To be like us isn’t easy

Emily Cooke

  • Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker
    NYRB, 185 pp, £8.99, March 2012, ISBN 978 1 59017 577 4
  • Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker
    NYRB, 241 pp, £8.99, September 2012, ISBN 978 1 59017 601 6

In 1962, the daughter of a friend of Dorothy Baker’s went up to her house in Terra Bella, California, to interview the 55-year-old novelist. ‘What is your real purpose in this thing?’ Baker said as the tape began to roll. The interviewer replied that the material might eventually be interesting to literary historians. It’s easy to imagine Baker raising her eyebrows at the answer. She could see why one might want to read interviews with, say, Herman Melville, but couldn’t see the point in being recorded herself. She was, she said, ‘not quite good enough’, or at least not ‘good enough to be considered good’. Her name didn’t rank: she was ‘not one of the good writers of the United States’. Her reputation had followed ‘a steady progression downhill’, and all in all she was ‘very sad and considerably depressed’ about her ‘so-called career’.

If critical reception is the measure, Baker’s story of her own decline was not too far off the mark. Her first book, Young Man with a Horn (1938), published when she was 31, was a hit with critics and a medium-sized public – among secondhand booksellers old editions are still a familiar sight – and was made into a movie with Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall, but no subsequent book did as well. Her second novel, Trio (1943), had explicit homosexual themes and, according to her, appealed only to a ‘coterie’ audience. A play based on Trio was closed in New York on grounds of obscenity. Our Gifted Son (1948) flopped. Baker moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts to the Terra Bella ranch with her husband and child – and another on the way – and didn’t write another book for a decade. The fourth and final novel, Cassandra at the Wedding (1962), did better, winning the admiration of Alfred Kazin and Carson McCullers. Still, a good portion of the 1962 interview concerns Baker’s sense of failure. Twenty-five years into her career, she was not among the handful of writers considered the very best. The fact desolated her.

Baker’s disgruntlement is hardly unique among novelists, for whom a pathological attachment to reputation and a dread of amounting to nothing are near job requirements. And what writer isn’t a failure when judged by her own private standards? Nobody else knows the imaginary heights of her devising, and nobody much cares. Yet there’s something particularly female in Baker’s diffidence and defeatism, her alternately good-humoured and anguished self-deprecation. She never achieved more fame in part because she was a woman of nebulous sexuality writing about other women in similar clouds, not to mention about black people and Mexicans. She was too much drawn to the margins.

Baker died of cancer in 1968. Her belief in her own unimportance went largely uncontradicted until 2007, when Cassandra at the Wedding was reissued, followed last year by Young Man with a Horn. Originally published 24 years apart, these marvellous books are witty and assured. Her tone is dark but jaunty, the writing off-handedly smart. Writing about thwarted lesbianism and realised musical genius, Baker wasn’t the failure she imagined being. But neither is she precisely a single-minded talent of the kind she writes about. The young men and women who populate her work live intensely and expect much from life in the bohemian way. In Cassandra at the Wedding, Cassie can’t bear ‘marriage, conventions, stodginess, short-sightedness, self-delusion, betrayal’. Baker’s characters are more than usually wary of the ‘menacing mass of clichés that are thrust on us from the outside’. At least one of them considers suicide a serious alternative to a middling life. They feel themselves to be special, and some of them are. Young Man with a Horn follows the career of a jazz prodigy, inspired by the cornet player Bix Beiderbecke, to his early death from alcoholism and pneumonia. Trio features a budding female academic who escapes an affair with an older, celebrated woman professor by running off with a footloose young man. The Mexican aristocrat hero of Our Gifted Son is an exceptional pianist recovering from his mother’s suicide. His musical gift is shared by Judith, one of the twin-sister narrators of Cassandra. Cassie, the other sister, is a troubled but obviously talented writer. Baker’s characters have gifts and they defend them. ‘To be like us isn’t easy,’ Cassie jokes aloud, though she means it: ‘it requires constant attention to detail.’ The irony protects keen sincerity. ‘It’s my whole trouble, but it’s also my one certainty – to know how serious I can be about what I love.’

