Are women nicer than men?

Michael Wood

  • The Dark Hole Days by Una Woods
    Blackstaff, 127 pp, £3.50, December 1984, ISBN 0 85640 316 4
  • Superior Women by Alice Adams
    Heinemann, 374 pp, £8.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 434 00631 9
  • The Collected Stories by Frank Tuohy
    Macmillan, 410 pp, £12.95, December 1984, ISBN 0 333 38534 9
  • The Apple in the Dark by Clarice Lispector, translated by Gregory Rabassa
    Virago, 361 pp, £10.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 86068 605 1
  • Family Ties by Clarice Lispector and Giovanni Pontiero
    Carcanet, 140 pp, £8.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 85636 569 6

Places in fiction often have a curious dual nationality. They are entangled in historical events, marked on a solid social map. ‘It’s not exactly the moon I’m asking for,’ a girl thinks in The Dark Hole Days, ‘but surely all my dreams don’t end here: me in a duffle coat signing on the dole and walking in the debris of Belfast.’ Later she adds: ‘Belfast would fit into a corner of London. Not that it would fit in.’ On the other hand, places are used as pieces of an invention, elements of an intended meaning, and they come trailing all kinds of associations which may not have much to do with their material locations out there in the world. The ‘brilliant’, the ‘deep blue’ New England air and the irremediable Californian innocence that crop up so frequently in Superior Women really belong to literature or mythology rather than to the weather or any particular living Americans. Of course people and even the weather, as Wilde knew, do at times dutifully imitate literature, and that complicates the issue.

Belfast in The Dark Hole Days is the place of the troubles, but it retains the drab charm of an insistent ordinariness. It is a place where young people worry about boyfriends and clothes (‘I was looking at a suit the other day. It was made up of lovely autumny shades’) and jobs and getting away, as they would in any other stifling province that was also home. Men snap and demand service; women scurry and provide it. Even the violence is an abstraction, a matter for remote politicians and chattering parlour sages.

I came in and asked Ma. She likes the news. Och, she said, another one of them what-do-you-call-thems. What, I said. Och you know, she said, it begins with ‘in’. After a while I guessed – initiatives.

Except of course when the violence strikes you or someone near you.

This volume, a first book, contains a novella, which is the title-piece, and four short stories. There is a terse, almost jaunty precision to much of the writing, and a remarkable patience with the unresolved quality of the lives depicted.

Dad doesn’t say much ... Where’s the dignity of the past, he asked me. I couldn’t tell him. The only person he really likes listening to is Mam. You wouldn’t think she was from Belfast at all, Aunt Sadie used to say. Aunt Sadie’s dead.

In the novella we follow most of the action through two diaries: those of a bright, imaginative girl who likes her family and her boyfriend but also wants to be free of them, and of a boy who joins what seems to be a chapter of the Provisional IRA, and finds in his clandestine training a new dignity. ‘I hated history in school,’ he confides to his diary. ‘Now I’m in it.’ This is a fantasy, though, a dream of what he calls his ‘quiet importance’, and it collapses when his group is involved in a murder. The boy hides from his complicity by burying himself like a rat under the floorboards of his bedroom. His mother feeds him and tells all callers that ‘Joe has gone to England for a job.’ ‘What keeps me going?’ he asks at the end of the work. ‘That I didn’t kill the man, that it will all be over some day.’ The murdered man is the innocent father of the girl writing the other diary: a person we know but Joe doesn’t.

The story called ‘Homecoming’ similarly makes two separate narratives intersect in violence. A city girl finds herself in the country, in the midst of some sort of emotional breakdown, and is taken home and comforted by the family of a boy she once knew. She has no idea that the boy is now a fugitive – why or from which side we are not told – and that to step outside his house is a serious risk. He takes her to the bus which will return her to normality and her family, and is shot. The point, I take it, is that no story is an island, that her psychological troubles and his political ones do not inhabit separate countries. But it is a little forced, as if the writer’s patience with the unresolved had run out, and she had to tie off at least some of those maddening endless threads. Belfast lurches towards symbolism in the process, and begins to look like a writerly city.

No such difficulties beset Alice Adams, whose world is writerly from the start. Superior Women is a kind of compendium not so much of American attitudes or American history as of attitudes to attitudes, so to speak – the hearsay version of contemporary life. Much is mentioned, almost nothing is shown, and forty years of Americana flicker by like riffled pages. World War Two; the lure of Communism the emergence of Senator McCarthy; the Civil Rights movement; Vietnam; the return of Richard Nixon; Watergate – it is all there, introduced with a swift and studied casualness. ‘Meanwhile, the war in Europe ends, the bomb is dropped on Hiroshima, then Nagasaki ... ’ Meanwhile?

