“The sword in the hand of humanity”: Writings of Rebecca West 1911-1917

youngrebecca“Boldness is Rebecca West’s strength,” Jane Marcus says in  her edited collection The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West 1911-1917; “She polished the weapons of invective and denunciation into the tools of a fine art.” That combination of boldness and artfulness makes West irresistibly quotable: people who hang out with me on Twitter may have noticed that I, at least, couldn’t resist sharing some of her erudite zingers. As most of the essays and reviews in this volume are fairly short, it’s West herself that makes the biggest impression, though cumulatively her political and aesthetic commitments are clear: as Marcus outlines them, “the young Rebecca West stood for revolution, free love, equal pay, the working class, votes for women, and the most advanced ideas in literature.” Some samples — and keep in mind that between 1911 and 1917 West (b. 1892) was between 19 and 25:

On The Considine Luck by H. A. Hinkson, The Spinster by H. Wales, and The Trespasser by D. H. Lawrence.

The baldness and badness of popular novels is as touching as the ugliness of a cherished rag doll. What overflowing tenderness must be in the heart of the child who loves this monstrosity, we think. And so with the people who read these novels — what tireless imaginations they must have, to perceive joy in these bare chronicles! We superior persons are too feeble to go searching for beauty on our own like that. We wait idly until Thomas Hardy comes back from witnessing fierce wars between the flesh and the spirit, and Conrad sails home from the strangest and most distant tropic. But the common man picks up some artless work such as The Considine Luck by H. A. Hinkson and creates his own beauty. He takes the puppet heroine, Grace Smith, and paints her wooden cheeks with the flush of his sensuous dreams; he lights her eyes with the radiance he has seen in unattainable women in pictures or at theatres, till Grace Smith is more fair than his first love. In a sense he writes his own book. . . .

It is not unkind to say that the above two books need never have been written. Of course, one is glad that they have been written, just as one is glad that there are dog shows at the Horticultural Show, even though one never goes near the place oneself. One likes to think of all those jolly little puppies; and similarly one is glad that Mr. Wales feels up to his work, and quite certain that a lot of people will get ingenuous pleasure out of Mr. Hinkson’s book.

 On J. M. Kennedy’s English Literature, 1880-1905.

He misses the really high purpose which the Yellow Book school fulfilled. These young men of artistic ambition came into the world to find that style was held in contempt. Dickens had dragged the English language through the mud, Browning had thrown bricks at it, Trollope was sit on its chest and reading the lessons to it. The house of art was full of men who had magnificent messages, but nevertheless ate peas with their knives. This revolted Wilde, possibly because, coming from Ireland, he was accustomed to hear good, clean, English; but in any case he and his followers set about imposing style on English literature. That was the purpose of their existence, and they fulfilled it. There was no new philosophy in the air, so they had no new gospel to preach. But they improved our manners. It is thanks to them that we are as fastidious about words as we are about personal cleanliness.

 On The Carnival of Florence by Marjorie Bowen.

There are two kinds of historical novel: the dietetic and the dressy. In the first one cries ‘Tush!’ and calls for nut-brown ale and a pasty. In the second one sighs ‘Ah God, my lord!’ and wimples, when one does not stomacher. In both cases local colour is not the complexion of the story but an impediment in its speech, but the latter has attracted a higher type of intellect by the delicious opportunity it affords of spending the afternoon in museums, looking at pretty things in glass cases and pretending that one is doing a good day’s work. For the literary mind enjoys almost everything except its work. Chief among the students of upholstery of the past is Miss Marjorie Bowen, who brings to the research enormous romping vitality and a love for beauty of language in which one would believe more thoroughly if she did not so frequently split her infinitives neatly down the middle.

On The World of H. G. Wells, by Van Wyck Brooks.

