Perhaps it is better to marry than to burn, but there can be little doubt that it is sometimes better to burn, however slowly, than to try to quench the flame with a very wet book. Grudges usually become novels, or even works of popsociology with theses—brown rice, open marriage, total chastity. Either is preferable, it seems, where a subject like divorce is concerned, to the more permissive form A. Alvarez has chosen; a “critical meditation” has the form of a sleepless night.
He began, from a rankling interest in the subject, by researching the legal, statistical, and historical aspects of divorce but discarded this more scholarly approach for a “personal” one which resembles in method his more interesting book about suicide, The Savage God. He has produced a compendium of divorce anecdotes, with the idea, following Freud’s remark that neuroses are all unique and similar, that divorces are too, and that we can learn most about the phenomenon from other people’s experiences (although the author’s case seems to disprove the premise).
The book begins, to curious effect, with Alvarez’s account of his own marriage and divorce. The effect is almost to disqualify him as a reliable observer: will someone with so little distance, objectivity, insight, or humor—someone so obviously still stung—be able to take the large view his title promises: Life After Marriage: Love in an Age of Divorce? If you do trust Alvarez’s view, and he is after all a famous author and critic, then you must mistrust yourself, assume yourself disqualified by sex, nationality, age, temperament, or some other limitation or difference from understanding this book at all, though you have the feeling that if you could explain the mistrust that lies between you and the author right from the start you might make him see what went wrong with his marriage.
Perhaps, for instance, this is just not a book for female readers, mined as it is with a set of disagreeable assumption revealed on the first page, paragraph one, where he confesses that his secret title for it was “The Savage God Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter,” assigning qualities of godlikeness to the male, and monstrousness to the female, protagonists. Ostensibly a literary and personal critical meditation on divorce, this sounds all too much as if we are going to hear how his ex-wife was really Frankenstein’s daughter, and so we do. For him to tell a husband’s point of view would be natural enough, since he is a man, and would be natural too if this were a court brief, but Alvarez is also a novelist, supposedly able to imagine the life of another, and supposedly embarked on a work of general interest. Unlike Bergman, whose Scenes from a Marriage remains probably the best modern study of divorce, Alvarez is so confined to his own point of view that the reader is apt to take the opposite side, as for the underdog at a football game.
Something was wrong and I already knew it on the first morning when I went downstairs to make a cup of tea while my young wife slept on. The wedding night had not been a success. Which should not have come as a surprise, since we had met only seven weeks before and married in a dream.
Or perhaps this is not a book for Americans. Any American who has ever browsed on a newsstand, picked up a magazine in a dentist’s office, read “Dear Abby,” or watched Donahue knows, and knew in 1956 when this event took place, a number of things that Alvarez seems not to know yet—that what happens on the wedding night practically doesn’t count, that sex is a matter of practice, etc., etc. Anyway, why wasn’t it a “success”? Why despite all this feigned candor this curious reticence? Not a success for reasons mechanical or emotional? If the problem was physical, what was it, and whose? American magazine readers are used to frankness on such points. No need to be ashamed!
Anyway, though we are never told what it was that so disappointed the twenty-seven-year-old bridegroom here (rather a relief, actually), the twenty-year-old wife sleeps peacefully until he awakens her with toast, and tells her proudly that he has done the dishes and tidied up the living room.
She opened her astounding eyes reluctantly.
I assumed a breezy but affectionate manner that seemed appropriate for a newlywed. “Breakfast,” I said. “And I cleaned up downstairs.”
She levered herself slowly into a sitting position and did not reply. The expression in her eyes was puzzled, as if she were having trouble understanding why she was there.
A reader of either sex will surely sympathize with the sleeper, who, whether disappointed in the previous night or not is now wrested from dreamland and asked to congratulate this unromantic stranger for having done the dishes—a stranger who, incidentally, having no acceptable feelings of his own must “assume” a manner that “seems appropriate.”
Other people’s divorces are more comic than one’s own, no doubt, and some are tragic, but wedding nights have usually been the province of comedy (and so has divorce). This is a comic scene—wife awakened with toast, husband crushed when she say “You have to cut the crusts off.” But it is not comic to Alvarez, it is being offered in evidence of this “girl’s” bad nature, in contrast to his sensitivity, naïveté, and romantic illusions. The girl is never even given a name, not to preserve her privacy, since we are elaborately told her lineage—she is the granddaughter of Frieda Lawrence—but because she is a minor character in this drama of the breakup of Alvarez’s marriage.
The most interesting thing about his account is its implicit indictment of literature, in particular of books by D.H. Lawrence, which seem to have given him the odd illusions about love and marriage which were to be so cruelly shattered. But his is an indictment too of the literary life, where an alliance with Frieda weighed with him, and where his ambitious determination to make a success resulted in his spending too much time in the library “while other youths of my age were researching the intricate ‘fastenings of girls’ bras.” Either he takes books too literally or he reads the wrong books.
