A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Posts Tagged ‘USA

Marilynne Robinson: Gilead

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Preachers tend to get a bad press in literature. From bumbling buffoons like Jane Austen’s Mr Collins through to Hilary Mantel’s sinister and erratically cruel Cardinal, it’s clear that there is not much love lost between many wordsmiths and the Church.

Much of this is no doubt justified by the countless instances of abuse of trust and power, not to mention downright idiocy, bodied forth in pulpits around the world across the centuries. Nonetheless, it was surprisingly refreshing to find an alternative perspective in Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead

Set in 1957, the novel is gathered together out of the final writings, recollections and pensees of the Reverend John Ames, a pastor in the two-horse town of Gilead in America’s Midwest. Aware that death is approaching fast and that he will not live to see his young son grow up, the old man sets about writing an extended letter that he hopes will explain something of his history, life and belief system to his child in years to come.

It sounds like a recipe for a huge helping of mawkish sentimentalism. And yet it absolutely isn’t. Instead, Robinson uses a talent for transfiguring the mundane to create a monument to the beauty of the human spirit and the honest attempt to seek out and remain faithful to truth, whatever it may be.

It’s a novel built on moments. The fragmentary nature of the narrative allows Ames to dwell on particular instances, imbuing them with significance because of the way he remembers them. The best of these have a poetic lyricism, backlit by Ames’s certainty about their eternal significance, which offers readers of any religious persuasion and none a compelling insight into the alchemy of faith.

Ames could be a prig, but he isn’t. Suspicious of the shiftless Jack Boughton, who he fears may have designs on his much younger wife, Ames wrestles with his own jealousy and paranoia, deceiving and rebuking himself by turns. He also loves life with a fierce passion that breaks through the measured prose, full of joy, wistfulness and poignancy: ‘Oh, I will miss the world!’ he exclaims in the middle of an anecdote.

This, coupled with Robinson’s excellent eye for awkwardness, and an impeccable interweaving of scripture, gives the narrative a richness and humanity guaranteed to sweep the reader along. I doubt there are many who make it through the final quarter without shedding a tear. 

Picture by Pam’s Pic-‘s


Written by Ann Morgan

December 27, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Siri Hustvedt: The Summer Without Men

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A traditional woman

Women hate each other. At least you’d be forgiven for thinking that on the basis of most of the books I’ve read so far this year. Whether it’s Trapido’s bullied teenager Cat, Oates’ tormented misfit Minette, or the brilliant, yet ultimately ostracised Lily Bart, women’s cruelty to one another is a recurring theme in women’s lit.

Interestingly, with the slight exception of Lucy Caldwell’s Noor who passes the treatment she suffers on to the unfortunate Hong Chang Jones with interest, the story is nearly always told from the victim’s point of view.  Whether that’s because literary bods tend to be the bookish, solitary types prone to this sort of treatment, whether it’s because this makes for a powerful plot device, or whether the mechanisms of society are such that all women feel a degree of victimisation at some stage in their lives is not clear. But there’s no doubt that the passages dealing with the peculiar brand of subtle, mental destruction that women mete out to their peers are often among the most vivid and heartfelt in the books.

Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men is no exception. Finding herself at a loose end when her husband of 30 years asks for a ‘pause’ from their marriage so that he can pursue his passion for a much younger colleague, middle-aged poet Faith divides her time between visiting her elderly mother and her cronies in their sheltered home, getting to know a vulnerable neighbour, and teaching a summer class for teenage girls in a quiet US town. Having been victimised herself at school, she is quick to spot a souring dynamic between her most precocious pupil and the rest of the group. When an incident makes what has been going on clear, Faith takes it upon herself to counter the girls’ vitriol and turn their negativity into strength.

It’s a surprising, if not entirely successful, book. From the Amazon blurb, you might easily assume this novel sits towards the trashy end of the commercial scale. If I’m honest, it was the lure of the plot about the unfaithful husband and the dilemma he presented that drew me in. I even felt slightly guilty as I downloaded it, thinking of the hundreds of fascinating, classic and worthy books on my list of recommendations and must-reads.

The reality was quite the opposite. As far as I know, there is no literary prize for the number of academic references in a single book, but if such an award existed Hustvedt would be a hot favourite. From Winnicott and Chomsky to Nietzsche and Kant, the whole galaxy of intellectual stars is brought to bear as Faith works her way through a maze of thoughts about gender, identity, love and truth. Pensees range from meditations on the female orgasm in the animal kingdom to the portrayal of the sexes in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

And that’s the problem: thought-provoking though it is, the book reads like a series of essays strung together with a loosely conceived plot. Strange devices, such as the bizarre Mr Nobody, are introduced and tail off unresolved and the central dilemma of the husband — surely the hook that will snare many a reader — is never adequately confronted. As the final pages approached, I found myself wondering when the story would begin.

There are also some irritating textual effects: any piece of writing that ends ‘Fade to black’, for example, except possibly a book about film, clearly takes itself far too seriously.

Still, you have to give Hustvedt credit for the intellectual rigour with which she presents her preoccupations and her attempt to do more than simply reflect the cruelty that troubles her. In a market where it’s tempting to drop the complexities and play to the gallery, this is a writer who bangs her own drum.

Fade to black.

Picture by Robert Wade

Written by Ann Morgan

June 9, 2011 at 9:36 am

Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth

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Rubbish pickers in Kolkata, India

Airport bookshops are strange places. Something about the transience of the terminal experience rubs off on the shelves of slasher stories and chick-littery, putting browsers in a holiday humour, and making reckless purchases and bold choices seem somehow less of a stretch. And so it was that on my way to India this spring I found myself at the check out in Gatwick’s South Terminal clutching… a copy of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.

