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A Not-So-Simple Heart

A Servant's Tale

by Paula Fox
North Point Press, 321 pp., $16.50

The freakishness of innocence gives the pessimism of Paula Fox’s domestic plots an unexpected ambiguity. Poor George (1967) is the story of a schoolteacher who brings about the collapse of his marriage by taking a sullen youth under his wing. Desperate Characters (1970) depicts a childless, middle-aged couple fending off the destabilization strategies of friends and strangers: The Western Coast (1972) chronicles an unprotected girl’s forced march toward experience during World War II. The Widow’s Children (1976) relates the efforts of a spinsterish daughter to shake loose from her oppressive family. Fox’s main characters are oddballs, restless without being rebellious, and appear somewhat culpable in their unhappy discoveries of what makes others tick. They miss crucial pieces of the puzzle and yet are not altogether blameless for the shabby luck that awaits them behind every wrong door.

Though Desperate Characters was something of a success, the others seem to have fallen like the philosophical tree with no human ear around in the forest. These novels are very accomplished, tightly constructed, sometimes hard to the point of cold. One feels they come from a precise intention that prevents any relaxation in the prose. Setting and character are firmly in place but their fine Easter clothes, clenched fists. The sense of the suppressed gives a biting quality to Fox’s dialogue, and what may begin as an examination of familiar American themes ends as something a little different because her characters have been merely passing for normal.

Fox’s work is in many ways a portrait of New York, where she was born in 1923 of half-Cuban parentage. Her novels have the native’s savvy for which detail to choose from the metropolis of potential data overload. Even The Western Coast, with its Party members and writers exiled from the East, is Manhattan not Hollywood in tone. Hers is the New York of neither the highest nor the lowest. Husbands and single women report to work and get by in the spirit of treading water. Divorcées look upon alimony checks as booby-trapped tokens of remembrance. Family trees are likely to hold tales of alcoholism, of capital unwisely spent, of inheritances that do not help matters much. No one has roots in the immediate society or is much at home in the present, and yet there is little nostalgia typical of those who have come down in the world.

Fox’s city dwellers worry about money not in the newfangled sense of it as a means of expression or liberation, but in the old-fashioned way, as a measure of security, as so many sandbags against the unknown. Middle-aged couples wake up to find that the neighborhood has gone downhill, that the summer house has been burgled, and that the loud-mouthed hippies, the blacks with blaring radios on the corner, are up to no good. Disaster comes from outside the home, out of the urban night, out of another class, and is presented as a temptation to test their received assumptions of ordinary life. Perhaps this wariness of the accidents lurking in a more open society is what denies Fox’s novels a contemporary atmosphere. Her work belongs to a tradition in which realism is a more than inadvertent method of social inquiry.

A Servant’s Tale seems at first a shift from Fox’s previous novels. If the characters in her other books come to suspect that their promises to themselves or their contracts with others have something of the swindle about them, then Luisa Sanchez, a cleaning woman, has taken on in her life heavy obligations which she struggles to keep, but she is cheated anyway. The third-person speculative interior of the earlier novels, complete with instructions to the jury, has here been replaced by a controlled, first-person laying out of evidence. Unlike the New York of Fox’s earlier work, the city in A Servant’s Tale is seen from the underside, while the displaced, troubled characters to whom Fox is drawn are looked at from a distance, from Luisa’s point of view. Although Fox’s dual background has always been present—all her characters are foreign in some way, fear isolation, take little about America for granted—this novel makes direct use of it.

Luisa is a daughter of the plantation economy, articulate about the migration from her island, San Pedro, to the railroad flats of the big city where she will work for years as a maid. But her story is different from other books about immigrant life, of fighting to make it, or of becoming American. Luisa’s is a history of refusal and this premise serves as a device to set up a tale about a wholly unprotected soul. Fox’s portrait of San Pedro, Luisa’s lost idyll, is schematic, dour, laid on rather thick, piece by lacquered piece. Luisa’s childhood there is remembered through the sifting intelligence of the stoical adult. It is an imagined place, presented as a real country, but it emerges as a fantasy, a picturesque invention. San Pedro is where Luisa is from, and coming from someplace else is the condition that defines her working life. That Luisa has such unexplained romantic longings for a gloomy paradise adds to the sense one has of her as a deeply peculiar creation. Nothing she does conforms to our expectations.

Life on the plantation, Malagita, where Luisa was born in 1926, is filled with lore, not incident. Everything has already happened in this depressed, insular place—the conquest of the Indians, the importation of slaves, the Spanish–American War, the rise of the sugar latifundio. The last act was the ruin of the small farmers, and at a young age Luisa knows, like catechism, the story of how her maternal grandfather left a note, abandoned his family, and, while searching for new land, died in a swamp.

