The Sunday Edition

Helen Weinzweig's 'interior feminist espionage novel' about illicit love

In episode two of The Backlist, a series about Canadian novels that have fallen out of public memory — or never got the attention they deserved in the first place — writer Sarah Weinman discusses Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig.
Sarah Weinman wrote the afterword for Helen Weinzweig's Basic Black With Pearls. (NYRB Classics/Penguin Random House; Knopf Canada)
Listen23:31

Welcome to episode two of The Backlist, a series about Canadian novels that have fallen out of public memory — or never got the attention they deserved in the first place.

The protagonist of Helen Weinzweig's 1980 novel Basic Black with Pearls has all the trappings of a respectable housewife. She wears — as the title suggests — a simple black dress, a string of pearls, and a tweed coat from Holt Renfrew.

But her clothing functions as a kind of mask, covering up an illicit love and a thirst for adventure.

Shirley Kaszenbowski spends her days wandering around Toronto searching for her married lover — a shadowy figure named Coenraad, who leaves her clues about their next meeting in The National Geographic.

Can we take seriously the perspectives of women who might seem to be on the precipice between sanity and madness, but actually have so much more to tell all of us?- Sarah Weinman

Writer Sarah Weinman describes Basic Black with Pearls as an "exploration of what it is to be a woman of advancing years who still has independence, who still has agency, who still has desire, who still has feelings, who is not subsumed by the domestic trappings that she may be caught up in, but actually has a thrilling and imaginative life."

As the novel progresses, it becomes less and less clear whether the affair is real, and whether Kaszenbowski is in the grips of psychosis.

Weinman said the novel is an invitation to listen more closely to someone society treats as invisible.

"Can we take seriously the perspectives of women who might seem to be on the precipice between sanity and madness, but actually have so much more to tell all of us?" she said.

In episode two of The Backlist, Weinman spoke to The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright about the life and work of Helen Weinzweig — a writer who grappled with questions of gender, power, marriage, ambition, and illicit love in both her fiction and her personal life.

'What do I do with my life?'

Weinzweig was born in Poland and immigrated to Canada when she was ten years old. She grew up in a low-income Jewish neighbourhood in Toronto with a single mother.

As a young woman, she married John Weinzweig, who became a famous Canadian composer.

"I chose the traditional route of marriage and motherhood because I wanted to be accepted by the world around me. Why that was so had a lot to do with my mother," she said in a 1985 interview. "She refused to follow the path of other women … I decided I would be respectable, and became moreso than Caesar's wife."

For decades, much of her life revolved around supporting John's musical career and raising their children. But at age 45, she became depressed.

"I reached that stage in life that I think a lot of people do, called un-directional crisis. What do I do with my life now? Didn't have to work, the kids were growing, husband busy," she told Shelagh Rogers in a 1990 interview.

Helen Weinzweig spoke to Shelagh Rogers in 1990. 1:16

"I went to a psychiatrist and said, 'What do I do with my life?' It didn't take her very long to set me straight. 'You take charge of your life', or something like that."

The only thing Weinzweig felt she was skilled at was reading, but she felt like she'd already read everything.

"So I started to try to create my own words," she told Rogers.

Marriage, power and illicit love

Sarah Weinman first heard of Basic Black with Pearls when it was reissued by House of Anansi in 2015. While writing the afterword for The New York Review of Books' 2018 reissue of the novel, she read some of Weinzweig's diaries and letters, which are housed at the University of Toronto.

"She wrote a lot about this sense of indifference that she felt at home, from John — but also that she fell into that mask herself, as a coping mechanism," said Weinman.

"So there would be entries relating to them sitting at home reading, and she would try to tell him something, and he just wouldn't respond at all."

She was writing to some degree a parallel, but also an alternate version, of what she herself was going through.- Sarah Weinman

Weinzweig had an on-and-off-again affair for many years, with a man believed to be the model for Shirley Kaszenbowski's lover Coenraad. But unlike Shirley, who left her husband and children, Helen stayed married to John for the rest of their lives. 

"She was writing to some degree a parallel, but also an alternate version, of what she herself was going through," Weinman said.

The affair in Basic Black with Pearls is electrifying, but it's also achingly painful.
Basic Black with Pearls is the 1980 novel by Helen Weinzweig. (House of Anansi Press)

"What seems thrilling and exciting to begin with — she's traveling, she's feeling the incandescent excitement — eventually it just devolves into the ennui of waiting for a lover that never shows up again and again, who lets you down, who can't be there for you when you most need him," said Weinman. 

"I really commend Weinzweig for exploring this, that it's not just some wine and roses type of thing — that there's real pain."

Weinman said the novel requires careful attention and can be disorienting, but it's worth persevering.

"The idea that a middle-aged woman, one who is so often cast aside or ignored or overlooked, might be at the center of the narrative — that still, almost 40 years later, feels quite radical as a narrative exercise," she said.

Click 'listen' above to listen to the interview. In episode 3 of The Backlist, Michael Enright will speak to George Elliot Clarke about Austin Clarke's 1997 novel The Origin of Waves. 

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