Thu
Feb 16 2012 1:00pm

You’re Forgiving WHAT?: Madeleine L’Engle’s A Severed Wasp

A Severed Wasp by Madeleine L’Engle

“I don’t wish to be defined by gender or genitals. I am a pianist.”

— Katherine Vigneras

Having written novels focused on the emotional angst of young and middle aged adults, in the 1980s Madeleine L’Engle set off to write something a little different: A Severed Wasp, the novel of an elderly woman coming to terms with her life. Set mostly in New York City, but with multiple flashbacks to Europe, the novel also functions as a little mini reunion of L’Engle characters, featuring Suzy Austin from the Austin novels; Dave Davidson from The Young Unicorns, and Mimi Oppenheimer from A Winter’s Love. (Philippa Hunter from And Both Were Young also gets a mention.) It is a novel of human pain, and our reactions to it, and how we might be able to survive.

And, despite its focus on a Manhattan cathedral, it does not quite provide the answer you might expect from L’Engle.

Katherine Vigneras is an atypical L’Engle protagonist, not merely because of her age, but because of her confidence in herself and her artistic skills. A deserved confidence: Katherine is a world renowned pianist who has traveled the world and made several critically acclaimed recordings. Music has become almost her entire focus, to the point where she thinks and reacts musically and is irritated when others do not. In a splendid moment, she is furious when the cathedral tells her that her planned concert will have to be moved to a larger venue to accommodate her popularity, since the tickets for the original venue have sold our and they intend to sell more. Rather than feel any thrill, she acidly points out that the change will entirely mess up the acoustics and thus the music she has chosen, meant for a smaller room. And then she immediately begins to plan for the larger room. Her focus on music has limited her knowledge of other things: she has apparently never, for instance, watched television or missed it.

She is also, unusually enough for a L’Engle heroine, often unlikeable, with her egotism and self-centeredness. In just one revealing moment, while she is thinking about her late husband Justin, she notes, “And he betrayed me by being castrated in one of the ‘medical experiments’ in Auschwitz.” And that kinda sums up Katherine right there.

At the same time, this egotism and her sharpness makes her one of L’Engle’s best realized characters, and the parts about growing old and accepting your life and its limitations feel very real indeed. I also love her response to a man who is trying to excuse cheating on his pregnant wife with a man by saying that men and women just have “different needs.”

At that, she looked at him with astonishment. “Good Lord, I thought that went out with the nineteenth century.”

Katherine has just enough self awareness to realize that she has failed others, and deeply, and this failure — particularly her relationship with her daughter, described movingly, troubles her, until she sits down at the piano. And for some reason, despite her egotism, occasional brashness, and fragility, pretty much everyone in New York City has decided to confide their problems to her. Perhaps because they realize once she’s at the piano, her main concerns will be acoustics, not them. Or because if Katherine is not always a sympathetic listener, she can provide nuggets of fierce wisdom, as whena woman complains to her that Manhattan will not allow women to be just women, they must also be something, a claim that Katherine — who is, after all, already something — emphatically rejects.

And wow, does everyone have a lot to confide: drug use, finding out their lawyer husbands are having affairs with hot men; child abuse by contemporary neo-Incan priests (complete with human child sacrifice!); the recent deaths of wives in childbirth; the nasty little story that the Bishop’s first wife is now a nun and his second wife is a pop star who was never going to be a great singer anyway, and LOTS MORE. I could not help remembering that L’Engle’s husband worked as an actor in soap operas for years; something of that seems to have bled through here.

A Severed Wasp by Madeleine L’Engle

Anyway, not everyone welcomes Katherine’s presence, as she begins receiving a series of genuinely nasty phone calls. Someone breaks into her apartment, slashing her beloved painting by Philippa Hunter, and the community decides, to Katherine’s irritation, that she needs to live with others until the perpetuators are found. It creates a mystery that weaves around the mysteries and revelations of Katherine’s own life, as she spends time remembering and reconciling with her past.

It’s a page turner (that soap opera effect), despite, or perhaps because of, all of the increasingly improbable coincidences. But still, the novel breaks down for me in three different places.

The first is when Katherine falls in love with her Nazi jailor.

Yes, this is after the war; yes, her marriage is in a terrible place; yes, Lukas is a somewhat “better” Nazi as Nazis go; yes, Katherine is brutally scarred by her war experiences; yes, L’Engle believed in love and forgiveness, and is trying to show, here and elsewhere, that the best response to darkness and hatred is love. Yes, the Nazi in question says that he is not trying to avoid responsibility, and yes, this happens after Katherine has been horrified at what the Americans did in retaliation for the war. (While she is in prison, he mentions his admiration for her mother, but they do not enter a romantic relationship until then.)