 Mr Van Wyck Brooks is one of those young American writers who would have made excellent wives and mothers. He fails from sheer excess of the housewifely qualities. He is saving: just as in happier circumstances he would have put every scrap into the stockpot, so now he refuses to throw away the very driest bone of thought, and insists on boiling it up in his mental soup He is hospitable; the deadest idea does not get turned away from his doorstep. He is cleanly: his bleached, scentless style suggests that he hung out the English language on the line in the dry, pure breezes of Boston before he used it.

On Hatchways by E. Sidgwick.

With the possible exeption of Angela Carranza (condemned by the Inquisition of Lima in 1684), who claimed to have written her revelations with a quill from the wings of the Holy Ghost, Miss E. Sidgwick is the most pretentious woman writer who ever lived.

One more, on The Good Soldier, by Ford Maddox Ford (to show that she could praise as well as condemn).

 It is as impossible to miss the light of its extreme beauty and wisdom as it would be to miss the full moon on a clear night. Its first claim on the attention is the obvious loveliness of the colour and cadence of its language, and it is also clever as the novels of Mr Henry James are clever, with all sorts of acute discoveries about human nature; and at times it is radiantly witty. And behind these things there is the delight of a noble and ambitious design, and behind that again, there is the thing we call inspiration — a force of passion which so sustains the story in its flight that never once does it appear as the work of a man’s invention. It is because of that unison of inspiration and the finest technique that this story, this close and relentless recital of how the good soldier struggled from the mere clean innocence which was the most his class could expect of him to the knowledge of love, could bear up under the vastness of its subject. For the subject is, one realises when one has come to the end of this saddest story, much vaster than one had imagined that any story about well-bred people, who live in sunny houses with deer in the park, and play polo, and go to Nauheim for the cure, could possibly contain. . . . Indeed, this is a much, much better book than any of us deserve.

 Oh, OK, just one more, on The Lion’s Share, by Arnold Bennett (because it’s impossible not to think about Woolf’s much more famous essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” while reading this — though Woolf’s appears eight years later).

It is now the fashion in many intellectual circles to despise Mr Bennett, as it is the fashion to despise all authors who have performed the crude act of publishing anything. But it is interesting to notice that because has has worked so hard at the craft of writing, at the art of inventing the dreams of a not wild imagination with beauty, he cannot help but achieve good writing and beauty even in a book written without much devotion and with a light intention.

 Oh, and this one too, on Love and Lucy by Maurice Hewlett (because it takes up a pet theme of mine).

But Mr. Hewlett would probably object, the girl had charm. Yet can anybody who cannot grasp that the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal have charm? Can anybody who cannot – to take a simple and revealing test of intelligence — fold up a deck-chair, have charm? Lucy, one feels, could not have passed either of these tests. Isn’t it a sign of commonness, like buying a watch with a handsome exterior and cheap works, to be able to regard such a person as charming? Isn’t intelligence not a separate inserted quality but a necessary condition of beauty, at once a manifestation of a subtle and healthy nervous system and a power which organizes mere physical perfection into beauty that stirs the soul?

 rwestAll of these reviews are, in their own ways, epigrammatically delightful. But they also have a quality of self-display that is in fact slightly wearing after a while: it is perhaps a symptom of West’s precocity, indicative of the youthful zest for being right, or of a critical sensibility compromised (as is so often the case today as well) by the journalistic need to be both pithy and memorable. To be quotable, that is, is not the same as to be impressive, and I find her reviews here more impressive when she tones things down and speaks less from her head and more from her heart. I quoted before from her essay on the death of Emily Davison, for instance; along with the suffering of the suffragettes, it’s the war about which she is most eloquent. Here are some excerpts from her review of May Sinclair’s  A Journal of Impressions in Belgium:

The contrast between the manner of Miss Sinclair’s genius and its achievements is difficult to define. It is as though the usual literary process had been reversed and a mouse had produced a mountain. She writes about life as though she were a little girl sitting on a tin trunk at a railway station and watching the people go by; she writes as though at the  most hopeful estimate she might be another Miss Mitford; and out of this piteousness and diffidence and round-eyed observation there amazingly comes a fierce, large vision of reality. It is entirely characteristic of Miss Sinclair that this record of seventeen days spent in Belgium, which is largely a record of humiliations, and is told with the extremest timidity and a trembling meticulosity about the lightest facts, should be one of the few books of permanent value produced by the war.

