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I Put a Spell on You

The witch trial as an act of too-close reading

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch by Rivka Galchen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pages.

Rivka Galchen’s first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, came into my possession many years ago by chance, but it wasn’t until I read the book last month that I decided to see its wayward trajectory as a sign. Not long after graduating college, I shipped a half-dozen boxes of books from Chicago to New York. They all arrived, only one had been re-taped and filled with an intriguing mix of my own recently assigned reading, along with coloring books semi-completed by a stranger’s hand and novels I hadn’t previously owned. In one way or another, I disposed of most of the new literature that came my way, but I held onto the Galchen, thanks to an enticing James Wood quote on the back describing the novel as “a relentless exploration of how a man could fail to see clearly the woman he loves.”

As it turns out, the novel’s narrator, middle-aged psychiatrist Leo Liebenstein, sees very little clearly, due to his sudden, absorbing commitment to a sense that something is not quite right in his life—what he refers to at one point as “wrong feelings,” which are “like articles slipped into our luggage but not properly ours.” These feelings start developing on the novel’s first page, when Leo is struck by the curious belief his wife Rema has been replaced by an imposter, a familiar vessel loaded with questionable goods. She no longer smells like fresh-cut grass or laughs in the right silences, so he resolves to locate the woman who does: the real Rema. He travels from Manhattan’s Hungarian Pastry Shop to Buenos Aires in pursuit of her, intercepting messages from an enigmatic scientist he may have dreamed up, and interpreting any information that appears to come “to him” rather than “from him” as a clue. The setup suggests the narrator is suffering from Capgras Syndrome, the delusional belief that a loved one is literally no longer themselves, but Leo never insists upon a medicalization of his experience. Moreover, he attempts to dispel the language of diagnosis from the outset by identifying himself as a fifty-one-year-old man with “no previous hospitalizations and no relevant past medical, social, or family history.”

The crisis, then, appears to be exegetical in nature: the more this “false” Rema asserts her selfhood, the deeper Leo commits to a close reading of the situation that suits him and only him. Never perfectly though, for as with the narrator of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (who obsessively reenacts scenes from his past in pursuit of an elusive equilibrium) or Emmanuel Carrère’s The Mustache (who convinces himself everyone in his life is pretending not to know he used to have a mustache), Leo will never stop needing to falsify the world in order to imagine himself of a piece with it. There is always another unsettling detail to incorporate into his ever-bloating explanation for what is happening to him.

The machinations of Leo’s mind may be especially opaque to Rema, but the vibrant attention he pays to his environment saves him from solipsism. Elsewhere in his review of the novel, Wood draws a parallel between Atmospheric Disturbances and Thomas Bernhard’s unreliable narrator in The Loser, claiming that Galchen’s book could stand to shed fifty pages to fit the limitations of that bit. In fact, Galchen innovates without becoming repetitive. While Bernhard’s narrator elliptically fixates on his failures, Galchen’s is fabulously, irrevocably unstable, his sentences so windy and unfamiliar they lead the reader off the path of her own thoughts toward a consciousness at once cruelly singular and recklessly open. That’s a distance rarely traveled in novels, even those that make it to their correct destination.

There is always another unsettling detail to incorporate into his ever-bloating explanation for what is happening to him.

In Galchen’s charming second novel, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, it’s the protagonist who’s being too closely read, and suffering unfairly the burden of proof, as Rema did in Atmospheric Disturbances. The setting this time is a seventeenth-century German town devastated by plague and crop failure, cowering on the brink of the Thirty Years’ War, and brimming with Bernhardian losers. The ducal governor, Lukas Einhorn, is a thin-skinned swindler, and the local religious figure, Pastor Binder, is forever polishing his sermon on divine mystery without ever getting to the punchline: “God isn’t a rabbit . . . God isn’t a wolf . . . not a beaver . . . [not] a pygmy owl.” And so on.

The story is derived from historical accounts of Katharina Kepler and her son Johannes Kepler, the Linz-based astrologer famous for discovering laws of planetary motion. Katharina was known around Leonberg for her homemade apothecary solutions, and in 1615, her neighbor Ursula Reinbold accused her of witchcraft, claiming the old woman had offered her a poisoned drink. Trial records indicate several more locals subsequently joined in the recriminations. Katharina’s relative notoriety did not protect her—in fact, it may have been something of a curse in her Protestant town, where more than a dozen women were to be imprisoned for witchcraft over the next two decades, a fate she avoided until 1620. By that time, her savings had been eroded by legal expenses, her community converted against her cause, and her name trampled to mud. The next fourteen months were a hell of cages, torture, and not knowing whether she’d be put to death, a common enough verdict. Then, once her star-gazing son swooped in to organize her defense, she was freed to live her final six months outside of a jail cell.

This is not so much a novel that provides a lens through which to reconsider history; rather, history offers the novel a few useful constraints—plot, of course, and some epistemological problems to play with. Like the demonization of science coexisting with the empirical prosecution of demons. Out of such a contradiction arises a mercurial yet solid social order: German criminal law stipulated at the time, for instance, that a woman accused of witchcraft could not be tortured for a confession without the accounts of at least two credible eyewitnesses against her. Gender, class, and religious status are reinforced through such lawful conspiracies. “Some people worry about being born under an unlucky star. I don’t. I worry about being born in an unlucky place,” remarks Katharina early on, prodding at social hypocrisy and convention, which is her way as well as her lot in life.

