Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan

What’s lacking in this world is analyses of second-rate novels.  When I finish a novel I like to figure it out.  What does the title mean?   How do the parts interact?  When he sent the letter, did he know she’d already left town?  Is the game of Russian roulette in chapter 3 explained by the ultimatum in the prologue?   This is why people have book clubs.  But I don’t have a book club, so I look for analyses on the web.  Where all I find is reviews.  And even the best reviews can’t do a full analysis for fear of spoiling the plot.

What follows is an attempt at an analysis of Ruth Gilligan’s Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan.  It will give away every plot point, and it won’t be tremendously intelligible if you haven’t read the book.  But if you have read the book, and are trying to figure it out like me, it might give you something to build on.

The book has five parts, titled “In the Beginning,” “Names,” “In the desert,” etc.  So the novel presents itself as a Torah.  Each of the parts has three chapters treating three different story-strands, so we begin with Moshe’s story, then Shem’s, then Aisling’s, then we have part 2 and turn back to Moshe, etc.  The first strand begins in 1901 when a family of Jews immigrates to Ireland, the second begins in 1958 and gives us an Irish boy who has been placed in a mental hospital because he does not speak, and the third is set entirely in 2013 and deals with an Irishwoman, displaced to London, considering converting to Judaism to marry the man she loves.  So the story spans 112 years and moves to from eastern Europe to Ireland and thence to London, which is to say that in the new Torah that is the novel, eastern Europe is Egypt, Ireland is the desert, and London is, as I suppose, the promised land.  Terrible things happen in the first two story-lines, but the world of the story is gradually on the mend, such that Ireland heals the problems of eastern Europe, and London heals the problems of Ireland.  Still, London cannot do without Ireland.  The promised land relies on the memory of the desert, and Ireland remains the novel’s anchor.

London is not the only promised land in the novel.  There is another place, further off, more sunny and perfect, represented both by Palestine and the utopian “fifth province” of Irish legend.  But while characters do make aliyah, Palestine does not appear in the novel;  it does not, as it were, take the stage—a fact underlined by the fate of Moshe’s play about the “fifth province,” a play that is never published or produced.   But even London in this novel is a bit of a pipe dream.  Ireland is what matters.  We know that Ireland is the desert for many reasons besides its place in Gilligan’s Torah.  We know it because of Lady Gregory’s play, “The Deliverer,” a performance of which features in a notable scene.  We know it because Ireland is the font of meaning, the locus of stories.  And we know it because a Book is given there, an Irish guide to conversion to Judaism, a book that will take people and make them into Jews and thus a Torah within the Torah that is the novel, a book that brings revelation to several of the characters and to us.

A bit of plot is necessary here.  The first strand begins with the immigrants—Moshe, his wife, and their daughters Ruth and Esther—disembarking from the boat at Cork, which they have mistaken for New York.  The father, a playwright and inveterate story-teller, becomes a pedlar.  The family ekes out a living, and eventually hires an Irish servant, who also tells stories.  Ruth grows up, unloved but loving Ireland.  In her late 40s, she falls in love with a man named Alf, but after their first night together a Nazi bomb destroys her apartment, and each thinks the other has been killed.  Alf signs up to fight in WWII, loses his legs, and is eventually institutionalized. 

The second strand features Shem, who suffers from severe OCD that manifests as joyous but obsessive word-play, and an equally severe oedipus complex.  Shem is happy, but has two deep worries.  He has been traumatized by a rabbi’s discourse on the unforgivable sin of loshon ha’ra, and he has been unable to read what he believes is his mother’s diary.  The day before his Bar Mitzvah, he sees his mother holding hands with a man who is not his father.  He is silent at the bimah, and does not speak again, afraid that if he opens his mouth he will reveal his mother’s secret, damning her for adultery and himself for loshon ha’ra.  Institutionalized, he meets Alf, whose story he writes down. 

The third strand treats Aisling, who has moved from Ireland to London, where she has become a writer of obituaries.  She would like to marry Noah, but he cannot marry a non-Jew.  His parents give her a second-hand book on conversion, and, devastated, she leaves to spend Christmas with her family in Ireland where she reads the book. 