Partly it is because her meticulosity makes her describe what writers more accustomed to the battlefield leave one to take for granted. . . . And partly it is because she writes of such a company of heroes as never lived before: of girls of nineteen who trudge over turnip-fields among the bullets to look for the wounded, not in any sudden flame of courage, but as a daily occupation; of women who stayed in Antwerp at their posts till the red skies fell in on them. . . .

And against this background, which is a miracle of of dreadfulness, there moves the Ambulance Corps, which is a miracle of human splendour. It is merciful that, just as one discovers that the world is capable of being infinitely more noble. One perceives quite clearly that some members of this Ambulance Corps must have been intolerable as individuals: ‘practical’ women who use their common sense to rasp their neighbours’ shins and regard suavity as a part of incompetence. And yet, united by their collective purpose of courage, they become an organisation so magnificent in its fearlessness that one accepts as a real tragedy the personal grief which makes this book muted like words spoken by one who holds back the tears. No triumph of good work that may come to Miss Sinclair will ever make up to her for the discovery that the artist is unfit for the life of action. And yet every page of this gallant, humiliated book makes it plain that while it is glorious that England should have women who walk quietly under the rain of bullets it is glorious too that England should have women who grieve inconsolably because the face of danger has not been turned to them.

 Faced with that ‘miracle of dreadfulness,’ West is angrily impatient with wishful “emotional” solutions or simplistic pacifism, such as the proposal by Ellen Key’s Women, Peace and the Future that “mere femaleness is going to end the war”:

 Mere platitudinous assertions as to the niceness of peace and the nastiness of war are useless in such crises, and the ‘motherly’ advice of Miss Key that the belligerent nations should refrain from denouncing the sins of others and should turn their attention to their own defects, is actively mischievous.

If we refrain from regarding the invasion of Belgium as a crime, we foment a state of public opinion which would tolerate England’s commission of a similar crime if the occasion arose. It is alert and vigorous thinking about specific points, it is the very quality of intelligence which Miss Key belittles, which brings an end to war. The intellect is the sword in the hand of humanity, without which its tears and laughter are as impotent as the tears and laughter of children. That is why Miss Key’s feminism, this woman-worship that would have women cultivate laxness of mental tissue so that they shall dissolve into a hot emotional vapour that shall act as a Turkish bath to the Superman, is an offence not only against women but against the race.

Reading through this collection I was frequently reminded of Testament of a Generation: what years these were of passionate, uncompromising, yet humane writing in the service of both political and literary ideals! How well did West know Holtby and Brittain? Marcus’s introduction notes that to Brittain West was “the embodiment of the feminist cause, the twentieth-century successor to Mary Wollstonecraft.” The Berry / Bostridge biography mentions West’s friendly treatment of Brittain at a party in 1933 and there are scattered further references to letters and meetings. How stimulating it would have been to share in their conversations — and yet I’ve also been thinking, as I read West’s ruthless pronouncements, that this is not the kind of person I might like best in real life (West sounds difficult, if not quite as challenging a personality as Olivia Manning). Also, much as I appreciate West’s rhetorical flair, this is not the kind of writing I seek out in contemporary contexts, when I tend to find it tiresome. Though I certainly identify as a feminist, I let my Ms. subscription lapse in the mid 90s. I wonder why I enjoy polemics so much more at some historical distance. Or is it that these particular polemicists bring something to their work that isn’t there in the contemporary equivalents? Who would be the equivalents today of this “Fleet Street feminism” anyway? Jezebel? Feministing? What critics would you point to who combine strong political critique with a strong literary sensibility?

