Wednesday, May 20, 2009

This Tortured and Tormented Mask

There are writers who are impervious to biography. Criticism can undo them, temporarily or in small ways; exposing their repetitions, their infractions against taste, fashion or grammar, their philosophic or stylistic failings, but great writers, even or specially when considered by great critics, survive and even grown in reputation by being shaken about a bit, tossed against one wall after another, being shoved into new, even ridiculous categorical containers and then let loose, like a jack-in-the-box, on new readers or, in this way or that, made to startle even their established admirers. Biography is another matter entirely. There are biographers, however well intentioned, even worshipful, who have hung "A Life" 'round a writer's neck that could not help but sink their subject, revealing such abysmal character, violent prejudice and the like as to color any reading of the writer's work thereafter. Writers have done this to themselves, of course, in autobiography; Trollope showed himself something of a clerk in both his habits and his soul and ruined himself postmortem for a generation at least, Hemingway made himself a caricature by late middle age. Letters and journals, however carefully or judiciously edited, can likewise do damage, revealing the author's antisemitism, as with Larkin or Mencken. But biographers, without any of the restrictions or hesitations of the writers themselves, can do worse by finding worse and leaving none of it out. Perhaps the most famous modern American examples would be Marc Shorer's 1961 biography, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life, in which the Nobel Prize winning novelist was exposed as a truly mean and selfishly awful drunk, and something of a hack as well, or poor Robert Frost, who's official biographer transformed him, possibly forever, from something like the 20th Century's Whitman into a miserably ambitious old bastard who only just stopped short of kicking dogs in the street. There are writers, like Byron, like Wilde, made up almost in equal measure by their lives and their work and who therefore absorb biography like so much sunshine, assimilating criticism into their legends. Finally, there are the greatest writers, like Dickens, like Tolstoy, who fall into the category first mentioned, for whom neither criticism nor biography can be said to so much as leave a mark on 'em. Say what you will, you can not quite touch them, for good or ill, however unpleasant they were to their wives, etc., nothing can unmake them.

There are writers, like Frederick Rolfe, aka Baron Corvo, for whom a great biography can be salvation, explaining, if with difficulty, and in Corvo's case, a painful discretion, something of why and how their books should be read at all. But there are also writers whose lives are almost entirely in their fiction, for whom the writing of novels and stories was not so much a profession, or even an avocation, but the means of a sometimes excruciating self revelation, writers who knowingly or not seem to have held back nothing, for whom life proved to be so painful as to be hard to accept, even in fiction, and for whom writing would seem to have done nothing to protect them. For such rare writers, biography can seem superfluous, if tantalizingly, distractingly, necessary if just for the purpose of corroboration. Was it as bad as that? Could this person really have been such a disaster and yet produce something so beautiful? Reading such a writer, one wants almost to protect them from biographers, which is to say, one wants rather to rescue them from their lives. Jean Rhys is one of these.

“Some people walked the tightrope so beautifully, not even knowing they were walking it," Rhys wrote in her novel Voyage in the Dark, and one has the sense, reading Jean Rhys, and reading about her, that that sentence, with its suggestion of artless admiration for all the ease Rhys never knew except as a writer, could almost serve as the whole of her aesthetic. It certainly goes a long way in explaining her failure at life as well as her success as a writer. She insists that grace requires an unconsciousness of which she clearly knew herself to be incapable. She can not help but envy it, even as the knowledge that, for her, oblivion proved repeatedly impossible; in love, in degradation, in drink, even in old age, when she struggled to write an autobiography, left unfinished at the time of her death, in which she sought to recreate the lost, and in fact never possessed, paradise of her childhood on the island of Dominica, seeking finally to escape into only those memories where some trace of innocence might still linger. If alcohol did wreck her, it never brought her release from the regrets and personal failures that haunted her, or from the selfishness, self-destructive anger and hyper-sensitivity that more often than not brought her into conflict with what she insisted was a bitter and bewildering Fate.

Again, she understood this even as she could not help herself. In a passage from Good Morning, Night, she describes the failure even to drink herself to death with such money as she had, in real life the money she accepted as a legacy from a former lover who offered it, and paid it for years, with the condition that she never contact him again.

"I did try it, too. I've had enough of these streets that sweat a cold, yellow slime, of hostile people, of crying myself to sleep every night. I've had enough of thinking, enough of remembering. Now whisky, rum, gin, sherry, vermouth, wine with the bottle labelled 'Dum vivimus, vivamus...' Drink, drink, drink... As soon as I sober up I start again. I have to force it down sometimes. You'd think I'd get delirium tremems or something.

