Female Relationships

Stephen Bann

  • When things of the spirit come first by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Patrick O’Brian
    Deutsch, 212 pp, £6.95, July 1982, ISBN 0 233 97462 8
  • Union Street by Pat Barker
    Virago, 266 pp, £6.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 86068 282 X
  • Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood
    Virago, 346 pp, £3.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 86068 303 6
  • Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood
    Cape, 302 pp, £7.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 224 02016 1
  • Hearts: A Novel by Hilma Wolitzer
    Harvester, 324 pp, £6.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 7108 0475 X
  • Pzyche by Amanda Hemingway
    Faber, 236 pp, £7.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 571 11875 5
  • December Flower by Judy Allen
    Duckworth, 176 pp, £7.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 7156 1644 7

Simone de Beauvoir had to change her original title for When things of the spirit come first, because it had been unexpectedly pre-empted by the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. The new title which she picked (Quand prime le spirituel) was a simple variant of the other (Primauté du Spirituel), and the difference has in any case become insignificant in the English translation. But the episode remains both revealing and amusing. Written nearly forty years ago, and rejected for publication at the time, this group of linked stories conveys an implicit faith in the power of fiction to act as a prophylaxis against false philosophy and perverted dogma. The irony of the title is expected to act as a solvent upon such artificial and old-fashioned constraints.

Five women, each of whom has an individual predicament though her destiny occasionally touches that of the others, take their turn at the centre of Mme de Beauvoir’s stage. Some succeed and some fail in outgrowing the effects of a Catholic upbringing and a religiously-tinged education. For Anne, who fails, the consequence is a wasting disease reminiscent of what used to happen to 19th-century heroines. For Marcelle and Marguerite, who succeed, the end of the story is also the threshold of a new life. Marcelle decides for herself (and without giving much warning to the reader): ‘I am a woman of genius.’ Marguerite, whose role it is to carry the special burden of the author’s adolescence, also achieves a ‘kind of revelation’ – but she is quick to dismiss any spiritual overtones that may occur in connection with that experience: ‘all I have wished to do was to show how I was brought to try to look things straight in the face, without accepting oracles or ready-made values.’

Heroines thus programmed to fail or to succeed invite a rather schematic narrative treatment, however tense their temporary engagements with such figures as Denis, the layabout disciple of Rimbaud, Pascal, the uncommitted archaeologist, and Marie-Ange, the crypto-lesbian theosophist. Only in ‘Chantal’ does the technical range expand, allowing a rich and piquant contrast to emerge between the flowery journal entries of the newly-arrived teacher in a French provincial town, and the sordid reality of the human experience which is taking place there. Chantal, anxious to persuade herself that life away from Paris can be worthwhile, weaves a chivalric fantasy around an affair between two pupils which ends in the forced marriage and effective immurement of the reluctant girl. But in sedulously exposing the ‘bad faith’ of Chantal as she reacts to this situation, Mme de Beauvoir also commits a technical fault which mars her conclusion. The Chantal who reacts harshly and conventionally to the unwanted pregnancy is shown from the outside, her journal having been inexplicably terminated, and the point of view migrates to another schoolgirl – a friend of the victim – who is an evident surrogate for the author.

There is enough charm and vitality in Mme de Beauvoir’s writing to outweigh such faults. But the satirical and polemical edge of the stories remains somewhat blunted. ‘Lisa’ introduces us to a ‘boarder at the Institution Saint-Ange’, and to that establishment’s star teacher, Mlle Lambert, who devotes her mornings to ‘her thesis on Duns Scotus’. Half a century ago, such a detail would have passed muster as a symptom of the ludicrous benightedness of religious schools. Can it do so today, when Scotus seems to be the focus of a minor cult in Paris – the subject of a recent symposium on France-Culture? ‘Chantal’ stops short at the prospect of the victim of a forced marriage living a loveless life on a small country property: Marthe, a recently published historical memoir, gives us the enthralling correspondence deriving from a similar case among provincial notables less than a century ago. It is difficult not to feel, when reading Mme de Beauvoir’s stories, that she has been tempted to use loaded dice. The existential commitment is too heavily dependent upon a rhetoric which mistakes its own short cuts for satisfactory solutions.

