Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein

2023 Giller Prize Winner!

The two epigraphs to Sarah Bernstein’s novel, Study for Obedience, prepare for her unnamed narrator’s feminist outlook in an unnamed “remote northern country.” The first epigraph belongs to Paula Rego, a Portuguese-British painter: “I can turn the tables and do, as I want. I can make women stronger. I can make them obedient and murderous at the same time.” Bernstein’s novel turns tables and empowers her obedient narrator through painterly observations that evoke Wordsworth’s spots of time. Obedience requires a listening to, and her ear is as finely tuned as her powers of observation.

The second epigraph from Ingeborg Bachmann, an Austrian poet who was married to Paul Celan, pinpoints guilt and punishment – Kafkaesque and Dostoyevskian elements that permeate this novel: “Language is punishment. It must encompass all things and in it all things must again transpire according to guilt and the degree of guilt.” Kafka and Proust are two of the inmates in the novelist’s encompassing prison-house of language, landscape, and enigmatic observations.

“Longlisted for the Booker Prize, Bernstein’s second novel deserves to be advanced to the shortlist.”

            Study for Obedience is a meta-fictional meditation on obedience, survival, and subversion – a thoughtful table-turner that mediates between Kafka’s parables and Proust’s remembrance of things past. Each of the seven chapters hints at a biblical past, beginning with “A beginning a beginning again.” The author’s tale turns tables, so that beginnings are difficult to ascertain. Animals ensure an allegorical reading of the novel: “It was the sow eradicated by her piglets. It was a swift and menacing time. One of the local dogs was having a phantom pregnancy. Things were leaving one place and showing up in another.” On the one hand, the vagueness of “things” adds to the mystery: “Certain things began to arise.” On the other hand, specific details pique the reader’s interest, and create a cadence of credulity in “an uncanny wind,” blowing from the east across this nameless northern country. Bernstein studies the obedience of prose, oscillating between pithy and prolix sentences that convey her mood and messages in the otherness of ultima Thule, the hidden north. 

            Sentences themselves are vehicles of obedience, subject to the rules of grammar, yet pliable enough to be disobedient when necessary. The first paragraph ends: “But all that as I said came later,” while the second begins, “Where to begin.” Yet her narrative voice soon expands, and this flexibility from brevity to prolixity establishes a rhythm that guards the fiction: “I attended to their every desire, smoothed away the slightest discomfort with perfect obedience, with the highest degree of devotion, so that over time their desires became mine, so that I came to anticipate wants not yet articulated, perhaps not yet even imagined, providing my siblings with the greatest possible succour, filling them up only so they could demand more, always more, demands to which I acceded with alacrity and discreet haste, ministering the complex curative draughts prescribed to them by various doctors, serving their meals and snacks, their cigarettes and aperitifs, their nightcaps and bedside glasses of milk.” On the one hand, her family contrasts with the pigs and other fabled animals; on the other, it belongs to a larger tribe or community where guilt, punishment, and obedience are binding forces, as religious service and meal service go hand in hand, clause by clause. Siblings and sentences are filled up by a narrator who inhabits a meta-fictional world of place and prose. 

            And the next paragraph resumes temporal attempts: “Better perhaps to begin again.” Her eldest brother settles in a place she occupies: “Why he ended up in this remote northern country, the country, it transpired, of our family’s ancestors, an obscure though reviled people who had been dogged across borders and put into pits.” The narrator cannot speak the local language, for she is an outsider who resides in her own gnomic consciousness, yet her ancestors become more explicit as the novel progresses. Her brother’s manor house once belonged “to the distinguished leaders of the historic crusade against our forebears.” 

            The second chapter, “A Problem of Inheritance,” outlines a dual inheritance – her family as opposed to the inhabitants of this foreign country. She thinks of the lullabies of her people, “singing of the burning villages, of exile.” As her identity gradually evolves, she is distanced not only from those outside her community, but also from those within who are assimilated and obedient in a different way. They are “without history, like gentiles, like people unstained by ancestral shame.” She disobeys: “I steadfastly refused to say the bracha over our classroom Sabbath ceremonies each Friday afternoon.” Bracha is a blessing, but also a wound, and the novel explores both in tandem, in this history of wounds and blessings. (Indeed, the wounded bird on the book’s cover bears witness.) Part of her earlier education reveals “that the great-nephew of a famed writer of Holocaust memoir had held my hand.” The indelible tattoo from a concentration camp rubs off ever so indirectly. 

