We Laughed, We Clowned

Michael Wood

  • The Untold Journey: The Life of Diana Trilling by Natalie Robins
    Columbia, 399 pp, £25.00, June 2017, ISBN 978 0 231 18208 9

It was an anxious, analysed time, where everything was shifting and complicated except the enduring family romance, the troublesome siblings, the failure to escape the baleful relation with mum and dad. It was a time, as Natalie Robins says in one of her wry moments, ‘when paediatricians functioned as parents, psychiatrists and book critics; when psychoanalysts functioned as judges; and when most mothers and fathers were considered slightly off course’. She is talking about the 1950s in New York, but the picture seems to work for the whole book, which takes us from the start of the 20th century to its end. Diana Trilling was born in the East Bronx in 1905, and died in Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in 1996.

Trilling, née Rubin, went to Radcliffe College when she was 16, ‘one of three Jewish women in her freshman class’, Robins says, ‘and the only one to admit being so’. She met Lionel Trilling in 1927 and married him two years later. She had hopes of being a singer, but two thyroid operations wrecked her vocal cords, and she turned to writing. She wrote a regular column for the Nation, articles and reviews for a host of other New York papers and journals, and a number of books, including Mrs Harris, an account of the trial of a headmistress accused of murdering her lover. She famously said of her literary collaboration with her husband that ‘Lionel taught me to think; I taught him to write.’ ‘It was a great marriage,’ she said, ‘not one of the great love affairs.’ That sounds a little grim, but in the context Robins provides, it comes to seem rather mild.

Freud is everywhere in Diana Trilling’s story. Not the Freud of Vienna or London or Paris, and not the dialectical Freud of Lionel Trilling’s vision (‘we are ill in the service of health, or ill in the service of life’), but the Freud of much analytic practice in New York, and especially of the clinical lingo of the patients themselves. ‘Her Freudian leanings structured her life,’ Robins says. ‘Freud was always next to her every step of the way.’ Diana spoke of the ‘pent-up unexplored passion of my infant love for my father’, of her husband’s ‘unadmitted early love for his mother’. ‘I suspect,’ she wrote in The Beginning of the Journey (1993), ‘that he never forgave her … the injury of having been betrayed by his mother’s having another child’.

Both Trillings were in analysis for most of their lives, and inducted their son when he was seven. Diana herself shrewdly said, quite late in the day, that she had ‘used a sense of reality in daily life as a defence against analytical reality’. It’s hard to think of a better definition of repression. A sense of reality is a plausible illusion and analytical reality is what we know we don’t want to know. The first has the full social backing of our culture, and we feel virtuous in our denial of the wilder drives, turning to them in language only when we feel the need for a little melodramatic theory. ‘There’s something in me he really loathes,’ Diana said of her son’s feelings for her. ‘We’re friends, but he hates me.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in