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Philadelphia Story

February 15, 2007 By:
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This is how Fredrica Wagman's first novel, Playing House, published back in 1973, begins:

"Can't concentrate. My mind is wandering over him crouched on top of me, over his shoulders to a summer day again, always back to then when a room was filled with sun gold, when the walls were white, when the window glass was crystal clear and there was sunshine always dancing on the floor. Heavy brown silk rugs made a border all around the bed where he pinned me there and said that if I told he'd beat me with the branches of the tree and I never told, no matter what he did. I never told, he was my brother."

This strange opening, so shocking in its raw details, is much like the brief, brilliant novel that follows it, a work that should have made Wagman, a Philadelphia-area native now residing in New York, a household name. But for some reason I can't quite explain, the book dropped from sight.

And this was not from want of others trying to make a name for Wagman. Playing House, a passionate cry of a book about a desperate sexual relationship between a sister and brother, gave rise to an equally fascinating essay that sang its praises, by (not too surprisingly) Philip Roth. This was the post-Portnoy's Complaint Roth, who knew of what he spoke. He published the piece on Wagman and her debut novel in Esquire -- quite a visible national venue -- as part of an essay introducing young writers to the American public. He even republished the piece in his first essay collection Reading Myself and Others.

There, Roth wrote: "It would appear from Playing House that the prohibition forbidding sibling incest is designed primarily to protect impressionable children against sex thrills so intense, and passionate unions so all-encompassing and exclusive, that life after the age of 12 can only be a frenzy of nostalgia for those who have known the bliss of such transgression. It is surely not the loss of childhood's famous innocence that unleashes this dazed outpouring from a young woman who was, as a girl, her sadistic, bullying brother's little mistress. Wagman's nameless heroine madly yearns to recapture her past, but not so she can dwell once more in the pure, untainted world of a Phoebe Caulfield, Holden's saintly kid sister in The Catcher in the Rye. Rather, some 20 years after Salinger's famous novel depicting adolescence as the fall from prepubescent grace, it is the lost corruption of childhood that is elegized and the passing of a little girl's erotic frenzy that is wretchedly mourned."

Back in the Running
Despite all the marvelous things Roth said -- much of it as iconoclastic as the novel he was praising -- Playing House never became the famous book it deserves to be. Perhaps it was too raw, too abrasive in its style and preoccupations for even a post-Portnoy audience to endure. Playing House has lost none of its startling verve in the three decades since it first appeared and deserves a place in the pantheon of recent American fiction, if simply for its daring.

Wagman went on to write three other novels, all of them noteworthy and all graced with marvelous stretches of writing, but none with the same dangerous premise that was true of Playing House. Until now, that is. The voice in Wagman's novels has always been their most distinctive quality, and that is what His Secret Little Wife, recently published by Steerforth Press, shares with her first. The subject -- a sexual relationship between a young child and an older man -- is, obviously, another point of commonality.

His Secret Little Wife tells the story of 11-year-old Hannah Elizabeth Gold, a precocious child who, even at her young age, is an accomplished cellist. When the book begins, her world is turned upside down as the famous composer and conductor of the Philadelphia Philharmonic, the charismatic Otto von Ochsenstein, and his family move in next door to the Golds. Hannah is dazzled by all of the Ochsensteins -- the maestro, particularly. She is aware of his accomplishments and stands in awe of him.

But there is also his wife, the ballerina Charlotte Hec, who is so beautiful she is difficult to look at. And luckiest for Hannah, this fascinating artistic couple has a daughter, Juliet, and the two girls become fast friends. The proximity to Juliet soon brings Hannah even closer to the great genius of the family and his splendid wife.

His Secret Little Wife may not begin on the high, jagged note that Playing House does, but the voice that greets us has much in common with the earlier narrator:

"They lived next door ... on the other side of the high green privet hedge that separated their world from ours ... the first time I saw him he was standing on their terrace looking into our garden through binoculars -- enormously tall and thin with very white skin and no hair, not even then, not one hair on his long bald head, making him completely colorless as though he were a statue -- Otto von Ochsenstein! -- the world-famous composer, pianist and the famed conductor of the Philadelphia Philharmonic, then, the great-est symphony orchestra in the world."

"In those days, blinded by youthful awe and by the agonizing mistake that there are such people among us who are better -- greater ... more deserving ... everything on their side of those high green hedges that separated their lawn from ours seemed as though it were from a completely different planet -- so different in fact, that to push my way through and cross over onto their property was to cross into another world ... a wild, resplendent world extreme in a variety of such astonishing ways as to be completely terrifying ... extreme in the genius of the world-famous conductor Otto von Ochsenstein and the aristocracy of intellect that that world reflected ... extreme in wealth and fame and celebrity and the enormous power that came with it ... ."

Soon, von Ochsenstein is looking through his binoculars into Hannah's bedroom at night after he's returned from leading the Philharmonic. Then a game of sexual teasing begins between child and adult. It goes on, night after night, until it leads to a full-blown affair.

Because Hannah is so talented, her famous neighbor takes her under his wing, proclaiming her a "genius." He provides her with special tutelage, and Hannah begins to travel with the Philharmonic, even to Europe, where she performs for grateful audiences -- and does tricks for her mentor as well.

But in time, von Ochsenstein draws away from her, and Hannah comes to realize that she is not this man's first "secret little wife." In fact, there have been many before her -- for one, the woman who's been teaching her cello at the maestro's insistence -- and more will follow after her reign is concluded.

Wagman renders the musical locale of her story, as well as the Philadelphia ambiance (both city and suburb), with exactitude. She plays off all sorts of myths and tales that have swirled around the Philadelphia Orchestra, and she has clearly created von Ochsenstein (in terms of his physical presence) with Leopold Stokowski in mind -- and it all works beautifully.

Not that the book is flawless. One problem is that Hannah's pal, Juliet, is never developed as a character; she's a deus ex machina, a way for Hannah to get into the von Ochsenstein household. And often you wonder why no one, even by chance, stumbles upon von Ochsenstein at his window lewdly trying "to seduce" Hannah -- whether it's someone having a restless night or a neighbor walking the dog. But the voice that rules over the narrative gets the reader over these bumps so that nothing stops the powerful flow of Hannah's distinctive, compulsive story.

And while this voice may not be as urgent as the one that drives Playing House, the tone here never falters, and the story being told is, in its basics, compelling and just as shocking as its predecessor.

There's a blurb on the back of His Secret Little Wife that may point to why Wagman's books are so disturbing. "It is Lolita who tells the story here," notes scholar Carla Locatelli. We are used to these tales of illicit desire told from a male viewpoint -- Humbert Humbert and his obsession with Lolita. It's uncomfortable to have it switched: a young voice speaking of such intense longing, whether it's the desire for physical intimacy or the wish to be close to the seat of real power, both of which drive Hannah to submit to her "master." Her viewpoint is one that Western civilization doesn't like to acknowledge. Female lust, so baldly stated, has always made people -- no matter their gender -- squirm. Such honesty is as frightening as it is rare.



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