The kind of genius Baker most admires is the romantic hero: soulful, easily disappointed, above compromise. Young Man follows a poor white boy from a desultory background (he’s more or less an orphan and not especially good at school), through an apprenticeship with black jazz musicians in Los Angeles, to the flowering of his skill and corresponding fame. Rick Martin may be pliable in the rest of his life – ‘he always did what somebody else thought up’ – but in playing the horn he ‘shed the husk of indifference’, and he becomes purposeful, even headstrong. He suffers no spasms of self-doubt: he knew ‘he was good and wanted to be better,’ and at the age of 20 his talent is obvious to the big-name band leader who plucks him from obscurity. Genius, in Baker, never falters, and everyone recognises it when they see it. The awful thing about it is that it can’t be sustained. Rick wants to succeed on an ever greater scale, and he wants it with a tenacity that must, by Baker’s rules, result in ruin. He ‘expected too much’; he comes to the ‘nervous, crazy life’ of jazz with ‘too great a need’. The prologue states the problem baldly: fully submit to art, and it will kill you. The true artist hasn’t the ‘ability to keep the body in check while the spirit goes on being what it must be’. What brings the horn player down – as if anyone risen so high must come down – is drink, and his wife’s withdrawal of her affections. Baker isn’t entirely clear whether Rick’s is a particular tragedy, or whether all the great ones are doomed no matter what. The prologue argues the latter: Rick is cursed because he wants one thing – to play the horn – too much. The rest of the novel shows something slightly different: a man who wants two things – to play the horn and to be loved by his wife – yet will only be allowed the first.

They are a strange couple. Amy North is rich, fashionable, unstable, ‘terribly good-looking’, and smarter than Rick: ‘You’re slightly on the literal-minded side, aren’t you?’ she needles him when they meet. Rick lives a ‘good, straightforward life … shaped towards the single purpose of playing a trumpet that nothing could touch’. In his simplicity ‘he’d never known a really complicated woman, the kind who knows how to strip the nerves and kick the will around.’ Amy and Rick are both unbalanced, in their way, but Amy’s tottering yields no works of art. ‘The truth probably was that she married Rick because she would have given her eyes to have … one firm ability and along with it the intimate, secure knowledge that it was worth something.’ For a time, their desires interlock. They drink and stay out late and talk, or Amy does, her voice ‘cool and clear as spring-water telling Rick things he had never heard’. The marriage comes apart when she decides to make something of herself – not a genius, but something – by re-enrolling in medical school to study psychiatry. ‘One’s brain didn’t do its best work on a regimen of straight alcohol and no sleep,’ she explains to Rick, who flourishes on just such a regimen. Their lives diverge, and for him it is a catastrophe. He continues to play brilliantly and make records, but his life grows cold. And then, just like that, he sickens and dies.

As a chapter in an archetypal tale of doomed genius, the wonderful, awkward detour of the Amy section makes no sense. Amy likes women, whether instead of or more than or merely in addition to men it isn’t clear: when Rick first meets her she’s in the company of the ‘sleek and tall’ singer Josephine Jordan, and it’s obvious that there’s an erotic tie between them. This submerged feature of her wildness, while it furnishes another reason for the crack-up of the relationship, seems to have little to do with the main theme of the novel. Seen in the context of Baker’s other books, it becomes more intelligible. Three of her novels feature gay women, in each case ever so slightly warped: too insistently smart, too anxiously empty, a little malicious. In Trio the gay professor seduces her student, jealously tries to prevent the girl from running off with a man, and is outed as having stolen most of her famous book from the dissertation of a former lover. These women, would-be artists, long for the clarity of a gift like Rick’s and are frustrated by their irregular makeup. Tricky Amy and simplified Rick, the reader begins to suspect, mark the poles of Baker’s imagined self: she admires a personality that is pure, wordless, passionate, while as a woman and sexual person she is held back by being complicated, intellectual, sometimes suicidal. In the 1962 interview, Baker says she would have been ‘happier as a boy’.

