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Writing a Novel

The murderous German girl with her alpenstock, her hiking boots, calls to the old architect, Higher, higher! He falls to his death and this is Ibsen’s disgust with the giddiness of men. For himself, he adjusted his rimless spectacles and turned the corners of his mouth down when fervent young girls thought he was dumber than he was. The troubles in a memoir are both large and small. Those still living do not create the longest hesitations. I am sure no one makes an enemy without wishing to do so. The need is sometimes very pressing; the relief rather disappointing. No, the troubles are not with relatives, lovers, famous persons seen at a deforming angle. The troubles are all with yourself seen at an angle, yourself defamed and libeled.

Memoirs: felonious pages in which one accuses others of real faults and oneself only of charming infidelities, unusual follies, improvidence but no meanness, a restlessness as beguiling as the winds of Aeolus, excesses, vanities, and sensualities that are the envy of all. I have thought of calling my memoir Living and Partly Living. But I am not happy with “partly living.” It comes down too hard on the aridity of modern life, on the dispirited common folk without tradition, on the dead gods and the banished God. It would not seem to fit the spirit and mood of the moment, a mood I partake of as a pigeon partakes of the crumbs that fall from fingers he cannot see.

Is it possible for a woman to write a memoir? Their productions often fail to be interesting because there isn’t enough sex in them, not even enough longing for consummation. Can we seriously speak of the young lieutenant with his smooth hair, the hint of coquetry in the cruel charm of his glance? Women do not like to tell of bastards begotten, of pawings in the back seat, of a lifetime with its mound of men climbing on and off. That will not make a heroine of you, or even a personage. The question with us, in love, is to discover whether we have experienced conquest or surrender—or neither. Courage under ill-treatment is a woman’s theme, life-theme, and is of some interest, but not if there is too much of either.

Maybe the shadows will suffice—the light and the shade. Think of yourself as if you were in Apollinaire’s poem:

Here you are in Marseilles, surrounded by watermelons,
Here you are in Coblenz at the Hotel du Géant.
Here you are in Rome sitting under a Japanese medlar tree.
Here you are in Amsterdam….

1954

Dearest M: Here I am in Boston, on Marlborough Street, number 239. I am looking out on a snow storm. It fell like a great armistice, bringing all struggles to an end. People are walking about in wonderful costumes—old coats with fur collars, woolen caps, scarves, boots, leather hiking shoes that shine like copper. Under the yellow glow of the street lights you begin to imagine what it was like forty or fifty years ago. The stillness, the open whiteness—nostalgia and romance in the clear, quiet, white air….

More or less settled in this handsome house. Flowered curtains made to measure, rugs cut for the stairs, bookshelves, wood for the fireplace. Climbing up and down the five floors gives you a sense of ownership—perhaps. It may be yours, but the house, the furniture, strain toward the universal and it will read soon like a stage direction: Setting—Bostonian. The law will be obeyed. Chests, tables, dishes, domestic habits fall into line.

Beautiful mantles of decorated marble—neo-Greek designs of fading blacks and palest greens. “Worth the price of the whole house”—the seller’s flourish of opinion and true for once. But it is the whole house that occupies my thoughts. On the second floor, two parlors. Grand, yes, but 239 is certainly not without its pockets of deprivation, its corners of tackiness. Still it is a setting.

Here I am with my hibiscus blooming in the bay window. The other parlor looks out on the alley between Marlborough and Beacon. There an idiot man keeps a dog on a chain, day and night. Bachelor garbage, decay, bewilderment pile up around the man. I have the idea he once had a family, but they have gone away. I imagine that if his children were to visit he would say, “Come to see the dog on a chain. It is a present.” In the interest of the dog I call the police. The man glances up at my window in perturbation, wondering what he has done wrong. Darwin wrote some place that the suffering of the lower animals throughout time was more than he could bear to think of.

Dearest love,
Elizabeth

Was that written for the archives? Who is speaking? Description and landscape are like layers of underclothes. Words and rhythms, a waterfall of clauses, blue and silver lights, amber eyes, the sea below like a burning lake. It has all fallen into obsolescence. The great power of words, the old tyrant, questioned; painted scenery is like taking a long train journey to an emergency. Who can remember the shape of a single face in fiction? The perfection of the pointed chin; eyes and ears as alert as those of a small, nervous dog. Sweeps of luxurious black hair, wavy brilliance—abundant, prickly forest of thick, amorous Levantine hair. Who can bring to mind the shape of the lithe-boned heroines, with fair glances, haughty eyes colored like semiprecious stones? Only one facial feature remains in memory: the sparse mustache on the lip of Princess Bolkónskaya in the early pages of War and Peace.