I suppose there is a blurry sort of truthfulness in this approach, since we often do experience the big events of history in this distracted way, like the people in Auden’s poem who are too busy to be excited about a boy dropping out of the sky, and Adams herself remarks on the haziness of the war for her characters. ‘The war is ... essentially unreal ... The war is like background music in a movie.’ Even so, the effect of viewing a whole age through gauze in this fashion is pretty deadening, and Adams in any case presents more domestic items in the same easy key. The writing is fast and fluent, mainly because it is nearly all cast in a racing present tense, but it won’t run to anything very grand, and goes slack whenever it nears an idea or a need for analysis. ‘They were linked, she and Jackson Clay, in a way that was both mysterious and strong’. ‘On some important level she is deeply distrustful of Price.’ Adams’s notion of a tough question is ‘Do men actually become handsomer with age, or is that a culturally determined view?’

The superior women of the title are a handful of girls who graduate from Radcliffe in the 1940s: Megan, plump and randy as a student, slim and successful as a literary agent; Lavinia, elegant, snotty, anti-Semitic, a wealthy creature who marries wealth and can’t resist her own narcissism; Cathy, bright, earnest, Catholic, who falls in love with a priest and has his child, and dies of cancer for good measure; Peg, motherly, dumpy, frightened into marriage with a stupid man, discovering later that lesbian love makes her really happy; Janet, intense, Jewish, not a member of the gang but fond of Megan. A jazz musician and a liberal lawyer have amiable supporting roles.

Adams brings certain patches of these glossy (or grim) careers to life with flair. There is a ghastly Prettyware party in Midland, Texas, where poor Peg, recently recovered from a breakdown, has to face the brash, metallic amusements of the local housewives (‘Now girls,’ the organiser says. ‘Tell me, have you kissed your husband this week? And you know what I mean when I say kiss’). There are repeated evocations of a desperate unpermissive age, where girls got boys and lost them, and got drunk and threw up, where everything was necking and groping and wild decorum about the impossibility of ‘going all the way’. On two occasions Cathy and Megan speak of ‘those really old books about girls’ boarding schools ... There were always four girls. One beautiful and rich and wicked, and one big and fat and ugly ... I’m not too clear about the other two.’ This is Adams’s stab at self-consciousness. What none of the characters talk about or seem to have read is Mary McCarthy’s The Group, although they do use the word ‘group’ in inverted commas, as if they thought it had a special meaning, or a secret life. Adams is not in McCarthy’s league and entirely lacks her teeth and claws, but this does point us towards a real, if soft-centred virtue in Superior Women. Her characters are genuinely kind and easy, anxious about each other; the worst they are is scared or dim. The exception is Lavinia, who is meant to be the bitch such a novel needs (‘beautiful and rich and wicked’), but Adams has a hard time imagining her envy and cruelty. We see her working at it, and shuddering, rather like Fielding when he had got himself locked up inside a nasty mind. ‘Are women nicer than men?’ Megan wonders at one point. Certainly Adams’s characters, men and women, are nicer than most folks in fiction, or in fact.

They are a lot nicer than Frank Tuohy’s characters. But then, niceness is not all. Some of Tuohy’s stories wander rather mournfully through Maugham country, highlighting various modes of English exile, and reminding us that failure is usually shoddy rather than spectacular, that life usually will not come up even to the most tawdry expectations. This is to say that his targets sometimes seem a bit sad and easy: jolly British clubmen in Brazil, silly American academics, a starchy colonel with sour lesbian daughter. But others of these stories – the volume brings together the three collections Tuohy has published so far, The Admiral and the Nuns, Fingers in the Door and Live Bait – seem to me quite masterly. They often find precisely the entry into history that Adams can only imitate or allude to. ‘War of Liberation’, for example, evokes a suburban wartime England where an old class crumbles as its younger members make their escape. Girls brought up to be model school-teachers take off and marry Canadian soldiers; and old ladies, like the fierce and charitable Miss Featherstone, feel the world is ending. Miss Featherstone, indeed, finding no one to say this to, commits suicide. The narrator, a boy at the time but even now bewildered by the fading of what seemed so firm, writes: ‘The people I knew in my childhood were not, perhaps, happy, but they dosed their unhappiness with little nips of self-esteem.’ And then the nips were no longer available. The narrator associates Miss Featherstone’s death with that of Goering, who eluded his sentence at Nuremberg by taking cyanide. This is not one of Adams’s ‘meanwhiles’. Goering and Miss Featherstone belong, in their quite different ways, to the same despairing climate, and they answer each other like lugubrious music.

