Salt of the Air

Salt of the Air
By Vera Nazarian, 2006
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

It is such an easy thing: all stories are the same. They are histories of the act of taming with love. Men tame women, women tame men; fathers and mothers mold daughters and sons; siblings twist each other; children temper parents; strangers weld bonds with those who are nameless in the wilderness. There is bending, breaking, twisting, and contortion.

But the end result is always the same. One yields a part of the self to theother. And in the process the tamer is also remade…In the end, they are all weakened and strengthened as tempered steel–which is both soft and hard, unbreakable and flexible, a thing wrought of disparate materials that have undergone unifying change. Steel is love, its product on the physical plane.

He who has allowed the change that is steel is the God of Love.

Vera Nazarian, “The Story of Love”

Salt of the Air is Vera Nazarian’s first collection of standalone stories, more or less. Apart from “Rossia Moya” and “The Young Woman in the House of Old,” the stories could easily belong to the same sequence, but there is nothing in them to indicate for sure that they do. Nazarian’s prose and plots also somewhat more linear in this book than elsewhere, though both are still quite unconventional. It is a memorable collection. But nothing in it is neat, making it difficult to judge it story by story. Her pace remains deliberate and the stories are best read slowly, savored one at a time, and if possible reread. Layers of meaning eventually make the most puzzling tales clear on a poetic level, if not always one easy for the intellect to process.

If violence was the theme of The Compass Rose, Salt of the Air is concerned mainly with love and sexuality. But the reader who approaches it hoping for supernatural romance will be disappointed in the extreme. Not one relationship in it is consummated in the usual way. As for love, here it has little to do with romance and much more in common with love for a spouse, or one’s country, or God, or life itself; it is the love that keeps one going through the worst. In good moments it is the kind of love that tells us of things we did not know we knew. “Demonkiller,” “A Thing of Love,” “The Starry King,” “Swans,” “Wound on the Moon,” and “Rossia Moya” all contain passages that can take the unwary reader off guard with insight into truths that are, for most of us, too private to speak, yet so lucid that one should have been grateful to find them upon rereading an old journal, or even to hear them from a trusted friend. “The Starry King” tells us that one whose power is to take on others’ burdens must lose his own capacity for pain, thus his identity, and have it given back by another who can only see her own anguish:

And the Burdens of the World, odd as it seemed, were not all that difficult to contain. Indeed, they seemed light as a feather, as night vapor…Like a load of stars from the sky, ringing, light and silvery. For, there was now that ever-present “feel” of the Crown about her head, a sensation of agony so close yet so far away, and never quite touching her, that allowed her to Bear.

Only at one instance could it touch her, Nellval knew–not when she remembered her own, already receding burdens of death and unfulfilled love and betrayal, no. It, the agony, would burn only when she momentarily recalled (with such longing…) the hazy dream-memory that the starry king had given her, of his own past, and of the one life–the last–in which he had loved a woman with hair like rust. For when–so long ago, it seemed–Nellval’s own white hair had color, it was thus, rust. And Nellval had recognized, in that silent woman’s corpse, many lives ago, herself…

But now, all that was irrelevant. She stood, and the world was once again before her. She had freed him.

If we know these things, we have shed blood.

And sex and blood are good friends in these tales, to a degree that might not be to all readers’ taste. Nazarian is unintimidated by patriarchy, and can even write an ambiguous rape story in “Absolute Receptivity, the Princess, and the Pea.” Other authors pop in and out of Nazarian’s style as they do for any author who is also a lover of her own literary tradition. Technically she reminds me most of Fritz Leiber, who could easily have written that story, but Avram Davidson also makes an appearance here and elsewhere with his cheerfully gruesome puckishness and nuanced O. Henry twists. Vera Nazarian is not a gender conservative in the mode of Anne McCaffrey or even Marion Zimmer Bradley. Rather she writes on a parallel track to feminism, going in the same direction but off to one side: one loses count of the times the women appear in men’s attire or perform tasks that are described as being traditionally male. She gets away with it because of her lack of sentimentality, in most instances. (The less successful stories are those which border on sentiment, such as “The Slaying of Winter.”) Nazarian’s fearlessness with the misogynous and sadomasochistic elements in the fairytale is like that of a headmistress dealing with an especially preposterous student. She draws without apology on traditions (the Western, Russian and Near Eastern Christian, for the most part) in which sex is sufficiently repressed for violence to serve as a dramatic stand-in, and to resolve the action with more aplomb than the inevitable anticlimax of a real-life love affair. To this taste it is agreeable as an antidote to the unearned empowerment that passes for feminism in too much revisionist fantasy. The reason is that Nazarian usually keeps sex and violence altogether separate–one is understated but delightful, the other as tragic as in real life and as joyless–and also that she is astute about the reason for and the consequence of sexual repression as it exists in most cultures of the world. The first motive of nearly all of her characters regarding the opposite sex is power.

But none of these are people out of modernist fiction; they have little in common with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Brown. They behave with the self-justification of characters in myth. The stories are moral, even didactic, but not in a way that translates easily into the morality of the twenty-first century. Nobody learns a lesson and goes back a better person. Though some people find joy, often at a very high price, they do so by pursuing their paths with a combination of selfishness and fatalism that inevitably causes havoc. If Dreams of the Compass Rose owed much to Armenia and The Duke in His Castle owed something to the Russia of Soloviev, Blok and Merezhkovsky, Salt of the Air reads like a take on old Europe as written by someone whose traditions these are not. This may serve to explain the air of weirdness that hovers over stories whose basic elements are familiar to a Western reader, but which have been written as if their matter belonged to a people whose motives are difficult to fathom. Nazarian may have intended this, or she may simply be more in touch than many writers with the alienness at the heart of all truly folkloric figures: the fact that they are not workaday human beings, and do not have the real-life human trait of being able to change course or otherwise behave differently than they are written. She portrays a truly alien morality which at the same time seems archetypically right.