So would Amy, Baker suggests to her interviewer. And like Amy, Baker, too, would have ‘given her eyes’ to be a musician. As a child she played the violin, but a hand crippled by polio forced her to be ‘more of a fiddler’. And she wished ‘to hell’ she could play the trumpet. Instead of playing jazz she wrote about it, with the technical and impressionistic detail that comes from personal knowledge and longing. She can imagine jazz getting mean and ratty and still retaining its purity. She has a harder time doing this with her novels. A story gets too wound up, too knotted, and she’s compelled to kill off a character or two. After the young pianist of Our Gifted Son tries to strangle his father’s mistress, the boy’s former English tutor and a woman 18 years older than him, he realises he’s in love with the woman, returns to confess his feelings, and learns that she and his father have been killed together in a car accident, if ‘accident’ is the right word. Trio reaches a similar frenzy (which Baker considered ‘dramatic’): the professor’s plagiarism comes to light at the height of a showdown between her, her young protégée and the protégée’s new boyfriend, a sexual muddle Baker resolves with a gunshot.

The novel, unlike music or poetry, isn’t a form that lends itself to genius. It’s too dependent on ordinary life, and can’t avoid the commonplaces, the dutiful puppeteering of its characters’ positions in a room. Some biographical mud is always clinging to the edges. The best books are rarely unblemished; more often they look rangy, flawed, interestingly uneven. Applied to her own career, the virtuosity Baker coveted in jazz oppressed her, and her anxiety about her own achievement comes through in a nervous rush towards resolution. When Baker could remember the other things jazz taught her – that beauty could be grungy, feral, convoluted; that you needed control, but only because it was the thing that would help you let go; that you had to let the self, in all its alarming contradiction, shine into the art – she was able, in her last novel, to write more wisely than before.

Cassandra at the Wedding, written when Baker was middle-aged, is another study of a mismatched pair: twin sisters, the children of an antisocial, alcoholic philosopher father and a dead novelist mother. Here, the complicated, too intellectual one is Cassie, a wise-cracking, brilliant talker who is sometimes deliciously cruel. ‘You never get any nicer,’ says her twin sister, Judith, who is a calmer, gentler type. The novel recounts Cassie’s attempt to foil Judith’s marriage to a medical student whose sturdy virtues Cassie won’t take seriously and whose name – ‘Lynch, or maybe even Finch’ – she showily refuses to remember. The childishness of Cassie’s resentment makes more sense in the light of the bond between the girls. They have lived together into their twenties, and once even pledged to continue like that for ever. And that isn’t the whole of it: Cassie is quite unapologetically in love with Judith. If ‘what’s-his-name’ would just scram, she and Judith could be together again.

The contours of Cassie’s sexuality, like Amy’s in Young Man, are a little smudgy. Cassie explains to her sister that women fascinate her, but only ‘up to a point’, implying how much more fascinated she is by Judith. Her preference has the usefulness of a disguise: her fixation on her sister can masquerade as ordinary sisterly love. The incest taboo acts as a smokescreen for the more dangerously realisable taboo of Cassie’s sexual feelings for women in general. Judith, Cassie seems to believe, is a more appropriate object for her desires than the women of her dissolute ‘Rimbaud period’. What’s more, Judith is Cassie’s natural match: equally brilliant but less labile, and strong enough – unlike the too eager women endlessly calling Cassie on the phone when she and Judith lived together – not to have succumbed to Cassie. She tries to reassure Cassie that she accepts how her sister is ‘constituted’: it is, she says, ‘one way to be’. Yet Cassie wants out of this way of being. Her last-minute mission to rescue Judith from a parochial existence with her bridegroom is really a bid to rescue herself – from loneliness, from failing at the doctoral thesis that comes between her and novels she wants to write, from the creep of the ordinary, and from her ‘crummy’ sexuality, a crumminess that seems to have consisted of a string of uncertain hookups. As an individual, Cassie fears she’s nothing special; as a part of a sororal unit, she is extraordinary. Reconstituting the unit will allow her not to be gay, just exceptional.

