“Deaf and Blind”
by Lara Vapnyar
from the April 24, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

This will be Lara Vapnyar’s fourth work in The New Yorker, following “Fischer vs. Spassky” in 2012 (our thoughts here), “Katania” in 2013 (our thoughts here), and “Waiting for the Miracle” from almost exactly one year ago (our thoughts here).

Vapnyar’s stories have been highly autobiographical. After growing up in Moscow, she moved to the United States in 1994 and started to write in English. Here stories that I’ve read have often explored the immigrant experience, and, indeed, have felt like they’ve come from specific events in her life.

In her interview with Deborah Treisman (here), Vapnyar calls this story, about a woman who falls in love with a deaf and blind man, “the most autobiographical of my stories.” It appears to be based on a particular childhood memory. I’m curious how it translates into fiction.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts below!

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By | 2017-06-16T22:49:26+00:00 April 17th, 2017|Categories: Lara Vapnyar|Tags: |13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Dennis Lang April 19, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    Loved it! From start to finish, great story, buoyant, funny, wonderfully perceptive. And a bit of a contrast, cultural and otherwise, from the harrowing “You are Happy?” last week, although interpersonal family relationships, illuminated from the viewpoints of a young son and here the daughter are central to both.

  2. Katie April 21, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    I also loved it. The narrator has the voice of a close friend telling you a secret with delight, unfolding heartbreaking subject matter with humor and charm. Especially skillful is how she managed the perspective of a little girl while giving the reader the dramatic irony of seeing the whole picture. Fitting that she quoted Chekov, in that I believe Vapnyar follows that tradition here.

  3. Katie April 21, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    I’m amazed how Carver’s “Cathedral” came to mind while reading it, but the reference didn’t strike me as too heavy handed, maybe because of the way Vapnyar slips the actual word cathedral into a simile, like an afterthought: “Then he said something else, and I wanted Olga to translate, but she said that she couldn’t, that this was too much and most of it was private. There were tears in her eyes. Suddenly she grabbed Sasha’s hands and kissed them. At that moment, we all felt the presence of something in the room. Well, I can’t be sure about my grandparents, but I felt it, and I know that my mother felt it, too. It was as if something enormous and grand were growing out of our dinner table, reaching up, up and up, like a cathedral breaking through the sky.” Gorgeous and somehow subtle homage to Carver.

  4. Roger April 21, 2017 at 9:07 pm

    This story, like just about everything I’ve read from Vapnyar, is a real treat. It’s both funny, as Dennis notes, and moving, and a fitting tribute to the Carver story. I enjoyed how the child’s sense of neglect from her father is intermingled with humor as she anticipates the visit from the deaf and blind man.

    I took a look at previous Vapnyar stories on which we’ve commented and was especially taken with Sean H’s characterization of her writing as “tight as a drum.” She really is flawless. Not the same as saying every story she writes is super-interesting, but many of them are and she never missteps, or at least not that I’ve seen in her work in TNY or in her collection, “There Are Jews in My House,” which I’d recommend.

  5. David April 21, 2017 at 9:40 pm

    Now this is why I like reading comments about stories here. I read “Deaf And Blind” and thought it was ho hum. I found that the idea of meeting the deaf and blind man was little more than just the novelty of the idea of meeting a deaf and blind man with little else to say about it. That it came from a real experience of the author’s seemed to confirm for me that it was one of those “real life” stories of “something interesting happened to me this one time” that turn out to seem more interesting than they really are.
    .
    Then there was all the stuff about the girl whose parents are divorced who prefers the absent parent only to eventually discover that he cares a lot less about her than she thinks. It seemed a story that is very typical of a divorce situation and a story structure I have seen many many times before. So it looked like there was nothing much there either. Furthermore, I could not see what these two stories had to do with each other. I mean, other than the too-clever-by-half metaphorical one. (“Don’t you get it? The little girl is the one who is really deaf and blind about her father! Woah!”)
    .
    Then I come here. I come here and I see Katie talking about Carver and Chekov, two authors I greatly admire. I see Roger talk about how he is impressed with her writing not just here but in other stories as well. I see these things and wonder, did we read the same story? Did I really miss something … or everything? So I think this is what I will do. First, dig out Carver’s “Cathedral” and give that a read and then give “Deaf And Blind” another go. Nothing would please me more than at the end of that realizing that there really is a lot more to this one than I had thought on my first look. I hope that happens.
    .
    Yes indeed. This really is why I like reading comments about stories here.