Luisa’s status as a bastard is also fixed, though her father, Orlando, younger son of the plantation owner, jilted his official fiancée to live with Fefita Sanchez when Luisa was four months old. Luisa’s maternal grandmother, Nana, does not speak to Fefita because Fefita “gave them the only thing she had a right to withhold.” Luisa finds Nana’s cabin on her own, and hears the gossip, the oral history of the village. Nana is her only companion. Luisa’s paternal grandmother, the widowed “La Señora,” has no more connection with her grandchild than “a hen with the egg it drops in the straw.” Luisa gazes with hate on her privileged cousins. “‘What’s mine?’ I asked. ‘Nothing!’ cried Nana fiercely.”

The men drink, fight, play pelota or the lottery when the fields and cane mill are “dead.” “There were many old men in our village who had little to do except find people to listen to them. But the women, even the oldest ones, tended the chickens and pigs and goats and their gardens.” Often the men are seen as idlers, almost irrelevant. Luisa’s father may be a de la Cueva but he is, like a woman, fallen, disinherited, marked by the misalliance. He cannot lift his woman and child out of their bohío. Fefita continues to work in the kitchen of La Señora’s vivienda, as if no union with a son of the house had taken place.

“Who should I love better? God or you?” I once asked Papá.

“I am the one who feeds you,” he had answered. “I am the one who is here.”

It was a lie. My mother fed me. I knew that from the beginning. But his lie pleased me, and I often repeated it to myself as though it had been a kindness, a kind touch on my hair.

On Luisa’s birthdays her mother recalls her labor, during which she thought the screams of a pig as its throat was cut were her own. Malagita has a graveyard full of babies; Luisa finds a worm in the belly of a rag doll.

Though La Señora owns the land, Malagita is not a matriarchy. Machismo asserts itself through the violence of powerlessness. Fefita sits on a stool near the cabin door in order to get out quickly when her husband goes into one of his “white-faced rages.” Prayer, witchcraft, and fetishistic post cards of the Sacred Heart are for women. Political matters belong to men, and take the form of following rumors from the capital. The revolution that forces Orlando to move his family north is, for Luisa, bewildering, like a Victrola or a moving picture, something brought in from the outside. “The United States was a great hole to the north which would swallow me.”

The New York barrio is also depressed, insular, but the vividness of Fox’s rendering of its claustrophobia and anxiety contrasts with her painstaking, worked-up portrait of San Pedro. When Luisa and her parents arrive in 1936 they have two boxes and at the time of their last move as a family in 1943 they have fourteen. This slow accumulation of sad belongings, “each a relic of struggle,” is as close as they will get to the American dream. They have, through Orlando’s father, citizenship, but it makes no difference. This, like Orlando’s refusal to desert Fefita, is another quirky adjustment Fox makes in a familiar outline.

Fefita is unable to learn English; they are treated with contempt by relatives who have scraped toward a measure of material comfort and cultural assimilation. Even the food from the bodega, the smell of which was once consoling, is reduced to what the Irish children call “spic grub.” Luisa remembers meals when there was scarcely enough.

The flat was a place I never wanted to be. Walking home from school, always hungry, always angry because I was hungry, I imagined the dark hallway, the blue painted walls, the swollen lumps of plaster, the narrow, stale, silent rooms.

The correlation between menial work and survival is not lost on Luisa when her father, after years of not working, finds a job as a street cleaner and they begin to eat meat. The division of labor within the family is unchanged until then: Fefita works for a time in a perfume factory, but Orlando, still the landowner’s son, takes in boarders whose defeat and terror are like an incurable viral strain. Luisa resents her father’s weaknesses and feels “an irritable pity” for her mother, who eventually wastes away from cancer.

When I watched Mamá ironing a shirt of Papá’s as she bent over the sheet-covered plank balanced on two straight-backed chairs that she used for an ironing board, her own dress unpressed, her lips moving as she talked to herself, I wanted to kick away the plank, its clumsiness and inadequacy proof that I would never be able to enter the world which I had begun to suspect lay beyond our barrio.

The news of La Señora’s death and that Orlando has inherited nothing is a turning point in Luisa’s inner life. “The death of a hope I’d not known I’d had, so nebulous, I couldn’t put a word to it, but knew it had been hope by the desolation which followed its loss, made me feel faint and ill.” Luisa takes an afternoon job at a variety store. “A tide was carrying me away from the life my parents had made…. I felt a joy that was nearly vengeful.” It is not a surge toward improvement, but an escape, a refusal to participate. This refusal takes the form of a life of drudgery.