The gallery of individual female portraits is also the form chosen by Pat Barker for her first publication, Union Street. But it is hardly necessary to point out that the philosophical purpose of Mme de Beauvoir, and her use of the rhetoric of liberation, are very far indeed from the conception of a work like this. Pat Barker does not concentrate on the mythic point at which education ends, and the world must be accepted or rejected for what it is. She focuses upon the adolescent girl and the pregnant mother, the matriarch, the prostitute and the old woman at the point of death. She plays the card of provinciality, not to illuminate the tragi-comic dilemma of the intellectual estranged from metropolitan life, but to lay claim to the well-trodden territory of the dead-end street in the gritty Northern town. In other words, this is a realist project of the most classic variety, ostensibly concerned with ‘1973, that year of bitter cold and unemployment’, but actually luxuriating in the perennial human features which that ‘winter of the miner’s strike’ brought to light: ‘the grit, the humour, the reality of the working-class life’.

Probably the reader will not find Union Street disappointing if he is tempted by these inducements. Pat Barker has an exceptionally good ear for idiom, and a determination to probe the parts of social, and particularly sexual, life which Coronation Street does not reach. But before greeting Union Street as a promising first novel, we might reasonably ask if it is a novel at all. Certainly it is no more so than When things of the spirit come first, and hardly more so than Joyce’s Dubliners, whose texture it occasionally recalls in its more ambitious passages. The conception of Union Street is original, and each of its characters gets a good enough run. But the self-imposed limitations of the structure are always in evidence.

There is no doubt at all about the Canadian Margaret Atwood’s being a novelist. Both Lady Oracle (first published in 1976 and now appearing in paperback) and Bodily Harm are splendid demonstrations of the contemporary novelist’s craft. To read them together is to note an interesting complementarity between the respective plot structures. Margaret Atwood chooses for both the chronological device which Roland Barthes once referred to as the ‘zig-zag’ or ‘saw-toothed’ structure. We move alternately between two levels of narrative, the first being the life of the central character up to the commencement of the action, and the second being the diegesis proper – the story as it exists outside the flashbacks. In Lady Oracle, the Canadian heroine takes refuge in the Roman Campagna after a faked suicide. Little of consequence happens to her there, and the emphasis is placed almost exclusively on the gradual unfolding of the episodes of her earlier life. In Bodily Harm, a woman journalist arrives in a Caribbean island to write a travel feature. But an intrigue involving drugs, corrupt politicians and the inevitable CIA sweeps her up, allowing proportionately less time for the recollections of early life back home.

Lady Oracle’s strength lies partly in the untiring invention with which the heroine’s picaresque life is retraced. Denis and Pascal, Mme de Beauvoir’s crew, are lacklustre compared with the improbable but just possible gallery of types who combine to make Joan Foster’s life unbearable: Paul, the Polish count who writes sentimental novels about doctors and nurses; Arthur, the Canadian radical nationalist preoccupied with a journal called Resurgence; Fraser Buchanan, the blackmailer of the literary world; and, above all, the Royal Porcupine, a Canadian ‘con-create’ poet whose bizarre activities are compatible with an uncharitable reading of the Sixties’ avant-garde. This is, of course, to select only the choicer specimens, and to ignore the richly comic female roles, such as Joan’s mother and her Aunt Lou. But it is a sign of the novel’s complexity that it establishes – quite apart from this gallery of roles – the credibility of Joan’s own literary work, both as a Gothic novelist and as a poet, memorably epitomised as ‘a cross between Kahlil Gibran and Rod McKuen’. Extracts from Gothic novels in course of composition pepper the narrative, parodying the genre delightfully but also tracing the author’s growing inability to sublimate her sexual role through fantasies such as these.

