Steven Millhauser: “A Voice in the Night”

12/06/2012 § 4 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, December 10, 2012.

A spiritual successor, if you will, to Millhauser’s “Getting Closer,” which also features a potentially autobiographic child and a series of stream-of-consciousness musings (that time about death, this time about life/religion), and yet another example of  this 69-year-old’s stylistic range and bravery (and memory: even if it’s all fiction, he remembers made-up stuff with more clarity than I remember actual events). Thousands of years ago, the biblical Samuel wakes in the dark, called by the high priest whom he serves; sixty-two years ago, a seven-year-old future atheist lies in bed, tensely tossing at the thought of such a life-changing call; in the present, the Author remembers the boy remembering Samuel, remembers the way he was shaped as “the one whose name was not called in the night,” who became “A nothing Jew, a secular Jew, an unjewish Jew. A Jew without a bar mitzvah, a Jew without a bump in his nose. Later he develops the idea of the Negative Jew.” An Author who ends his tale with a respectful thank-you to the Lord, actual or imaginary, for allowing him to “grow up in a world of family excursions and shelves of books until the writing fever seized him and claimed him for life. A calling. Not Samuel’s call but another.”

Now, I’ll admit that I’m biased here. I’m somewhat of a Negative Jew myself (although I had a bar mitzvah, thankyouverymuch), and I can remember — not to this degree of clarity, but on an emotional/spiritual level — the late-night conversations I once had with my father about life and death and God. And while I’m not successful or particularly prolific, I’m a writer myself and an occasional insomniac, so I understand these slippery internal monologues we sometimes have, chasing an idea or a memory toward the oblivion of sleep. And I imagine that this is mainly the reason Millhauser writes fiction rather than memoir at this point: as the former, it can be all things to all people, it can invite us all to imagine reliving this: “What’s it is, he doesn’t believe the voice in the night will come, but his unbelief upsets him as much as belief would, if he believed. If the voice doesn’t come, it means he hasn’t been chosen.” This is how you have an ontological and teleological argument without actually arguing anything: you simply set the ideas loose into the ether and let people think on it. Why should there be a Bible of Millhauser, in which this story is every bit as provocative as the original tale of Samuel?

All those old stories, wonderful and terrible: the voice in the night, the parting of the Red Sea, Hansel in the cage, the children following the piper into the mountain. “Hamlet” and “Oedipus Rex” as pale reflections of the nightmare tales of childhood. Everything connected: David playing the harp for Saul, the boy in Stratford practicing the piano, the cellos and violins behind the closed doors. The boy listening for his name, the man waiting for the rush of inspiration. Where do you get your ideas? A voice in the night. When did you decide to become a writer? Three thousand years ago, in the temple of Shiloh.

The sense memories that flood these passages are outstanding, by the way: smells giving way to colors giving way to sounds and other sensations, litanies of loves that are specific and yet also dreamlike in the way they stream so rapidly through and through. A story dense enough to be unpacked at one’s leisure: do you want to focus on the seven-year-old’s first glimpses of anti-Semitism, the rise of technology in a home filled with books, the vast respect and love for an educator father (who is preferred, in every way, to the idea of a more powerful God), the immigrant experience and the changing neighborhoods, all this and more. Everything shapes us: reality and fiction both. I do not wish for a voice in the night, I wish only for the night, which is voice enough, if you are wise enough and patient enough to listen . . . and brave enough to then write.

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§ 4 Responses to Steven Millhauser: “A Voice in the Night”

  • Hi Aaron – it’s 3am (I should have a lock on my computer to keep me from posting in the middle of the night) and I’m a decade short of the 68 year old in the story, but a few hours ago I had the worst asthma attack of my life. As a result, I’m concluding that the III character is awaiting the voice of God in the night, but it has a completely different connotation than it did when he was 8.
    Amazing story (though I’m pretty convinced it’s more like creative non-fiction). I’m still sifting through it to post. I’m not Jewish, but I have my own religious history that gives it particular resonance. I was hoping to see someone address it from the vantage point of the “Negative Jew” so thanks – now I need to find someone who’s never heard of Samuel and Eli. 😉

  • Aaron Riccio says:

    I hope you’re feeling better! Obviously I’m no stranger to the late-late-early-morning post, though I’d never manage to lock myself out: too much of my creative energies end up sparked when I either roost suddenly out of slumber or when I’m exhausted enough to stop being self-conscious about what I might otherwise write. The Author in “A Voice in the Night” (and it may very well be creative non-fiction, although I’ve never cared much for the distinction between fiction and non-fiction: just let it have an impact, and let it not be an incomplete excerpt) could indeed be waiting for a voice, though I prefer to think from that somewhat atheistic perspective, in that *if* he is near death (he’s described as “in good health”), he is waiting not for a voice from God but for the reassurance of his own voice, the one that has served him so well for so long, to confirm that he has lived well: “A calling. Not Samuel’s call but another.” (That of the “writing fever” which “seized him and claimed him for life.”)

    Who can say for certain? But I consider my response to this story to be a IV (and perhaps I’ll come back to it again a third and fourth time as well, night after night listening to the voice listening for the voice thinking about the voice), with the conceit that we take what we take from what we read. Then again, when I listen, I hear only the bustle of traffic and (right now) sirens, so perhaps I’ve merely drowned out everything else.

  • A Hellenistic translation of Genesis begins, “In the beginning was logos,” which can mean not only the Word, but also argument, reason, or rhetoric. I believe the Author was called to a particular kind of consciousness— not as Samuel was— but by the love of thinking, which still keeps him awake at night. From that perspective, he’s a Jew more than he realizes.

  • […] a red herring, but I can’t shake it. There seems to be a summing up he’s doing. But, as Aaron Riccio of Short-A-Day pointed out, he says he’s in good health. This connection was hanging in the […]

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