Helen Lowe-Porter in 1907

Set in Munich, Oxford, and Princeton, my new novel ANTICIPATION (excerpt below) is loosely based on the life of Helen Lowe-Porter, the translator of Thomas Mann and a writer in her own right. It’s the story of a brilliant woman’s struggle for her own voice against convention and the demands of the two male luminaries in her life.

Julia Field-Quinn’s translations of the great twentieth century German novelist Hermann Berg bring him acclaim from the English-speaking literary world—and the Nobel Prize. But her elegant, precise, painstaking work is overlooked by readers, ignored or criticized by reviewers. Berg himself complains about having a woman translator and pressures her to work faster. Julia swears that one day she’ll quit this servitude and finally finish her own novel.

Julia is married to the celebrated scholar Leon Field who claims the freedom to sleep with other women, citing his excessive “life force.” In love with her husband, Julia dreads but tolerates his romantic encounters. But when he seduces their daughter’s young friend she’s forced to reimagine her own future.

Helen Lowe-Porter was my grandmother-in-law. ANTICIPATION draws on papers that I inherited from her daughter Patricia Lowe, my mother-in-law. In addition to Julia, other characters parallel real people, including Mann, Einstein, and the Knopfs, Mann’s publishers who also published Helen’s one successful literary effort. But this is fiction and I’ve freely used the fiction writer’s license to imagine and invent.

ANTICIPATION is in the hands of my literary agent Michael Becker in Germany. He can be contacted at becker.verlagsberatung@t-online.de.

 

From ANTICIPATION:

The Happiest Day

The dinner bell jolted her. She must have dozed off again, sitting there on the floor with the sherry glass in her hand. Darkness had fallen. The glass was empty, fortunately. Julia twisted up to place it on the windowsill behind her, grimacing at her stiff neck. Someone knocked on the door to call her for dinner and she sent them away. She was not the least hungry. I must have eaten lunch, she thought—yes, and something quite substantial. Quite enough for one day. She hoisted herself to her feet with a grunt and switched on the light. The window was a square of cold blackness and seemed menacing. An abyss, which she could topple into if she wasn’t careful. She drew the heavy curtain. Pulling a shawl around her shoulders, she went to the bookshelf and took down her book, her own book, her darling play: the only one of her writings to find a real audience. She studied the photo on the cover. Yes, she remembered that actor, with his eyebrows like patches of fur and his voice like a bassoon, filling the theatre effortlessly. And that lovely grey-eyed woman. The silk and velvet Elizabethan costumes and the elaborate stage set, so beautifully lit. She pressed the book to her chest.

Warm now in her quiet room, Julia closed her eyes and summoned the sound of her iambic pentameter declaimed on that distant Irish stage:

Why, even a beast hath leave to choose his mate
And shall a king in his desire be balked?

The audience sighs and settles its multiple haunches into its multiple seats, ready to be stirred and shocked and entertained. Julia perches with family members in her special author’s box. Had she traveled all the way from New York? With Leon? No, Leon was not there. He came later, from Rome or Paris, distant but civil. She remembers sitting pink-cheeked with pleasure, watching the story unfold on the stage as if she herself had not written it. She is wearing an evening gown and feels secretly lovely, not seventy-two years old—her back feels straighter, her knees less stiff, her smile wide and easy. At the end the warm applause ascends to her like a thermal current, faces are upturned and happy, the actors gesture toward her magnificently from in front of the maroon velvet curtain, someone behind her—Rosalind? —pushes her to stand and bow, which she does with embarrassed delight. A blond child is there beside her, Kate, it must have been—an excited little girl in her best dress and a blue ribbon in her hair. The child holds her hand tightly. “Grandma!” she whispers, tugging so that Julia bends down to listen. “Look at that man!” and she points to a stout young man in the crowd below them casting extravagant kisses up to her, one after another, with both hands. Laughing, Julia blows a kiss back to him and Kate does too.

Afterwards there is a reception with champagne and fruit salad, flouting rationing—it’s only three years since the war’s end. (Which war, she asked herself, suddenly unsure. World War Two, it must have been—I was an elderly woman.) The actors and actresses circulate with their made-up faces, clownish at close quarters. The lead actor kisses her hand. She finds suddenly that she knows quite well how to be the distinguished playwright, a literary personage, as though she has rehearsed this role for a long time. It feels fitting. She makes a joke to two of the actresses—a risqué joke. They laugh, and she laughs with them. She drinks another glass of champagne.

“This is the happiest day of my life!” she bursts out to the son-in-law who has accompanied her. He looks down at her and she sees that he is taken aback by her exuberant remark, even disapproving. To him she is not the author covered with glory, but his wife’s mother, his children’s grandmother. She realizes what he is thinking: the happiest day of your life, Julia? What about your wedding? What about the births of your children and your grandchildren?

And then the reviews the next day, the critics generous with their praise, though with a note of condescension—“the diminutive authoress.” Exultant, she clips the reviews and sends them to the Watermans. A few days later they send adulatory reviews from the New York Times—“a riot of gorgeous, colorful splendor”– and the Christian Science Monitor. It is simply beyond her dreams, this recognition. She feels like a comet in unstoppable orbit. Now, she thinks, now it will start, the writer’s life that I have awaited for so long. Already she is flooded by ideas for stories, more plays, perhaps even another novel. To the voice that whines “But Julia, you are already so old!” she says “Age means nothing! Look at me! Look at what I’ve done, and how they love it!”

Julia sat on the bed holding her book. She was tired now and tempted to lie down. She had no idea what time it was. Once it was dark it made no difference to her.

She turned on the bedside lamp and opened the small book again. What a good job Howard Waterman had done, in spite of his reluctance. But not Howard himself, of course. It would have been his designers who rendered it so beautifully. Julia admired again the layout, the dignified typefaces, the many photos from the production, the way the book fell open and flat as it should. She avoided the back flap where she was described as a housewife who assisted her distinguished husband and found time to do translation on the side.

She read aloud:

Ah, gentle friend, betwixt that would and could
Stretcheth a flinty waste, where nothing grows
To keep such hope from starving overnight.

She stopped, listening to her voice hanging in the still night. A sense of fullness and repose sweetened her. I wrote this. I, Julia.