Tuesday, March 4, 2014

When she experiences it, it's pathological. When he does, it's existential.

Photo Credit: Jean Rhys, 1974 by Bill Brandt

Over the weekend, I devoured Kate Zambreno's book Heroines. The project is difficult to describe as it's quite unusual in terms of structure and genre. Some people have referred to the book as a critical memoir, which I suppose, is the most accurate way to talk about it. The book is a critical exploration of the "wives and mistresses" of the modernist area: their work and circumstances, their (often aborted) careers. Zambreno examines the biographies of Vivienne Eliot (T.S. Eliot), Zelda Fitzgerald (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Jean Rhys (Ford Madox Ford) to conclude that in many ways they have been diminished, pathologized and (almost-)plagiarized by the genius men they associated with. 

Zambreno approaches her subject through a very personal lens, weaving her own obsession with these women through the narrative and using it as a jumping point for reflection on her own relationship with her admittedly supportive husband and with her own writing. I align myself with a genealogy of erased women, she writes, which is the least convincing point she makes. Not because I don't believe her. The book makes it quite clear that she does. I am just not so sure why... as the autobiographical details lead me to more or less conclude that Zambreno has had a comfortable childhood in middle class Chicago, has received an excellent education (she says her journalism degree from Northwestern is "useless"), she is close to her parents who have supported her through her journey in sorting out her mental health issues and have encouraged her writing. So has her husband who sounds like a entirely decent human being and whose main flaw seems to be that he has chosen to work in academia. To borrow from her, it is difficult not to leave with the impression that she is being melodramatic and that she is pathologizing her own biography. Which is not to say that I don't absolutely agree with her contention that in the case of her modernist muses BUT also so much so today, still, anxiety often seems to be interpreted through gender: When she experiences it, it's pathological. When he does, it's existential. Have truer words been spoken?

Perhaps because it's what I've been thinking about recently... but I don't think that's why... I thought that Zambreno's most important questions are the ones she raises about the lived experience of being a writer and an artist. What does it mean to paint seriously, to write seriously? It is all about self-identity, and discipline, this audacity to believe that what one could possibly create is worth sharing with the world. And in doing so, she brings up a series of issues that have to do both with the daily labor of creating written work but also, of how it is received. For example, why is it that so very few female writers choose to write humongous doorstop-type thousand pagers? What does it mean to be published by a big publishing house versus a smaller, experimental press? How many major publications review books by women but also, beyond numbers, HOW are women's books reviewed? (And because Zambreno mentions she arranges her bookshelves by literary gossip, I have to admit how much I loved a section in the book that she discusses a conversation she has with a guy she'd messed around with, in which she casually-on-purpose mentions that her first book is about to come out and it's a novella with a small feminist press and he says, yeah, mine too and it turns out the guy in question is Adam Levin, whose debut novel The Instructions was published in 2010 to much critical acclaim and who's already beeing compared to Roth, Salinger, DFW and the like. I just wish I could give her a hug!)

So, I am telling you to read this book not because I liked it, which I did. I didn't love it but I liked it very much. I am telling you to read it because it will leave you with so much to ponder, so many questions to try and answer, so much evidence to seek. It will also leave you with a reading syllabus (a long one) and, in my case, a to do list:
• Start a diary, focus on describing the minutiae of daily life: needs to be remembered
• Look for novels based on fictionalized portrayals of actual historic figures: re-read Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife?
• Read all of Joan Didion: especially fiction, for narrative infused with style/fashion without being superficial.
• Read Muriel Spark

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