This Week in My Classes: Feminism and Fatality

richThis week in my section of Intro to Literature we’re starting a unit organized around women writers and feminism. We’re starting this week with some poetry — Adrienne Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” and “Diving Into the Wreck,” Margaret Atwood’s “You fit into me,” Marge Piercy’s “The Secretary Chant,” and Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” Next we’re working through A Room of One’s Own, and then we close out the unit — and the term — with Carol Shields’s Unless.

I decided to lead off yesterday with some introductory comments: a bit about the history of feminism, and a bit more about feminism and literature, with a focus on ways feminist critics have challenged and revised the literary ‘canon’ as well as on some of the ways feminist critics taught us to read differently. Am I alone in feeling an uncomfortable blend of diffidence and defensiveness when introducing these kinds of questions? I have had just enough comments over the years, on course evaluations and in class, from students who are offended by what they feel is an unnecessary or unwelcome emphasis on gender issues that I know there will be some resistance (whether or not it’s spoken aloud) to the idea that this is something we ought to talk about. The attitude I’ve heard expressed most often is that the time for all that is over and so it’s quaint but annoying to read a writer such as, say, Sara Paretsky (whom I teach often in Mystery and Detective Fiction) drawing overt attention to inequality and making openly polemical statements. (A variation of this is approval of Paretsky’s detective, V. I. Warshawski, because she’s a feminist but doesn’t make a really big deal about it — which isn’t true, actually. And there’s always a minority that enjoys V.I.’s outspoken politics and unapologetic attitude.) Once a student complained in an evaluation for a course on the 18th and 19th-century novel that the class was biased towards feminism, a bias clearly revealed by the preponderance of women writers on the syllabus: as it happened, that year the reading list for the course in question was split 50/50 between women and men, so I could only conclude that the bias was perceived because our male writers also raised pressing questions about women’s roles. In Intro a couple of years ago, a student (again, anonymously in his or her evaluation) protested that “the prof was such a feminist” — which struck me as odd because that year I honestly couldn’t think of what would have been the trigger for this complaint. It doesn’t take very many such remarks, however ill-founded or oddly calculated they seem, to make one aware that teaching feminism (or as a feminist) is a tricky business.

I believe (though I may be wrong about this, of course) that I do not approach gender issues or feminist interpretations in an aggressive or polemical way. However, it’s rare for these topics not to come up in my classes because they are so fundamental to my own critical apparatus — and, of course, for courses in Victorian literature, they are central to the material itself. One thing I don’t feel is apologetic, then. My guess is that just talking openly about gender issues and feminism simply comes across as polemical to people who aren’t used to, or are resistant to, having that conversation. (That probably explains the intro student’s comment above, as well as my own obliviousness to what exactly I’d done “wrong.”) Basically, these students just need to get over it!

roomHowever, I do want to make our class discussions productive and inclusive, especially for this class of (mostly) first-year students, many of whom may not have had explicit discussions about feminism and literature before, so I fretted quite a bit about exactly what to say and what tone to take on Monday. One thing I pointed out is that politics broadly understood have been part of our discussions all year: we just haven’t identified what we’re doing as political criticism. And I noted that we’ve already talked about the challenge of literary evaluation, and about canonicity. We’ve also already worked on texts that are all about women’s position in society: “The Yellow Wallpaper,” for example, and “A Jury of Her Peers.” So we’re doing more of the same. Now that we’re doing a whole cluster of works with this focus, though, it makes sense to create a more explicit framework, both for what the authors are doing and for what we are doing. I hope I hit the right note in my introductory remarks. We’ll see how it goes. One of the particular challenges (something I’m going to address specifically tomorrow) is that a lot of the works we’ll be reading are angry ones — including A Room of One’s Own, though the anger there is very, very carefully managed (but is it entirely hidden?). I think anger can be off-putting: it makes the reader a bit squirmy, as if they are being blamed or attacked. It’s hard to like an angry person! The tendency (which I have been unable, despite my efforts, to quell completely) to prefer speakers or characters who are “relatable” makes anger a problem for a lot of students. My hope is that we can make it a useful problem — because after all, what does it mean to tell someone not to be angry, or not to listen to someone who is angry — especially if they have good reason for it? Angry women, of course, always get a particularly hard time.