Tuohy’s places, apart from England, are Japan, Poland and South America. The last location is a vaguely threatening setting rather than a culture, but Japan is a way of seeing and Poland is the century’s shabby nightmare. In one marvellous story, ‘A Summer Pilgrim’, an admiring Japanese woman visits a distinguished (but minor) old English poet in his country lair. The scene is shown through her exquisite, retiring sensibility. ‘I think it may perhaps be a teacup,’ she says of a gift she has brought. ‘She meant,’ Tuohy adds firmly, ‘that this was what it was.’ ‘The Broken Bridge’ presents a Japanese male student who is so disturbed by the thought of kissing a man in a university production of A View from the Bridge – this is a jazzy interpretation proposed by a visiting American who likes to do things the hard way – that he kills himself. ‘If I keep calm and have a relaxed mind,’ he had written earlier in an essay for a composition course, ‘I may be successful. I think so.’ The narrator points out the slightly odd usage in the last phrase. ‘There is no verb in the Japanese language for “hope”.’

The most subtle of the Polish stories is ‘In the Dark Years’, which perfectly focuses the dual nationality of places in fiction, their simultaneous presence and absence in history. A lecturer is in trouble with the authorities because he has been having an affair with a student. His wife, Halina, who idolises him, is sure his difficulties are political, that the noble man is being persecuted. A distinguished professor, who is married to Halina’s cousin, looks into the matter and sees that it is already sorted out. Halina, however, thinks he has acted decisively and is inordinately, indiscreetly grateful. The professor’s wife tells him: ‘She is going around telling people you saved Nowalski from the Party. She says you are a champion of academic freedom.’ The professor is a decent man, not an agitator. This is all he means when he answers, and he is quite unprepared for the depths of compromise his remark reveals. ‘Surely,’ he says, ‘no one will believe her?’ ‘The professor was tired,’ Tuohy adds, ‘he had spoken without thinking. His question appalled them both so much that it struck them silent.’ Later the professor’s wife, reflecting on the small and seedy incidents of the story, thinks: ‘Nothing had happened which would not have been possible in a free society. Suspicions, undertones, fear of the Party, all these had existed only in Halina’s imagination.’ And yet ... Poland for Tuohy is both a distinct place on a map and a gloomy possibility of the spirit.

Clarice Lispector’s places are Brazilian, although she herself was born in the Ukraine – in 1925 according to the blurb of one of these books, in 1924 according to the other. They agree that she died in 1977. She went to school and university in Rio, and lived there when she was not abroad with her diplomat husband. She is a writer much acclaimed in Latin America, and deservedly so, particularly for her stories. ‘Often compared to Ivy Compton-Burnett and to Kafka,’ Virago’s blurb says; and Carcanet’s murmurs: ‘a Latin American cousin of Katherine Mansfield, Camus and Chekhov’. I’m not sure what we can do with this soup of authors. Giovanni Pontiero, in an afterword to Family Ties, insists on Lispector’s debt to Sartre as well as Camus, and this is certainly right as a matter of intellectual history. Existentialism had a vogue in South America, its austere sense of absurdity answering a widespread feeling of bafflement and helplessness, as in the work of Sabato and Onetti, until the more amused and amusing absurdities of Garcia Marquez and others came along and made the earlier stuff seem a little rigid and self-important.