But the man still willingly joined the Nazi party and admits later that he did so because he believed they were creating a better, purer world. The same party that, leaving all else aside, within this book alone broke her husband’s hands, sent him to Auschwitz, conducted medical experiments on him, and castrated him.

And this is right after Katherine reacted with horror at the idea of sleeping with a Catholic priest. (To be fair, that was also a terrible idea, but, still.)

I can’t buy it.

I understand, to an extent, what L’Engle is attempting to do here, but quite apart from my exasperation that this is her third book* where the only concentration camp survivors are French resistance fighters, I cannot accept that Katherine, whose marriage is in trouble because of the Nazis, would turn around and sleep with one of them. Unless, of course, she was attempting to hurt her husband in the absolute worst way possible — and given his demands that she sleep around and give him a child so that no one in the greater world will find out that he’s been castrated, I can see the need for revenge.

*The other two books are And Both Were Young and A Winter’s Love; we’ll be looking at A Winter’s Love later in the reread.

But I still can’t buy any of this.

(It probably doesn’t help that an early scene has the Jewish Mimi Oppenheimer apologizing to Katherine for assuming that everyone who went to Auschwitz was Jewish.)

The second problem is L’Engle’s depiction of homosexuality. L’Engle does provide one sympathetic bisexual character, Felix, but the other bisexual and gay characters are distinctly unsympathetic, even villainous (and handled less sympathetically than the Nazi), and L’Engle consistently portrays homosexual acts as harmful, suggesting that happiness can be achieved only once gays and bisexuals stop being gay and bisexual. And even Felix, after achieving happiness through celibacy, is tortured with constant threats of exposure that are undermining his health, and guilt over his feelings for a younger man. And the only two bisexuals portrayed as not preying on, or potentially preying on, or harming children, are the two bisexuals (a lawyer and an actor) cheating on their wives, presented as distinctly unsympathetic individuals.

A Severed Wasp by Madeleine L’EngleI recognize that much of this reflects the attitudes L’Engle was brought up in, and that this is tame and even, in the case of Felix, enlightened compared to other depictions of homosexuality at the time (1982). But I am still troubled that in a book where cheating on your husband with a Nazi officer is presented as a joyful, healing event, not one gay or bisexual relationship can be portrayed as good or potentially healing.

And this leads to my third concern. Katherine is told, in graphic detail, about a case of clear same-sex child abuse, combined with drug dealing. And does she or anyone else call the authorities? No. Katherine tells one of the women to head to confession and promises to stay silent, and then goes and plays the piano. This is purely in character for Katherine, and a beautiful bit of characterization, but it is all wrong for the other characters in the book, and it leaves the book on a chilling note.

A Severed Wasp has moments of great beauty and wisdom, and several quotable moments. It offers insightful analysis of the frustrations of women, particularly artistic women, in Manhattan, and powerful portrayals of the power of love, and what a marriage can endure. Its soap opera roots keep the plot moving, and almost allow me to buy the final coincidences in the last few pages, which to be fair were telegraphed earlier on in the book. And the portrait of Katherine is one of L’Engle’s best and most convincing. I also love the quote I used to introduce this post. But for all this, it leaves me uneasy, and I am not sure if that was L’Engle’s point.


Mari Ness’ grandfather fled to the United States from Germany shortly before World War II. Not all of his relatives followed.

This article is part of The Madeleine L'Engle Reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
19 comments
Bayushi
1. Bayushi
...FELL IN LOVE WITH A NAZI?

Ummm...no.

(I've never read this one. Now I'm glad.)
Pamela Adams
2. Pam Adams
It's on the bedside table. So far, I haven't gotten beyond the meet-up scene- Come play piano in my cathedral, despite our past relationships. I keep getting tempted away- hey, let's re-read H. Beam Piper!- but will try to persevere.
Bayushi
3. Huimang
I haven't read this one in a while, but I remember finding it very readable (enough to reread a few times) and quite disturbing. I never thought about a lot of the problems you've raised, so thank you for giving me some new perspectives.Thinking back, most of Katherine's memory storylines seemed vaguely unreal to me, and I focused more on the present: what bothered me there, on reflection, was the classism. And/or a bit of racism, maybe, I mean the Gomez kids who are probably Puerto Rican or Dominican but it's not clear. Topaze is a sort of pocket Magic Negro, incredibly stylized compared to the careful realism of the Davidson kids, and Fatima is reduced to "the ugly stupid girl who can sing" without the interest in her inner life that the Davidson girls get. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I ended up with the impression that "white upper-middle-class kids are carefully drawn people, Latin@ working-class kids are stereotypes of one kind or another." Which may be unfair to L'Engle.
I like the, oh, quiet and sane people in the book, though, few as they are. Mimi Oppenheimer, our token member of the tribe, and Dave and Suzy (more or less reduced to L'Engle's standard understanding-parent roles, but quite likeable that way). It's a good read when you need a distraction from every day life for a while.
Mari Ness
4. MariCats
@Bayushi -- This is after the war, but yes.

