The unfavorable reviewers of Edna O’Brien’s last novel, August Is a Wicked Month, were subjected to a counter-attack which asserted that they were blinkered and mean-spirited males, unable to take the full implications of female emancipation, and openly quaking before any frank assertion of the sexual nature of women. The tired old argument about women does, I think, suggest a way of looking at Miss O’Brien’s new and also very bad novel. One position is the traditional one, advanced by most men and quite a few women, that the difference is deeply biological; Freud expressed it when he wrote that “woman’s anatomy is her destiny.” At the opposite pole is the idea that “femininity” is solely the result of acculturation, as in Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that “one is not born but becomes a woman.”
In a strange way, Edna O’Brien seems to embrace both extremes at once. Certainly the female characters in her recent fiction act like poor stunted wretches and manifest victims of cultural deprivation, asserting the autonomy of their sexuality in a pathetic act of defiance against an oppressive male order. Yet at the same time Miss O’Brien clings to a conviction—which pervades every line of her writing—that woman’s anatomy is her destiny, that women can, in spite of everything, glory in their biological difference. This is apparent in her characters’ love of physiological introspection: they are acutely aware of their inner twitchings and liquefactions, especially, but not exclusively, in sexual activity. For Miss O’Brien, the inmost secrets of femininity are strongly biological. If I were a woman I would be pretty disturbed by the way in which Miss O’Brien implicitly accepts and even reinforces traditional male prejudices about women, of the kind advanced by the ideologues of European reaction and most available in English in the writings of Wyndham Lewis. This view of woman sees her as certainly biologically different from man and, in most respects, inferior; a creature rooted in matter, whose main function is reproductive and who is correspondingly mindless; quite incapable of rationality, judgment, or any form of intellectual activity. Miss O’Brien doesn’t, I imagine, accept this objectionable view in any conscious way, but her fiction certainly embodies it, for she is essentially a primitivist writer who has unexpected affinities with those infinitely more talented writers such as Beckett and Burroughs, who look forward to what Leslie Fiedler calls the “post-human future.”
In Casualties of Peace Miss O’Brien dwells on the lives of two women living intimately but uneasily together in a London suburban house: Willa McCord, an artist in glassware, and her Irish housekeeper and companion, Patsy, an assertively vital specimen of the Ewig-Weibliche who seems to be drawn from life and from Mollie Bloom in proportions I would not care to be exact about. Patsy is on the point of leaving her husband Tom, a wholly contemptible fellow who is presented with the concentrated sexual loathing that is one of Miss O’Brien’s most familiar (and disagreeable) attributes as a novelist; Willa, whose mental state is fairly shaky throughout the book, is lingering over going to bed with a tall, fascinating Negro called Auro. Eventually she does, at a dull country hotel, whose inmates Miss O’Brien describes with unexpectedly crisp perception. Here are Willa’s thoughts the morning after:
She was sitting at table drinking tea, it was harvest time, someone’s boiled egg was left uncracked and hairpins were falling in showers over a white bread plate. Or was it one hairpin that her fancy multiplied into a shower? She was thinking of Auro. He sat opposite. To be thinking of him while he sat opposite a crowning pleasure. She moved her weight from one buttock to the other. An ache going through her, and an after-pleasure, in the crevices he had been, in the high and the low of her sweet discomfort and glorious testament—“Kilroy was here.” She laughed and he caught her laughing and shook his head at such frivolousness.
In Miss O’Brien’s scheme of things, men are only acceptable to women as triumphant sexual partners; in any other role they are likely to be enemies and oppressors, a point hammered home at the end, when the despised and rejected Tom bloodily and quite incredibly reasserts male dominance. What is, I think, ultimately damaging to Miss O’Brien as a novelist—and she is certainly not without literary talent—is her feminine-primitivist rejection of intelligence; the kind of intelligence that controls and mediates the “feminine” insights of Jane Austen or George Eliot or even, to take a more dramatic but still relevant instance, Emily Brontë. It is sometimes falsely spoken of as “masculine,” but intelligence has never been a male prerogative and should, I think, more properly be regarded as neutrally human. A final comparison, and fairer to Miss O’Brien, might be with Doris Lessing, an imperfect writer, but a better one, and no less immersed in the turbulent waters of contemporary femininity: The Golden Note-book, flawed though it is, suggests some of the qualities so radically lacking in Miss O’Brien’s fiction.
THE MOST important thing about Anne Richardson’s Digging Out is not that it is a novel by a woman—though one can remark, in passing, that it is clearly the product of an efficient though conventional intelligence—but that it is a novel about death, or at least about dying. It is also yet one more version of the novel of American-Jewish experience. A scene is set in a Jewish community in late-nineteenth-century Russia; a young man, Jacob Tumarkin, escapes from the Cossacks and comes to America and founds a fortune. The story is narrated by his granddaughter, Laura Smith, whose mother, Rose, one of Tumarkin’s daughters, is dying slowly and horribly of inoperable cancer in a Park Avenue apartment. In the intervals of ministering to her mother, Laura reflects on the history of the Tumarkins, from the time of Jacob’s arrival in America to the present.
Miss Richardson’s novel is distinguished from other examples of the American-Jewish novel by showing no trace of the boisterous or ingratiating tone so often evident in this genre. Instead, the narrator regards her mother’s family with cold distaste: they are shown as, at worst, outright crooks and, at best, shallow-minded materialists. Indeed, Miss Richardson’s seemingly intimate and familial preoccupations are interestingly stiffened by a subdued vein of anti-capitalist polemic running through her book.
