Halfway down page 388 of my paperback edition of Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River Max Rudnick and Trudi share their first kiss. In the next few pages, the story of their first sexual encounter unfolds.
For those of you who have not read this novel, the scene is the fictional village of Bergdorf, Germany during World War II. The author has chosen third person intimate point of view, and her main character, Trudi, is Zwerg—a not so gentle German word for dwarfism. The novel tells the story of war, the horrendous personal price of war and the Holocaust not only on its victims and innocents, but also on those complicit in its unfolding. She accomplishes this though illuminating Trudi’s experience of being Zwerg in this small town.
The pages before the sex scene have provided a panoramic view of Trudi’s world and a close follow of her interior life. We know of sordid events in her past, and secret fantasies that she uses to stimulate herself sexually.
Max is her first lover. The scene opens innocently, almost amateurishly and moves forward from this tentative starting point:
“The first time Max Rudnick kissed her, Trudi felt the secret of Angeslika between them, but she kissed him back, passionately, greedily because she felt she was stealing this kiss.”
In the course of three pages, our understanding of Trudi’s life is transformed by her sexual encounter. It is one she never expected to have. Hegi gently presents the sexual act in the context of Trudi’s inner consciousness, entirely without salacious details, and this deepens our understanding. We are not seduced by sexy physical details, and our curiosity of how this physically different woman will have sex with a normal man. We stop seeing Trudi in the context of her dwarf body, and instead see her as a woman.
Hegi does not let us forget about the uniqueness of Trudi’s situation. This is what gives this love scene its power, this glimpse of the most intimate workings of Trudi’s mind while in the act. We follow her for some time afterward.
“She’d never slept in the same bed with anyone. It felt strange, crowded, exciting—as though her body had sprouted an extra torso and head, limbs of normal size that would disentangle from her in a few hours. But not yet. Not yet. It made her think how children who had siblings often slept in the same bed...”
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