Freezing From The Inside

LOST WEDDINGS by Maria Beig, Translated by Peter Blickle and Jaimy Gordon, New York: Persea Books, 143 pp., $17.95 `READ is not lived,'' thunders one of Maria Beig's characters. True enough. But read is as close as any of us would care to get to the life endured by the four women of this unsentimental novel set in rural southern Germany from World War I to the end of World War II.

The soil of this region may be fertile, but social relations are sterile and harsh for those who do not take root in the area's restrictive traditions. Women are expected to marry. Should they fail to do so, they can look forward to a life that echoes the Book of Job: ``days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and are spent without hope.''

In four terse chapters Beig recounts the life histories of Babette, Helene, Klara, and Martha, unmarried women who are slowly eased from the network of family and friends. Having lost the possibility of a wedding, they have also loosened the bonds that tether them to the community. The novel's German title, ``Hochzeitlose,'' carries the triple sense of loosening, loss, and hopelessness. Rich or poor, successful or bungling, these women cannot overcome the chill of exclusion. Despite their persistent efforts to seek the warmth of interpersonal relations, each suffers what Helene describes as the ``constant sense of freezing from the inside.''

Cut off from what they need, they inaugurate pathetic ritual substitutes. Babette creates her own sanctuary and says Mass. Helene develops a mania for marriage and birth announcements. Klara and Martha seek shelter in the dictates of urban fashion.

In the retelling, this sounds like the script of a three-hanky movie. But Beig's writing is as hard-bitten and blunt as an Army manual. She wastes no words. Lives are condensed into compact sentences: ``In all her life, Helene had three good times.'' Wars and decades pass by between a single comma. There are no tear stains on these pages - and none are invited.

Beig's novels have enjoyed success - and considerable notoriety - in Germany. Surely some measure of their repute results from the fact that Beig, a retired knitting teacher, wrote her first story when she was almost 60. Her austere style is packed with the sophisticated metaphors and sly symbols that one might expect from an author with a formal education and ties to the literary establishment. But it is the sting her work delivers that prompted audiences to call her a Nestbeschmutzer (a soiler of the nest) and that has earned her work the most attention.

Beig's simple prose takes repeated aim at the German longing for Heimat, the nostalgia for home and homeland so tainted by Nazi sloganeering. As her able translators point out, she returns Heimat to the Germans, but for a steep price. Beig does not so much chasten the desire for Heimat as enlarge it. In the landscape of mist-shrouded mountains, lederhosen, and dirndl skirts, she points to an unjust burden placed on Babette, Helene, Klara, and Martha.

Certainly Beig's strategy is calculated to tweak German sensibilities, but her writing has a more universal appeal. In her hands, these simple stories swell to the scale of sagas. Better still is the glimpse at the process of fiction-making that this novel reveals. Maria Beig lived her first 30 years in the punishing psychic precinct of her characters. The risks and rewards of transforming that terrain into fiction are an integral, though silent, part of her work.

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