What holds the three story-strands together?  Linking the first and second is Ruth:  the daughter of Moshe becomes the lover of Alf, who becomes the friend of Shem.  Linking the second and third is a book:  for the book that Shem thought was his mother’s diary is actually the Irish guide to conversion, bought by Shem’s father for his mother, and rebought by Noah’s parents for Aisling.  On top of this, linking all three strands is a series of stories.  Moshe tells his stories to Ruth, Ruth tells them to Alf, Alf dictates them to Shem, Shem writes them down.  The prologue and epilogue show us Aisling visiting Shem, now living in a benevolent old folks’ home.  Aisling has traced Shem through the marginalia in the book, marginalia written by Shem’s mother.  From the same source Shem learns that the man her mother held hands with was his non-Jewish uncle, and that his silence has been meaningless.  Aisling gives Shem the Book, and in return he gives her all his writing.  Moshe’s stories, retold by Ruth and then by Alf, inscribed by Shem, are now the possession of Aisling.

This transition from word of mouth (Moshe-Ruth-Alf) to writing (Shem-Aisling) is another way the novel reflects a Torah:  what begin as oral stories are eventually written down.  And then there is the fact that the conversion book, the Torah within the Torah, also spawns writing, so that in addition to a transition from oral to written, we make a transition from text to commentary.  (Gilligan hammers this home by presenting us the marginalia as footnotes to her own text.)  Overarchingly we have a story of the failure to communicate which comes right.  Cork is mistaken for New York.  Moshe cannot understand the letter he receives from Lady Gregory.  Alf and Ruth lose one another.  Shem becomes mute because he is not allowed to read a book.  But the Book is read in the end, and the stories are preserved and written and read and retold, and commentary is salvific.  Shem’s silence is based in an untruth, but his OCD tells a truth.  He is right to think that words are the magic that holds everything together.

If word magic is to work, it must involve love, and particularly the love match of two languages or of two sets of stories.  An odd scene in the middle of the second strand is a key to this part of the novel’s meaning.  Ruth, working as a midwife, has become famous in the Jewish community for telling Irish stories to ease the birth process.  She records each birth in an official file, but she also keeps a private list in which she records not only name chosen by the parents but also the name secretly chosen by herself, a name from the story she told during the birth.  When an antisemite sets fire to her files, her secret list can reproduce the information.  The weaving of Jewish names and Irish names allows these births to be recorded again.  As Aisling’s reading of the Book—the Book’s second reading—will bring healing to the story cycle, so Ruth’s second text will bring rebirth to the babies.

Two more things, lightly interconnected.  One is the malignancy of water.  The ship bring Moshe’s family to the wrong country.  Ruth’s sister Esther buys another ticket to America but her ship sinks.  Moshe goes swimming and dies.  Ruth is swimming while the bomb falls on her apartment.  To enter water is to lose or to drown.  At best water promises but does not deliver.  There are baptisms that do not take;  miracle immersions that do not cure.  Water does not belong in God’s desert. 

The second thing is the prevalence of animal stories, notably of rats, bees, and swans.  All of these are binding stories—stories of love—but the rats and bees injure even as they hold things together.  The swans, though, enact a transformation over the years.  They enter in one of Moshe’s story fragments about a man who makes paper animals and one day decides to fold his wife in the same way, breaking every bone in her body.  They continue in a story Ruth invents about a man who digs up a paper swan which comes to life.  They close in the paper swans that Noah makes for Aisling, and in a pair of real swans she sees.  Swans are folded into Gilligan’s novel, and perhaps go some way toward redeeming the water.  But nine?  What are the nine folds?


I said that reviews can’t analyze because analysis has to spoil the plot.  But every single review of the new episode of Sherlock (4.1) revealed the surprise ending and not one of them offered any analysis.


Jonathan Lethem has sold Yale University a great many pictures of vomiting cats for an “undisclosed amount of money.”  This is why the academic enterprise deserves to die.

Palin on the blood libel

I thought I’d never blog again, but Z’s just sent along his thoughts on Sarah Palin and the blood libel, and finally I have something worth saying.  Or he does, really, but I’m going to say it for him.

It is of course possible that Palin’s speech writers pulled the image our their bag of paranoid rhetoric without much thought.  But it’s unlikely, since analysis reveals that the image actually works brilliantly.  The first layer of unpacking shows that she’s using all the implications of the original with the Christians and Jews reversed, such that in the blood libel

(a) Christians falsely accuse (b) Jews of (c) a conspiracy to kill a Christian

and in Palin’s version

(a) Democrats — who, as we all know are mostly Jews, headed up by a Black (=Muslim) falsely accuse (b) Palin, who = Christians of (c) a conspiracy to kill Giffords, who is a Jew

which basically comes down to

(a) Jews falsely accuse (b) Christians of (c) a conspiracy to kill a Jew.

