If I'd been allowed to choose the title for Claudia Roth Pierpont's book, Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, I might have selected, The Arduous Lives of Women Writers: Failure, Imbalance and For What? In her selection of essays, originally written for The New Yorker, about twelve women writers, Pierpont depicts an ambition - being a writer - so remote from feasibility that none of the women under examination have been able to achieve it without gross and debilitating sacrifices.
Of course, everyone knows that being a women writer makes for a hateful life - between the constant rejection, poverty, needing the room of one's own, dying of Addison's disease and all that, it could hardly be otherwise. But I forget. The way my mind works, I'm liable to connect my languishing in the purgatory of yet-to-be-published with the general pattern of unfairness and injustice in my life - another of the never-ending side-effects of having been less preferred to my obviously inferior brother - instead of, like, the normal state of affairs. Pierpont's book was that "knock knock" message we all need at various times in our lives: hello, dumbass, what you're attempting is so hard that geniuses can't do it without suffering.
Which is not to say that Pierpont's book is solely - or even primarily - about geniuses. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of her book is the number of hacks she profiles. Pierpont can scarcely veil her disdain of
Anaïs Nin's writing ("For the reader able to escape the solitary confinement of these endless pages [of Nin's Diary] through the mere act of closing a book - such a simple deliverance - relief is dulled only by a shuddering pity for the woman who lived all her days trapped inside." (p. 79)). For Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Pierpont reserves the terms "vulgar," "blatant, commercial," and "blundering colossus." (p. 130-131.) Pierpont makes no claims for Ayn Rand's work beyond Rand's admission of writing "propaganda." (p. 200.) Talentless (or talent-limited) dreamers, no less than the geniuses, suffer for the ambition of making their living from their writing.
But the suffering is extreme for such a minor crime. Zora Neale Hurston, the writer in this collection with whom I identify most closely - and whose fate I think most likely to be a foreshadowing of my own - worked as a maid in her old age and died in a welfare home, a lonely end that the critic Darwin Tuner wrote was "eccentric but perhaps appropriate" - so deeply was Hurston misunderstood.
This unhappiness that, without exception, characterizes the lives and careers of Pierpont's passionate subjects reminded me of an article Malcolm Gladwell wrote about late blooming geniuses. Largely a book report on David W. Galenson's Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, Gladwell's article contains this gem: "This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others," whereupon Gladwell details the support provided by the patrons of Cezanne and (less established, but still warranting the label "late blooming genius" in Gladwell's inventory) Ben Folds. In other words, artists who have a long development period need support if they're going to make it.
Guess what the women writers of Passionate Minds lacked?
Whether support would have made a self-destroyer like Mary McCarthy or a battle-ax like Mae West happy is an open question; my vote is "no." (Astonishing levels of support did seemingly little to improve Cezanne's happiness quotient.) Still, support might have enabled these women and others - Marina Tsvetaeva, Doris Lessing, Eudora Welty and, of course, Hurston - to succeed more readily and more sustainably; and both the support and the success - one could easily imagine - would have improved their lives.
This problem of support - or lack thereof - seems to be what, in the end, makes realization of the ambition of being a woman writer so difficult. Whether a woman has to marry into the support (prostitution), rely on her family (manipulation, co-dependency), or work another job (exhaustion, distraction, no time for writing), finding the money to support her writing is so miserable a hustle that, among Pierpont's twelve subjects, not one survived it on any but the most abject and usurious terms.
As Pierpont sums up the situation, "These are lives in which success is hard won, retreat and even breakdown are common, love is difficult, and children are nearly impossible, lives in which all that is ever certain is that books and plays and poems are being written." (p. xiii.) The sacrifices are so great, and the rewards so meager and long-coming, that the effort doesn't look - even to one engaged in the attempt - to be worth it; and yet the compulsion to continue remains.