@Pam Adams -- The concert plot is well handled and I liked it; you've been warned about the rest of the book.

@Huimang -- I have to admit, I found myself so focused on the Jewish/Nazi/bisexual angles that I missed this aspect entirely. I don't find the Hispanic characters in The Young Unicorns stereotypical at all, so I don't think this is necessarily true of L'Engle, but perhaps so in this book.

With that said, it occurs to me now that we get nearly all of this book from the viewpoint of Katherine, who, to repeat, slept with a Nazi, happily, so is perhaps not the best person to seek out for nuanced thoughts on Hispanics.

I do agree that Dave, Suzy and Mimi are all quite likeable and great foils to Katherine. And the book is definitely very readable, to the point of being a major page turner, and Katherine, however unlikeable, is really well drawn. I'm just wondering what I'm reading.
Bayushi
5. Sherry Early
I find it interesting that the cultural stereotype nowadays is that all Nazis must be one-dimensional, horrible, wholly evil people that one would never dream of falling in love with while all gays must be comfortable with their sexuality, fine upstanding citizens. And their homosexuality must be portrayed as "good or potentially healing."

The unreported child abuse in the book did bother me.
Bayushi
6. between4walls
I was disturbed by the all-or-nothing approach to talent, as if it was inborn, in regard to Emily especially (though this may be the unsympathetic Katherine-filter). Also couldn't take seriously the neo-Incan priests, the endless affairs, and soap-operaness. I did like that Katherine's husband, though a resister and a victim of torture, was almost as unsympathetic as she was.

This is down with Dragons in the Waters for me as one of L'Engle's worse books.

@Huimang, @MariCats- The Davidson girls aren't white. They're part white, part Hispanic, and part Asian, and their father is dark-skinned enough to be often mistaken for an African-American.

@Sherry Early- Mari did not say homosexuality must be "good or potentially healing," she said that it was troubling that not even one of the same-sex relationships was good, while a relationship between a woman whose husband was tortured by the Nazis and a Nazi officer is portrayed as joyful.

In A House Like A Lotus, one of the lesbian characters is predatory and another has her act together without having to be celibate. Neither is solely defined by their sexuality. A Severed Wasp is more stereotypical and less convincing.

All Nazis don't have to be irredeemable villains, but there's something inherently wrong with being a Nazi, particularly an officer who joined voluntarily. Since being gay has no moral weight, unlike freely choosing to be a Nazi, it is strange that this book portrays all non-celibate gays and bisexuals as selfish jerks, less sympathetically portrayed than Lukas, whom we know has done awful things.
Bayushi
7. jacqie
I've been following the re-read, and I think I have to speak up. I love Madeleine L'engle, and while she is by no means a paragon of PC-ness, there's a lot of good stuff here. She's a product of her time, just like Margaret Mitchell, just like Charles Dickens, just like James Fenimore Cooper. So there are some prejudices in play in this book, but I still found it extremely valuable when I read it as a teenager.

I grew up in a right-wing type Christian household, so the notion that Christianity could be about forgiveness and inclusiveness never dawned on me until I read L'engle. It may not be as inclusive as you want ( gays) or maybe too inclusive (Nazis) but it was a whole new world to me at the time. A scientist could also be a believer? To someone whose parents truly believe that the universe is 6000 years old, this was amazing. So yes, she is limited by today's standards, but she blew the doors off for me back in the day.
I had a totally different take on her comment about Justin's betrayal of her by being castrated. I think Katherine understands perfectly well that Justin is the victim here. But she also has feelings about it- she can never have his child. It isn't Justin's fault that he was castrated, but she can still never have his child, and I think she is merely being brutally honest by acknowledging feelings of betrayal, while still realizing that it's objectively unfair.
With regard to the Nazi: to me the point of the book was forgiveness and healing. She was able to see.... Lukas?... as a person who had been caught up in something rather than a faceless Nazi stooge. Isn't it possible that there were people who joined the Nazi party not only for self-preservation, but to try to lessen the damage wherever they could within the power structure instead of outside it? Frankly to assume that anyone who was a Nazi Party member was a soulless demon who deserves whatever they got smacks of privelege. Have you ever had to make the choice between survival for your family, the possibility to at least lessen the damage being caused (at great personal risk if you're found out) or being the daring revolutionary? I doubt it.
Not that I'm a Nazi apologist, mind you. But dehumanizing anyone is not what this book is about, to my mind. Even a Nazi was human once. Black and white is too simplistic for WWII, just as it is for the war we're in now.

