- Life after Marriage: Scenes from Divorce by A. Alvarez
Macmillan, 268 pp, £8.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 333 24161 4
In the first chapter of this book, a chapter which concerns the time of our marriage, Alvarez has cast me in a variety of roles, from Jungle Jane to Giant Sloth. It may come as a surprise to him to find me among his critics.
Life after Marriage follows much the same pattern as his best-selling The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. The personal bit, the friends, the literary figures. A formula that was perhaps worthy of repetition. The principal literary figure then in question was Sylvia Plath, a writer on whose work, and death, Alvarez became an authority. It was a very readable book and did much to awaken interest in Plath: but it also heralded the author’s addiction to plangent autobiography. Over the years of his critical career Alvarez has expressed the belief that, in this century, true art is produced by those on the edge of sanity, or under severe pressure. By airing his own abortive suicide attempt in The Savage God, he seemed to me to be making an effort to join the club. His interest in the writings of the people concerned became of secondary importance. He turned sociologist, historian, psychologist and philosopher almost overnight, and moved a long way from his early, and serious, critical work.
If one sets aside the quotations with which the new book is embellished, Alvarez can now be said to have abandoned literature altogether. An account of his own unhappy first marriage dominates the field. After the initial shock, I found this bewildered me less than did the descriptions of the period surrounding his suicide attempt in the earlier book. From Scene One, where I am to be found complaining about the toast crusts while Alvarez is giving us ‘And now good morrow to our waking souls,’ it is clear that I am destined never to raise my insensitive head again as far as the readers of this book are concerned.
The publishers sent me the manuscript of this chapter (libel laws), and as a result some insults directed at myself, and at my 85-year-old father, were removed. But I cannot say that I think much of the chapter that survived these objections. After a separation of over twenty years and overtly friendly relations for at least the last eighteen, I am taken in hand for the magic formula. The fact that our marriage was a drab and commonplace failure like countless others was plainly quite unacceptable. No one was going to buy that book. He has done his best to enliven the drama with a series of contrasting images: ‘he’ is a clever young writer, an ambitious literary-critical young man, has a first-class degree, fellowships; ‘she’ appears to take no interest in his work, has never sat an exam in her life. ‘He’ has youthful sentimentality, romantic innocence, moral ambition, appreciates the beauties of nature; ‘she’ is taciturn, hates toast crusts, has fixed black rages and eyes like green stone. Even her own parents are wonderstruck that anyone should want to marry her; his parents dote on him. But above all he suffers. He is sensitive and she is not. ‘There is,’ Alvarez writes, ‘even a certain status in being one of the world’s walking wounded.’
The shortcomings of Alvarez’s semi-fictional method permeate this chapter, as they do the rest of the book. A principle of selection leads him to omit all too many things that would damage his thesis. His style is not what it was, but he can still handle words. Thus we hear that while he was teaching in America his wife ‘left prematurely for England’ (called away on business perhaps?), while he later ‘upped and left her’. He uses the voice of the great to illustrate his feelings throughout. ‘Nothing became him in his wife like the leaving of her.’ The un-Shakespearean rhythm of this line is troubling in itself, and when we look at the phrase in Macbeth which he is parodying, and which refers to the death of the traitor Thane of Cawdor, the implication is fierce. And presumptuous. I do not recollect Alvarez leaving his wife with the same dignity that Cawdor left his life. Romeo, Lawrence, Tristan are also brought into play. But all these identifications really boil down to a lot of little literary games. They cannot be considered an attempt to deal seriously with a serious subject. Together with this lack of seriousness (though he is certainly in earnest about his own sufferings) runs an odd ingenuousness: ‘the insular British virtues of decency, gentility and politeness’ is a comment that does nothing but reveal his own insularity; he is ‘surprised’ to feel love and tenderness for his son, since he had ‘never been smitten by other people’s children’; the newly divorced ‘sleep around’ because ‘they are responding to the contemporary image of the good life as it is projected everywhere: in movies, television serials, magazine stories and advertisements for after-shave, perfume and Smirnoff.’ Some quite pleasant descriptive passages about the beauties of nature are marred by the uneasy sense that he is shouting too loud. He is again reminding us of his sensitivity. He tells us, ‘People interest me more than theories’: people may indeed interest him, but the book displays a self-satisfaction which seems to have denied him much understanding of them.
