I dive under the covers

Sheila Heti

  • Heroines by Kate Zambreno
    Semiotext(e), 309 pp, £12.95, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 58435 114 6

In 2009 Kate Zambreno went to live in Akron, Ohio, the sort of place you only choose if the situation is desperate. She was there because her husband had been hired to ‘curate and organise a small collection of rare books at the university … the gift of a rubber industrialist’. Friends asked why they’d made this uninspiring move. ‘The economy, you know. I mumble. A great job. (I really want to say: I DON’T FUCKING KNOW. But I don’t. I tell the mutual lie of our marriage.)’ Now exiled from cosmopolitan Chicago, having already been exiled there from New York, she writes in Heroines: ‘I am realising you become a wife, despite the mutual attempt at an egalitarian partnership, once you agree to move for him. You are placed into the feminine role – you play the pawn.’ The distressing fact of her wifedom is one of the central threads in Heroines: how will this young woman make sense of being a wife, and what sort of wife is she? And can she both be a wife and what she most longs to be – an artist, a writer, someone who speaks to the world and is heard?

It may seem like an old-fashioned problem (of course she can!), yet it’s a real one, and to investigate it Zambreno looks back at an old-fashioned world, to perhaps the origin of the possibility of wife-and (and-writer, and-genius): the early 20th century. She discusses Zelda Fitzgerald and ‘Vivien(ne)’ Eliot, as well as a number of other ‘women often marginalised in the modernist memory project’, whom she calls her ‘eternal reference point … an invisible community’. Heroines is narrated by a voice that is never identified as ‘Kate Zambreno’, yet has all the markers of being her (both she and the narrator run a blog called Frances Farmer Is My Sister; both are married to a man called John). The book is a composite creature: part memoir, part criticism, part fiction, part feminist tract or call to arms or self-help manual or biography or work of literary history. Perhaps the best clue to what she’s doing comes when the narrator considers ‘training to be a psychoanalyst, and I will become a feminist analyst to tortured, eccentric artists.’ This would be her diagnostic manual.

The writing is clipped, each sentence hovering on the edge of a cliff, as if each full stop marked the final statement of a suicide note, or Zambreno’s own last words: a definitive, ringing declaration. Here, any sentence could be the last:

After her breakdown, Tom placed his wife in a sanatorium, sent euphemistically ‘to the country’. It would become a rhythm of confinement. He would jaunt to the French Riv and hang out with all the sexy Ballet Russes dancers. While in the asylum she scribbled out an SOS to Ezra Pound, signing herself ‘Little Nell’ in letters (another character, Dickens’s doomed girl-heroine, always seeing herself as a fiction). Of course he did nothing to help. None of the Eliots’ friends were really her friends. They all betrayed her. She was the minor character.

Zambreno is usually talking about a historical figure, or several at once, or about her own life, or comparing her female subjects to herself. The comparisons aren’t meant to flatter her: their purpose is broader. She is endeavouring to create a type and determine whether and to what extent she belongs to it. She needs to do this because she doesn’t trust the inherited pictures of female types, since they are produced by ‘the patriarch’ who ‘decides on the form of communication. Decides on the language.’ Her task is urgent because we can only understand ourselves if others like us have come before. To imagine we are the first and only of our kind is certainly alienation.

So the comparisons begin: ‘We echoed the Eliots. Marrying fast out of a sense of noble adventure (they had known each other three months, we had known each other nine).’ Jane and Paul Bowles are always on the move – so are she and John. Zelda and Virginia Woolf had debilitating periods and headaches – she does, too. How far can she go? In one scene, she looks at Simone Weil. ‘I am Simone Weil,’ she declares, ‘although Simone Weil pushed bravely past her sinus headaches, working in the fields and organising worker protests, and writing her crystalline philosophical texts in her notebooks, while at the slightest hint of sinus troubles I dive under the covers. I am the exact opposite of Simone Weil.’

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