Fox would have us believe that Luisa has made the choice to become a servant only out of temperament or as an act of mourning or revenge for the loss of Malagita, an abstraction, an idea, that one feels Fox has imposed on the observed life of work. She does not adequately convince us of Luisa’s chaste but perverse decision to be a maid, though it is central to the moral problem Fox seems to be working out in the novel. Though Luisa is articulate with herself, she is, like the serving girl Felicité in Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, mute with the world. To make Luisa speak without violating the recessiveness necessary to her character is Fox’s challenge and the boldness of her creation. It may be also why the book seems at the same time so deliberately withholding, and so literary. Luisa’s choice is asserted, and part of the strategy of the book is to set her up for this choice.

Fox is careful to show that Luisa is aware of the other means by which people get out of poverty. Ellen Dove, an ambitious black girl, is a shrewd insertion as Luisa’s lifelong friend because it takes into account the lives of women busting suds and sweating in the big house to give their children a better future. Ellen’s mother also works as a maid, and she is the only one who never asks why Luisa wants to be a servant. The Dove children have the determination to seize the opportunities available during World War II. Ellen applies herself at school because she does not want to be “some woman’s girl.” Ellen’s brother, who is later killed in the war, tries unsuccessfully to infect Luisa with the romance of possibility.

“I’m going to be a servant. I’m not good in school the way Ellen is. I’m going to have to get real work soon…. And—oh, I have to get away!”

…What I had said so loudly, so boldly, had taken me by surprise…. But something had come together in my mind the minute I’d spoken, fragments of a picture of myself in a black uniform with a white apron. I felt a sour triumph.

Luisa is unmoved by arguments that the uniform is demeaning, is forbearing when Ellen treats her jobs as if they were “a sickness about which it would be indelicate to speak.” Independence, a quick way out of the barrio—beyond these partial explanations Luisa’s choice has the force of renunciation. “They wanted to drag me across the line into a life that required an effort I was unable, or unwilling to make.”

Luisa moves neither upward nor downward. She is immobile. The oddity of Luisa’s contract with the world accounts for the hold she has as a character on the imagination. A Servant’s Tale may be about immigration, marriages between unequals, or class relations, but it is most effective as a meditation on the pride in humility, and on the astonishing will of the masochist.

Perhaps Luisa’s escape is from herself. Newsreels of bombings make Luisa long for a situation in which she is “released from doubt, set only on survival.” It is as if she suffers the kind of breakdown that expresses itself as an unwillingness to contend, as a paralyzing blend of being superior while also being fearful. Perhaps it is also an unconscious attempt to take up her mother’s burden. Fefita warns Luisa to watch out for the sons. Luisa points out that her employers’ son is eight years old. “Watch out for the father, then,” Fefita replies. If Luisa is spitefully embracing the state she was born to or conforming to the image America has of her, then her first employers urge her to go to night school and, being Jewish, are sympathetic to her as a “foreigner.” But Luisa cannot respond. She is on hold, ruled by a fixed idea. “The very monotony of my servant’s life…freed me to return in my thoughts to Malagita.”

Where Luisa’s employers are open, lacking in caution, she is secretive, closed. “I was a pair of hands, a household nurse.” From austere furnished rooms Luisa travels to her growing list of clients—a businesswoman, a middle-aged couple, an anarchic proofreader, an actress who wants Luisa to call her by her first name: “I called her Miss Grant.” Or: “I didn’t care what they called me.” Or: “I didn’t care what they called me.” Luisa’s aloofness appears, at times, aristocratic, and she takes pride in the discarded clothes, in the serenity of anonymity.

I shopped for my employers, occasionally served meals, changed their linen, got to know dry cleaners…took telephone messages, played their radios, poured Lysol into their toilet bowls, and from their soiled sheets and plates, their wastebaskets and garbage cans, found traces of their human passage through the nights and days from which I was able to deduce their habits, their pleasures and aversions, even their pretensions. Rising to their apartments in their service elevators to which I was ordered by doormen, I felt the kind of repose that comes, I imagined, during the recovery from a long illness.

Exotic to some, a comfort to others, Luisa learns bitter lessons about being a servant. The power she finds in efficiency, in being depended on, in knowing more about them than they do about her has its price.

A servant can disrupt the order of her employer’s life only in dire emergencies, but it is her connivance in bringing them about that is the accusation made against her. A servant’s face must be blank. I shouldn’t have shouted at her and let her hear my private voice.

Luisa has no delusions about equality and accepts the unfairness of life.

Jaded, clammy with fatigue, I washed the slats of Miss Mathes’ venetian blinds. The grime I rinsed from them settled beneath my fingernails. It didn’t matter. It was a token of my intention.

