Waiting in the Snow for a Phone Call, Mixing Memory and Desire

INVERNO, by Cynthia Zarin

I once taught a seminar for graduate fiction writers called A Poet’s Prose. The reading list consisted of prose works written by distinguished contemporary poets. I was surprised to find that several students had registered for the course because they considered their own writing poetic. I was less surprised to find that what they meant by poetic was exactly the kind of strained, showy language I’d hoped exposure to writers with a poet’s essential skills would improve. I wanted my students to read good poets’ prose for the same reason I kept encouraging them to read poetry: to learn how effective concision of language, meticulous use of detail and sensitivity to cadence can be.

Were I teaching this course today I would include “Inverno,” the first novel by the poet Cynthia Zarin. I would in fact recommend this book to any reader for whom a chief pleasure to be found in literature is beautiful sentences. The elegance and incantatory power of Zarin’s prose, along with her virtuosity at observation, are undeniable, but, like many original works, “Inverno” resists easy description.

Central to the novel is a love story, one that, like most love stories, is at once simple and terribly complicated. (It also reminded me of an old piece of advice: The best way to write a love story is to keep the lovers apart as much as possible.) The narrator has a riveting, lyrical voice and a deliberately digressive but expertly controlled style. Now and then she addresses a “you,” who at times responds or comments on the narrative itself. Some of the brief exchanges between the two are in (often untranslated) Italian.

Inverno is the Italian word for winter, and the novel begins with a woman named Caroline standing in the snow in Central Park. She is waiting for Alastair, a man she first came to love 30 years before, to return her phone call. It is freezing. Apparently, “when Caroline thinks about Alastair it is always freezing.” She is obsessed with Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” in which a girl sets out to save her beloved friend from the evil queen, who has carried him off and entrapped him on a frozen lake. Caroline’s self-destructive lover also needs saving — from alcoholism, among other evils — but early on we are told that “there was no saving Alastair.” As for saving herself, Caroline rejects more than one man who might replace Alastair “because she could not abide anyone for very long who did not break her heart.”

“The Snow Queen” is one of several stories — from literature, film or other sources — that Zarin uses to amplify and enrich her own tale of brokenheartedness and incurable longing. Another of Caroline’s obsessions is the character Etta Place in the film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” who tells her lover, Sundance, that she’ll do anything he wants except watch him die: “I’ll miss that scene, if you don’t mind.” Some version of this line is cited by Caroline often enough to become a kind of mantra. The novel is structured so that not only certain lines but key scenes — such as the opening one in Central Park — appear again and again, as does a diverse array of objects, among them a fur hat and fur boots, a penknife, a life preserver, telephones, mirrors and rowan branches.

The many repetitions and recursive loops emphasize how keenly the past haunts Caroline. She ruminates on memories going back as far as childhood in the hope of getting at the truth about her life. What really happened? is a question that rings throughout. But “the truth changes as she gets hold of it, like a kite or a snake; it does not like to be held, it thrashes.” Another recurring question is how Caroline’s story ought to be told — a task that, for the narrator, comes to feel increasingly like a matter of survival. “Now it is later in the evening and I am typing at night,” she writes. “I am beginning to feel that time is running out, and that I am running after a light in the dark, the way you might run after a car, helplessly, which is rolling down the drive.”

Love and time. Each is commonly said to have the power to heal, but “Inverno” is all about that other power they share: to annihilate. As the narrator finds herself “running behind something or someone that is leaving forever,” the reader finds herself slowing down, the better to savor Zarin’s allusive, evocative prose. To see the chaos of suffering shaped into something beautiful is one of the main reasons we turn to art. There is not a banal sentence or purple patch to be found in this book, which only a poet could have written.

INVERNO | By Cynthia Zarin | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | 132 pp. | $25

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