Alvarez would now appear to be flatly contradicting what he told us in The Savage God. Referring there to a time ‘many months’ before our separation, he wrote of his intention to commit suicide: ‘It was the one constant focus of my life, making everything else irrelevant, a diversion.’ And he adds: ‘My wife was not to blame ... I was using her as an excuse for troubles that had their roots deep in the past.’ Now it seems that his wife, or at any rate his marriage, was to blame. For the purposes of the present book, his misery is laid, entirely and uncompromisingly, at the door of his unhappy marriage. It is absolutely inconceivable that anyone reading this could think that he considered his relationship with his wife irrelevant, still less a diversion. It is not just difficult to reconcile the two accounts of his state of mind, and the reasons for it: it is impossible. Which account, if either, should we credit? It seems to me that he is having his cake and eating it, and that he is ‘using her’ again. Where now are the ‘roots deep in the past’? Have they perhaps been grafted to bear a new strange fruit?
Confessional writing has long enjoyed a market – and in recent times more than ever. There is an appealing quality to its apparent candours: the reader feels confident of the courage and honesty that must be inherent in these revelations. In my experience, such confidence is usually quite ill-placed. People find it difficult to tell their psychiatrists the truth, or even themselves, let alone the public.
Since a twenty-five-year old, dead, obsession with Frieda and D.H. Lawrence is held in the opening chapter to have been responsible for Alvarez’s first marriage, I was surprised to discover that the following chapter deals with these very people. The old story is gone over again with few extra trimmings. We are given a long, and curiously snobbish, list of Frieda’s supposed lovers, which presumably helps Alvarez to his conclusion that, having turned her first husband, Ernest Weekley, into a Karenin figure, she then did the same for Lawrence. Frieda herself seems to have merged with Alvarez’s image of his first wife; he even uses the same adjective to describe them – ‘headlong’. The Frieda/Lawrence story is too remarkable to be used as a case-history and the inclusion of this chapter is never justified.
Some discussion of Edith Wharton’s story ‘Autres Temps’ starts out quite promisingly but is used as a vehicle for family gossip: it turns into an interview with a woman on whose divorced grandmother Wharton based her story. We are then treated to a history of marriage and divorce, taking off with a quotation from Voltaire and ending up with Wilde. We move from the helpless embryo chick, through the Sumerians, Romans, St Paul, to Princess Margaret. All in 33 pages. ‘Voices, incidents, hints’ are then blended together to have ‘their different say’: all too often the voice is simply that of Alvarez. ‘I spoke to dozens of men and women ... heard stories about dozens more’ – haven’t we all? He tells us he has done some ‘boning up’ on the law and statistics of divorce. I should hope so.
To his surprise, he comes down on the side of marriage, as long as it is marriage between ‘consenting adults’. ‘A troublesome husband or wife,’ he writes, ‘can now be divorced with startlingly little fuss.’ I found his book startlingly devoid of thought, its leading emotion self-pity. The American subtitle is Love in an Age of Divorce. Well, we are given a plethora of divorces, but love remains absent.
I was 19 when I met Alvarez and we were married after a couple of months. Returning me in the small hours to my waiting-up, dressing-gowned parents, he announced to them that we were to be married. It had never been mentioned between us. His wish to marry me rested, we are told, on two facts: I was Frieda Lawrence’s granddaughter, and my green eyes ‘seemed’ to contain endless depths of feeling. It is all a very long time ago, but I believe that it was his determination that carried me to the Registry Office. He persuaded me less of any positive reason for marrying him than that there was no justification for not doing so. All this was obviously very silly on my part. It is hardly surprising, or indeed very interesting, that a relationship so based should have been a failure. I have never looked back on the marriage with bitterness; I remember some quite happy times along with the bad; it is part of my life, part of my experience, but behind me. And it was very brief. Someone once said that Alvarez ‘wore me on his sleeve’ when I was his wife, and twenty years later he apparently still needs to sport my tarnished image. It is high time our divorce was made absolute and that we were, both, free. I believe the description of himself, me, and of our marriage, to be a fiction. It is a pity he has neither the good taste, nor the talent, to present it as such.