A memorable feature of The African Queen - now three weeks after I've finished it - is C.S. Forester's empathy for the Germans. Early on in the story, Forester highlights one of his heroine's few flaws by emphasizing her lack of compassion for the German military predicament:
[N]aturally [Rose] could not see the other side of the question. Von Hanneken, with no more than five hundred white men in a colony people by a million Negroes, of whom not more than a few thousand even knew they were subjects of the German flag, had to face the task of defending German Central Africa against the attacks of the overwhelming forces which would instantly be directed upon him. It was his duty to fight tot he bitter end, to keep occupied as many of the enemy as possible for as long as possible, and to die in the last ditch, if necessary, while the real decision was being fought out in France. Thanks to the British command of the sea, he could expect no help whatever from outside. . . . Rose saw no excuse for him at all.
p. 8-9. Later, when The African Queen squeaks by the German troops stationed at Shona, on the last stretch of river before the rapids, C.S. Forester endows the German commander with a complex range of reactions:
[The captain of the reserve] stood staring down between the cliffs for a long minute. Von Hanneken would be furious at the news of the loss of [The African Queen], but what more could he have done? He could not justly be expected to have foreseen this. No one in his senses would have taken a steam launch into the cataract, and a reserve officer's training does not teach a man to guard against cases of insanity. . . . . As he walked back to Shona, bathed in sweat, he was still undecided whether he should make any mention of this incident in his report to Von Hanneken. . . . It might be better to keep quiet. The [African Queen] was gone, and the poor devils in it were dead. . . . But he was sorry for the poor devils, all the same.
p. 85-86. And in the tale's dramatic conclusion, the Germans "[p]retty decent[ly]" bring Rose and Charlie Allnut over to the British side of Lake Tanganyika - in a move that has "a touch of the formal chivalry of the Napoleonic wars" (p. 233-234) - before the British finally sink the German ship,KöniginLuise, in a maneuver that sees the British "not want[ing] to kill the wretched Germans" and the Germans gallantly going down with the ship. (p. 241-242.)
C.S. Forester's notable and humanizing depiction of Germans prompted a number of questions for me: First, I wondered if C.S. Forester was taking any political risks by offering so three dimensional a glimpse of his German characters. WWI - and the use of mustard gas - was still fresh in the minds of the British public, and Hitler was already in power by the time to book was published. His good-natured approach to the enemy could have cost him readers.
Second, I wondered if, even if he'd perceived the political risk, C.S. Forester would have cared. In his criticism of Rose's inability to relate to the German military predicament, I perceived that C.S. Forester was gently contrasting her with himself; his characters may be privileged to be narrow minded, but the author can afford no such luxury. In that case, his discharging of his authorial duty seems tinged with bravery.
Finally, I wondered if his empathy was an expression of a longing for a romantic, chivalrous (imagined) golden age - an idealistic hope that if he could conjure a civilized conflict on the page, readers might be inspired to live it out in the real world. If so, a rich irony exists in the fact that Rose and Charlie Allnut - the patriotic, intrepid, salt-of-the-earth lovers - planned to destroy theKöniginLuise in a suicide bombing.
I don't think I'm competent to judge whether Karen Blixen is any good as a writer. I admire good plotting and page-turnability too highly. I fall in love with authorial voices that don't take themselves too seriously, that mock themselves, that deliver the heavy news with the light tone. I value substance over facade too much to venerate aristocracy.
In short, Karen Blixen probably couldn't speak to me with her writing, even if she was any good, which I can't tell whether she is. Certainly, she's maddening. In "Sorrow-Acre," the second story in Winter's Tales, a five-page tangent about the 17 year-old bride of a 60-plus aristocrat - during which the young mistress yearns for someone who is never present and meditates on a flea's willingness (alone among creaturedom) to risk its life for her blood - leads nowhere. In "The Pearls," another story from the same collection, Henrik Ibsen makes a baffling appearance, and a cobbler's revelation that he added a pearl to the protagonist's necklace ruins her marriage - why that might be is anyone's guess. In "Alkmene," also from Winter's Tales, a mysterious foundling child insists on watching an execution after her adopted father dies - she hints that the purpose of observing the spectacle is to deter her from committing murder like the condemned man - and then, upon receiving a marriage proposal from the story's narrator, claims that she herself has died, whereupon she moves to the country with her adopted mother and runs a sheep farm.