And finally, you totally left out the climax of the book- the death of Katherine's child. This was the true crescendo of the story. The present day narrative pales alongside it, to me. And with that death, Katherine and her innocent child both more than paid for any sins committed by daring to see a Nazi as human.
L'engle does write things that I have a problem with. Her attitude towards the role of women in "The Love Letters" has always bothered me. Sometimes she goes too far in her philosophy of forgiveness and acceptance, I think. But one should perhaps apply a bit of that doctrine of forgiveness and understanding to L'engle herself when reading her books, I think.
Bayushi
8. between4walls
That said about the talent issue (and I need to reread this because I'm not sure I was right about that) I like how L'Engle doesn't ignore all the hard work that goes into excellence. It's not like you have a gift and boom everything's easy. It's more, you have a gift and so you will work and work and work at it because it really matters to you.
Mari Ness
9. MariCats
@Sherry Early – To be clear, I am not saying that all Nazis need to be one-dimensional, completely evil characters that no one could ever fall in love with. Many women and men did fall in love with Nazis.

I am saying that it is extremely unrealistic to have a concentration camp survivor, whose husband was tortured at Auschwitz, to fall in love with the Nazi who kept her prisoner, and to have no qualms about this. If Katherine and her husband had not been in concentration camps, I would not have had the same problems with this book.

Nor am I suggesting that all gays and lesbians need to be portrayed as good or potentially healing, and indeed, as I noted in the post, I think that L'Engle's portrayals of gays and bisexuals are very enlightened for the period. I don't even find it particularly odd that all seven gays and bisexuals are portrayed as either cheaters, rapists and sexual predators. It's just odd in the context of a book that has a joyful, healing relationship with the Nazi.

So here's my counter-question: since the Nazi could be redeemed, why couldn't any of the gays/bisexuals? That seems to be the stereotype in play here.

@Between4walls – Thanks for clarifying the racial question. I'm going to be addressing House Like a Lotus soon, but I will say upfront that Ursula does a lot to convince me that L'Engle knew better.

I liked the need to practice as well; the piano parts of this book are really well done.
Mari Ness
10. MariCats
@Sherry Early – To be clear, I am not saying that all Nazis need to be one-dimensional, completely evil characters that no one could ever fall in love with. Many women and men did fall in love with Nazis.

I am saying that it is extremely unrealistic to have a concentration camp survivor, whose husband was tortured at Auschwitz, to fall in love with the Nazi who kept her prisoner, and to have no qualms about this. If Katherine and her husband had not been in concentration camps, I would not have had the same problems with this book.

Nor am I suggesting that all gays and lesbians need to be portrayed as good or potentially healing, and indeed, as I noted in the post, I think that L'Engle's portrayals of gays and bisexuals are very enlightened for the period. I don't even find it particularly odd that all seven gays and bisexuals are portrayed as either cheaters, rapists and sexual predators. It's just odd in the context of a book that has a joyful, healing relationship with the Nazi.

So here's my counter-question: since the Nazi could be redeemed, why couldn't any of the gays/bisexuals? That seems to be the stereotype in play here.

@Between4walls – Thanks for clarifying the racial question. I'm going to be addressing House Like a Lotus soon, but I will say upfront that Ursula does a lot to convince me that L'Engle knew better.

I liked the need to practice as well; the piano parts of this book are really well done.
Bayushi
11. Huimang
@Between4walls, thanks--you're right that Dave is dark-skinned part-Puerto Rican (I think when he's described as part-Indian also they mean Native American, but I may be wrong or misremembering) and that at least some of his kids also have dark skin. Remembered that after I posted... (I'm not sure L'Engle thinks hard about the kids' experiences growing up dark-skinned in 1980s Morningside Heights, but you can't have everything.) I stand by my position on class, though, for instance that Katherine is deeply involved in nurturing Emily's talent but has little or no interest in what will become of Fatima's.
Fascinating to read everyone's different takes on the book, anyway. Thank you.
Mari Ness
12. MariCats
Hmm. In rechecking I see that my first comment posted twice, and my second not at all, which is what happens when you post at odd hours, I guess. Anyway, second comment again:

@jacque – Quite a lot to address in your post.

