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Gabriella Goliger, Song of Ascent

Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2000
Carole Birkan
p. 103-106
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Gabriella Goliger, Song of Ascent, Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2000.

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Gabriella Golinger
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1Is Gabriela Goliger's début work Song of Ascent a novel or a collection of short stories? "Stories", the title page claims. In fact the narrative and poetic structures point the reader in both directions as this new Canadian writer explores the idea of lineage, both biological and cultural as well as religious. The central axis is the trajectory of a Jewish family, the Birnbaums, emigrating from Nazi Germany to the Holy Land and then to Canada. Interspersed are the stories of friends and relations who ended up in England, remained hidden in Germany or perished in the death camps. The book spans three continents, three generations and an infinite number of responses to Jewish experience and suffering.

2The book opens with Hannah Birnbaum's story "Breaking the Sabbath": in pre-war Germany, this young woman deserts her Orthodox father's home for a hike in the Giant Mountains. She is seen transgressing the Sabbath laws in order to meet with her Zionist friends. As she climbs the mountains, she almost communes with these secular Jewish people yet is drawn by the force of nature to carry on her journey alone. Singing old German lyric favourites, she feels at one with the fresh alpine air and pine trees but senses a glum premonition about her frail sister Edith, which pulls her back down to the city where trouble is pending.

3Already, the key motifs of ascending and descending are made to appear in a conspicuous and ominous way. Throughout the book, they will be developed further, as they are both contextualized and rooted in the Jewish tradition.

4The title "Song of Ascent" is taken from the Psalms, a translation of the Shir Hama'alot which is sung around the Jewish table before Grace ("the tedious Grace After Meals"(5-6) referred to in the first short story). Typically, it is traditionally sung on the Sabbath and holidays when Jews celebrate connection to their community and their Maker, whereas the everyday psalm "By the Waters of Babylon" laments the drama of exile. In this vein, in Hebrew, the process of moving to and out of the Holy Land are known as "ascent" (aliyah) and descent.

5In Goliger's book, ascent to Israel (then Mandatory Palestine), though a refuge for Hannah and her husband Ernst, proves problematic as Ernst finds the heat insufferable and decides to leave, leaving little choice for Hannah, a committed Zionist, to follow him to Canada.

6For Goliger, Ascent is not necessarily synonymous with connection, as the narrative repeatedly stresses. In may ways, the stories help to trace the itineraries of characters who belong to the same family, the same community or the same people but who tragically cannot connect. Goliger is subtle at showing that the impact of the Holocaust, however silenced for the first twenty years after the events happened, has to be dealt with later, both by the characters who survived under the Nazis and by their offspring. Here Goliger portrays Hannah and Ernst's daughter Rachel as the main sounding-board, fragile recipient but articulator of her parents' suffering. Only through her point of view, as a baby, a teenager and finally as a woman can we glimpse a certain continuity between the various stories in her family. She appears as the author's possible alter-ego, passionate about Jewish Studies, learning Yiddish, speaking German, recalling Israel her place of birth and negotiating with conflicting identities:

 "Jerusalem of Gold, Jerusalem of dust. Over the years I reconciled the two sets of stories, became adept at entwining their complementary strands." (20)

7In many ways, Song of Ascent is the embodiment of a literature of displacement and disconnection. The many narrative viewpoints woven into the text, the absence of a mature, unifying voice make this apparent. The three languages heard from one story to another also convey this. German, Yiddish and English are spoken by the various characters, with varying accents and idiosyncrasies. Goliger shows great sensitivity and talent at portraying the German characters' ties to their language, and their scorning of other tongues, especially Yiddish. One passage in the story "Maedele" shows this very eloquently. The central character here is Rachel, daughter of Hannah and Birnbaum, studying and having an affair with Blutstein, a great Yiddish poet who has survived the Holocaust:

" Both her parents look down their noses at Yiddish, bastardised German to their ears. To Rachel's too she has to admit. She tries to appreciate Blutstein's poetry which he recites in class and which she can half understand. But she can't get beyond the outlandish sounds, the vowels stretched out like fat wobbling bubbles in the air. A great language, yoking heaven and earth, the sacred texts and the common man, Blutstein tells her. But she is poisoned against it." (67).

8German ends up being a language which everyone in the family has stopped speaking except for Hannah and her daughter, and which links the two women in a world of their own, where the reader may glimpse a hint of lesbian eroticism in the scenes where Hannah, long disdained by her husband, begs Rachel to stroke her hair. It is worthwhile noting that male sexuality is completely disabled in this book, as well as the ability to provide lineage through love. Typically, in the book, women are the only guarantors of connection, ascent and lineage. The men are reduced to providing economic means of survival (Hannah's son becomes a successful businessman).

9For this is a book about survival. It has its place in the realm of powerful literature dealing with the Holocaust. It deals with the mourning of souls, with the death of a culture and with the next generation's fascination with horror. These themes are brought to a head in the final story, which dramatizes Kafka's ghost visiting the old Jewish graveyard in modern-day Prague. There he is greeted by a stern gatekeeper who asks for tickets. But the character of Kafka is not the only ghost without a ticket. The reader finally witnesses Thomas Birnbaum, Ernst's brother, with his wife and daughter, who did not escape. The little girl has "a coquettish finger on her chin, a pose copied no doubt from a favourite film star" yet the gatekeeper won't have them, not even today:

"What am I to do with these? […] "Armies of them pressed against the walls, mouths gaping in every crack. Long lineups in ditches and gutters among the country and everyone of them has a story, why he or she or their child should be allowed in. […] They'd overrun this place in a flash and spoil it for the visitors." (175-177)

10It is to Gabriela Goliger's credit to have written stories about the Holocaust from a twenty-first century perspective. She has created a series of fascinating characters, speaking with diverse voices, now strident, now hushed, but never completely jarring. Using the short story form to frame what could effectively be called a novel, she manages to conjure up a sense of history from these echoing, constellating tales. A poignant, gripping read.

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Référence papier

Carole Birkan, « Gabriella Goliger, Song of Ascent »Journal of the Short Story in English, 38 | 2002, 103-106.

Référence électronique

Carole Birkan, « Gabriella Goliger, Song of Ascent »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 38 | Spring 2002, mis en ligne le 03 juillet 2008, consulté le 28 mai 2024. URL :

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Carole Birkan

Maison Française d’Oxford, Université de Paris 7

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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