Behind it all is the longing to return to San Pedro, but when Luisa realizes how long it will take to save the fare she experiences a “commotion” of spirit that coincides with a glimpse of another way of life.

Ellen introduces her to City College students whose “anger could speak.” Luisa meets Tom Greer, a tall, blond radical in tweed who is writing a book about cocoa plantations. Here Fox has recourse to the Jane Austen Maneuver: across a crowded room a dashing, eligible man sets aside more suitable matches to fall for the beleaguered but somehow superior girl whose moral sense and perfect manners inspire him to declare himself in a courtship no longer than a stroll around the garden. Yet Fox’s description of this marriage is memorable, since it comes from something truly observed in life—the husband ashamed of his wife. “Who wants to be a domestic if they can be something else?” Luisa leaves the room when company is present because she had been taught that men “were supposed to be left alone together.”

“Stop cleaning up,” he demanded. He took a glass from my hand. “You’re not the maid,” he said patiently.

When they divorce, Tom marries a colleague of his own class. But Luisa is left with a child, an object of sacrifice outside of herself. Luisa’s marriage illustrates the depths of her inability to express herself and her refusal to become an American. Tom’s reluctance to support the child restores her to the labors that distract from or conceal her vulnerability. “I knew what I knew. Work was a hook I had to swallow to be saved.” Luisa goes back to work in the way a streetwalker does what has to be done. She lavishes attention on her son Charlie that is almost erotic in its intensity. Luisa’s life now has two components: her work and her son. The boy is as reserved and elusive as his mother and through the years they come to seem like siblings.

Though much time passes in the book, Luisa’s single-mindedness makes her seem ageless. She has an affair with one of her employers, but it is mostly a painful example of the mortifications, the degradation inherent in being a servant. Luisa has no friends among her own class, doesn’t even seem to know any of the other maids in the buildings where she spends her days. It is impossible to imagine her going to bingo games or devoting her free time to a church choir. Other than Charlie, the only person she seems to trust is an antique dealer for whom she works, a homosexual who understands the damage and dispossession of the alienated. Much of the book involves “the small comedies of behavior” of Luisa’s employers, but it is not merely an outsider’s picture of middle-class life because the drift of Luisa’s concerns is in the foreground. “I realized that I hadn’t believed in the possibility of justice, only in fits of mercy.”

The climax of the book comes as a crack in Luisa’s rigidly held routine. Luisa has been caught up in the tangled life of Mrs. Burgess. Divorced, with a spoiled, dishonest son, Mrs. Burgess is capricious, destructive, selfish, but the messiness of her life tempts Luisa to let down her guard. Mrs. Burgess, however, oversteps the formality of the employer–servant relationship: she has an affair with Charlie.

What I remembered were the faces of Señora de la Cueva’s servants. They had belonged to her, too, and to her son. They flocked to my mind, my mother’s face among them, and they seemed to look at me with contempt…. They had known better than to trust La Señora, to imagine the bond between them was more than that of mistress and servant.

The betrayal of Luisa’s intimacy brings her working life to an abrupt end, as if a contract had been canceled. The period of torpor and disorder that follows is meant as a kind of collapse, although in fact the years of silence and discipline may seem in many respects more like a breakdown. The realization that Charlie is not entirely hers causes Luisa to return to Malagita, the memory of which has sustained her like a painkiller.

Malagita has changed, but it is the desolation of revolutionary change. The vivienda has become a state-owned hotel and a maid there angrily tells Luisa that Malagita belongs not to her but to the people. “‘I never thought that,’ I whispered, even as I knew I had thought only that all through the years of my servitude. I had been waiting.” She is spoken to as a de la Cueva, not a Sanchez. Perhaps Fox intends Luisa’s solitary, childlike dream of Malagita to explain her lack of desire for anything in America. Her somewhat mysterious servitude now seems to have been a kind of exile and penance, and an act of revenge, which she can endure because her sense of being superior has kept her from being devalued by others in the way, in a Victorian novel, the bastard in the stable lives out a humble position in the hope of one day assuming his proper place.

The scenes of Luisa’s life as a servant are intense, thoroughly convincing, but the motives for her choice remain abstract and they somewhat overwhelm the book. One wonders why Fox did not make Luisa a servant from necessity, but the nagging presence of the question may be part of Fox’s point. There is a deep eccentricity in trying to imagine what it must be like to be someone like Luisa, and in this sense A Servant’s Tale is an extension of Fox’s examination of peripheral lives, of those who have few resources and little right of appeal. The conception is original, daring, and unnerving.