Format: 336 pp., paperback; Size: 5.2 x 8”; Price: $15.99; Publisher: Other Press; Average number of names per character: three; Number of characters who go by Valentina: two; Total number of misogynistic Russian proverbs this book taught me: three; Translator: Imogen Taylor; Representative Passage: “She was speaking several languages at once, putting them together in different combinations to fit the color and flavor of her memories, making sentences that told a story different from the sum of their words. When she spoke, it sounded like an amorphous medley of all the things she was—things that could never have been reduced to one version of a story, or told in only one language.”
Central Question: How can one establish a sense of belonging when the boundaries of nation, gender, and identity are fluid and ever changing?
Last year, German playwright Sasha Marianna Salzmann contributed an essay titled “Visible” to the critical anthology Eure Heimat is unser Albtraum, or Your Homeland is our Nightmare. In the essay, Salzmann reflects on her experience as a queer, Jewish woman in Germany—a nation she has called home since emigrating from Moscow in 1995—and details how anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny, and xenophobia presently pervade her adopted country.
The word that anchors the anthology’s title—Heimat—has recently become a site of sociopolitical contestation in Germany. Though it can be crudely translated as “homeland” or “home,” Heimat refers not only to the geographical place from which you originate, but also any place to which you feel emotionally bound. It describes a “state of belonging,” wrote Jochen Bittner in a 2018 op-ed in the New York Times. “It’s the opposite of feeling alien.”
Salzmann’s debut novel Beside Myself broaches the pressing issues outlined in “Visible” through a multistrand narrative, wrestling with the questions the word Heimat—which is bound up with identity and belonging—brings to the fore. What does it mean to feel at home in a nation? In a community? In a body?
Like these questions, Beside Myself is difficult and messy and complicated. With a fragmented and nonlinear structure, the novel follows four generations of a Jewish family across Eastern Europe. In the present, we follow Ali, who travels from Berlin to Istanbul to track down her missing twin brother Anton, her only clue to his whereabouts a blank postcard from Turkey’s most populous city.
Her travels are interspersed with flashbacks that illuminate the lives of the twins’ progenitors. As Ali drifts around Istanbul, we are sporadically transported back to the former Soviet Union to meet three generations of her and Anton’s antecedents: their mother Valya and father Kostya; their grandmother Emma and grandfather Danya; and their great-grandmother Etya and great-grandfather Shura. The narrative perspectives change frequently, sometimes even mid-chapter, bouncing between Ali, an omniscient third-person narrator, and an unexpected first-person narrator in the book’s final section.
Like Salzmann herself, Ali and Anton are young when they immigrated to Germany from post-Soviet Russia in the early 90s, shortly after tanks rolled through Red Square. To cope with their abrupt relocation and turbulent home life, the twins become intensely close. Before Anton’s sudden and unexplained disappearance, they make every effort to meld into one another. As children, they “interlocked their toes, pressed their pelvises together and smeared spit on each other’s faces”; they “clawed each other’s shoulder blades and held each other tight.” After they endure a violent anti-Semitic attack together on the playground, they feel as if they “had melted into one body” (87). It’s no surprise, then, that Ali chases Anton across Europe without a second thought. She’s not just trying to find her brother — she’s trying to reconstitute herself.
We first meet her lying on the bathroom floor of Ataturk Airport, the tiles “cool on [her] left temple.” She feels she’s “been here before like this,” lying on the floor, ill and disoriented. “But when?” This moment of temporal disorientation sets us up for the rest of the novel, which flits freely between decades and generations, evading any fixed chronology.
Once she arrives in Istanbul, Ali is a stranger in a strange land, and her alienation often stems from the problem of language. This has always been the case for Ali, an experienced immigrant. In one childhood memory, she tries to report to a teacher that her brother is being viciously bullied—but the teacher “understood little of her Russian yammering. She shrugged, said words Ali didn’t recognize and vanished into the staffroom.”
Questions of language and intelligibility persist throughout the novel, and form the roots of Ali’s family tree. Ali questions her great-grandfather’s stories because she has a “fundamental mistrust of [her] mother tongue.” “Russian-speakers,” she says, “tend to hyperbole; they think in hyperbole.” When Ali’s grandmother immigrated to Volgograd, she “was changed forever more into a migrant woman […] unable to make herself understood in the supermarket.” And in a climactic monologue, Ali’s mother tells the story of her life by “speaking several languages at once, putting them together in different combinations to fit the color and flavor of her memories.”
