Book Review: Peter Stephan Jungk’s Crossing the Hudson
Mother and Son battle the ghosts of their past while struggling to define their place in the ever-changing world.
Bridge Over Troubled Water
"To me, bridges are songs in space," states one of the many passing characters in Peter Stephan Jungk’s novel Crossing the Hudson. "Nowhere on this planet do I feel as spiritually elevated as on a great bridge." This, in a phrase, is the feeling of this strange and absorbing book. Dark humour emanates throughout as the interdependent lives of the Rubin family play out through mother and son’s disintegrating conversations and memories while trapped in a traffic jam on the Tappan Zee Bridge above the Hudson River.
Set in contemporary times, the novel centers around the life of Gustav Rubin, a Viennese historian turned fur dealer, who has returned from Austria to Manhattan to fetch his mother for a vacation with his wife and children in a summer house in the Catskills. Eager to be home before the beginning of Shabbat, Gustav is conflicted between his mother’s condemnations and his new found orthodoxy. "My son an Orthodox Jew! Unfathomable..."
Rubin is the son of world-famous philosopher and scientist David Rubin who had recently died of a stroke, and overly dependent Gustav is searching himself anew. With his overbearing mother at his side, it seems unlikely that he will ever be free from the influence of either one.
Though the setting is stationary, the story follows the Rubins’ lives all over Europe and America, focusing mostly on their time in Vienna and New York. The author weaves a fantastical tale where time and space are cumulative and the experience reigns supreme. The lines of reality blur when mother and son discover the body of the beloved husband and father swollen to colossal size underneath the bridge.
Spanning most of the 20th century, the story sees its characters struggle with their place in the ever-shifting world. Having lost most of their relatives in the war, the Rubins’ son, Gustav, became the vessel of all their hopes, passions, fears, and anxieties. Fore in the midst of such loss, the only way to survive was to found a new family. But the father even goes so far as to say that his every action is a distraction because he is ashamed to be alive after having run away from death.
Gustav seems to share these same morbid feelings."Even in death, they will still be monitoring my missteps, condemning my failures as they always did in their lifetime," Gustav tells his wife at one point. "All survivors listen to the voices of their dead until they themselves must die, leaving behind children who listen."
Gustav can never please his mother, even after abandoning his blossoming career as a historian to take up in the Viennese fur trade, and follow in his mother’s father’s footsteps, a decision he repeatedly regrets. Throughout the story he contemplates abandoning her, walking away and leaving her in the wilds of the traffic jam, but is always pulled back. The novel details her exhausting demands from everyone and everything around her. A pathological liar, she continually rewrites her memories to suit her needs throughout the book.
She criticises everyone, in fact, except her god-like husband, whom she claimed was fervently in love with her until the day he died. This may have been true in some sense, but Gustav knows another side of the story, and a different version of his father. While held in awe by the son, the two shared intimate details of their lives. Gustav knew of all his father’s affairs, not only because he informed him of them, but also because he made audio recordings of his extensive liaisons that the son continues to find amongst his father’s belongings. There is even an incident when they pursued the same woman. But their interactions with the world are plagued by the father’s notoriety. So much so that when they walked together in the city, Gustav always walked a few steps behind.
Crossing the Hudson follows Gustav’s development from child to man in a non-linear fashion, often going into absurd detail over the nearly incestuous family relationships. "We are one flesh united, my parents and me," Gustav told his girlfriends.
Throughout, Jungk does a masterful job blending past and present, making memories and history one and the same. It takes hold of and realizes the impossible struggle to define oneself from your roots while implying that the fight may be futile for some. Altogether, it is a poignant and touching tale of self-exploration that leaves the reader combing the interlocking details of the characters’ lives.
Crossing the Hudson
by Peter Stephan Jungk
(David Dollenmayer, transl.)
Other Press (2008)
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