  6. Eric April 24, 2017 at 4:12 am

    A good story, but one which I totally missed the point of until I read the author interview. It never would have occurred to me that seeing the depth of Olga’s and Sasha’s love would have the effect of bringing the daughter closer to the mother without the author’s painstaking interview explanation. A good example of how you learn more about how people relate to each other from good literature than from probably any psychology class.

  7. David April 24, 2017 at 9:15 am

    Eric, except you didn’t learn that from the story. You learned it from the interview with the author. The story itself failed to make the connection both for you and for me. The story itself still reads as just two different stories that have little, if anything, to do with each other awkwardly stuck together (and neither are obviously primarily about the mother-daughter relationship). Interestingly, I just finished reading this weak’s story, “Two Ruminations on a Homeless Brother”. In this weeks author interview, David Means explains that originally the two parts were written as separate pieces and it was only later he saw how they fit together. I have to agree with him that they do work very well together, and would add that they are much more obviously companion pieces than the two stories in “Deaf and Blind” are.

    PS – As I mentioned I was going to in my last comment here, I read Carver’s “Cathedral” and then re-read “Deaf and Blind” over the weekend. It change my opinion of “Deaf and Blind”, but I really enjoyed “Cathedral”. So at least that was good.

  8. David April 24, 2017 at 9:43 am

    Over the weekend I read Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” and re-read “Deaf and Blind” and I quite liked “Cathedral”, but my view of “Deaf and Blind” really hasn’t changed. Eric, your comment about learning from good literature how people relate to each other is true enough, but you didn’t learn that from this story. You learned about it from the author interview. That idea “never would have occurred” to you without the interview and it never occurred to me either. The story itself still reads to me as two mostly unrelated parts, neither of which is centrally about the mother-daughter relationship.

    Coincidentally, I just read this weeks story, “Two Ruminations on a Homeless Brother” by David Means. In his interview for the story he explains how the two parts were written as separate pieces and it was only subsequently that he realized that they worked well together. I agree with him about that. But seeing this story only highlights again just how the two parts of “Deaf and Blind” never connected well at all. She may have been trying to give two scenes that illuminate the mother-daughter relationship, but it didn’t work. At least, not for me and, it seems, not for Eric either.

    PS – I just posted a comment with basically the same content as this one, but it appears the blog monster ate it and it never showed up.

  9. David April 24, 2017 at 9:44 am

    Blog monster ate my my comment a second time. I give up. For now. Enjoy the dessert, blog monster!!!

  10. William April 27, 2017 at 2:50 pm

    I just read “Deaf and Blind” and I’m firmly in the “enjoy” camp. And the “tight writing” camp. So simply told, no grating anguish, like in a TC Boyle story. Moves forward skillfully as in the best Russian fiction. And moving, at least for me.

    Katie — nothing amazing about how “Cathedral” was evoked by Vapnyar’s story. It’s right there. And then, as you and others note, she used the word “cathedral”. But in a smooth way, nothing ostentatious, acknowledging her debt to Carver. Or homage.

    So, whenever we feel like the NYer no longer publishes the best fiction, we need to remember this story. Sometimes they deliver.

  11. Greg April 30, 2017 at 2:38 pm

    Katie – I fully agree with how you characterized the author’s approach:

    “The narrator has the voice of a close friend telling you a secret with delight, unfolding heartbreaking subject matter with humor and charm.”

    Also, I enjoyed the author’s raw honesty regarding the characters’ feelings for each other. She shares their preferences without any filter:

    “My mother and Olga had confessed to each other that their marriages weren’t happy. Olga explained that her husband loved her like crazy, but she never felt more than affection and respect for him. She wanted to know what it was like to love somebody ‘with every fibre of your being,’ the way people did in books. She was sure that she would love her child like that. My mother told Olga that she did love my father with every fibre of her being, but she wasn’t sure if he loved her back. She had a feeling that he was getting tired of their marriage. She hoped that having a child would bind him to her.”

  12. Rina November 17, 2017 at 4:18 pm

    The story is amazing. The last sentence “My mother never remarried” says so much.

  13. Greg November 17, 2017 at 7:09 pm

    So right Rina!

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