I’d be interested in hearing from other people about their classroom experiences with feminism. Some of you probably teach (or have taken) courses much more completely and explicitly dedicated to the topic: classes on feminist theory, for instance, or feminist philosophy. I expect the population of such classes is more self-selecting so perhaps the awkwardness I sense (or am I just projecting?) does not arise.

In 19th-Century Fiction we are finishing up The Mill on the Floss this week. Tomorrow we’ll discuss the ending. I’ve collected a string of quotations from various critics onto a handout which I hope will provoke plenty of discussion…some of it about feminism! Reading “Diving Into the Wreck” over today for class, I found myself thinking that it resonates uncannily with the ending of The Mill on the Floss — not just in being watery but in being difficult to explain.

“Women Catch Courage”: Carolyn Heilbrun, The Last Gift of Time

The greatest oddity of one’s sixties is that, if one dances for joy, one always supposes it is for the last time. Yet this supposition provides the rarest and most exquisite flavor to one’s later years. The piercing sense of “last time” adds intensity, while the possibility of “again” is never quite effaced.

It’s impossible not to be very aware, reading The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty, that Carolyn Heilbrun committted suicide in 2003–six years, that is, after the book’s publication. As she tells us in the Preface, she had “long ago settled upon the determination to end [her] life at seventy,” but arriving at that age, which once seemed “far off, indeed unlikely ever to occur,” she surprised herself by choosing to live past it. Life, for her, became a daily decision, an empowering one because it meant she remained in control of the narrative of her own life. As someone who finds the opacity and finality of death profoundly disturbing, I am fascinated by her clarity and resolve about it.

The Last Gift of Time is a series of personal essays reflecting on Heilbrun’s experience of aging as well as on issues that took on new relevance or new dimensions as she aged. Perhaps because they are quite personal, to me they were not all equally substantial or valuable. I didn’t much like the chapter “Living with Men,” for instance, which seemed to me to overgeneralize carelessly. But I loved “The Small House,” in which Heilbrun writes about her desire for solitude, in pursuit of which she eventually buys a small house in the country. It turns out she does not love being alone quite the way she expected and she and her husband end up, paradoxically, finding “solitude together.” But she is astute about the temptation, the fantasy, of solitude, “a temptation so beguiling that it carries with it the guilt of adultery, and the promise of consummation.” Being alone and being lonely are not necessarily the same conditions–indeed, my own experience is that it is sometimes possible to feel much more lonely when not alone. I imagine many women, particularly ones with young families, feel both longing for “quality time” with themselves and guilt about that desire; men who want to get away from it all have (as Heilbrun points out) more cultural support and precedent for it. I wonder how far Heilbrun is right that the pleasure of solitude depends on its being both voluntary and temporary.

Another chapter I enjoyed is the one on e-mail, which is also really about balancing aloneness and togetherness. E-mail “reaches into our privacy without invading it,” as she remarks, and she rightly notes too that it enables new relationships to develop as well as sustaining old ones that might otherwise erode with distance. She’s writing when this technology was still relatively new for non-techies. I got my own first email account in 1995, when I moved away from Vancouver to go to Cornell, and I remember how it sustained me (as, indeed, it still does) to open my mailbox and find messages from home. As Heilbrun notes, there’s an intimacy to email that is different (not better, just different) from both face-to-face and phone conversations: “with e-mail, one moves into it without notice, and may find there messages that are not, strangely enough, appropriate for the telephone.”  Also, because they are written and not in ‘real time,’ email messages can allow us not just extra reflection but also “the practice of wit.” I imagine Heilbrun would have been even more exhilirated by blogging–and might even have been an enthusiastic Facebooker.

