THE TREE AND THE VINE
By Dola de Jong
To describe as doomed a love that begins in 1938 between two European women is to risk tautology. Yet the problems that dog Bea and Erica in Dola de Jong’s novel “The Tree and the Vine” are too personal to be defined by looming political catastrophe.
Before coming out in the Netherlands in 1954, the book was rejected as “unpublishable” and “shameless.” Kristen Gehrman, the translator of this new edition, writes in her afterword that it took the intervention of distinguished friends abroad, including de Jong’s American editor, Maxwell Perkins, to get the novel into print. When it first appeared in English in 1961, reviewers likewise misread this subtle character study, bizarrely, as trash about “compulsive sin” and “the world of the sexual pervert,” Lillian Faderman noted in a later reissue.
“The Tree and the Vine” is set in an Amsterdam still suffering the effects of the Great Depression. Bea is our narrator, a secretary with a persona to match her looks, which are “what men called drab.” Her inclination to disavow the romantic nature of her feelings for Erica, an aspiring reporter she takes as a roommate, is so powerful that it still colors her telling, years after she has left the country and ended up, as de Jong herself did, in New York City. (The author escaped in April 1940, just before the German invasion.)
Bea is the foil to moody, impetuous Erica, who sometimes gets drunk and kisses Bea’s neck, and other times disappears for days while Bea cries and wonders where she is. “When she gave you a finger,” Bea thinks, in one of the lovely oddities preserved by Gehrman, “you wanted the whole hand.” She’s so paralyzed by denial that when Erica and Bas, a nice-ish boyfriend Bea meets at work, each want to spend summer vacation with her, she can’t decide, and waits for them to fight it out. Seeing what he’s up against, Bas bows out, and the women head to France.
Bea can’t respond to Erica’s physical advances, but feels hurt and snobbishly bemused that Erica “preferred these gaudy, superficial, outspoken girls,” like Judy, a wealthy American divorcée who seduces her on their summer trip, and Dolly, a dancer Erica briefly shacks up with, who hits her when they fight. To them, Bea’s appeal is no less a mystery: “God knows what she sees in you,” Dolly says to her. “You’re neither one nor the other.”
Differences in background and temperament emerge from the first chapter, when, settling into their apartment, Bea realizes Erica doesn’t own a bed, or even a mattress. Erica laughs at her bourgeois embarrassment: “Haven’t you ever slept on the floor? What if there was a fire or a flood, and you had to flee your home.”
Erica’s awareness that you can’t rely on anything doesn’t necessarily prepare her for survival. It’s Bea who feeds and cleans up after her, guards their paltry savings, and eventually insists they make plans to get Erica, who’s half-Jewish, out of Holland. By then, Hitler’s forces are expected, and even Erica’s mother has joined the local National Socialists.
Neither Erica, following every impulse, nor Bea, smothering her own, can quite live as she wants. “Even now,” Bea says, “I wonder whether what I took to be a tree growing off in the distance wasn’t in fact a lifeless trunk, its own leaves strangled by the vines growing up around it.” Yet despite its subject, “The Tree and the Vine” is lively, funny. “I was so inspired by those wood-carved faces,” Bea says, looking at Christ’s Passion while sulking as the third wheel in a French church, “that I decided to turn the other cheek and continue south with them in Judy’s Renault.”
It doesn’t surprise me that the novel, though by no means sexually explicit, was initially considered too shocking to publish. (Only V. S. Naipaul, of all people, seems to have recognized it as the “delicately rendered” portrait it is: His 1961 review furnishes the blurb for this translation.) Whereas Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt,” appearing under a pseudonym in 1952, notoriously provided a lesbian romance with a happy, or at least hopeful, ending, “The Tree and the Vine” accomplishes something bolder: It normalizes its characters’ unhappinesses, showing them to be just as complicated as anyone else’s.
Bea’s tendency to pathologize Erica’s sexuality — as a “wrongness” she sometimes sees as the result of a troubled upbringing — only highlights de Jong’s refusal to do so, and her recognition that, as with the image of tree and vine, a certain self-defeating twistedness is a natural part of the human condition. And here, when a character is endangered by her love of women, you know it isn’t the author who wants to punish her.