A lost feminist classic — and winner of the Toronto Book Award — reissued to coincide with the 35th anniversary of publication.
In her yearning, elusive search for a lover, Shirley Kaszenbowski sheds her drab “basic black” existence together with torturous memories of guilt and loss as a Jewish immigrant in Toronto.
Shirley Kaszenbowski, née Silverberg, is a middle-aged, middle-class woman in a Holt Renfrew tweed coat, a basic black dress, and a strand of real pearls. She may seem ordinary enough, pricing silk scarves at Eaton’s or idling in hotel coffee shops, but in fact she is searching for her lover. He is an elusive figure, a man connected with “The Agency,” a powerful technocrat who may or may not have suggested a rendezvous based on a secret code in the National Geographic.
Her search takes her to the world of her past as a Jewish immigrant in the Spadina-Dundas area of Toronto. She finds the bakeries and rooming houses of her youth still haunted by survivors of postwar Europe and by her own memories of guilt and loss, while the consolations of art, opera, and pornography offer only echoes of her own illusions and desires. Her strange, wryly funny odyssey ends in a dramatic confrontation scene with her husband and “the other woman,” as she trades in her basic black for another chance.
In Basic Black with Pearls, Weinzweig displays her gift for creating sympathetic characters in a slightly surreal, but always recognizable world.
Celebrated in Canada as a feminist classic, Weinzweig's (1915 2010) searing 1980 novel captures a woman's awakening to her lover's exploitation. A woman using the alias Lola jets from city to city, following the clues Coenraad leaves behind in copies of National Geographic to indicate the sites of their glamorous rendezvous. But when Lola arrives in Toronto their next destination and the city she ostensibly resides in there is no National Geographic awaiting her arrival. Desperate, she follows clues from a botany article she's been handed by a hotel clerk instead, and these lead her on a tour of the "shabby streets of my youth." She stumbles onto a sweatshop owned by a Holocaust survivor, a Yiddish-speaking baker, and performers rehearsing an opera. Each fanciful encounter sparks "blows of memory" that reveal the facts of her life she sought to leave behind: her marriage, her Jewish heritage, the poverty of her upbringing. Her long-delayed acknowledgment that "Coenraad was not coming" drives Lola to seek out her abandoned home and confront the woman who replaced her in her former life. Though the ending may be a let-down to some, Weinzweig's prose style is sharp, particularly her dialogue: strange and surprising, it knocks every character interaction askew.