Nothing. I must be solid as an oak. Except when I cry."

This is all too easy to parody, or to pity. But she can not leave herself alone, even drunk, even in tears. She's ruthless,writing, going on to describe her face being wrecked by the drinking, "gradually breaking up," but then:

"Besides, it isn't really my face, this tortured and tormented mask. I can take it off whenever I like and hang it up on a nail. Or shall I place on it a tall hat with a green feather, hang a veil over the lot, and walk about the dark streets so merrily? Singing defiantly 'Don't like jam, ham or lamb, and I don't like you either. Singing 'One more river to cross, that's Jordan, Jordan...'"

There is so much in that that elevates it out of anything like self pity, so much that speaks to so much more than just a woman in a bottle; the perfectly pitched insistence of the drunk's choice, the refusal of consequences, the assumption of a heartbreaking and hilarious dignity in the formality of the line about the hat, then breaking down into a song that might come out of Beckett.

It was, I suspect, her anger that made her, both rather awful and a genius.

"You've told the truth, the stark truth -- or perhaps you gave it a fig-leaf so as not to harrow too much -- and everybody said: 'Come, come,' and 'Don't tell me,' and 'Do you think I was born yesterday?' You told lies and they said: 'Ah, the cri du coeur!'"

That from Quartet, expresses something of Rhys' frustration, her very real fury, that her writing, much like her love affairs and her boozing, did nothing really to save her.

Angry women are rare in our literature. The inclination is always to explain them and in so doing humble them, make them manageable, forgivable, political and or insane. Rhys last novel, a masterpiece, The Wide Sargasso Sea, re-imagines the first Mrs. Rochester. Rhys writes the creole madwoman Bronte kept locked up and loosed only as a force of insane destruction, not as the dark witch in the perfect white faerie tale, but as an actual, angry woman, from a place very much like the place from which Rhys herself came, as a woman very much as Rhys herself was; misused, volatile, exiled and or always escaping, frustrated by the misogyny and limitations of her time and place, painfully, tragically self aware but powerless, to control her own fate.

Rhys has already had a full length and exhaustively researched biography. In it are every knowable detail, of her unloving mother, of her island childhood, her failed marriages, failed love affairs, including a very influential time spent with the great novelist Ford Madox Ford, her abortions, the children she abandoned, prostitution, her wanderings from London to Paris,the lot. That biography was a good book. But in it there is always a sense of frustration, or better say, exasperation, that is hardly unique to the biographer, something very like having been expressed in every memoir or contemporary portrait of the woman ever written. She must have been something of a nightmare. It is perfectly understandable that Rhys' biographer should want to like and understand her better than the subject did herself.

Now there is another, new biography, in America titled, The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys, by Lilian Pizzichini. (The subtitle to the British edition is better, simply "A Portrait.") I took it to lunch with me today. Pizzichini is forthright in acknowledging her considerable debt to her predecessor. The new biographer's mission is different. She intends not to add to the facts, but to use them to a different interpretation, one I like better, that does not emphasise, or seek to excuse Rhys' deeply flawed character, but rather to portray her as an artist. Thumbing the book after the first three chapters though I was disturbed by how little direct quotation there was in it. Too often for my taste, this biographer tells us what "Jean thought" or "Jean felt," when there are ample opportunities, in the autobiography, the letters and the fiction, for us to have just what "Jean thought" and "Jean felt" without the gloss. While the new biography is as well written as the one that came before, there is something of a precis about it. This is a dangerous thing in nonfiction, the recreation of a personality without constant reference to the record. That Pizzichini does it well, doesn't, for me excuse the doing. I can agree at least with what I've understood so far of her conclusions, without much liking her method, or, more importantly, quite understanding the need for the book beyond redressing the attitude of the earlier one.

As I said, there are writers one might almost wish to protect from biography, and Jean Rhys is one. I don't yet dislike this new "Life," but it is not Rhys simply because Rhys is not reducible to the facts of her life, or her lies, or a point of view. I already have Jean Rhys, terrifying, entertaining and difficult, but also gloriously real, in her books on my shelf. If I continue to read this new biography, and I may yet, I can't imagine anything in it equalling in honesty, depth or artistry what Rhys wrote of herself, on every page.

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