            As she turns away from that lineage, she turns her attention to nature surrounding her brother’s estate in her Wordsworthian walk through the woods. Yet she is estranged from “a landscape that had no names.” As an audio typist for a legal firm, the narrator is finely attuned to the nuances of languages, yet this foreign country remains a barrier: “Since I could not interpret the diacritic marks of the language of the country, the shape of the words in my mouth could only be a homophonic translation.” Meta-fictional marks mingle with her Wordsworthian encounter with nature and a Proustian sensibility of time lost – “presence and absence twisting together.” She studies obedience to treelines, lines of language, and the lineage of her ancestors. Her voice comes back to her in the bowl of a lake, and she listens to herself as she watches dark shapes move under thinning ice. The novel is a study of seasons, centuries, and whatever lurks beneath surfaces.

            Amid all this melancholy, the third chapter, “A Dying Tongue,” begins on a humorous note: “What needs explaining was that, and it was a funny thing, a very funny thing, I did not speak the language.” The funny thing may reside in language or in her brother’s dog, Bert, who

urinates on rugs and rags that she hooks. In the past she learned German or Italian with ease, “delivering sentences with multiple clauses to showcase my linguistic virtuosity, revelling in every single syllable.” An inveterate smoker like Clarice Lispector, she inhales and hooks together clauses and punctuation with monosyllables of yes and no – “For all things come to an end, yes.” Things may be physical or metaphysical in this northern country where ancestral spectres are entwined and enshrined, where names are secret and sacred. 

To complicate matters the uncanny behaviour of local animals serves as a commentary on human interaction: “Three times a day, at daybreak, at noon, at sunset, in all corners of the township however far-flung, every canine, as if mobilised by some mysterious force, stood to attention and howled in one long, unbroken, collective howl.” And this howling leads to her study of the church spire and life of obedience, “representing metonymically as it were the profound spiritual failure of one’s life.” Although the novel does proceed metonymically from clause to clause, space to space, it also studies the mystery of metonymy. In the diner she turns the tables of the mother tongue, “when not plagued by aphasia – receptive or expressive – or dysphonia, of the same order, when not affected by aphonia, by a stutter or a lisp.”

            After this linguistic lesson she celebrates spring: “The lean and hungry season endured, of course, of course.” The seasonal routine and rhythm pulse: “Day after day I affirmed the silence, chewing, chewing the cud.” From her mouth she turns to her “mind’s eye,” and her brother’s Romantic, utopian apostrophes: “only Nature and the gaze. O rhododendrons! (They grew in profusion around the house.) O such themes!” Bernstein’s gaze oscillates between microcosms of Romanticism and the macrocosm of Henry James’s ample sentences (adopted by Cynthia Ozick.) Her hermetic narrator withdraws to a northern desert where “personal ascesis would arrive in the form of one more letter, one more mass mortality event, one more migration stopped by total annihilation.” Bernstein’s asceticism obediently tracks the coming bad days and seasons. 

            The narrator describes her outsider status through euphemism and circumlocution: “I was always an incomer, an offlander, sometimes a usurper, more rarely a consumer, it was something in my blood.” Bloodlines always intervene in her (dis)obedience: “my ethnic background, as it was called at the time, I was repeatedly made treasurer of organizations.” Through this stigma she overturns the stereotype and seeks instead austerity, contemplation, devotion. If the other community reminds her of her strange status, her own family accuses her of “committing sacrilege, for had not the rabbis always said that the Lord did not create the world for desolation, but for human habitation?” For human habitation in the garden she turns to Romantic poetry as an alternative to rabbinic injunctions: “O suns! I thought. O grass of graves!” These apostrophes punctuate in the manner of other repetitions in her prose of obedience – “some sudden unreadable urge: urge and urge and urge.” Her vacillation between rabbinic roots and natural settings is captured in these prose rhythms, as she finds a way to serve community in silence and at a distance. A parenthetic remark is telling: “(for had not the sages said that good deeds are better done in anonymity, without gratitude?)” The anonymity of narrator and place universalizes the parable and situation in Study for Obedience.

