In Ava (1993), you throw us inside the mind of a dying woman. We are there, minute by minute, while it all happens. However, we cannot see anything very clearly – we can only follow its rhythm. Rather than a linear collection of images flashing before our eyes, the novel reads more like a song. Ava’s swansong: “I feel my light dying”.
The book is a record of everything that goes on the mind of Ava Klein on her last day alive. Ava, a 39-year-old professor of comparative literature, is dying of a rare blood cancer. As she sits in her hospital bed, her mind wanders through a myriad of memories – love, friendship, travels, literary criticism, war, her three husbands, her career and her favourite authors.
The narrative is structured in short, fragmented, loosely connected sentences. Ava’s imminent death is the vague thread weaving everything together. Mirroring the disjointed thoughts of a dying woman, the narrative drifts between past and present, dream and reality, in a collage of recurring images that revolve around each other. We have no linear plot; the most we can do is to briefly spot some of the defining events in Ava’s life, as if in a haze – her first marriage with an older film director; their mutual infidelities; her lost baby; the death of her second husband; the history of a family who faced Treblinka; her literary fondness for Nabokov, Borges, Beckett, Max Frisch, among many others.
The book reads like a prose-poem: it’s all about the voice here. Spare sentences are woven in silence and blank space, unfolding in staccato fragments, as if circling around the unspeakable thing from where those sentences are springing – Ava’s death, or her ever increasing closeness to it. You use repetition and amplification, layering fragment upon seemingly unrelated fragment, to convey a dynamic portrait of our protagonist’s sentimental education, as well as to engage the reader in it. “If not birds, / than what are these winged hopes?”
Rather than stream of consciousness, the narrative reads like a string of beads: not a line, but a series of points joined together by a faint thread – “my mother singing a song that Samuel Beckett, waiting, hears across the sadness that is Europe.” As in an incantation, rhythm and content are constantly reshaping each other, much like Ada’s memories and her experience of dying are themselves transformed by one another. “Surely, you must somehow sense it: my heart / What happened to us, Francesco?/ Is breaking.”
The narrative, full of spectral references, blanks and in-between lines, has no clear beginning nor ending. This is a book whose borders we cannot feel nor reach – we are forever revolving in its in-between. Borderless, Ava’s voice mingles with that of her cherished authors, friends, lovers – and, also, with the readers’ voices, singing along. Ava’s swansong is not exactly an elegy, but rather a pagan celebration of life: together, we are singing the sun in flight, this rare bird, rara avis, our Ava – together, we are ravishing.
“After everything there is to be said,
Our lives still counted for something.
Beautiful flying things.” – Carole Maso, Ava
“Ava, he says, live. Where we might have gone together, I can’t go
This is what I would like
In the end, my parents standing at my bed, singing me gently into
As they sang me into life,
All I can hope for.
He says, Live, against a pulsing field of extraordinary music.
The more you look the less certain you are of what is going on.
I am afraid there might be war.
Memories blend. Memories fail in the end.
Pray the sound of bombs dropping does not become a kind of
I don’t want them to confuse the sounds of bombs dropping for
silence.” – Carole Maso, Ava
“Let us celebrate, while youth lingers, and ideas flow
And the seduction that is, that has always been language.” – Carole Maso, Ava
“So that the form takes as many risks as the content–
Come quickly, Ava. There are finches at the feeder.
And I am pulled toward the irresistible music of the end.
She loves finches. She fed a horse.
We create a language that heals as much as it separates.
You are dreaming, Ava Klein.
Three husbands. Comparative literature. I do not mean to be summing up.
You are a rare bird, Ava Klein.
Sing to me of lost things:
Chrysanthemum, almond tablet
Somewhere a young girl learns her alphabet.
So much is yet to be written–
There are so many things I would like–
The girl draws an A. She spells her name:
You are ravishing” – Carole Maso, Ava
“Tell them that you saw me–that it wasn’t far–from here to the nurses station and back, but that you saw me, and that I flew.” – Carole Maso, Ava
“The light in your eyes
One hundred love letters, written by hand.
And we listen to the music that is silence.” – Carole Maso, Ava
About the book
- Dalkey Archive Press, 1993, 274 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 4 stars