How, Salzmann asks, does language shape our understanding of ourselves and the world? Can we trust language completely, or do we depend on it too much? While she never settles on an answer, the idea that much of ourselves is fundamentally inarticulable—that is, that language will never be able to fully capture us in our entirety, that it can never truly belong to us—persists throughout the text.
Back in Istanbul, Ali’s linguistic struggle to understand and be understood by the city’s Turkish-speaking inhabitants quickly morphs into an existential one, and her search for Anton takes a backseat to her own process of self-discovery. “Was she really looking for her brother,” she wonders, “or did she just want to get away?” She spends her time in clubs with friends and lovers, and makes no progress locating Anton. Instead, Ali’s time in Istanbul is spent exploring her queerness and gender identity. When she meets the transmasculine Kato, Ali finally reckons with questions that have been bubbling inside her since she was young. Just before Anton disappeared, Ali asked him, “What if I’m not a woman?” In conversations with Kato, Ali finally poses the question, “When you look at me, do you see a he or a she?”
Salzmann undermines traditionally fixed notions of gender through choices as subtle as characters’ names. Each character has multiple names, some masculine, some feminine, and some androgynous. Ali’s great-grandfather, for instance, goes by Alexander, Shura, and Sasha, the latter two names ascribed to men and women in fairly equal numbers. Kato, a trans man, also goes by the classically feminine names Katarina and Katyusha. Ali is perhaps most representative of Salzmann’s fluid conception of gender: she goes by both Ali, an androgynous name, and Alissa, a feminine name; in the character list that precedes the novel, she is identified as “sister, brother, me.”
At the heart of Ali’s journey and Salzmann’s writing is the intention to “hack gender,” in the author’s own words. Indeed, Beside Myself borrows its title from Judith Butler’s 2004 book Undoing Gender. From the Istanbul bar “filled with people’s whose sex varied depending on the time of day” to Ali’s redefinition of her own gender, the novel sees gender not as a permanent marker of belonging, but rather as an ongoing and unstable experience.
Several motifs help cohere Beside Myself, and violence—particularly gendered violence— is chief among them. In “Visible,” Salzmann writes that the experience of violence “becomes transcribed into a knowledge with which the person subsequently moves through the world.” Her novel expands upon this idea, exploring how this knowledge is not only transcribed but inherited. Violence is passed down in Ali’s family: her mother Valya suffers domestic abuse at the hands of both her first and second husbands; her father Konstantin is molested as a child, and the “feeling of abuse” becomes a “feeling he’d never shake”; and Ali is physically abused by her father as a girl. In one particularly harrowing scene, Anton watches “Ali gasping for breath, Konstantin’s hands squeezing her throat.”
Is violence, specifically gendered violence, inherited or learned? Perhaps it is both at once. Misogyny, Salzmann points out, is written explicitly into Russian culture. As a young woman, the twins’ mother Valya recalls some Russian proverbs: “If he hits you, he loves you,” goes one; “If you can’t stop the rape, relax and try to enjoy it,” goes another. Valya looks to film and literature for guidance when she herself is abused by an intimate partner, but she is able to glean nothing “other than to put up with it.” As we see over the course of four generations, this kind of violence is osmosed, unconsciously, not only between people, but through language and art. Even as the political and social mores change with each generation, the threat of violence always remains, especially for women, turning true Heimat into an impossibility.
While the novel’s entropic presentation can muddle its message, Salzmann has an undeniable knack for crafting vivid scenes. So many of this novel’s images have impressed themselves into my mind: an adolescent Shura gifting a pair of underwear to his future wife; an entire Soviet town vomiting incessantly, poisoned by spoiled ice cream; a throbbing rendition of “99 Luftballoons” filling a crowded nightclub. Many of the novel’s most indelible scenes actually take place without Ali.
Although Ali is technically the novel’s protagonist, she and her forebears take up roughly equal narrative space. Oftentimes, their origin stories are more interesting than hers. Valya’s mini-bildungsroman is especially compelling. As a young woman, she watches movies to try and learn about love, struggles to assert her worth, and endures decades of domestic abuse. By the end of Beside Myself, in a stunning turn of phrase, Salzmann describes Valya as having “pieced herself together, a little bit of story at a time.” Indeed, this seems to be the project of the novel—an attempt at piecing together a vividly imagined lineage, a little bit of story at a time.