1962

Dearest M: Here I am in New York, on 67th Street in a high, steep place with long, dirty windows. In the late afternoon, in the gloom of the winter lights, I sometimes imagine it is Edinburgh in the Nineties. I have never been to Edinburgh, but I like cities of reasonable size, provincial capitals. Still it is definitely New York here, underfoot and overhead. The passage was not easy. Not unlike a great crossing of the ocean, or of the country itself, with all your things in wagons, over the mountains. I can say that the trestle table and the highboy were ill-prepared for the sudden exile, the change of government—as in a way this was for me. Well, fumed oak stands in the corner, bottles and ice bucket on top. Five of the Naval Academy plates are broken. The clocks have had their terminal stroke and will never again know life. The old bureaus stand fixed, humiliated, chipped.

Displaced things and old people, rigid, dragged with their tired veins and clogged arteries, with their bunions and broken arches, their sparse hair and wavering memories, over the Carpathian Mountains, out of the bayous—that is what it is here in the holy city. Aunt Lotte’s portrait will never be unpacked again. She finds her resting place, in the tomb of her crate, in the basement, her requiem the humming of the Seventh Avenue subway. I play Wozzeck on my new KLH. Terrific reception in these old West Side rooms—at least for phonograph records.

Love, love,
Elizabeth

Beginnings are always delightful; the threshold is the place to pause,” Goethe said. But it is not true that it doesn’t matter where you live, that you are, in Hartford or Dallas, merely the same. Everything has come to me and been taken from me because of moving from place to place. Youth and hope were left in Boston, but New York turned out to be the last thing I would have expected—sensible. Long dresses, arrogance, more chances for women to deceive the deceitful, confidences, long telephone conversations, credit cards. But, dear M, which part of the true story should I tell? Should I choose the events interesting today, or try, facing the shame of lost opinion, to remain true to what I felt and thought at the time? The girl with her brown hair cut in a Dutch bob?

1972

Dearest M: I have sold the big house in Maine and will make a new place there, beginning with the old barn on the water. “Existing barn,” the architect’s drawings say. But I fear the metamorphosis, the journey of species. The barn, or so I imagine of all barns, once existed for cows and hay. Then later it was—well, a place. (For what I do not like to say. Too much information spoils the effect on the page, like too many capitals within the line, or the odious exclamation point. Anyway, you have the information.)

Will the barn consent to become what I have decided to make of it? I don’t know. Sometimes I am sure that I am building for a tire salesman from Bangor whose wife will not be kind to the sacred wounds of such a building—the claims, the cries of the original barn, the memories of the abandoned place. The claims and cries of Lightolier, Design Research, turkey carpets. As for the other, sluffed-off house, I mourn and regret much. The nights long ago with H. W. and her glorious 78 recording of Alice Raveau in Glück’s Orpheo. I hear the music, see H. W. very tall, old, with her stirring maidenly beauty. The smell of the leaves outside dripping rain, the fire alive, the bowls of nasturtiums everywhere, the orange Moroccan cloth hanging over the mantle. What a loss. Perhaps my memories, being kind, betray me and bleach the darkness of the scenes, the agitation of the evenings. I am as aware as anyone of the appeal, the drama of the negative. Well, we go from one graven image to the next and, say what you will, each house is a shrine.

Meanwhile here in New York I just saw a horse and rider amidst the threatening taxi cabs. The man rides the horse indeed as if he were driving a cab, nervously, angrily, looking straight ahead, in his own lane, one way, held on the conveyor belt of traffic, needing only a horse horn of some kind to show that a man may in New York turn a horse into a Dodge.

When I first came here the house opposite was a stables. A handsome brick building painted a dusty mustard color, like an Italian villa. Sometimes the old structure seems to return, coming out of the afternoon haze, rising from the sea of cement. But what good would the return do itself, me? I will not look back. The horse and rider escaped to the park. Where the old stables stood there is a parking lot. A hundred beautiful chariots rest there in the afternoon sun. And at night sometimes the car of someone I know sits there all alone, waiting, long, long after midnight.

Much love, as always,
Elizabeth

Oh, M, when I think of the people I have buried. And what of the “dreadful cries of murdered men in forests.”. Tell me, dear M, why is it that we cannot keep the note of irony, the tinkle of carelessness at a distance? Sentences in which I have tried for a certain light tone—many of those have to do with events, upheavals, destructions that caused me to weep like a child. Some removals I have never gotten over and I am, like everyone else, an amputee. (Why do I put in “like everyone else”? I fear that if I say I am an amputee, and more so than anyone else, I will be embarrassing, over-reaching. yet in my heart I do believe I am more damaged than most.)

O you could not know
That such swift fleeing
No soul foreseeing—
Not even I—would undo me so!

I hate the glossary, the concordance of truth that some have about my real life—have like an extra pair of spectacles. I mean that such fact is to me a hindrance to composition. Otherwise I love to be known by those I care for and consequently I am always on the phone, always writing letters, always waking up to address myself to B. and D. and E.—those whom I dare not ring up until the morning and yet must talk to throughout the night.

Now, my novel begins. No, now I begin my novel—and yet I cannot decide whether to call myself I or she.

(This is the opening of a novel in progress to be called The Cost of Living.)

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