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Writing a Novel

It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work and lead this life, the one I am leading today. Each morning the blue clock and the crocheted bedspread, the table with the Phone, the books and magazines, the Times at the door. It does not help to remember Rand Avenue in Lexington and old summer rockers still on the gray, dry planks of winter porches. A novel is always written on the day of its writing.

I begin, seeking distance, imagining or pretending to imagine thus:

She often spent the entire day in blue, limpid boredom. The caressing sting of it was, for her, like the pleasure of lemon, or of cold salt water. This lovely boredom one saw in her eyes, in those pleasant, empty, withdrawn and peering eyes—orbs in a porcelain head. At such times she looked her best, very quiet, her face harmoniously fixed, as if for an important camera. Her skinny brown cat stared at her, hardly blinking. His yellowish-gray gaze was very like her own. They looked at each other, unseeing, into a mirror of eyes, before the cat fell asleep, his lids suddenly closing, tightly, quickly, strangely. ‘That cat has been here with me for seven years and has never looked at television. They are indeed a different species,’ she thought.

Then she took a cigarette from the pocket of the smock she was wearing. She drew on it, as if it were opium; adding to the opium that was within her, the narcotic of her boredom, as we are told we carry our own heaven and hell within us. Immaculate drugs, hazy drifts of dreams, passivity pure and rich as cream.

After a dreamy day, she went into her nights. Always she insisted they were full of agitation, restlessness, torment. She was forever like one watched over the whole night in the deepest sleep, who nevertheless awakened worn, with a tremor in her hands, declaring the pains, the unutterable, absorbing drama of sleeplessness. The tossing, the racing, the battles; the captures and escapes hidden behind her oily eyelids. No one was more skillful than she in the confessions of an insomniac, in those redundant yet stirring epics, which she intoned with the dignity of ritual, her hypnotic narration like that of some folk poet ‘steeped in the oral tradition.’ ‘Finally, sleep came over me. … At last. … It was drawing near to four o’clock. The first color was in the sky. … Only to wake up suddenly, completely.’

Unsavory egotism? No—mere hope of self-definition, the heroism of description, the martyrdom of documentation. The chart of life must be brought up to date every morning. ‘Patient slept fitfully, complained of the stitches. Alarming persistence of the very symptoms for which the operation was performed. Perhaps it is only the classical aching of the stump.’ ”

An impasse. How can she, opiumstill, a dramatic star of ennui, with catlike eyes and abrupt disappearances, begin, continue? Her end is clearly too soon at hand. On the next page, verisimilitude would not be outraged to find her dead. Not smiling perhaps, as they say suicides smile, but reflective, sunk in last thoughts. Her still gaze would be downward, as if she, who knew nothing of literature, were thinking of poetry or philosophy.

Lasst uns lauten, knien, beten,
Und dem alten Gott vertaun!

Soon I abandon the languid girl. My mind is elsewhere. I have taken a journey in order to write my novel in peace. A steamy haze blurs the lines of the hills. A dirty, exhausting sky. Already the summer seems to be passing away. The boats will soon be gathered in, ferries roped to the dock.

A new scene: A short pear-shaped man came onto the stage for his lecture. He is the author of two peculiar novels, some shorter fiction of an in-between length difficult to publish, and a number of literary essays. All of his work is strikingly interesting and odd. His essays are gracefully and yet fiercely written, with the same teasing moil of metaphor found in his fiction; but of course their meaning is clearer and people are inclined to prefer them to his pure works of the imagination. His opinion is different: he feels his essays are works of the imagination but that somehow in the end they do not fully reward their hurting effort. They live and die in a day, a week at most. The orange, black, and yellow wings of opinion make a pleasant, whirring sound, dip down, soar up ward, and then disappear, their organic destiny achieved.

His mere name on the page can make you tremble if you are interested in him. Movement, agitation, somber explosion of thought and feeling—complicated learning and an aggressive, poetic style. He has no remarkable popular reputation. Only the most curious and the most alert care about him, but they care with some vehemence. He is enormously ambitious, resolute, assured, and seems not to know that he is rumpled, lumpy, looks far older than his forty-one years. His clothes are a scandal.

A pert-faced, slim wife, with very short hair, came into the hall with him. She sits down on the aisle in a row near the front, but not in the very first rows. The wife smiles a good deal and appears to be proud, but with moderation. Her smile disguises the frowning dilemma that never leaves her thoughts: the mathematical estimate of his talents, which are not precise in her mind, to be weighed against the score of his defects—acerbity, impatience—which are.

The author begins to speak of his obsession: the theoretical problems of contemporary fiction. In his life he is a man of reason, bound in his spontaneous actions and in his deliberated decisions to a loose, but genuine, reverence for cause and effect. There are times when he grows short-tempered because of the ignorance or bad character of many people. Then he angrily asserts the laws of cause and effect, and he accuses with a good deal of arrogance.

Fiction is another matter. He cannot, for us, for himself, accept a simple, linear motivation as a proper way to write novels, involve characters. He does not at all agree that if the gun is hanging on the wall in the first act it must go off before the curtain comes down. No, the ground has slipped away from causality. Muddy, gorgeously polluted tides of chaos, mutation, improvisation have rushed in to make a strewn, random beach out of what had not so long ago been a serene shore, bordering a house lot always suitable for building.

He accepts, embraces, adores the fragments of life. But he studies them with great sternness, with a clean, sharp rigidity, and in this way he puts together fictions that are new, difficult, obscure, and “really good.”

As they are going home after the lecture, his wife says to him, “Is it actually OK to write stories about writing?” She has overheard this whispered remark during the question period. Fiction about fiction—Borges, etc. The skepticism thrills her, even as it brings on a little squeezing of her heart. He must not fail, and yet she feels perversity in him, nagging withholdings, a stingy reluctance to redeem his narrative promises. For instance, he has written a story about her mother, a woman he despises. Somehow it angers the wife that her own mother, the creator of brutal emotions in the heart of the author, the vigilant, dirty-fingered, blue-haired mother has come out like a beaded purse, pure design.

Now, all writing is about writing, especially poetry,” he answers thoughtfully, without rancor. After all it is the question. His wife, he knew, read a great deal, but never willingly. She reads as you keep the store for the good of the family: his work, those he has praised and learned from, those he disapproves of seriously.

One evening they went to hear a large, handsome English poet, first-rate for a long time, his career arching from the Georgian to the very moment of his appearance. In his scattered, fascinating remarks about his own work, the poet spoke in a hospitable manner of Frost and Ransom. Later, at the reception, a student tried to approach the poet. “I didn’t know you particularly admired Frost. Wouldn’t have thought it somehow,” the young man said. “I don’t,” the poet said. “Not in the least. And Ransom only with reservation. Still if you name one, you must name two. One lone name out of a national tradition, even a dreadfully short, patchy one, is no go. Arouses suspicion, doesn’t sound genuine.” The author’s wife liked that. She has a feeling for paradox and for unfriendly appraisals.

The odd thing is that I have taken the two, husband and wife, from life, but they have come out false to their real meaning. The writer is not a fraud but a genius, a rare creature out of nowhere—actually from Shaker Heights around Cleveland, like Hart Crane. His seriousness, excellence, eccentricity stir my feelings. His wife is agreeable, sociable, but her “reality” and her lack of ostentation, her simplicity, her way of puncturing pretension are not the sly and cunning moral virtues I have made them appear. Those ideas of hers have nothing to do with literature, with the novel. Her husband rightly goes his own way.

But how is the man’s genius to be made manifest—at breakfast, making love, engaging in his ruling passion which is writing? How is his art to become real in my novel? What is a writer’s motif, his theme song, except stooped shoulders, the appalling desolation of trouser and jacket and old feet stuffed into stretched socks. And women writers, of course, interest me more since I am a woman. Remember what Sainte-Beuve said about George Sand: “A great heart, a large talent, and an enormous bottom.”

An unhappy summer, and yet not a happy subject for literature. Very hard to put the vulgar and common sufferings on paper. I use “vulgar and common.” in the sense of belonging to many, frequently, everlastingly occurring. The misery of personal relations. Nothing new there except in the telling, in the escape on the wings of adjectives. Pleasant to be pierced by the daggers at the end of paragraphs.

The phlox blooms in its faded purples; on the hillside, phallic pines. Foreigners under the arcades, in the basket shops. When you travel your great discovery is that you do not exist. I have for a long time had the idea of a sort of short-wave autobiography, one that fades in and out, local voices mixing with the mysterious static of the cadences of strangers. Truth should be heightened and falsity adorned, dressed up to look like sociable fact. Nevertheless, a memoir, a confession, is not as easy as it seems. It is not necessary for an autobiography to “have had a life”—that we accept now. Pasternak’s line: To live a life is not to cross a field. The “not” perplexes me. Life is to be seen as climbing a mountain? That we can agree to because of the awful strain of the climb and at the top many of the same wild flowers as in the field below.

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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