,” a story with a clearly supernatural component, is possibly the most moving. A French woman painter has become famous after her death, and a persistent male art-collector has tracked down Rachel, a woman who met the painter through her parents and who is rumoured to own one of her drawings. Unexplained smells and bird songs float through Rachel’s apartment while she tells the collector that unfortunately, she no longer has the sketch.
Avrilenne, the artist, was a generation older than Rachel and was married to a man. Rachel seems to be honest when she claims that she and Avrilenne were never lovers. They had a moment of connection which never blossomed into a full relationship, but Rachel seems to have become the keeper of Avrilenne’s spirit.
The sketch depicts an actual garden on the grounds of a French chateau in which atrocities were committed during the Nazi occupation of France, and which was then destroyed by the French Resistance. Like innocence in the Garden of Eden, the beauty of the real garden at its best lives on in the sketch, which Rachel would never sell for any price. And the love affair which was never born can also never die.
Tanith Lee is good as herself, but as any one of the “Garbers,” she is heartbreaking.