But politics are no more the novel’s reason for being than history. As in her previous fictions, Galchen’s new novel proceeds from a voice, namely Katharina’s, which is pure invention: thoroughly modern, deadpan, and rootless. Or, if it has to be said to come from somewhere, make it a Brooklyn comedy club where stand-ups read Kafka aloud for laughs. She possesses a breezy talent for sly proverbs (“A small waist doesn’t let the blood flow”), esoteric plant knowledge (“I can hardly think of a more capable plant than the sage”), and adorable clap-backs. She frequently rebukes her rabid accusers by calmly suggesting that they are in fact drunk or otherwise displaying the emotional tendencies of small children—her duplicitous butcher, whom she suspects of pressing down on the scales, “has that broad moon face, like a child”—and her own banter has the cadence, if not the content, of playground taunts. Einhorn, who presides over Katharina’s prosecution, “looks like an unwell river otter in a doublet.” With her devil-may-care tone, she bucks the conventional attitude—ethical cretinism born of self-hatred and everyday mortal terror—in favor of irreverent sensuality, outspokenness, and well-defined commitments: toward children, neighbors in need, all cows whatever the situation, and various other animals (but not horses).

Yet Katharina retains a skeptical distance from her personal drama, almost as if she were narrating a mildly amusing episode in the life of another. At one point, she remarks that while listening to her daughter-in-law describe the execution of witches in a nearby town, she “felt as though the devil were in the room with us. He was laughing at us. He was a small man with a mustache and no beard and wearing a blue knit caftan.” The humor is exhilarating at first; later, it feels too neat and bare, like a traveler so taken with packing she puts everything in the suitcase and forgets to leave her room.

The same could be said of the two dozen or so beseeching legal correspondences and testimonies that are scattered throughout the text. Composed in an impish, matter-of-fact style, they complement Katharina’s voice, though they haven’t her charisma. Their authors are nearly all her detractors; vain and foolish, they transparently concoct Katharina’s guilt to explain what would otherwise be meaningless suffering, hers and theirs. They are not aware that they’ve misled themselves. One townsperson claims she blighted his livestock, another that she engineered her son’s success just to make him feel worthless by comparison. “I’ve been a very unlucky man in my life . . . Could it be that Frau Kepler has been part of this unluckiness? Even the author of this unluckiness?” asks Jerg Hundersinger, a local baker. “I don’t know. What can I say? I mean, if she poisoned someone, that would be terrible.” Witnesses find her suspiciously convivial on her daily rounds and suspiciously pathetic once she’s been locked up. Where they are close-minded, Katharina is generous and open. “I do my best to avoid superstition,” she says, “which can be difficult to separate from the quiet knowledge with which we are born and that sometimes reminds itself to us.” Where they point, Katharina bleeds. As characters, they are flat as pitchforks raised to the heavens.

The accusation of witchcraft is a mode of analysis, the name for a pattern that makes sense of social and personal grievances. As a parable, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch communicates this phenomenon well, in the vein of a Shirley Jackson short story, or Catherine Lacey’s latest novel Pew, where inhabitants of a small Christian town seek absolution from a silent stranger. The comic impudence embedded in the social order is miasmic. As the novel progresses, Katharina flees Leonberg to avoid arrest. Before she’s dragged back to prison, the accused visits a doctor and former executioner’s assistant who works out of the baths at Ulm. She wishes to get a second opinion as to whether or not she is a witch. “I didn’t really think I was a witch,” Katharina qualifies, “but I have never been one to be afraid of increasing my knowledge.” The doctor turns out to be just another peddler of personal intuition. “I was asked once to look at an extra nipple. There was no way to verify if it was or wasn’t used to suckle a devil,” he admits. “I have a strong sense of people. Of their true selves. That’s all I have to offer.”

The accusation of witchcraft is a mode of analysis, the name for a pattern that makes sense of social and personal grievances.

The doctor, like the townspeople of Leonberg, may be considerably overestimating his ability to suss out the supernatural. Still, there’s a kernel of honesty in his arrogance: the moment when one becomes sure of something feels magical. By this law of conjuring, Katharina’s decisiveness, her taste, her easy love must seem to her neighbors like flight. But we as readers know her too fully, too fast. Or perhaps we don’t know her well at all, but remain at an even distance from her. The rush of discovery that confounds and reveals character can propel fiction forward, as it did in Atmospheric Disturbances. Where is this effect operating in Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch? If Pastor Binder could sermonize on the question, he might say something along the lines of: not in the townspeople, not in the stars, not in the horse’s mouth, not in strange plants found by the side of the road, not in the mysterious third nipple, not in the show trials, and obviously not in the structures of local governance, either.

Where it does show up is in Katharina’s love for children, whose lives in an age of such disease and death are the most fragile, the most contingent. Amid the investigation, her grandchild is born, and the skeptical quality of the text melts away. “Baby Katharina was perfect, as all babies are . . . she spent a good deal of time looking at the sunlight reflecting off the copper cauldron.” It’s not that a sincere disposition is preferable to a cool ironical one; it’s the contrast that moves. In these scenes where Katharina coos and frets over her young friend, her enchantment is palpable, this embrace of another person who suddenly signifies so much: “For a moment the child is the newest person in the world.”