Capital W, Capital W

Michael Wood

  • Women Writers at Work edited by George Plimpton
    Harvill, 381 pp, £9.99, February 1999, ISBN 1 86046 586 2
  • Just as I Thought by Grace Paley
    Virago, 332 pp, £8.99, August 1999, ISBN 1 86049 696 2

‘It is fatal for a woman,’ Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘in any way to speak consciously as a woman.’ Fatal for her as a writer, Woolf meant, but even so, not many people will now agree with this view. Not all that many, perhaps, will understand it straight off. How could it be fatal? How could you not write or speak as a woman if you were one? Except by pretending to speak or write as a man. But Woolf didn’t want women to write like men. ‘It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?’

And when Woolf’s imaginary young writer Mary Carmichael learns the ‘first great lesson’, it is this: ‘she wrote as a woman, but as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman’ – the fatality, it turns out, is a matter of too much consciousness rather than of too much gender – ‘so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.’ This is dizzying stuff, but it is very precise. The sex of the writer is present in the writing, but only in a ‘curious’ way. You would have to be a woman, of course, in order to forget you were one. But you would have to forget in order to achieve the effect that Woolf describes. We may feel that Woolf’s preference for obliquity is too passive and too polite – in any event we have our writers, whether we want them or not – but the effect she describes is familiar, and memorable, and can be recognised more generally. The pages of Henry James, for example, are full of a sexual desire he has ‘forgotten’ in this sense, that is, neither shouted out nor encrypted nor entirely repressed, just allowed to slip beyond the reach of his conscious word-choices.

In her very sharp introduction to Women Writers at Work, a collection of Paris Review interviews first published as a volume in 1988, and now expanded and updated to include Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Susan Sontag, Margaret Atwood remarks that the writers have been brought together ‘over what, in some cases, would be their dead bodies’. Dorothy Parker, for instance, says she is ‘a feminist, and God knows I’m loyal to my sex ... But when we paraded through the catcalls of men and when we chained ourselves to lamp-posts to try to get our equality – dear child, we didn’t foresee those female writers.’ Mary McCarthy is more acerbic. ‘Some women writers make it. I mean, there’s a certain kind of woman writer who’s a capital W, capital W. Virginia Woolf certainly was one, and Katherine Mansfield was one.’ McCarthy doesn’t think Eudora Welty is one, but then changes her mind: Welty has ‘become one lately’ (the date of this interview is 1961). Elisabeth Sifton, interviewing, asks McCarthy what happens to turn a woman writer into a Woman Writer, and McCarthy snappily says: ‘I think they become interested in decor.’

‘No woman writer wants to be overlooked and undervalued for being a woman,’ Atwood writes, ‘but few, it seems, wish to be defined solely by gender, or constrained by loyalties to it alone.’ Couldn’t one just be a writer, unrestricted by adjectives or allegiances or definitions? Atwood’s introduction moves firmly in this direction. ‘What these writers have in common is not their diverse responses to the category “woman writer”, but their shared passion toward the category “writer”.’ Well, not quite, since that is what they have in common with a great number of men writers, and this volume’s very excuse for being starts to look a little shaky. All is not lost, though.

What these writers have in common – Marianne Moore, Katherine Anne Porter, Rebecca West, P.L. Travers, Simone de Beauvoir, Elizabeth Bishop, Nadine Gordimer and Anne Sexton, who appear in the volume alongside the writers already mentioned – is that they are not men, which is not as tautological a proposition as it looks. Being a woman writer is only partly a matter of how any writing woman subjectively feels. Joan Didion, interviewed in 1977, wittily evokes the ‘social tradition’ of male writers:

Hard drinkers, bad livers. Wives, wars, big fish, Africa, Paris, no second acts. A man who wrote novels had a role in the world, and he could play that role and do whatever he wanted behind it. A woman who wrote novels had no particular role. Women who wrote novels were quite often perceived as invalids ... Novels by women tended to be described, even by their publishers, as sensitive.