So far so good.  Palin is the honest Jew, falsely accused of murder and conspiracy.  But let’s go on to layer number two.  This involves the simple fact that the blood libel is false —  in fact, it’s more than false:  it represents malicious and enduring Christian hatred of Jews.  If there’s anything like an actual conspiracy at work in the blood libel, it’s a conspiracy on the part of the Christian leadership to malign Jews.

Now, translate that into the Palin version.  Not only is there no Republican-Christian conspiracy to kill Democrats-Muslims-Jews;  on the contrary, there is a conspiracy on the part of the Demoratic-Jewish-Muslim leadership to malign Republican-Christians.

St. Paul already said the Christians were the true Jews, the legitimate children of Abraham, while actual physical Jews were false Jews, the illegitimate children.  Palin’s role reversal therefore has roots in the origin of her tradition, even deeper than the blood libel itself.  Rhetorically, it’s a beautiful thing.

Childhood confusions

I am trying to write, and as a result I’m craving diet coke.  I’ve only just realized that I associate diet coke with writing.  When I’m working on an article I can drink 5 or 6 a day.  When I’m not writing I don’t drink it and I don’t want it.

My mother is remembering things on her blog, things about her elementary school.  Well worth reading.  One thing I remember is that my mother used to treat cigarettes the way I treat diet coke.  I never saw her smoking, but when I knocked on her study door and she opened it, great thick clouds of smoke would billow out.  How did she do it?  How did she not smoke in the evenings after supper?  But maybe the desire to smoke drove her into her study once my brother and I were in bed.  So the cigarettes helped with work in two ways.

My mother writes: “I never understood what I was supposed to be doing at school. Sometimes people would say to me, Janet, you should try harder. I’d get my homework or assignment, and do it. What else was required?”

This makes me laugh.  I remember my grade six teacher telling us that we had to read 25 books over the course of the year.  We were supposed to write the titles on an index card.  In December she called me in for a special meeting.  Why hadn’t I been reading for the last two months?  Was something wrong at home?  But of course I had been reading.  I’d just stopped filling out titles after reaching the required 25.  I’d done what she asked;  it didn’t occur to me to do more.

Spring cleaning for Tom and Mole (12)

So here is what happened.  I blogged about Jonathan Petropoulos’s dealings with the Pissarro and the Nazi.  People, mostly strangers, left comments.  A man got in touch with me and, as a result of our conversation, I added an update.  A second man then got in touch with a third man, who got in touch with a woman, who got in touch with me, telling me that to make things okay with the second man I should go and speak to a  fourth man.  I did that.  And afterwards, I unpublished the post.  Anyone who wishes to speak to me about the matter is welcome to get in touch.

But there was one discussion in my original post that I want to preserve, having to do with the way institutions try to hush scandals up by repressing information;  I want to preserve this discussion, and – unsurprisingly, considering the brief account I’ve just given of my own involvement — to stress it.  The institution in this case is Claremont McKenna College, which hired lawyers and experts to investigate the situation, lawyers and experts who traveled to Europe delving, one assumes, into every aspect of the case, lawyers and experts who produced a report exonerating Petropoulos, a report which has not been released to the public.  But my thoughts are by no means confined to CMC.  I’ve seen many institutions act this way.

Why hush it up?  Because the story behind Petropoulos’s involvement with the Nazi is incredibly complicated: lots of details spanning 20 years, lots of deception, lots of players.  The institution probably believes that were it to release the report, people would grab onto bits of it, misrepresent the case, drag the scandal up again and again;  they probably believe that even if they could defend themselves and Petropoulos adequately against every charge, some taint would remain.  I can understand this.  It’s true that people are more likely to remember that there was an accusation of wrong-doing than that it was disproved, even with the information under their noses.  But this holds all the more so when you cover it up.  If you refuse to release the information, people will know there was an accusation and won’t have access to facts they can weigh for themselves.  CMC has made the wrong choice.

By the way, this is the first time I’ve given a post a cryptic title.  I’ll try to do it more often in future.  A bottle of wine will be awarded the first correct solution.