            Perched between the ordeal of civility and civil disobedience, the novel explores private and public spheres in a rhythmic, ritualistic rhetoric. She examines her Jewish past: “Yes, yes, that kind of heartiness was familiar to me, it was never in short supply at any of these gatherings; weddings or funerals, naming ceremonies or ritual circumcisions.” The sentence then stretches out to accommodate her extended family among those ritual ceremonies – “A prayer book, some scraps of song a history lesson beginning with devastation.” Running counterpoint to ritual processes are studies on obedience to meta-fiction, as the narrator continues her transcription work in the garden, scrutinizing semi-colons. “Such was the house style. I had prided myself on a well-placed comma, a clarifying colon.” This grammar of motives leads into the next chapter, “A Private Ritual,” which invokes “muscle memory” and “tradition.” Inside the village café, the outsider throws “a pinch of salt over the left shoulder, an automatic gesture, an old habit, learned at the Sabbath table.” This atavistic habit highlights the two senses of service: worship and being served in the town’s diner. 

            Emerging from the diner, the narrator is guided by the sun’s “aestival arc,” as she enters the churchyard where she witnesses the townspeople burying the grass dolls she had woven. “It was a perplexing ritual, so laden with potential meaning it was difficult to discern whether it might constitute a blessing or a curse.” She and her reader work through the “symbology” of this event, aware that the blessing is also a wound. All of these rituals merge at the chapter’s end: “such were the operations of the doomed inquiry into the soul, the pursuit of a state of gravity and grace.” Soul-searching lies at the heart of Study for Obedience

            Her brother contributes to her atavistic lore: “our grandfather, our father’s father, certainly had an anticipatory view of his own life that did not end in the usual ailments that cropped up in the lore of our people, such as cholera, such as fanaticism, such as the pogroms.” On her paternal side, a negation of persecution; on her maternal side, kitchen rituals and a recipe for survival: “I see my mother filleting the carp, saving the bones, saving the head, adding onion, adding carrots, adding oil and sugar, salt and pepper, blending well, cracking the eggs, a spoonful of water, chilling the mixture, returning later to form it into balls.” This prose recipe for parallelisms and gefilte fish brings other remembrances of things past: “I can picture her even now stuffing the kishke, salting the liver, breading the chicken, chopping the herring.” Time collapses in this celebration of diasporic habits. Not until the narrator invokes “none was too many” are we thrust into Bernstein’s biography and Montreal background.

            Her brother lists forms of persecution from windows smashed and burning of books: “if one were to interpret his claims as a kind of extended allegory … if only I would apply myself to its study.” Study for Obedience is an extended allegory where narrator and reader study the lessons of history and “the didactic function of reading.” From the novel where “Meaning ran one way and then another,” the narrator takes up the study of Montaigne. 

            In the final chapter, “A Meditation on Silence,” “yes” and “no” punctuate the paragraphs of metafictional study. As her brother lies dying, she poses the question: “But we begin to weary of this line, do we not?” In this compressed novel where the faces of the townspeople remain unreadable, the narration between the lines expands “vaster than the story of exile of a single people. And bigger still.” The smoker-narrator inhales and exhales “this uncanny air” – filled with particles of the past. Existential and ontological, she claims her right to live, study, obey, and disobey. Laconic and languorous, ascetic and atavistic, the novel obeys its own study. Longlisted for the Booker Prize, Bernstein’s second novel deserves to be advanced to the shortlist. 

SARAH BERNSTEIN is from Montreal, Canada, and lives in Scotland. Her writing has appeared in Granta among other publications. Her first novel, The Coming Bad Days, was published in 2021. In 2023 she was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Knopf Canada (Aug. 22 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 208 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1039009069
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1039009066