Reading Blixen's stories, I was reminded of Tim Parks' frustrated review of Anne Enright's The Gathering in The New York Review of Books. Enright's extraordinary talent, as I see it, is her bizarre ability to evoke the experience - captivation, terror, revelation, relief - of dreaming (in fact, her work fades for me after I close the covers, just as dreams do upon waking). But the ability of a dream to cast its spell on a non-dreamer is limited - indeed, to the outsider, a dream is often an easily-dismissed irrationality - and Enright, like all stylists, cannot be appreciated by a reader who doesn't get her style. (Imagine your consternation - to pace Tim Parks' - if what appears to be someone else's dream-babble won the Booker.)
But Blixen herself may have cut closer to the truth in her final story in Winter's Tales, "A Consolatory Tale." In it, a character explains,
What exactly [the imposter to the Prince] has told the people I cannot report, partly because his sayings seem to be deep and twofold, so that those who have heard them do not remember them, and partly because he really does not say much. But the impression which he has made is sure to be very profound.
(p. 298.) Later, the imposter utters the following enigma: "Life and Death are two locked caskets, each of which contains the key to the other." (p. 303.) In other words, this imposter bore a striking resemblance to Kahlil Gibran (or his modern day incarnate, Paulo Coelho).
Thinking over The African Queen, I have to marvel at C.S. Forester's ability to wring a plot out of action largely centered on keeping a rickety steamship afloat. Page after page finds Allnut "address[ing] himself to the engine," "haul[ing] out a panful of hot ashes and dump[ing] them overboard," "fill[ing] the furnace with fresh wood," "peer[ing] at his gauges," "haul[ing] in the anchor," etc. (p. 15). A critical sequence - for the plot and for the relationship between Rose and Charlie Allnut - occupying a full twelve pages of text - involves straightening a shaft and fixing a broken propeller (p. 122-134).
Yet the action never drags, I never got bored, and I was turning pages so fast that I finished the whole book in one sitting (or just about). I'm amazed and, frankly, not sure how he did it.
One reason that I can discern is the humor that Forester invests in his storytelling. His vivid descriptions of Charlie's antics keeping the boat afloat evoke images of Chaplin-esque physical comedy in the mind of the reader (or at least this reader). Charlie's speech about the impossibility of fixing the twisted shaft and the broken propeller (on p. 122) is laugh-out-loud funny.
Another reason is a quality I'll call "storyteller instinct." I've often listened to people relate interesting events in a way that makes me yearn for more absorbing conversation - something about the tax code maybe? Similarly, I've often been surprised at the laughter or expressions of fascination expressed by people listening to me recount some appallingly boring experience. It's not the content, but the way it's presented. C.S. Forester is apparently the kind of master craftsman of storytelling who can make the mechanics of rickety steamships scintillating reading fare.
C.S. Forester's plotting supports my hunch - or is it a preference? - that the plot's the thing that crowns a storyteller a king (with apologies to Shakespeare, Hamlet and those less silly than I).
I don't write biographies - reading them is enough of a strain on my leisure time - but even I know that, in the absence of new information, writing a biography of someone whose life has already been so documented is not advised.
So I am now doubly dumbfounded at Sara Wheeler's choice to write Too Close to the Sun. As I noted in a previous post, Finch Hatton didn't leave enough of a record of his life - in writing or in accomplishments - to enable a biographer much scope . . . never mind leaving enough room for two biographers to maneuver.