My head space, catalogued in poetry

There are too many things to do.
The too many things to do are all individually meaningless.
I don’t know what the things to do are.
Other people who do know don’t care; but they want me to care with better doublethink than they need to show.
I want to do all these things better than anyone else.
I don’t want to do any of them.
I have things of my own I want to do.
I don’t know what those things are.
I don’t want to do those things either.
The things I have to do are preventing me from doing the things I want to do, or even knowing what those things are.
I care about (some) students and (some) colleagues and want them to care about me.
I can’t muster the energy to do anything about it.

This is mostly written by Z, in response to a request for a new analysis of my current malaise. It seems to be working. As is a gift from the same source: The Lost Tales of H.H. Munro, finally available in book form. Ya gotta laugh.

Late at night

I have so much to say and no time to say it.  Everyone wants a piece of me.  Could someone please remind me why I agreed to be chair?  Oh yes!  I had no choice.  And as soon as my slightly junior colleague gets tenure — haw haw — it’s hers. Payback for those nice departmental letters.  Meanwhile, I pay for mine.

All I want to say now is boo hiss to anyone who is too snobby to admit that Puccini is the master.  Too crowd pleasing, they say.  Too sentimental.  What absolute rot!  I sit alone in the evenings, listening to Madame Butterfly, and I cannot get over it.  A world where this didn’t exist would be ridiculously poorer.


Where did the summer go? I was just getting set to blog on how baggage handlers stole 150$ worth of plamobil from my suitcase on the way to Canada — more fool me for putting it in a ziplock bag — when I see it’s time to start packing to go back to California. Maybe it’s because it rained the whole summer. Time passes strangely in the rain. I always feel like I’m waiting for something.

Whatever it is, I’ve certainly been a little out-of-it the past few weeks. This morning, for instance, I got to the supermarket, pulled out my list, and noticed that one of the five items I’d written down to buy was “shopping.”

Free-range kid?

I don’t understand why some people complain about the bad language the kids pick up in the car. There is nothing more likely to give me a spurt of joy than hearing Eila holler out from the backseat, MOVE ALONG YOU BASTARDS, THE LIGHT IS GREEN! It’s so frolicsome. I get a kick out of just knowing how much she’s enjoying herself.

Which reminds me of something I just read: bad mom/ good mom quoting Roger Ebert on how children are overly sheltered these days and why can’t we all run through ravines in thunderstorms any more and all that. I totally agreed with everything, until I was thrown for a loop by this:

…we boys would pee behind trees, shrubbery, or garages (“If you run home, your mom might grab you and make you do something”). I forgot to mention that one of the reasons we needed to pee is that when we got thirsty we drank out of garden hoses–our own, and anybody else’s.

Whoa. Do boys not pee behind shrubbery anymore? Because I pee behind shrubbery, and Eila pees behind shrubbery. And when did the memo come out about the garden hoses? We are drinking out of hoses all the time! Are we going to come down with some grotesque disease? Is there a difference between the hose and the tap?

I’m serious. I’ve got the rest of Ebert’s over-protective-lament list covered. Child car seats: check! Bike helmets: check! Bottled water: check! Security guards: I don’t hire my own, but I’m good with them, so check! Sunblock: check! Hand sanitizer: okay, no, unless we’re at the petting zoo, but in that case, check! And childproof bottles: Eila can open them, but sure the house is full of them, so check! But what is this with peeing and hoses? I guess maybe I am raising a free-ish-range kid.

A loosely connected thought. I’ve just completed my annual reading of Pride and Prejudice and my new insight – which seems to me breathtaking though it only concerns me – is that I like Lydia Bennet. Not that I’d want to be Lydia, or even spend much time with her, and not that she could ever replace Lizzie in my heart. I’ll admit she’s pretty stupid. But she is so tremendously good-humoured, and she breezes through life with such a savage sense of fun. And even her narcissism is so unconscious — so artless Austen would say — as hardly to be narcissism at all. She’s like a puppy or something, and who doesn’t like a puppy?

Other new interests (or addictions) around here? Eila: poptropica. Me: Jonathan Goldstein.


I’m very busy:  trying to get two papers written for delivery at the end of the month and prepare for the summer.  I would guess most people are busy at the moment.  But right now I have a singular complaint.  The day before I’m hosting a birthday for twelve children at my house is NOT a good time for the construction guys to break a gas main, leaving me with no hot water and no stove.