In all her books, Baker writes about relationships that are for one reason or another structurally impossible. A straight man in love with a lesbian isn’t so different from a lesbian in love with a straight woman, or a girl in love with her sister, or a man in love with his father’s mistress. Judith the musician, the one happily paired character, admits that her future husband is deaf to the thing she loves. Can anyone be permitted two satisfied passions?

Cassie’s analyst, rushing to her bedside after she attempts suicide, supplies an ambiguous answer. With life-affirming pluck, Cassie has made a pass at the woman from her sickbed, which the shrink, advising that it’s possible to resist ‘every little whistling call of the wild’, quite responsibly refuses. Her assurance that Cassie can resist her urges can be taken as assurance that Cassie can go forward not only without trying to kill herself but also without sleeping with women, and this is the meaning Baker probably meant it to have. But at a distance of fifty years, the scene allows for a more flexible interpretation. Thrillingly, the analyst’s refusal contains a tacit admission of temptation. And her message sounds unmistakably hopeful: it is possible to have ‘work, and interest and love’ all at once. Whether that could be with a woman she won’t come out and say.

It would be a pleasure on returning to Baker’s work to find her to be plainly wrong about herself. There’s no doubt she’s an unjustly forgotten novelist, and her rediscovery is a vindication of the hope flickering beneath her claims to failure. Yet fine as Baker’s books are, they often falter. She tends to mistake melodrama for true dilemma, and the weaker novels – thick with sexual betrayal, love triangles and suicide – indulge a sensationalism that to a lesser degree also plagues the stronger ones. Her characters often say things ‘fast’, as if energetic delivery is more important than hurtling words: ‘Janet went on talking in the same way, fast and low and out of control.’

*

In her own life Baker wasn’t out of control or fast. In between novels she wrote plays; she raised children; she ran a theatre and a citrus farm. She held to an idea of pure, self-destructive genius which she was not simple enough – not to say not dull enough – to fulfil. Still, she tried to understand the honour to be found in following a less strict code. In Cassandra at the Wedding, Judith articulates this more livable vision, which ‘had more to do with belonging to a tradition in music and staying in it and working at it in any capacity you can fit into – playing what’s being written, and what’s been written, composing too if you want to and can, but mostly trying to keep it alive and separate the chaff from the grain and keep them separate’. The virtuosity envied in Young Man with a Horn shades here into a less flashy satisfaction.

Baker’s melodrama, when it appears, comes out of an excessive will to conclude, to answer too abruptly her unresolved questions about art and love, the antagonism between them and the potential allegiance. Am I a failure or a genius? Can a person be at the same time satisfied in love and work? Her lesbians must be killed off or reformed; her artists must succeed in solitude, and then self-destruct. When she waits – when, as in Cassandra, the lesbian and the artist don’t prematurely die – the reward is a spirited, crisp study of a more inscrutable character: sexually complicated, artistically compromised, and accepting, by the end, of a lifelike amalgam of good-enough love and good-enough work.

After Cassandra at the Wedding was published Baker lived six more years. She didn’t write another book. She suggested she would have liked to, but only if she had an audience, if people were to ‘care’. Perhaps she would have written more novels, or more novels on a par with the two masterworks that bookend her career, had she been better able to assimilate Judith’s more merciful idea of artistry, or allowed herself a shot at excellence that allowed for obscurity, or ignominy. Brave as she was to write about scorned subjects, she was too self-effacing, and too willing to accept the verdicts of critics and sales. When she was able to assess her value more realistically – that she was good, sometimes great, yet not, as her young man with the horn is, the greatest – the insight came at the cost of shutting her up. ‘Why do you have to be a writer?’ the interviewer asks. ‘Well, maybe I don’t,’ Baker says. ‘That’s what I’m hoping.’