Let me start by saying something that I perhaps should have said in my post, which is that it is L'Engle's very ability to blow the doors off, as you put it, in earlier books that made this book so troubling for me.

Regarding my, as you say, privilege:

My grandfather, his sister, and mother lived in Germany and saw the rise of the Nazi party. They were secular Jews. They fled shortly before the war, losing their home, most of their possessions, friends, my great-aunt's fiancé, and family members. These friends, the fiance, and the family members died in concentration and death camps.

I am not going to attempt to describe the resulting trauma and its lingering effects on my family, but just to say that this may perhaps not be the best context to describe my "privilege."

Back to the post. There doubtless were people who joined the Nazi party to, as you say, try to lessen the damage wherever they could. Lukas was not one of those people. Lukas tells us, after the war, that he joined the Nazi party because he thought this would be building a better world. He tells us that he believed in the Nazi party. He was an officer in the party and, most importantly, he commanded a concentration camp. Which Katherine was in. Indeed, she and Justin were in the camps because Justin had protested the evil of the Nazi party.

I did not, at any point, say that all Nazis were soulless demons deserving whatever they got. I'm not even saying that Lukas was. I am saying that this particular plot line, with a love affair between the former Nazi commander of a concentration camp and one of his prisoners, stretches credibility beyond belief – and, more importantly, suggests a fundamental lack of understanding about the horror of concentration camps. In an earlier book, And Both Were Young, Flip, a protagonist L'Engle based on herself, admits to just "not getting it," and that's evident here.

I am aware of L'Engle's point about forgiveness and healing. But there is a large, a very large, gulf between forgiveness and falling in love. I don't doubt that many people, including concentration camp survivors, forgave the Nazis. I believe my grandfather tried. I also don't doubt that many people fell in love with Nazis.

Thus, I would have believed a plot where Katherine forgave her Nazi captors. I would have believed a plot where Katherine, never a prisoner in a concentration camp, and not married to a victim of Nazi torture, fell in love with a Nazi. But for a concentration camp survivor, surrounded by death and horror and illness and torture, to fall in love with a Nazi officer is not believable.
Mari Ness
13. MariCats
(and double post again. Grr.)
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
You do know this is a sequel to The Small Rain?

I had the very odd experience of reading this several times before encountering The Small Rain, with its "happy ending" of Katherine and Felix heading off to Europe in 1938.
Mari Ness
15. MariCats
@bluejo -- Yes, but The Small Rain wasn't available at the library, and I've never read it before, so I just went straight to this. But I'd think reading a happy ending and knowing it led to this would be odd.

I did read A Live Coal in the Sea before encountering Camilla though, so I guess I had a slightly similar strangeness there, although Camilla has more of a realistic ending than a happy one, so I never felt any weirdness there -- just a note that I liked the original Camilla much more and wondered what had happened to her.
Bayushi
17. Mike Allen
I haven't read A SEVERED WASP, but it is somewhat disappointing to see commentors like Sherry and jacqui write "BUT BUT BUT YOU DISRESPECTED SOMETHING I REALLY LIKE RARR" posts, and even make unwarranted personal assumptions about Mari, without actually paying close attention to what Mari said. It's pretty clear to me who's credit is good in these exchanges.
Bayushi
18. Mike Allen
"whose," even! Hee.
Bayushi
19. PF Anderson
SPOILERS!!! Good grief! I am so disappointed by the idea that anyone who has not already read the book might make the mistake of reading this review first. One of the great pleasure for me in reading this book is that chapter by chapter unfolding of the petals of a great blossom, the way perspective and points of view shift on astounding plot turns revealing completely new ways of looking at the rest of the book, and that this KEEPS happening thoughout the entire book. To write a review full of spoilers takes away the potential for that pleasure from future readers.

This book is one of my favorites of all time. Mme. Vigneras is very subtle in her communications, with layers and layers of unstated meaning implied. Often when she makes a statement such as those quoted here, it is for the specific purpose of eliciting a response from the other character or the reader, of provoking them into questioning or thinking more deeply about what was said. It is an incredibly richly textured book, requiring deep reading and looking explicitly between the lines. Each time I re-read it, I discover something I had previously missed in earlier readings. Most of the points the reviewer questions are ones echo in the brain and challenge the reader to examine their own conscience, the context of the book, the perspectives of the characters, and more. They justly deserve a hard look and much thought, and it is a good sign that the reviewer's initial reading has provoked the kinds of questions she is asking. As someone who has read this book more times than I can count, I assure you, the explanations and justifications ARE present in the book.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment