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A Heavy Legacy

The Stepdaughter

by Caroline Blackwood
Scribner’s, 96 pp., $6.95

He said that he had found someone who loved him much more than you ever had. He said that he loved his new girl much more than he had ever been able to love you.”

I am…bitterly sorry,” Brett said gently, firmly, and with a kind of clenched-teeth desperation, “but I don’t see anything honest to do but tell you—and to hope somehow that you’ll agree to a separation.”

We have heard these words, or words like them, in countless movies, novels, songs, and soap operas. They are the refrain of the man walking out, making his second bid for true happiness, leaving the woman stranded in the first and only act of her hampered life. These two particular quotations come, respectively, from Caroline Blackwood’s The Stepdaughter and Patricia Highsmith’s Edith’s Diary, and in both of these books the shabbiness of the man’s behavior is underlined by a curious legacy. The man’s second chance is actually paid for by the woman, who picks up the pieces of the ruined first chance. The abandoned wife in The Stepdaughter is left not only with her own small child but with her husband’s daughter from an earlier marriage: Renata, a fat, helpless thirteen-year-old girl—“She had the pathos of those hopelessly flawed objects which one often sees being put up for sale in junk shops.” The wife in Edith’s Diary is left not only with her own sloppy and irresponsible son but with her husband’s Uncle George, an old man who refuses to go to a nursing home and who gradually becomes messily incontinent.

These burdens, once accepted, allow the husbands to quieten their consciences. They have provided for their dependents, and they are always ready to pay in cash the debts they won’t pay in affection and actual presence. There is nothing to be said for these men—particularly when, as in Edith’s Diary, they start accusing the women of negligence in their care of their charges. Even if there were negligence, what right would they have to complain? And yet of course the central question in these books is not the man’s behavior but the woman’s. Why does she put up with Renata, or Uncle George? Why take on, and keep, these troublesome bequests?

There are no quick and easy answers to this question, and behind it lurks another one. For if Renata and Uncle George are lumpish figures of what a marriage may leave behind, images of pure dependency, pictures of what your children might be if they were not your children, they are also striking portraits of people that nobody wants. It is only slightly too dramatic and metaphorical to say that both of these novels are about abortion, or the question of what to do with lives you can’t find a place for in your life.

Edith Howland, in Edith’s Diary, actually writes on abortion, taking one of those sensible, heartless liberal stands on the grounds of the threat of overpopulation (“But we also live on a ship, Spaceship Earth, and are we going to sink that by overloading?”), and her son Cliffie does his bit at the other end of life’s scale by giving Uncle George a lethal overdose of his various painkillers. The best thing in the book is Highsmith’s depiction of the complicity of Edith and others in this death. Everyone is too pleased to have the old man out of the way. The doctor doesn’t care whether there was an overdose or not, Cliffie’s father merely moralizes, and Edith hates her ex-husband for accusing her son:

The audacity, the absurdity, the cruelty, even, of accusing someone—or the same as—of something that couldn’t be proven at all! Making someone miserable, just to get the petty satisfaction of….

But then Edith and her ex-husband have spent a good part of their lives not facing up to Cliffie’s lies and misdeeds and distresses—his attempt to smother the cat, his jumping off a bridge when a child, his drinking, his laziness, his cheating at examinations, and his…murder of his father’s uncle. And in one moment of remarkable insight, Highsmith suggests that Edith really admires Cliffie’s failings, sees in them a sly resourcefulness she herself doesn’t have:

Edith remembered Cliffie’s lying from the time he could speak…. And somehow, now, she admired his falseness. It was a kind of strength….

It is because she wanted Uncle George dead that Edith can’t blame Cliffie for killing him. And more generally, it is because she does not know what is wrong with Cliffie’s aimless existence, cannot say with any authority what sort of existence would be better, that Edith can’t educate him or confront him with his errors. She can only be his accomplice, and after Cliffie has tried to smother the cat, she dreams that the cat has been beheaded by the refrigerator door, and that its head is inside the refrigerator, eating away, while its body wanders around the house. She has been afraid that Cliffie would actually do this to the cat, but in the dream she is the one who has slammed the decapitating door.

Edith has a diary, a fat, leatherbound book meant to last a lifetime, and she records thoughts and impressions there over a long period. But on the day Cliffie cheats at his college entrance examinations, Edith begins to lie to her diary: “Cliffie…thinks he did pretty well…. We are all very pleased tonight….” And in the diary, as Edith’s life goes downhill, Cliffie sails through Princeton, becomes an engineer, marries a lovely wife (“C and bride departed early for Long Island, where a friend was waiting to fly them in a private plane to Nantucket for their honeymoon”), travels, has children, and redeems all the family’s sorrows. In reality, Cliffie just continues to drink and drift, never holding down a job, or even looking for one he could hold down. In the last pages of the book, with Edith dead, Cliffie looks at the diary and decides not to read it, because it probably contains all kinds of unpleasant things about him. As it does, in its way.

Edith’s Diary is a scrupulous and clearheaded novel about parents and children and marriage. It is rather too neatly packaged, perhaps, and the skills which serve Patricia Highsmith so well in her accomplished thrillers, of which Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley are perhaps the best known, serve here to reveal a certain thinness in the writing. The equivalent of novelistic density, in a thriller, is the constant sense of lurking death and the threat or lure of detection, and it allows us to put up with a good deal of casual characterization and dialogue. But here Highsmith seems to fall into something like the reverse of suspense. When we learn, the first time we hear of Uncle George, that he still gets up to go to the bathroom, we know that he won’t keep up this good behavior for long, and that there will be mess all over the place before the book is done. There is, and the effect is to remove Uncle George from the ranks of the world’s all too real unwanted old men, and to put him in the safer, less upsetting category of unwanted-old-men-in-novels.

Highsmith often emphasizes the wrong sort of detail—who cares if Edith prefers her lever-filling Esterbrook pen to the Parker she gets for her birthday?—and descriptions like the following don’t make us see characters, they make us hear echoes from thousands of not very distinguished books: “At thirty-six Edith was trim and athletic, in the sense that her shoulders were strong, her waist rather flat”; “Tall and narrow, [Aunt Melanie] wore an eye-catching, widebrimmed summer hat of dark blue delicately adorned with a veil….”

But the main fault of the book is really its ambition, its desire to be a portrait of Our Times. It opens in 1955 and ends after Watergate. Edith moves from New York to Pennsylvania, edits a small local newspaper with a friend, worries about Hungary, about the Kennedy assassinations, about schools, about dissident students, about Nixon, about her own waning faith in the capacity of well-intentioned people to sort out the world. Her bewilderment is meant to be that of a whole generation, and Highsmith’s difficulty is compounded by the fact that people like Edith, who talk and fret about politics constantly, are often very remote from the events that concern them. A certain unreality goes with the character, that is, and the task of the novelist is to make this unreality itself seem real, a historical fact. But Highsmith really only names political events in this book, paints a sort of historical border to this essentially private story, and when Edith, cracking up, wonders why psychiatrists are being sent to see her when madness is everywhere in the world, she indicates not only the failure of her own sense of perspective, but the limits of Highsmith’s book. Neither Edith nor Highsmith can tackle history except by brandishing it as something we all ought to care about.

Caroline Blackwood’s first book was a collection of stories and essays called For All That I Found There.* The pieces were separated under the headings of Fact, Fiction, and Ulster, but in one sense these distinctions are almost irrelevant. Blackwood sees in Northern Ireland the sort of things she sees in the rest of the world, and she treats fiction as if it were a cautious extension of the realm of fact. In a story called “Please Baby Don’t Cry,” for example, she describes a woman who has had an operation to take up the sagging skin around her eyes. The operation has gone well, and there is, as the doctor says, “just one problem”: “She will never, of course, quite be able to close her eyes at night.” But an essay about a burns hospital in England, with its still, hot, germ-free zones of timeless waiting, belongs recognizably to the same world. A Jewish survivor from a German camp is let go by the hairdressing salon where she works because the number on her arm is upsetting the customers when she rinses their hair. An Ulster thug smashes the face of a Catholic little girl with a stone. A school on the edges of Harlem recklessly pretends that its horrible anarchy is a form of freedom, and that its children are being educated rather than destroyed by the brutal disorder of their schooldays. The widow of a famous painter gets drunk after seeing a film about her husband, where everything that mattered was missing.

The first and the last of these four stories are “fiction,” and the middle two are “fact”; but I think even those brief descriptions serve to show what they have in common. Blackwood is a writer who finds images and moments, and what they share, when she has worked them over, is a certain haunting precision: they are exact reasons for feeling badly about the world. Deft, intelligent, and angry, Blackwood is funny without being humorous—For All That I Found There has an extraordinary account of a Women’s Lib rally in London—and there is terseness in her prose which makes compassion the wrong word for the feeling behind this work. Nothing as sloppy as that, and nothing as sloppy as cruelty either, and not even the dandyism of dark, elegant despair which often goes with good writing on bleak subjects. What seems crucial in Blackwood is a series of three linked thoughts: we don’t really care half as much for people as we think we do; caring for people is useless self-indulgence unless we can do something for them; and nothing causes havoc like uncaged, self-deceiving sentiments. The painter’s widow in the story I mentioned keeps monkeys (or says she does). She feeds them, wraps them in blankets, gives them medicine when they are ill. But then at times she thinks they must be dying, and doesn’t do anything about it; doesn’t feed them or go for help, but merely watches them “lying there in their sawdust, all limp, and sad, and panting.”

And then it’s suddenly always quite a shock to realize that the reason why I have such a strong feeling that nothing can ever save them—is that I really care so very little if they are saved or not. For although they’ve served their purpose, and screeched, and clowned, and distracted me—yet despite all their antics—they’ve never been quite what I want.

In the essay on the burns hospital, Blackwood’s narrator arrives at the understanding that what goes on in this eerie and inhuman place is “less inhuman than sentimental and empathizing inaction,” and if people stay on there when they are cured, if they are afraid to go back out into the world, it is not because of their terror of germs and disease but because of their justified fear of “the twin cruelties of pity and horror.” With such thoughts on her mind, a writer must tread very warily, because language is always ready to let loose what Eliot called undisciplined squads of emotion.

Blackwood’s second book, The Stepdaughter, is not, I think, quite as successful as the first. It is a short novel in which J., the woman who has been left with her daughter and stepdaughter (and a French au pair girl), tries to kick her stepdaughter out, discovers that the girl is not actually her husband’s child, decides she’ll let her stay, but then realizes the girl has gone. The girl knew all along that J.’s husband was not her father and, awkward, fat, monosyllabic, and disturbed as she was, felt impelled by her sense of honor to leave as soon as J. found out the truth. She simply disappears on to the streets of New York, and the book has one of the most chilling last lines I have read in a long time: “Will only write again if I have good news.” Just before this the girl, Renata, has been evoked in this marvelous, ungainly sentence, with its double use of identical words:

Would that plump and lonely girl, who had been made to feel that her whole life was nothing more than an undesirable accident, have in the end always felt she was forced to vanish into the dark as if in some forlorn way she was really searching for herself when she looked in the cold savage streets of New York for the undesirable accident?

The awkwardness here is deliberate and belongs to the subject. But there is a larger, less satisfying awkwardness in the book. Its chief narrative device is to have J. writing letters in her head to unnamed people, and this seems to cause more trouble than it’s worth—partly, I think, because Blackwood can’t quite make up her mind whether to create a style for J. or simply to give her her own. For example, in one splendid sequence J. imagines Renata’s mother, who is in a mental home in Los Angeles, as not really there at all but living it up on a yacht in the Caribbean while J. looks after her graceless daughter, and then quietly corrects her imagining:

In my cooler moments I know very well that Renata’s mother is most certainly not romantically cruising, having craftily managed to dump her disastrous daughter in my life. As I write the words “my life” I realize I mean my apartment….

Here J.has all Blackwood’s style and wit (J. feels she has been left with her elegant apartment, with its spectacular views, as a price for looking after Renata). But who is speaking here?

I have been looking down at the great lanes of cars which look like psychotic insects as they try to race the sluggish Hudson. From my window I can see right across the river to the dirty brown smudge of buildings on the further shore, which seem to stretch to infinity in a never-ending urban sprawl.

There are moments in this book, as in the earlier one, where the prose is rather too explicit (“he had never liked the way she was both martyred and critical in her over-compliant over-availability”). When J. understands that Renata is not only a piece of her husband’s past but an incarnation of her own future, when she sees that she is using Renata’s presence is her fancy apartment as an excuse not to start putting her life back together again, she grasps a little too much for the novel’s good, and is almost in the position of hanging out signals for the reader. Not that these things are simply or finally true; but they do belong to the realm of what ought to be implied rather than said in a work like this. Nevertheless, this is an intelligent work by a writer with a very distinctive voice, and it tells us a good deal about “sentimental and empathizing inaction,” since J. is too tired after her talk with Renata to go and insist that she really can stay. “In view of what has happened, my excuse that I was too exhausted has to seem a very feeble one.” Very feeble, and horribly natural. How does one begin to want the unwanted, as distinct from vaguely wanting to want them?

  1. *

    Braziller, 1974.

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