|"Lack of love wasn't only empty space. "|
According to Lara Vapnyar in Divide Me By Zero, math can teach us a lot about love. "Like negative numbers [lack of love] had the ability to multiply and grow, "she writes. So when Katya's mother dies, leaving a stack of flash cards intended as an outline for her new mathematical textbook, Katya uses them as a self help guide "to sort out the mess I made of my life."
Examining that mess makes for brilliant reading. Each chapter begins with a mathematical precept or formula. Vapnyar sometimes breaks off along the way in brief asides to the reader. She's funny, she's poignant but always she is honest. Her observations are intelligent, fresh and full of life.
Not surprisingly, she gives us the same kind of messy vibrant life in this book as in her last novel Still Here. But more so. This novel takes up some familiar material from that book and explores it from a different perspective. Again we go from Moscow to New York and explore the immigrant experience - cultural disconnect, with all its skills and credentials that no longer apply. Katya and her family must start from zero in America.
"Remember how we couldn't decide if we should bring our down pillow with us," Katya's mother asks at one point. She can’t speak English or find work for which she is qualified. Instead she sits on the sofa all day, with a cup of tea- a closed Russian book on her lap. "I remembered. Some people had told us to leave it, but others had insisted that they didn't have good down pillows in the US and they were worth their weight in gold. Eventually, we decided to ship it. We were shipping tons of books anyway. All the Russian classics all the math textbooks. Spent a fortune on postage. The pillow arrived safely but it turned out to be too big for the American pillow cases, and anyway, it was lumpy and fat and uncomfortable. We stuffed it in the back of our closet in Brooklyn and it never saw the light of day again. 'I felt like that pillow,' my mother said."
When you divide a number by zero, it turns out that nothing actually happens. But not all mysteries can be solved. Her mother tells her that, "certain things are simply beyond our grasp or understanding."
While exploring Russian immigrant life, Vapnyar writes about the mystery of love: lost love, rediscovered love, and love that has the power to destroy you from within. The first lost love we learn about is between Katya's parents (her father dies at sea). Katya's relationship with her mother is thorny and problematic ever afterwards. Then, at seventeen she falls into desperate and obsessive love with a teacher named B. Later, we follow the arc of her marriage to Len, the rekindling of her love for B, and a brief affair with a Russian billionaire.
I lived in Moscow around the time that Vapnyar writes about here, so some of her descriptions really took me back. The sensibility was so different there, so deeply grounded in the life of the mind rather than the life of the body. When I read her description of the tiny apartment in St Petersburg, where she and Len spend two days when they first fall in love, it recalled the cramped apartment where my son Alex took lessons with a violinist from the Bolshoi Orchestra.
Vapnyar writes: "The bedroom was crowded by boxes of sheet music and various musical instruments in cases covered with sticky dust. This gave me the strangest sensation - it was as if I had traveled into the middle of the music while being deaf. I couldn't hear it, but I somehow felt surrounded by music. To get to the bed we had to climb over the early works of Rachmaninoff and squeeze between two cellos and a double bass. We lay on that bed, in the exhilarating agony of fruitless touching, because I was too scared to go all the way."
She uses mathematical formulas to trace the arc of her marriage to Len, to calculate percentages. She decides she lives in an Escher house, where all the floors work by themselves but don't fit on the same plane. When she falls in love with B again (who also emigrates from Moscow) she feels as if a whole new room has been added "the room so vast it seemed to open up into another dimension."
Amazing how mathematical formulas can explain love. Take this, for instance: "One way to describe love according to the gospel of math is as a condition that causes a dimensional shift. The emerging new world that contains love becomes so vast that it opens into an entire new dimension, dwarfing all the worlds that existed in your life before you fell in love."
Or this: "In the first happy period of our love... B and I must have written thousands of emails to each other. Thousands - I am not exaggerating! But that doesn't mean the other areas of my life suffered. This is the mathematical miracle of happy love: it can expand in part of your life to a crazy degree without diminishing the others. I was writing and teaching better than ever; I had more energy for my kids, more patience for Len and more warmth for my mother."
Somehow, for all the losses in her love life, Katya emerges as strong, singular and accomplished - and sure - I feel she is more or less triumphant. Yet you feel each heartache deeply, all the longing, sobbing and yearning that goes into this rich and fully realized life. Vapnyar seems to suggest that none of these twists and turns can be helped, nor should they be avoided. You can't order the heart around, reads a Russian proverb. "The heart wants what the heart wants," she writes. Adding cleverly that this "also implied that you had to obey the heart's orders."
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