Alright, I’ll admit it, my stock of adventurousness was all used up on the contemplation of the trip ahead. I’d never been to India before and despite having visited parts of Africa and South-east Asia, I had a feeling nothing could prepare me for the madness of Kolkata. I was looking for something comforting, familiar and safe: a tried and trusted formula that I could retreat into when one of the world’s most extreme, desperate, colourful and crowded cities got too much for me.

But Edith Wharton had other ideas. Feisty to a fault, this grande dame of early twentieth century American literature grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and thrust me into a world every bit as unforgiving and shocking as the place I was headed.

‘Jane Austen with teeth’ was the first description that sprang to my mind as I began to read my way through the unravelling of Lily Bart, the beautiful and penniless New York socialite, whose flawless facade of serenity is both the secret and the nemesis of her success. But that would be unfair, both to Austen, who has a much sharper set of gnashers than she’s often given credit for, and to Wharton, who sees no point in biting her prey when she might as well tear the subjects of her scrutiny limb from limb.

No-one escapes. Not the bright creatures of high society sniping at one another from behind their opera glasses; not the conservative family members so bound up with ideas of duty and correctness that they fail to distinguish between petulance and desperation; not the charwoman who schemes for her own ends and not  beautiful, spoiled, hopeless Lily herself.

The Penguin Classics blurb-writer describes Lily as ‘the embodiment of woman as a passive creature, as the ultimate “consumer item”‘. Close, but no cigar. For while Lily allows herself to be carried on the currents of other people’s whims and schemes, she has a core sense of self-respect that won’t allow her to go along with the final strokes of deviousness and heartlessness that would assure her future.

It is what redeems her in the eyes of the reader, but also what brings her low. If she were a little more passive — more the superficial, carefree creature she pretends — then she would accept the repugnant offers of marriage, mistresship and mindless monetary gain that come her way and drift along the bright surface of the world she thinks she aspires to, and there would be no story.

What makes Lily’s fall so compelling and her final undoing so very, very sad is the kernel of humanity Wharton conjures at her core, reminding readers that the creature dwindling before their eyes is every bit as complex, conflicted and scared as they are.

In a city where naked children squat in the gutters as limousines glide past, the resonance of Wharton’s words was strong.

Picture by FriskoDude

Joyce Carol Oates: Black Girl/White Girl

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Rock cakes like the ones my colleague used to make

I once temped in an office with a very thin woman who liked to bake cakes. She would bring them in to work and watch us all tuck in, a strange glint in her eye. One day she asked me to proofread a letter to her soon-to-be ex-husband’s solicitor for her as she wasn’t used to writing much. I was happy to help. I took the letter off for my lunch break and settled down to read it in the staff common room.

And then I got a shock: the thing was mad, rambling, filled with half-formulated accusations and vague threats. I could hardly make any sense of it.

If I’d been a bit older and known her better, I would have told her not to send it, or, better, offered her the chance to talk about the things that were clearly upsetting her. But I was just out of university — still young enough to think that age makes a difference — and none too sure how the adult world really worked. Perhaps this really was the sort of letter people sent to their partners’ solicitors? Maybe my misgivings were just a sign of my immaturity? Besides, it wasn’t my place to tell her what she should and shouldn’t do.

So, rather than say anything, I corrected the typos, made a few mumbling suggestions for toning down some of the more outlandish phrases, and handed the letter back.

I’d forgotten about that letter until I started on Black Girl/White Girl, the 45th novel (counting those written under synonyms) from the extraordinarily prolific American writer Joyce Carol Oates. In it, I found a parable of the dangers of being straitjacketed by such misplaced principles, naivety, guilt and fear.

Looking back on events in 1975 from the vantage point of 1990, the book recalls Genna Meade’s traumatic, abortive first year at a prestigious women’s college on the east coast. The daughter of Mad Max Meade, a radical human rights lawyer-cum-activist, and the descendant of the wealthy Quakers who founded the college, Genna starts the year full of high-minded ideas and anxious to break down the barriers that she fears her famous connections may place between her and the other students. When she discovers she has Minette Swift, a black pentecostal minister’s daughter, for a roommate, she is keen to befriend the awkward girl, particularly when she seems to become the target of racial abuse.

But as the year progresses and her so-called friend’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic, Genna’s rational mind and her ideals go to war with one another. Presented with evidence that the persecution her roommate is experiencing may not be all that it seems and that the girl is becoming increasingly mentally unstable, Genna is unable to overcome her consciousness of the historical burden of racial discrimination and what might nowadays be called ‘political correctness’ to challenge Minette and, perhaps, get her the help she needs — with tragic results.

Oates has been criticised for the rapidity with which she churns novels out by readers who feel that the rate she works at sometimes leaves her little scope to develop ideas and connections. Here, however, the breathless, sometimes fragmentary quality of the narrative, which is styled as an unpublished manuscript written by Genna, now Generva, Meade fits the subject matter beautifully. We can imagine Generva stumbling out of bed early in the morning and sitting blearily at her desk, as she tells us towards the end that she has been doing, to get down the recollections and impressions that plague her.

For my part, I couldn’t help wishing Oates had written the book sooner.

About a year after I left that temp job, I heard that the woman who used to make the cakes had killed herself. While it’s useless to hash over might-have-beens and if-onlies — and a kind of arrogance to assume that we have the power to alter another’s actions and choices on such a profound level — I can’t help thinking that if I’d read Black Girl/White Girl before I met her I might have had the courage to try.

Picture by Su-lin