Martim, in The Apple in the Dark, has murdered his wife (well, he thinks he has, later he learns that his great crime is only an attempted crime) and in best existentialist fashion is busy reinventing himself on the basis of this radical bid for freedom. He flees to a sort of Brazilian waste land, meets the aging angry Vitoria, the dotty young widow Ermenilda, and thinks and thinks, revolving in his mind all the facets of his self-absorption. ‘I understand by complicating,’ a character says in one of Julio Cortazar’s novels. Martim and Lispector just complicate: they run from understanding as if it were a disease or an intellectual gaffe. Indeed Lispector argues, with the brisk and wilful air of paradox which characterises much of her writing, that incomprehension itself is a form of understanding. Martim sees the countryside around him ‘with a flash of incomprehension worthy of a genius’. Later he and Vitoria get each other’s meaning without having any idea of what they are talking about, and Lispector celebrates the usefulness of ‘words that are lost’. ‘If it were not that way, how poor our mutual understanding would be, our comprehension is made with words that are lost and words that have no meaning; and it is so hard to explain why one person was happy and why the other one despaired – we do not keep in mind the miracle of words that are lost.’ The image of the apple in the dark has much the same implication. ‘Understanding,’ Martim thinks, ‘is an attitude ... as if ... stretching out his hand in the dark and picking up an apple, he would recognise, with fingers that love had made so clumsy, that it was an apple. Martim no longer asked for the name of things.’ This is wild talk for the author of a very long and very wordy novel.

However, Lispector can write in quite another way, and at her best she is not the Latin American cousin of anyone, even of other Latin Americans. Her recurring theme is the fragility of peace and order, and the swarming of temptations in unlikely places. She would have understood (and perhaps did) Brecht’s phrase about the terrible temptation to goodness. The characters in Family Ties, a collection of 13 stories, are often afraid of happiness, as if it were too blinding or too exhilarating a light. It is ‘unbearable’. Life is not to be enjoyed, it is to be ‘pacified’. A woman on her way home with her shopping sees a blind man at a tram stop and suddenly goes giddy with compassion, the whole pattern of her life is rattled by a ferocious and unmanageable love. She weathers the storm, though, and gets things back into place. ‘Before getting into bed, as if she was snuffing out a candle, she blew out that day’s tiny flame.’

The writing in this book is as sharp as that in The Apple in the Dark is foggy. Words are found and lost again instantly, scrupulously, so that we really do get a sense of whispered or intuited communication, are not quite sure we have heard what we have heard. The range is impressive too. A story like ‘The Chicken’ is lightly comic. A fowl due to be killed decides to escape and is chased across the urban roof-tops by the head of the family in his swimming trunks. ‘The family was hastily summoned and in consternation saw their lunch outlined against a chimney.’ The chicken is caught but lays an egg, thereby touching the family, who spare her. ‘If you have this chicken killed,’ Dad says roughly, warmly, ‘I will never again eat a fowl as long as I live.’ ‘Nor me,’ the little girl says. So the chicken survives, and is subtly anthropomorphised but not individualised. She remembers her heroic flight, for example, but ‘not even at those moments ... did the expression on her empty head alter. In flight or in repose, when she gave birth or while pecking grain, hers was a chicken’s head, identical to that drawn at the beginning of time. Until one day they killed her and ate her, and the years rolled on.’

In ‘The Imitation of the Rose’ the tone is sombre but still delicately managed. The story describes the return to health (and then alas to madness again) of a young woman who has had a nervous breakdown, and I don’t think I have ever read anything more persuasive about the sheer difficulty of being normal, once your ordinary, relaxed claim to normality has been questioned. Everything you do will look weird, especially the things you do to show how humdrum you are. Laura is a tidy, modest woman, afraid of perfection in the way that Lispector’s other characters are afraid of love or happiness. ‘When they had given her The Imitation of Christ to read ... may God forgive her, she had felt that anyone who imitated Christ would be lost – lost in the light, but dangerously lost. Christ was the worst temptation.’ Now she sits at home, waiting for her patient, kindly husband, trying to lose the tireless purity of her madness in the weary messiness of ordinary life. All goes well this day until she looks closely at some roses in a vase. They are lovely. Should she send them to Carlota, at whose house she and her husband are to have dinner later? Wouldn’t that seem odd? Should she keep them then? May she keep them? Isn’t their perfection a danger, like that of Christ? ‘Because something nice was either for giving or receiving, not only for possessing. And above all, never for one to be. Above all, one should never be a lovely thing.’ She sends the flowers, feels guilty at having had the thought of keeping them, and lapses back, before her husband comes, into her horrible, unreachable serenity.

In other stories, people angrily celebrate a birthday, learn the value of money, eat, drink, go to school: small adventures which in Lispector’s prose begin to signal an arbitrariness, what one character calls ‘an absence of law’, in the heart of the most familiar arrangements. Why should this powerful-looking man who is so sad that the tears keep rolling down his face still be able to tuck into a huge meal? Why is this man burying and then unburying a dog on a hilltop above a city? What is this woman doing in the zoo as she paces from cage to cage, looking, it seems, for an anger to match her own?