Not that any publisher would have tried that with Mary McCarthy. Joyce Carol Oates, interviewed in 1976, takes the lack of a social tradition for the woman writer as a form of freedom, however inadvertently bestowed. ‘Since, being a woman, I can’t be taken altogether seriously by the sort of male critics who rank writers one, two, three in the public press, I am free, I suppose, to do as I like.’ She then says, rather startlingly: ‘I feel no connection at all with my physical appearance and have often wondered whether this was a freedom any man – writer or not – might enjoy.’

Of course, there are plenty of particular things for writers to be, apart from professionally gendered or just writers, and the Paris Review volume is full of fine details. We hear Marianne Moore speak of the ‘surgical kind of courtesy’ of La Fontaine, and learn that she has visited every museum in Paris ‘except two’. We also get a splendid absurdist exchange. ‘To me the theatre is the most pleasant, in fact my favourite, form of recreation.’ The interviewer, thus prompted, says, ‘Do you go often?’, and Moore immediately says: ‘No. Never.’ Elizabeth Bishop, whose father died and whose mother ‘went crazy’ when she was very small, says that she always felt like a guest among her relatives, and that she has never written the things she’d like to write – ‘maybe one never does.’ Toni Morrison speaks about the jazz pianist, Keith Jarrett, playing ‘Ol’ Man River’: ‘The delight and satisfaction is not so much in the melody itself but in recognising it when it surfaces and when it is hidden and when it goes away completely, what is put in its place. Not so much in the original line as in all the echoes and shades and turns and pivots.’

Grace Paley, not included in the Paris Review volume, but very well represented in her Collected Stories,[*] which were discussed in the LRB (16 April 1998) by Joyce Carol Oates, and in Just as I Thought, a collection of talks, essays, interviews, statements, memoirs, reflections, reports covering the forty-plus years of her writing life, offers us plenty of details too, but also another model for writing as a woman. Not as the creature of the condescending male imagination, nor as the writer who is also a woman – Atwood’s phrase – but as the writer who specialises in remembering every determining fact about herself, and getting it into her fiction. She doesn’t forget that she is a woman because she can’t; any more than she can forget she is Jewish or a socialist or a member of the anti-war movement, or heterosexual, or getting old. But her remembering is a complex affair, a whole art.

‘This is not an autobiographical collection,’ Paley remarks of Just as I Thought, ‘but it is about my life.’ The sentence has the casually gnomic flavour of much of her fiction, where ‘incurable’, for instance, does not necessarily mean ‘near death’ but merely ‘in most cases, just too far from living’. ‘Not autobiographical’ means not written for the purpose of narrating a life, but adding up to a fair chunk of autobiography all the same. Paley repeatedly expresses her gratitude to the women’s movement, which made it ‘easier for me and others to cross the slippery streets of indifference, exclusion and condescension’, but she is not thinking of a single, explicit, heroic struggle, rather of the messy, multiple plight of many different women in a time when men owned almost everything, and especially most women’s lives. ‘I could almost see them,’ Paley says of American mothers even as late as the Seventies, ‘watching their sons disappear into America and that generation’s misogyny. It may have been a good time for apple pie, but it was a hard time for mom.’ One of Paley’s frequently recurring characters, Faith Asbury née Darwin, expresses her views on the foundation of the state of Israel, and finds that her two husbands, present and past, having already combined to complain about the breakfast she has made them, are ‘astonished’ at her outburst, ‘since I rarely express my opinion on any serious matter but only live out my destiny, which is to be, until my expiration date, laughingly the servant of man.’ The language (and the situation) indicates a full awareness that this destiny is an elaborate confidence trick, but doesn’t suggest an exit. What happens is that Faith, Paley’s character, lives and talks and writes her way out, since she and her friends become, as she says, ‘the soft-speaking tough souls of anarchy’. Or to put that another way, Paley writes her way out, taking Faith with her:

After my kids were a couple of years old, I began to write stories that were really mostly about women’s lives. That was because I was pained by the peculiar life of the women my age – in their twenties and thirties, a lot of them with kids and a lot of them alone already, objects of considerable contempt but kind of tough, ironic, becoming angry. I didn’t think of myself as a feminist writing those stories, but I would say I’d begun to educate myself without knowing it.