He is on surer ground as a historian of the institutions of marriage and divorce, though here again so many pages are devoted to proving such commonplace views as that the early church fathers were sick ascetics, in the anxious tone of Lawrence himself, that you are left to wonder who on earth the reader is intended to be. These historical sections also demonstrate what we all know or sense, that attitudes to divorce differ over time and among nations.
Perhaps these basic life experiences all also differ according to temperament. Mr. Alvarez seems gloomy and selfinvolved next to the cheerful Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, who writes, it seems, from a motive of curiosity about all human social arrangements Marriage, Love, Sex and Divorce. Like his entertaining and informative book about governesses,* this seems the work of a skeptical, as compared to a credulous, nature and its conclusions are inclined to be matter-of-fact or, at least, plausible. The absence of a tradition of oral sex in England, he says, for instance, can be traced to the absence of a tradition of hygiene in earlier times.
Reading this book is like having a tipsy after-dinner conversation with an intelligent friend, someone more indolent and richer than you, who has the leisure to peek into all the trash magazines, learned tomes, and popular volumes on a subject that interests him and can catch you up on developments—can tell you, for instance, how many times a week other people your age make love, and how they like it.
Gathorne-Hardy has heard of new things, like the multiple male orgasm and how it’s done, and has interesting, well-considered opinions delivered in a rambling but rather fascinating fashion so the hours pass as minutes, though at the end you wonder whether you have learned anything much. If it were a serious work, the reader might have a few questions about his sources—reader, surveys from Redbook Magazine and Forum, and sociologists and psychologists whom he describes as “famous.” The scholarship is relaxed: Shelley scholars might quarrel with his breezy remark about Shelley, that “he also wanted everyone to sleep with everyone, and does seem to have got Hogg [a friend] into bed once with Harriet and perhaps twice with Mary.” on the grounds that he seems to know more than they do. But in the main his intentions and his conclusions are shrewd and sympathetic.
Both Alvarez and Gathorne-hardy approve of marriage and of divorce, which they see as the modern equivalent of death, a demographic agent, sundering families as childbirth or TB used to. They say we should get used to it, and learn to make the best of it, for instance by improving the laws and institutions which prevent people from repairing their lives afterward. Marriage can be stronger when it is based on affection instead of law. A “good” divorce, or after-divorce, has no serious long-term effects, Gathorne-Hardy says, and “the effects of a conflict-filled home are worse than a good divorce.” The trouble is that it is hard to organize a good divorce or, rather, a good after-divorce.
Both Alvarez and Gathorne-Hardy, being men, discourse upon the after divorce more feelingly from the male than from the female point of view, particularly about alimony, which they seem unable to detach from the real problem of child support, which is hardly mentioned and which is, of course, the only really serious after divorce problem. But the fact that it is largely ignored by two authors ostensibly surveying divorce and its consequences suggests the real nature of male (and female) anxiety about divorce—financial—and that it will be hard to effect real reforms to protect children until men can learn to feel safe from the more archaic abuses of alimony statutes and customs, and women from the double burden of bringing up children and paying for them both, which is the normal condition of divorced women at present and is rapidly creating a new poverty class with its attendant problems.
On this point as on others, one feels the difference between American and English social attitudes and legal arrangements. The two countries seem never quite to be in phase, though they go through the same phases. Americans used to be struck by the seriousness with which the English took their adultery; at a greater legal and economic disadvantage than American women, English women had to get new husbands lined up before relinquishing the last. American women became lawyers. Alvarez, remarking that no marriage, “however liberated, is immune to jealousy,” supposes that “a chic young American would probably dismiss this attitude as a ‘Freudian hang-up.’ ” at a time when chic young Americans are getting married in white dresses in churches again.
Perhaps in both countries divorce will become or has become such a common rite of passage, something, like the death of parents or being born, which everyone will go through, that it will not be necessary to speak of it in particular. Certainly these books suggest that it is hard to speak of it in just the right tone. The English are apt to be derisive, often rightly, of ponderous American sociological tomes; but there is something to be said against amateurism too. Fictions seem better suited to talk about the painful nuances of divorce—Bergman’s film, or Updike’s stories, even books like Meredith’s Egoist, which was written before divorce was common, of a couple not yet married. Alvarez’s impulse toward the anecdote was probably correct—statistics, though not without their power to comfort, are finally lean rations. Gathorne-Hardy, though, found a wonderful survey which revealed that whatever your sexual practices, whether you make love three times a day or once a month or wearing mittens, you are likely to believe yourself “about average.” On anxious subjects people do seek the reassurances of community. One gets the feeling that, having written, both of these authors are now less anxious, and so, maybe, their readers will be too.
August 12, 1982