Two other, more literary, chapters also stood out for me. One, “Unmet Friends,” talks in general about the way writers can come, in our minds, to be our close friends, though we have ‘met’ them only through their words on the page. “Women catch courage,” Heilbrun proposes, “from the women whose lives and writings they read, and women call the bearer of that courage ‘friend.'” Heilbrun’s main example is Maxine Kumin, who, she says, “exists as a close friend only in my mind.” She talks in engaging detail about how she got to ‘know’ Kumin and what their ‘friendship’ has meant to her over the years. “Kumin,” she explains, “spanned both the refuted and the desired aspects of my life.” But she also mentions Dorothy L. Sayers (“her life and her writings spoke to me of a more expansive life, an existence devoted to aims riskier than I had previously allowed myself”)–and Virginia Woolf, who, though “a writer I have studied, taught, and written about with admiration, has never been a friend: she is entirely too much of a genius for that.” There’s also a separate chapter on a writer who became Heilbrun’s real-life friend, May Sarton. Heilbrun mentions her reading of Sarton’s 1968 memoir, Plant Dreaming Deep, “a work that quite literally caught me in its spell,” as “the beginning of our friendship;” that comment, plus her account of Sarton’s eccentric personality and vexed writing career, made me glad I had coincidentally picked up Plant Dreaming Deep at the same time I bought The Last Gift of Time.

The final chapter in The Last Gift of Time is “On Mortality.” It’s here, of course, that the knowledge of her suicide lingers most hauntingly over her words, but the chapter is neither morbid nor sentimental–she considers her death in the context, especially, of her children and grandchildren, and admits that she faces her own mortality with equanimity but cannot bear the thought of her husband’s: “Perhaps death, the nearness of it, transforms long marriages. . . . I have noticed that marriages that have endured over many decades seem to have earned, as reward, a mutual mellowness.” She has learned to stop expecting or demanding change; she quotes George Balanchine’s instruction, “Just dance the steps,” and suggests that similarly she has come to believe that in marriage too, one should worry less about larger meaning and significance and “just dance the steps.” The chapter ends with a poem that was new to me and that will linger with me, Jane Kenyon’s “Otherwise.” An excerpt:

I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

For Heilbrun, that day was October 9, 2003.

“The Story of an Eye”: Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Leaving Brooklyn

Leaving Brooklyn is hands down my favourite reading of the summer, maybe even of the year so far. It’s also the only book I’ve read in a while that has sent me, immediately on finishing it, straight to the computer because I wanted to blog about it. Having said that, I realize that immediately after finishing a book is not necessarily the best time to write about it, as it allows no time for reflection. But Leaving Brooklyn excited the reader in me, and that’s a great feeling.

It’s an especially good feeling because I’ve been feeling a kind of mild, prickly annoyance at the whole conversation buzzing about the literary / lit-blogging / book-tweeting arena to do with men’s writing and women’s writing prompted by the fuss about Jonathan Franzen’s new novel. There was the shallow piece at the Atlantic, for instance, in which the writer realized he didn’t read books by women and set himself the noble project of “consciously trying to read at least one piece of fiction by a woman for every one I read by a man.” “This sounds stupid, I know,” he continues–yes, it does, because “fiction by a woman” is not a genre, and while it’s all very nice and inclusive to advocate reading “books outside of the reader’s direct experience as a way of understanding the world,” the very way the problem and its putative solution are framed here is impossibly reductive. Plus, of course, it’s impossible to imagine a woman reader seeking out a “piece of fiction by a man” as if that’s a coherent and potentially illuminating category–which of course proves the problem that men’s writing is more easily taken as universal, including by women–who have centuries of experience accomodating themselves, provisionally, to a more-or-less masculine point of view in order to enter into fictional worlds. I sympathize, though not entirely, with the reaction of Linda Holmes at NPR’s ‘Monkey See’ blog, who noted that the discussion would be improved by abandoning the term ‘chick lit,’ which is now far too casually flung around as if it embraces all “books that are understood to be aimed at women, written by women, and not important” (that “not important,” of course, is not Holmes’s view of books aimed at, written by, or about women). I’ve intemperately expressed my own impatience with what I take to be exemplary chick lit titles here a couple of times, and I’m not nearly as impressed with Jennifer Weiner as Holmes is, though I certainly consider Weiner’s books (including In Her Shoes) a big step up from, say, Confessions of a Shopaholic. But I do think that there’s something to the complaint that assumptions about literary significance still skew towards the masculine.

