Nachman by Leonard Michaels, 1998
The magic trick:
The remarkable supporting character of Marie
Get ready for Nachman Week here on the SSMT blog. Leonard Michaels wrote seven stories near the end of his life about this strangely normal mathematician from Los Angeles named Nachman. I picked up the collection at the library after enjoying the Nachman story, “Cryptology,” on an episode of Selected Shorts. Little did I know, “Cryptology” would arguably be the weakest of the bunch. These are not simply enjoyable stories. I think they may rank among my all-time favorites as far as single-character series go.
So it begins with the title story. Nachman arrives in Europe for a job but, more interestingly for the sake of the narrative, is hunting up family ghosts from the Holocaust. Marie, the state-appointed guide, is a remarkable character. She functions as both a driver of Nachman’s internal wrangles and a reaction against them. Their interactions – as most of the conversations Nachman has with everyone in these stories seem to be – are both intimate and distanced. Through her the reader is able to see that Nachman’s search for family validation is fool-hearty, a little rude and almost certainly doomed to disappoint. But it is Marie, whose own longing for a return to religion and community, that simultaneously shows the reader that the desire for that kind of connection to something larger than one’s self is admirable, even vital.
That’s getting a lot of mileage out of a supporting character! And that’s quite a trick on Michaels’s part.
Marie said they could walk after breakfast from the hotel to the ghetto. She added, as they left the hotel, “On the way, we can see an ancient church. Many visitors ask to go there.”
Like the consul, she was telling him where to go, but she seemed less personal and intrusive. Nachman didn’t object.