Salzmann harps repeatedly on the inextricability of storytelling and identity. Stories are our “way of creating a world that ma[kes] sense,” she says, of proposing “possible interpretations of [our] lives.” If we’re good and lucky, our lives will become “the stuff of legends.” But, as Ali notes, there’s always “another version of the story.” She craves the tales that never “found [their] way into the annals of family history […]: uncles who’d shaved their legs and squeezed their bellies into corsages and dresses at night, aunts with shingled hair and black lipstick, strolling through the streets in suits.” That is, she wants to be seen, and to see herself reflected back in her own family.
Ali constantly searches for belonging—for Heimat—at parties and in strangers, in family trees and at dark discotheques. In flashbacks, her forebears fasten their own senses of belonging to things like nation or occupation. But ultimately, no one emerges from Beside Myself fully belonging anywhere—no one even seems to belong to themselves. In every generation, individuals lack true autonomy: they are constantly dissuaded from pursuing their passions, coerced by loved ones, and uprooted by political conflict.
Salzmann’s nonlinear timeline, alternating narrators, and flirtation with the uncanny keep the novel from feeling like a dawdling family history. But these stylistic choices can also be disorienting. Salzmann does her best to alleviate confusion where she can. For instance, the novel begins with a dramatis personae—a handy feature considering that, in keeping with Eastern Slavic naming customs, most characters go by at least three different names. Alongside the fluidity with which Salzmann approaches self and gender, characters’ multiple names feel reflective of their multiple selves, and the many different roles they play in their lives. But I’ll admit that I found myself having to repeatedly double check that Shura, Sasha, and Alexander were indeed the same person. (They were.)
Between Ali and Anton and their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, Beside Myself chews off a lot narratively, and Salzmann doesn’t always manage to generate the connective tissue these disparate storylines require. The author’s command of detail is especially impressive, and her vision is stunningly expansive, but the novel can’t quite come together in the end. Its fragmentation, while admirable, saps the novel of narrative momentum. Ultimately Salzmann struggles to turn her many threads into a single tapestry; at the end of it all, we’re left with a lot of stories about a lot of people and little ability to link them together or derive from them lasting significance.
Salzmann has called her novel a “liberating of Twelfth Night.” Like Shakespeare’s heroine Viola, Ali is separated from her twin brother and must search an unknown country to find him, assuming his identity in the process. While this plot-level comparison lends Beside Myself a charming cleverness, it can’t account for the novel’s fundamental instability and slippage into the surreal. I ultimately found I needed another narrative framework with which Salzmann’s work could converse in order to more fully understand it—or at least be able to walk away from it feeling some (or, really, any) satisfaction.
I think I found one. Behind the last page of Beside Myself is a set of acknowledgements, in which Salzmann calls Julio Cortázar one of the reasons “this book exists.” Cortázar’s influence is discernible throughout the novel, which, like much of the Argentine writer’s oeuvre, is experimental in form and existential in content. But it wasn’t until I read the acknowledgement of Cortázar that I realized his 1956 short story “Axolotl” could help me untangle an otherwise dizzying, puzzling novel.
In “Axolotl,” a nameless narrator, lonely and foreign to France, spends several days at a Parisian aquarium admiring a tank full of axolotls. “There was a time when I thought a great deal about axolotls,” begins the story. “Now I am an axolotl.” The narrator proceeds to describe the creatures to us in spellbinding detail, pressing his face against the glass of their enclosure. “After the first minute,” he says, “I knew we were linked.” Then, in the penultimate paragraph, with a subtle shift in narrative perspective, the narrator himself becomes one of the axolotls, staring back at his human form on the other side of the pane. In other words, the narrator is so enraptured by the axolotls that he literally turns into one.
Like the narrator of “Axolotl,” Ali feels so intensely for Anton that, by the story’s end, she becomes him. At the heart of both stories, then, are fixations so consuming that they transmogrify their protagonists. Through sheer obsession, we see two people physically transform into the objects of their affection. Just as the axolotl-narrator watches his human form outside the tank, when Ali looks in the mirror, Anton looks back and “she [sees] her face that was his face.” It was only with the precedent of “Axolotl” that I felt able to derive a more satisfying meaning from Ali’s ultimate metamorphosis: Ali, like Cortázar’s narrator, finds such solace and belonging in her twin that taking his form is the only possible solution to his absence.
While Ali—a Jewish, queer, trans, multilingual migrant—pursues her own sense of Heimat, she ultimately discovers that Anton might be the closest thing to Heimat she will ever find. As we shuffle between nations and identities, home might best be found in other people—specifically, the ones who know us best—rather than places. Salzmann concurs: late in the novel, Konstantin decides he wants to go back to Moscow, to “go home.” “He didn’t realize,” Salzmann qualifies, “there’s no such thing.”