ELLIOT PAUL'S
INDELIBLE (1922)

by Arnold Goldman

Paul chose for his young protagonist Samuel Graydon’s family his Linden neighbors of that surname, transferring to them some of the events of his own childhood and youth like his mother’s "blood-poisoning." The locale, while geographically Linden, [Malden, Massachusetts] is given the name of nearby Cliftondale. Like Elliot, Samuel Graydon grows up musical, learning to play the zither and then the piano. Unlike Eliot’s, Samuel’s family is able to send him to the Conservatory in Boston.

If one strand of the plot of Indelible stays close to memories of Linden, another constitutes Paul’s initial and tentative venture into the exotic. In Boston’s immigrant North End - 90% Italian, 10% Jewish - Mischa Borofsky’s fiery daughter Lena yearns to play the violin, or "scripka". From being a rag man with a horse ("Sad Eyes"), Mischa battles his way to become a second-hand clothing dealer with a shop, and Lena finally gets her violin when its maker sells Mischa cheaply the one he had made for his own dead child. Lena, too, attends the Conservatory, and when Mischa dies, her studies are paid for by the local Irish ward boss, who had taken his cut for getting Mischa his licences. (Paul sharply details the ward-boss system.)1

Seeing Lena at the Conservatory, "the most beautiful girl in the world" and "the best of the violin students," Samuel makes friends and takes her to Nantasket Beach for a day. War is imminent: he attempts to enlist but is rejected because of poor eyesight. (When he entertains the troops at Camp Devens, they only want jazz.) On the eve of the Conservatory graduation recital, after Lena practices with Samuel, they embrace. In a moment of horror, the piano lid falls on her left hand, severing fingertips. She flees. It was Samuel’s carelessness for not carefully fixing the piano lid post. Seeking her, he is told she and her roommate Mary have left their Joy St apartment "and nobody knew where to find them." Through his unsuccessful search in the North End, he begins to see how the other half lives.2

After a time when he cannot bear to play, "Music has come back to me and when things are hard to bear, I play and play for hours. When I improvise, the new chords of Debussy come more naturally to my ear." Earlier, Gabrilowitch "played a piece called ‘Claire de Lune,’ by Debussy, and it left me all bewildered. There were strange, new chords that never seemed to come to rest and pale, weird light gleaming through." Sorrow has now broadened Samuel’s receptivity, but he "cannot seem to hold a job" and "Things are going very badly." He becomes a ticket seller at the Cliftondale railway station, but "keeps up his technique, so that I will be ready to take advantage of the first opportunity." It comes when the violinist Thiron, needing a replacement accompanist and remembering Samuel from a visit to the Conservatory - when the young pianist was quick to cover up


the violinist’s mistake - asks Samuel to accompany him on tour.3

Lena, in despair after the amputation of "[t]he ends of two slender fingers," and having smashed her violin, nearly sacrifices her virtue - the doors of the notorious Revere House beckon. But a wealthy Jew, having wondered at her absence from the graduation recital, finds her and takes her and her friend Mary to his home to live. When a visitor to the house recognises Mary as formerly a Revere House prostitute, the loyal Lena leaves with Mary to live on Joy Street once more and takes a job in a canning factory, pasting labels. Once she travels to Cliftondale to catch sight of Samuel, sees him working at the railway station, and is frozen with grief at his having abandoned his career. She travels on, and back to Boston, without contacting him. Had she done so, she would have learned he was to accompany Thiron. The novel rolls past this Hardy-esque mischance. Lena’s underlying nature draws her back to music - just when she feels Samuel is lost to it - and although ashamed of having destroyed her violin, she forces herself to visit the shop of its maker. The old men who play there in a string quartet are overjoyed to see her. (She is unaware that Thiron and Samuel have been there earlier that day. They fail to mention it!) Learning of Thiron’s Boston recital, she decides to attend.

When at the recital Samuel steadies the piano lid post, there is a "little stifled scream" in the audience. He is instantly convinced that Lena is present. Afterwards, they meet, embrace and decide to marry immediately. On tour with Thiron, Samuel reads in a Boston paper that Mary has committed suicide, presumably after (against his advice) she had told her Italian suitor, home from the War, of her past, and been rejected. He keeps the news from Lena - who it seems never asks about her lost friend. Samuel and Lena set up house in Cliftondale, and they buy Lena’s late father’s horse and put him out to grass. Baby Lena is born and Thiron and the string quartet visit. The violin-maker gives them, for the baby, the now-restored violin.4

Indelible’s plot mechanics let it down, and its general grasp of life is not deep, but the feelings of childhood and youthful anxiety, fear, bitterness and determination ring true. There is some attempt to see Samuel from the inside, but perhaps wisely the treatment of Lena is more external. If Samuel is almost brought to a standstill by his apprehensive, disapproving mother and his own inhibitions, Jewish Lena Borofsky looks at first like an alternative Samuel, someone who will have her way or destroy herself in the attempt. That the plot effectively sacrifices Lena for Samuel’s less flamboyant musical career, and uses her experience to define his feelings, gives evidence less of melodrama or chauvinism than of submarine, transposed currents of psychological necessity. Nor did Indelible, as a first novel, exhaust Paul’s experience of life to date.


NOTES

1 Richard Kimball says Paul "met Lena Borofsky" "in the Ghetto north of Beacon Hill" (typescript, New York Public Library, Berg Collection, 5). Shorter version in Malden Evening News, 12 July 1922.
2 Elliot Paul, Indelible (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922), 148, 176.
3 Ibid., 190, 195, 203.
4 Ibid., 215, 250, 258.


This analysis of Indelible is taken from Arnold Goldman's biography-in-progress of Elliot Paul. Arnold Goldman 2001.

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