In what sense is Lady Oracle a feminist novel, if at all? Precisely, it would appear to me, because it takes leave of the stereotype perpetuated in Mme de Beauvoir’s collection: that of the heroic self-realisation whose outward sign is the declared commitment to a literary career (‘I am a woman of genius’). Joan Foster is both an all-inclusive and a fragmented character: a thin and attractive woman who retains the memory of being fat and grotesque; a writer who succeeds almost effortlessly in pursuing two literary careers with the aid of her pseudonyms, while her lovers (apart from Paul) fail ignominiously in their narrow tasks. One aspect of her, as she recognises, is summed up by the image of Diana of the Ephesians which she sees in the garden of the Villa d’Este – the many-breasted goddess, bountiful, creative and serene. But this is an image contradicted by her final, desperate flight:

Once I would have seen her as an image of myself, but not any more. My ability to give was limited, I was not inexhaustible. I was not serene, not really. I wanted things, for myself.

I suspect that this conclusion, with its mood of deflated solipsism, is one of the connections which binds Lady Oracle to Bodily Harm. For the more recent novel is not so much a picaresque exploration of antagonistic roles as a quest for sympathetic identity. Rennie is a mere journalist, whose writing cannot therefore bear the burden of self-analysis undertaken by Joan’s. She is caught up in a political intrigue which is, of course, an intrigue plotted and carried out by men. An epigraph from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing underlines the fact that men are expected to act, while, by contrast, ‘a woman’s presence ... defines what can and cannot be done to her.’ In this context, the judgment suggests a double interpretation. On the most obvious level, Rennie and Lora – the female acquaintance with whom she finally shares a prison cell – are being acted upon rather than acting. But it might also be argued that Margaret Atwood is using the tag to emphasise her distaste for the blatantly manipulative effect of the plot. She is implying that the point of this novel lies in its capacity to generate a kind of moral resistance to its contrivances.

This is partly evident in the fact that Rennie herself withdraws from any complicity in the stereotyped, ‘story-book’ interpretation of male/female relationships: ‘Once upon a time Rennie was able to predict men; she’s been able to tell exactly what a given man would do at a given time ... She’s given up deciding what will happen next.’ Although this bleak view is rapidly withdrawn, the fact remains that Rennie’s final relationship has to be with the rather unpleasant and interfering Lora, who has involved her in the shabby political plot and at the end shares her imprisonment. It is only in her relationship to Lora – now in a state of virtual collapse after being beaten up by the prison guards – that she can avoid the alternative and symmetrical rituals of manipulating and being manipulated. Alas, the precondition of this relationship is that Lora herself cannot answer back: ‘ “Lora,” she says. The name descends and enters the body. There’s something, a movement; isn’t there?’ If, in Lady Oracle, Margaret Atwood chose the slightly too perfect solution of an ‘Aunt Lou’ who serves as the heroine’s ideal confidante, in Bodily Harm she hesitates to claim so easy an intimacy. Nonetheless, the conclusion of the novel is focused upon the possibilities, as well as the difficulty, of female companionship. And so, in their differing ways, are the three novels which will occupy the remainder of this review.

Hilma Wolitzer’s Hearts could be described, on one level, as an attempt to retell the Lolita story, with the important reservation that this time it is a stepmother, rather than a stepfather, who takes charge of the glamorous yet inaccessible teenage girl. Linda is widowed after a brief marriage, and sets out in her green Maverick for California. Her stepdaughter Robin, giving up a school project of a diorama of the Death of Marie-Antoinette (with red nail varnish for blood) and bearing on her back a festering tattoo, joins the expedition with reluctance. The expectation is that Robin will be delivered to the care of her father’s family, or the mother who abandoned her, somewhere along the way, and Linda will begin a new life in California entirely unencumbered. It is a nasty shock for Linda when she discovers, not far along the way, that she is pregnant. But her intention is that this encumberment, also, will have been shed by the time that she reaches the promised land.