In my prior post, I had incorrectly assumed that, prior to Too Close to the Sun, Denys Finch Hatton hadn't been subjected to the biography treatment. I'd been wrong. Not only was a previous biography in existence (if not in print), but Silence Will Speak, by Errol Trzebinski, covered exactly the same ground as Too Close to the Sun.
Despite the paucity of the historical record, however, Wheeler had an opening to apply a critical perspective to Finch Hatton's life - an opportunity which she squandered. Both she and Trzebinski, decades after the man's charred remains were laid to rest, appear to be enthralled to Finch Hatton's supposed charms. Although both women duly note that Finch Hatton had a solitary streak and was subject to depression; that he left Karen Blixen notes apologizing for his foul moods; that he had earned among the Africans the nickname "Makanyaga" (which means "to tread upon" - was he, perhaps, rude to the help?); that he was dismissive of his brother Toby; and that the word "immature" seemed appropriate - both biographers pass lightly over these facts, refusing in-depth analysis and anchoring their works in the realm of hagiography.
That they should have done so is disappointing because a reassessment of Finch Hatton casts Karen Blixen in a fresh, more sympathetic light. Rather than being a possessive woman who ruined her relationship by smothering Finch Hatton - as Trzebinski portrays her - or as being a selfish monster living in a fantasy world of self-deceiving lies - in Wheeler's version - Blixen could, in fact, have simly been a woman passionately in love with a man who was never able deeply to commit.
While one worshipful (of Finch Hatton), bitchy (to Blixen) biography seems justifiable, two is a bit rich, even accounting for Finch Hatton's aristocratic lineage. As much as Wheeler no doubt needed some occupation for her time, rewriting Trzebinski's biography has led to a waste of mine.
I think I've seen The African Queen. If I did, it was something on the order of 20 years ago. My father would've rented the video. I have a memory of Katherine Hepburn cutting her hair - a scene that doesn't occur in the book (if, in fact, the movie I'm thinking of is African Queen and not, say, The Snows of Kilimanjaro). In any event, I think it's time for a remake, not just because it's a terrific story about ingenuity, the awakening of consciousness, and exposure to new geography, but also to remind ourselves that, in our current state of gender relations, we are falling sadly short of reasonable projections based on a 1935 baseline.
C.S. Forester's heroine, as depicted in his excellent book from that year, is strong in body and quick in mind. She combines "powerful arms" and a "powerful wrist" with "[t]hose big breasts of hers" and "the ripe femininity of her body." While she's steering the boat through rapids, "her mind [is] a lightning-calculating machine juggling with currents and eddies." She is "the captain of a raiding cruiser," adventure makes her "really alive for the first time in her life," and she "actually enjoyed [sex], as no woman should ever dream of doing." She is emboldened by success:
There was a thrill of achievement. Rose knew that in bringing the African Queen down those rapids she had really accomplished something, something which in her present mood she ranked far above any successful baking of bread, or even (it is to be feared) any winning of infidel souls to righteousness. For once in her joyless life she could feel pleased with herself, and it was a sensation intoxicating in its novelty. Her body seethed with life.
(p. 107.) Her beaux, Charlie Allnut, meanwhile has a "slight body" (or, four pages later, a "slender body") and is "not sufficiently self-analytical to appreciate that most of the troubles in his life resulted from attempts to avoid trouble." (p. 54.) Although he's a skilled mechanic, he suffers from extreme anxiety and a lack of confidence - "mercurial spirits [that] could hardly help rising rising under the influence of Rose's persistent optimism. . . . [I]f she had not been with him . . . [he] might . . . not [have] rais[ed] a finger to help himself." (p. 126.)
This delightful pair bring out the best in each other and - although "[w]hether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided" - they are a lovely (imagined) illustration of the possibilities for human accomplishment and satisfaction that emerge when men aren't intimidated by strong women, and women aren't put off by inadequate hygiene and malarial swamps.
I must have seen this movie, and it must have had an inordinate influence on me . . . I wish it had been required viewing for my male age mates.