Laura Smith has to face the fact that her mother’s death will liberate her from this fairly unlovely heritage, and she regards the dying woman with an inevitable ambiguity. Rose is presented as a once beautiful and vain woman pushed almost beyond the bounds of recognizable humanity by the ravages of her disease, and yet obstinately clinging to life. This is well-told but harrowing, for Miss Richardson relentlessly exposes us to all the clinical details of the woman’s slow decline toward death.
HER NOVEL, in fact, highlights the paradox of current Western attitudes toward death. Although mortality has receded from much of the immediately visible world, one has only to switch on a television set to be not simply reminded of death but actually shown it. Yet, as our dreary funeral practices show, we have no means of accepting Death as a cultural fact, as was once done in medieval Latin poetry or Jacobean prose or baroque statuary. It seems more honest, or at least possible, to give, like Miss Richardson, an unflinching clinical record of the physical business of dying; there is, I think, a parallel to this kind of positivism in the work of novelists—of whom Miss O’Brien is one—who feel that the reality of love is only meaningful as a physical account of sexual intercourse. If, in reading this novel. I found myself thinking of The Death of Ivan Ilyich (a phrase I’ll thank the publicity office of McGraw-Hill not to misuse), it is not because Miss Richardson is Tolstoy but because of the remarkable differences of attitude that can lie behind the treatment of a similar topic. Tolstoy’s story is about the individual’s ultimate encounter with a universal reality, Death; while Miss Richardson deals with dying as a horrible and arbitrary visitation that can only be contemplated from the outside by the beholder, and not imaginably undergone. There is a highly impressive seriousness about her book, but this is perhaps too smoothly achieved; her narrative facility gives a certain blandness to the material.
A comparable theme is announced in the opening words of Ursule Molinaro’s Green Lights Are Blue:
Philippe—now Phil; occasionally (unpleasantly) Lip; The Lip. Because of his ineradicable Gallic cynicism, supposedly—Phil Lapparent’s first reaction to the news of his mother’s death was: Now I have ceased to be a son….
Phil Lapparent is a New York advertising man of French origin whose orderly life is shaken up by the death of the mother he hasn’t seen for many years. He goes back to France for the funeral with his high-minded Bostonian wife and meets again the aunt who seduced him in boyhood, and her fascist-minded ex-officer husband. Miss Molinaro extracts both drama and humor from the ensuing collisions, but the principal impact her book makes is one of manner rather than matter, as will be apparent if I continue quoting its opening paragraphs:
…followed by a brief etymological rapprochement of ceased and deceased. Had the deceased ceased to cease? Had his mother stopped stopping? Or stopped to stop…?…framing an even briefer rapprochement of roots of words and (girdling) roots of trees…
…flashing the red beech (long ee) behind his recently-acquired house in Bucks County into his mind. Because the red beech was letting itself be strangled by its roots. Which had prompted him to say, 3 week-ends ago (with a smile) that even trees had Oedipus complexes in this Freud-happy country.
Miss Monnaro is a tireless and engaging punster, and goes in, less happily, for endless typographical tricks, being particularly and pointlessly addicted to parenthesis signs and numerals. Her playing around with these merely goes to show how limited are the technical resources of the avant-garde novelist as compared to the innovator in music or the visual arts, who can completely abandon traditional materials if he wishes. Novels still have to be printed, no matter how much one may lament the limitations of print as a medium. Still, Miss Molinaro’s tricks have a certain intermittent frivolous charm, and there is a more important kind of modernity in her quite effective manipulations of the time sequence. Devotees of the dryly whimsical might be quite taken with the voyeuristic parrot called Mondrian—the French servants refer to him as Mon Adrien—who narrates some of the chapters. There is a quality of wit and high spirits about this novel which sets it apart from the solemnity of most “advanced” fiction, and there is a surprising solidity of characterization and fullness of incident beneath the gimmicky surface. It is almost as though the book had first been written traditionally and then rewritten experimentally. There were various portentous areas I didn’t probe into, such as the recurring symbolism indicated in the title.
GOODBYE is a characteristically skillful book by an English novelist of very limited range whose work I usually read with pleasure. Still, I fear that it will minister to the feeling of many American readers that contemporary British fiction is largely concerned with the bloodless elaboration of small-scale social observations. There is more, certainly, to Goodbye than this, though it’s still a pretty thin work. It describes a few weeks in the life of Anthony Lyle, a middle-aged London banker, devoted to his suburban garden, whose wife announces, after twenty years of marriage, that she no longer loves him and is going to leave him. Lyle refuses at first to believe her, but by degrees he has to. He is a lovingly depicted Prufrockian figure who radiates pathos and absurdity, and whose situation moves inexorably into the tragic. But Mr. Sansom devotes as much care to the elaboration of his background, the pretty, highly cultivated area of inner-London suburbia where Lyle lives and where he has a few dispirited drinking companions; in his fascination with suburban settings Sansom offers something of an equivalent in fiction to the preoccupations of John Betjeman in poetry, though ultimately his suburbia is a more purely ideal realm, singularly remote from any actual London. Sansom scrupulously balances the energy he devotes to people and their background; one can only admire the intense way in which he works within his limitations, and refuses to expose himself by moving outside them.
August 24, 1967