Grace Paley was born in the Bronx in 1922 (‘My parents were Russian Jews, like a lot of people’; ‘actually my family was a rather typical socialist Jewish family’), but lived much of her life on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village, before moving to Vermont, where she now resides. She has agitated in many causes, against war, against arms, against nuclear plants, in favour of peace, women’s rights and an ecologically safer planet, and she documents much of this activity, with a good deal of wit and not an ounce of repentance, in Just as I Thought. She says: ‘I don’t think the thing for me has been civil disobedience so much as the importance of not asking permission.’ She recounts her visit to North Vietnam to see the damage done by American bombing, to Moscow for a Peace Congress. She talks about her writing – she is best known for her three volumes of stories, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985) – and the writers she likes, notably the late Donald Barthelme. Above all she remembers. ‘I remember the day that the East Bronx began to become the South Bronx.’ ‘My love of country, any country, is always being interrupted in its patriotic advance by terrible remembrance.’

One of the finest pieces in this lively book is among the most recent, ‘Travelling’, written in 1997. Paley recalls a story told to her about her mother, visiting a son in the American South in 1927. When the bus leaves Washington for Virginia, the black passengers move silently to the back, segregating the whole bus, except for Paley’s mother and older sister, who are sitting in what is now the wrong section. The driver asks them to move, but Paley’s mother refuses. ‘When I first tried to write this scene,’ Paley says, ‘I imagined my mother saying, That’s all right, mister, we’re comfortable. I can’t change my seat every minute. I read this invention to my sister. She said it was nothing like that. My mother did not try to be friendly or pretend innocence. While my sister trembled in the silence, my mother said, for the third time, quietly, No.’ Paley then juxtaposes this scene with a journey of her own, from New York to Miami Beach in 1943, when she is 21. This bus is also segregated. A black woman gets on, manifestly exhausted, carrying a sleeping child. Paley, sitting in the last row of the white section, tries in vain to persuade the woman to take her seat. The woman is far too frightened of the consequences to do that, but finally agrees to place the child in Paley’s lap. A white man says to her: ‘Lady, I wouldn’t of touched that thing with a meat hook.’

Paley loves America, and was brought up to celebrate its difference from dark old pogrom-stained Europe. But it is full of terrible remembrances for her, and that is precisely what she calls this story: ‘I write this remembrance more than fifty years later,’ she says. Remembrance for her almost always means writing in the most active, imaginative sense; that is, not just remembering and not just recording in words, but recreating in fiction, promoting to a second and possibly less perishable life. She describes Isaac Babel, whom she admires, as using his imagination ‘to understand what had happened, what was real’, and also as having ‘the imagination to be just’, and her fiction is full of small but earnest attempts to save people and places by imagining them, by reworking them into words.

A woman calls in one story to ask the narrator to write about the Yiddish theatre. ‘She said she was in possession of her family archives. She had heard I was a writer.’ The narrator refuses because she has, like Paley, already written a story on the subject, and ‘already used every single thing’ she knew about it. But the idea of the lost narrative, the tale no one will tell, bothers her, and she thinks: ‘Actually, I owed nothing to the lady who’d called. It was possible that I did owe something to my own family and families of my friends. That is, to tell their stories as simply as possible, in order, you might say, to save a few lives.’ She also thinks of the names of people, especially lost or dead people, as taking on ‘thickness and strength’, falling ‘back into the world with their weight’.

Of course, Paley is herself sceptical about this claim. Visiting her old building in Coney Island, Faith tries to remember who used to live in Apartment 2A. ‘Was it the twins? I felt a strong obligation as though remembering was in charge of the existence of the past. This is not so.’ Paley can also be mischievous on the subject. A man is told that he can’t have met a young woman he mentions because ‘she was made up, just plain invented in the late Fifties.’ He says in that case he must have met her subsequently. But for all the shifting ground and the mock diffidence (‘you might say’), Paley is arguing that works of fiction, with their precisions and reticences, are places where once-living people can hide from mortality, if only for a while, and only for a relative handful of readers. This is better than what Walter Benjamin calls God’s remembrance, since God, in Paley’s view, is another of those men who are always looking the other way. A character in one of her stories draws up an inventory of all her troubles. ‘The list when complete could have brought tears to the eye of God if He had a minute.’ But when did He have a minute?

[*] Virago, 398 pp., £8.99, 26 August, 1 86049 521 4.