Anyway, I don’t want to set Leaving Brooklyn up as a case study in the gendering of literary standards, but it struck me so forceably as being a breathtakingly good novel that I am puzzled about why it’s not (to put it bluntly) more famous than it is. Why, just for instance, is The Catcher in the Rye a modern classic, and not this wonderfully pungent, self-reflective, intelligently emotional and erotic story? Now, to be fair, I’m not an expert on contemporary American fiction, and perhaps Leaving Brooklyn is considered precisely a modern classic. Or perhaps, as it was published only in 1989, it will grow into that status. Or perhaps it will shrink into the somewhat more marginal status hinted at by the odd qualifier in Russell Banks’s cover blurb: “The blend of lyricism and history, of memory and the imagination–all shot through with the female erotic–is wonderful,” he writes (my emphasis). Well, it is wonderful, and it is shot through with eroticism, sort of. But just as courses I teach with ‘Woman’ in the title consistently attract very few male students, how likely is it that this particular endorsement of the novel will be taken as indicating that it’s one of those books “aimed at women, written by women, and not important”?

But never mind all that, really, because the reason that whole discussion annoys me is precisely that it directs our attention to the writer and not the book. There’s a reason Charlotte Bronte and Marian Evans chose to publish under pseudonyms. Gender makes a difference, to be sure, but it’s when that difference becomes the measure that writers want to evade it.

Leaving Brooklyn is a novel that is intensely about a particular place and time: Brooklyn, obviously, in the post-war years. Street names, subway stops, card parties, news stories all evoke that era and the peculiar aura it has, especially for the protagonist, Audrey. “The air was suspended on a discrepancy,” she recalls:

something like the discrepancy between my mother’s use of the words ‘To thine own self be true’ and their true meaning. It was a presumption of state-of-nature innocence, an imaginative amnesia, and a disregard of evidence such as photographs of skeletal figures in striped pyjamas clawing at barbed wire, of mushroom clouds and skinned bodies groping in ashes.

The disjuncture between what is known and what is said is given oddly literal metaphoric form in the opposition between Audrey’s two eyes (“This is the story of an eye,” the novel enticingly, obliquely, begins, “and how it came into its own”)–one, her left, is perfect, but her right eye wanders, due (or so her mother believes) to an unspecified injury just after Audrey’s birth. So Audrey sees straight on, with perfect clarity, but also sees everything askew. She can see around corners, or so she feels; she can see through the discrepancies, the surfaces and half-truths. How is it possible–is it even desirable–to unite these perspectives? Not then, or at least not in Brooklyn, Audrey realizes. Brooklyn demands an end to wandering, as represented by the hard contact lens Audrey is prescribed to control the errant movements of her eye: “Conscientious parents pursued standardization as Calvinists performed good works,” she reflects. Difference was not to be borne but confronted.

But of course Audrey never does see as everyone else does. She learns to compensate for her lack of binary vision (just incidentally, so apparently did I, before an eye operation in my early childhood that repaired a problem with my depth perception): she navigates stairs and corridors, street crossings and subway stations, with precision and accuracy. She also learns to navigate the intangible complexities revealed by her intelligence and imagination, those qualities fed by her imperfect physical sight. She’s a reader and a thinker, sharp, unsentimental, feeling Brooklyn as a constricting force she must leave emotionally as well as literally. She can’t leave, of course, because Brooklyn is her past, part of her identity, who she was before she became who she is: “no matter how much I leave, it doesn’t leave me.”

