Gorgon in Furs

D.D. Guttenplan

  • Borrowed Finery: A Memoir by Paula Fox
    Flamingo, 256 pp, £12.00, August 2002, ISBN 0 00 713724 9

At first glance, Paula Fox’s return from the dustbin of publishing history is one of those heartwarming stories of literary virtue rewarded. Her first book, Poor George (1967), generated considerable critical excitement. Desperate Characters (1970) was described as ‘brilliant’ by Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe; Lionel Trilling called it ‘reserved and beautifully realised’. Six years later Karl Miller found The Widow’s Children ‘a compelling and satisfying book’. All those endorsements, however, didn’t keep her novels from going out of print at the end of the decade (they were reprinted in the 1980s, but went out of print again). Then Jonathan Franzen, at the time (1991) something of a desperate character himself, came across that novel on a shelf at Yaddo, the writer’s colony in upstate New York. When Franzen later wrote an impassioned plea for the ‘social novel’ in Harper’s, he held up Desperate Characters as an example of what novelists ought to be doing.[*]

Franzen’s efforts have borne fruit, and he has written an enamoured yet acute introduction to the new US edition of the novel. Some have objected to his claim that Desperate Characters is ‘obviously superior to any novel by Fox’s contemporaries John Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow’. My own reservations lie not with the superlatives, but with the implicit grounds for comparison. If Fox is, in Franzen’s phrase, ‘inarguably great’ – and I believe she is – it isn’t because, for example, she does a better job of capturing the social disorder of the 1960s than Updike. Or because she writes about desire with a frankness at least equal to Roth’s. Or because she captures the persistence of illusion in personal relations with a clarity that can make Bellow seem callow. She does all of those things, but she also does something harder to pin down precisely because it defies our customary categories for talking about fiction. Her achievement is to marry an emotional and intellectual instrument of tremendous sensitivity and precision with a social depth of field long out of fashion.

Aside from Franzen’s energetic promotion, the main engine of Fox’s current revival is the publication of her memoir. Astringent, candid, and written in the same elegant prose as her novels, Borrowed Finery is as haunting as any of them, and as disturbing. But by focusing attention on the life – a life harrowing even by the standards of contemporary confessional literature – the memoir risks overshadowing, even undermining the fiction.

Desperate Characters begins on a Friday afternoon in Cobble Hill, a neighbourhood of brownstone houses a few blocks from Brooklyn Heights. Otto and Sophie Bentwood are sitting down to sauteéd chicken livers and risotto Milanese. With her inventory of the couple’s willow-ware platter, Tiffany lampshade and a bookcase ‘which held, among other volumes, the complete works of Goethe and two shelves of French poets’, the narrator puts just enough ironic distance between herself and the Bentwoods to make their desperation bearable.

Otto’s longtime law partnership is dissolving; Sophie finds herself unable to work at the literary translations that have kept her occupied. The couple have no children. They do have a Mercedes, a small sailing boat, a country house and a brownstone in an up-and-coming neighbourhood – Fox deftly exposes the sordid reality of this estate agent’s cliché. Across the backyard, on ‘the slum street’, the Bentwoods’ neighbours relieve themselves out of the window; their gardens are buried under sacks of rubbish. Out front, drunks and stray dogs compete to foul the pavements. The 1960s have begun, the waters are rising and the Bentwoods’ old cedar floorboards seem like the timbers of a very frail bark.

When Otto tells her two more houses have just been sold, Sophie asks:

‘What happens to the people in them when the houses are bought? Where do they go? I always wonder that.’

‘I don’t know. Too many people everywhere.’

‘Who bought the houses?’

‘A brave pioneer from Wall Street. And the other, I think, a painter who got evicted from his loft on Lower Broadway.’

‘It doesn’t take courage. It takes cash.’

Sophie may be unsentimental about money, but for days she has been feeding a stray cat; not taking it into the house (Otto wouldn’t allow that: ‘They’re not pussycats, you know. They’re thugs’), just setting out a bowl of milk. When Otto accuses her of self-indulgence, she replies: ‘I don’t care why I’m doing it. The point is that I can see it starving.’ So when the cat shows up that evening, Sophie caresses its back:

She smiled, wondering how often, if ever before, the cat had felt a friendly human touch, and she was still smiling as the cat reared up on its hind legs, even as it struck her with extended claws, smiling right up to the second when it sank its teeth into the back of her left hand and hung from her flesh so that she nearly fell forward, stunned and horrified.

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[*] Desperate Characters and The Widow’s Children will be reissued by Flamingo in June 2003.