With our two heroines launched upon the road, the narrative seems set for an easygoing, eventful jaunt across America. Hilma Wolitzer is expert at keeping things ‘moseying smoothly along’, to use her own phrase. But she is also capable of springing considerable surprises on the reader: a tupperware party that turns out not to be a tupperware party, an abortion that turns out not to be an abortion, and a casual acquaintance with a hitchhiker that turns out not to be the vehicle for an eventual happy ending that we expect it to be. In effect, Linda exchanges her rather vague commitment to female solidarity for a more practical commitment to Robin and her own unborn child. Having taken for granted that ‘there was a natural intimacy among all women these days,’ she finds that judgment over-optimistic. Robin, on the other hand, turns out to be worth the effort of communication.

Hilma Wolitzer’s landscape is the familiar scene of Middle America. Amanda Hemingway chooses to invent two planets at the remotest edge of the galaxy for her first novel, Pzyche, and the result is that characteristic blend of the recognisable and the bizarre that gives Science Fiction its attraction. People from Hiboryn drink ‘kaffine’ and ‘greentea’, as well as a series of distasteful types of alcohol. The eponymous heroine lives in ‘Castle Kray’, which may conjure up visions of Lutyensesque luxury, but appears to offer no comfort except that of the occasional hot bath: ‘It was (she thought) the loveliest bath she had ever had.’ Proper names abound, with a tendency towards the pseudo-biblical (Caleth) and the quasi-Russian (Varagin, Borogoyn), though Pzyche’s sister, Tnoe, has the distinction of causing a perceptual flip whenever cited, as the eye persists in reading the first two letters of her name as ‘Th’, with the top of the ‘h’ clipped off. Against this barrage of de-familiarisation the occasional landscape description has a familiar ring:

Then there was a soft explosion and suddenly the cavern was floodlit. They saw the roots of the stalactites writhing up out of the sunken lake like vast prehistoric trees. Beyond, there was a whole city of monstrous pillars, intertwined with convoluted spires and whorls of living rock which might once have been roads and bridges, flyovers and underpasses. At intervals, strange stone shapes sat like watchers, images of palaeolithic beings too ancient for humanity.

It is, of course, pure ‘special effects’ – by Star Wars out of 2001. Yet the stereotypes of interplanetary adventure are almost wholly absent, and the author tries for the most part to concentrate attention on the problematic relationship between the two estranged sisters: Tnoe, who has been brought up in something roughly resembling a bohemian atmosphere, and Pzyche herself, who has been conditioned by her mad scientist father to resent and resist virtually any form of contact with another human being. Despite some touching moments, there really is very little progress to be made on the Pzyche front, and after a while, the narrative sets into a pattern of sporadic incidents which culminate in the destruction of Krake, the small planet which harbours Castle Kray. With her undoubted talent for lively writing, Amanda Hemingway should wave it goodbye without a qualm, and set to work on less intractable materials.

Judy Allen’s ‘first adult novel’, December Flower, sets up a marginally less daunting challenge in female relationships. Like Hilma Wolitzer’s Hearts, the book begins with a brief recollection of a husband’s untimely death, and continues with an attempt to redeem from sullen silence the heroine’s only surviving relative: an aged aunt (known from childhood as ‘Arn Tem’) suffering under the ministrations of an obstreperous housekeeper. Just enough time is left for this quaintly humorous old bird to ‘flower’ in the humdrum surroundings of her semi-detached home, before the inevitable happens and her mortal remains are stowed beneath a marble angel sufficiently vulgar to outrage her prim daughter-in-law.

The whole of this process is recounted with wit and sympathy. From being a figure of vague menace, wrapped up in bed like Red Riding Hood’s Big Bad Wolf, Arn Tem becomes colloquial, satirical and virtually mobile. But Netta, the visiting niece who copes with her, creates more of a problem for the reader. It is made clear that she is traversing a considerable personal crisis during her stay. It is also implied, by the end of the book, that it has been resolved. But apart from the suggestive effect of a recurrent motif involving dinosaurs and ‘archaic fear’, we are not given the basis for a deeper insight. Judy Allen should be encouraged to write more ‘adult novels’ – at any rate, she will certainly not let her heroines get away with declaring: ‘I am a woman of genius.’