Leaving Brooklyn is not just about leaving Brooklyn, though. It’s about, among other things, precisely that inextricable tie we have to our past and our early selves, but also about how we reconstruct that self, looking back and trying to recognize ourselves in the child we once were.  “I am confused about who I was,” she reflects:

why else would I need to tell this story about my eye? The confusion is that I seem to have grown up into someone who could not have been me as a child. Yet in the telling the girl grows to sound more and more like the woman I became. The voice overcomes her. The real girl with her layers concealing me becomes more elusive the more I tell. She has been superseded, but I am sure she existed. As I try to find her in me, I keep finding me in her.

At one point she feels the convergence of her selves:

She was me, at that moment. She already knew what I know. This is so startling to come upon that I have to stop and contemplate it. And her. Oh yes, I see myself plainly, right there, bearing the seeds of all I would come to know.

This is metafiction without pretense or flamboyance; Schwartz integrates crucial insights about the inevitable inauthenticity of memoir as a genre with the dramatic urgency of personal discovery.

It’s not accidental that this moment of identification occurs while Audrey is having sex with the Park Avenue eye doctor who prescribed the contact lens. Their affair is not, initially, revelatory to Audrey, but as its erotic possibilities unfold for her, her perception of the world around her becomes less bifurcated: her mind and her body begin to feel equally present to her, though what she sees in Brooklyn is that a woman “could choose the life of the mind or the life of the body, but she could not have both.” Though the doctor eventually expresses his somewhat pathetic (and certainly inappropriate) passion for her, he’s a catalyst for her development: he’s its occasion, not its object. The affair prompts her to see that there might be “another way to live,”

some free and unhampered way I could recover from those years before I stood waiting in the ration lines gripping my mother’s hand, before I began school and was assigned a place in the ranks.

It’s not desire that liberates her, not erotic freedom that she seeks. It’s not love, either–it’s the risk of “caving in” to the doctor’s love that scares her away, the risk of having to be true to him, or to them, rather than to herself. It’s something more like space–mental space, room to decide for herself, to identify herself. Walking through Manhattan after ending the affair, she experiments with an eye patch she has taken from the doctor’s office. But which should she cover, the good eye or the bad? She covers the left eye first, and the world becomes “a huge amorphous mass, its fine points and articulations lost in blur and darkness.” That’s not right: “I needed to find my life, not lose it.” Heading home from the subway, in Brooklyn again, she covers her right eye and “saw clearly the usual sights,” then switches it again. But that’s no real test, she thinks, as she knows the route “so well I could have walked it blindfold.” And yet as she goes along, everything around her indistinct, she is filled with “limitless buoyancy”:

It seemed I might leave the earth and sail up unimpeded, as the snow around me was sailing down, and float right over Brooklyn up to where the stars drifted. . . I didn’t want to float away, though; I was so enraptured that I wanted to remain here on earth, or maybe just a few inches above, and dance. Everything seemed perfect and right; the world, glistening and abundant, unfurled its rightness and perfection–how come I hadn’t noticed it before? Of course I would have everything I wanted, my life would be all I dreamed.

Her ecstasy is inexplicable: “it came from nothing that had happened to me today or ever, beyond circumstance, out of nowhere, a gift that wouldn’t last.” But what she feels is the spaciousness of human possibility, liberated momentarily from the specificities of history. Of course it can’t last, but at that moment she feels that her “entire past barely existed, could be rolled up into a mote in the eye and winked away.” Eventually her own life will begin, she thinks, and then “oh how freely I would float.” It’s the bad eye, the wandering eye, that sees her home that night, and with it she looks through and then past Brooklyn with the hopeful, naive, ambitious exaltation of youth. It’s an intensely personal but also profoundly commonplace experience, movingly represented in a book by a woman, about a woman, that I think deserves to be called “important.”