And most interestingly, a great deal of what is alien, in the sense of being both unfamiliar and not right away sympathetic, belongs to the women. It is possible that this is what Christian-inflected folklore, in which power is gained through pain or else confused with freedom from pain, would look like if it had been written by women. The parameters of plot and magic are set by the human body and elemental nature (colors, weather, light), while the tension is provided by some form of binding and paralysis. The source of the greatest evils in Nazarian’s world is the human desire for possession of what is other. Women, as the most commonly desired objects, end up leading the men and other powerful figures who desire their identity to what they really want, performing both analytically and organically as dealers of justice. Nazarian’s female characters, always formidable, are awesome figures in this collection. The females are more obsessed with concepts whereas the males are usually prey to desire, pure and simple. These women are empowered to fight and most often prevail because they see things as they are. “A Thing of Love” tells the story of a woman whose love for others is expressed in dealing death; her queen, a sadist, thrives on the pity she feels for the condemned at the moment of death, whereas Faelittal’s gift is to remove their fear in secret. The catch is that she can only do so by learning how and why their lives were precious to them and living with that knowledge herself.

The women kick ass, but they pay with melancholy bordering on combat trauma. Their trials last a lifetime. The women in these stories are nearly always heirs to or bearers of the theme of love, separate from sex or romance. They seldom “fall in love”; they love. Their love is not a time-limited fever but a hunger, a wound, usually having more to do with mortality and pain (often physical pain, their own or that of another) than with the intoxication of the senses. Some of the most depressing and alternately most liberating moments come when a loaded dalliance is revealed as a game in literal terms, involving some inanimate prop. “She breathed hard, for she was now truly alone in the room. Only herself and the wooden mannequin. The doll lay motionless, its head covered by a wig of fine soft female hair, like flax.” These moments are heavy with the sadness of objects, especially magical objects whose purpose must be empty when not in use and once exhausted, are deader than anything. One female magician reflects that “truly sorcerous objects” are mostly “ancient and quite filthy.” This story, “Lady of the Castle,” is one of the few in which a clear moral lesson is taught and a happily-ever-after ending possible, and it is significant that the magician does not stay with the young lord she has conquered but moves on, with the air of a weary gatekeeper or guide in a more conventional story.

Some of Nazarian’s most interesting effects occur when she subverts the misogyny inherent in tales of female cross-dressing–the tiresome trope of the maiden dressed as a boy to avoid rape, which, as Jessica Amanda Salmonson has pointed out, would result in her being promptly molested as a boy. Nazarian’s cross-dressing or otherwise androgynous females resemble men, not boys, and do so convincingly. They take on male roles which men have nonetheless feared–executioner, exorcist, cutpurse–and their mature male identification is in keeping with the irrevocable nature of such a role. They pay an adult’s price; one would say a man’s, were it not the case that the femaleness of these women is never written out of the story. Two of the most beautiful stories are “Demonkiller,” in which a consecrated virgin discovers the true sexuality within her lifelong abstinence, and “The Wound on the Moon,” in which a woman avenges the death of her lover (at the hands of a man who desired them both) by marring the killer’s own physical perfection. The women in both stories resemble men, one as an androgynous celibate, the other because she is a lookalike for her dead mate; and both deal justice to men who desire possession of them because they look like men and are not. Each story delivers a knockout frisson.

In this collection Nazarian is at her best in the more serious stories. The stories with picaresque elements occasionally lose focus and repeat elements that Nazarian has explored better elsewhere, or change tone and become fantasy adventures that go on too long. The tragic stories (though also at times repetitive) have a clarity and ruthlessness of procedure that wipes away any niggling concerns with mundane logic, or indeed morality. This is a hallmark of authenticity in folkloric portrayals of sexuality. It also sets Nazarian’s work well apart from the tedious spate of supernatural romances in which vampires talk like Valley Girls and learn life lessons, though as in Leiber, there are a few jarring moments of urban-fantasy-speak here and there (“emotional morass,” “faux sunset,” “Swiss cheese,” etc.). And as Ursula Le Guin pointed out regarding Leiber, whether one is jarred or not may be a matter of taste.

It is on the whole a sobering collection. Nazarian’s irrepressible life-gladness keeps the most melancholy of the stories from being joyless, but it’s appropriate that “Rossia Moya” functions as the gateway tale, as the story of Ris, Nadir, and Caelqua is the gateway tale for Dreams of the Compass Rose. “Rossia Moya” is a story that deserves to last forever, painful beyond pain and weirdly hopeful, and truer than most documentaries; its truthfulness is such as to make the reader believe in the most exotic of the fables to follow. While this is unlikely to be the best of Nazarian’s collections, it is very good, and should make one grateful that Vera Nazarian is at the beginning of her career. She is a difficult, resplendent and clever writer who continues to grow. Her work rewards the patient, its peculiarity universal and its light touch deceptive. This is not that most depressing of early works, a book that is just good enough to be called “promising”; it is a mature book, at times very powerful, that is also rich in promise of more to come. And one wants more, much more.