Jane Smiley, Private Life

Back when I was doing my survey of ‘books about books,’ one of the best I read was Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, which I admired for its balance of elegance and erudition. My relationship with her fiction, however, has been both limited and not so happy. I read A Thousand Acres and remember finding it compelling, but that was in the dark days before blogging, so I have only vague memories and nothing to consult to remind me why, or how far, it worked for me. I picked up Moo at Doull’s more recently (but still not recently enough to have blogged it, it turns out), and though it sounded like something I would enjoy, I ended up putting it aside unfinished. It’s not that it wasn’t well told, but that (as I recall) it turned out to be arch, and that became irritating. I don’t mind funny, or ironic, or wry, but I like my humor underwritten with sincerity, and so arch is not for me. When I came across Private Life while browsing in a bookstore last weekend, I’m not sure what instinct prompted me to take a closer look. I think I read at least one review of it, when it was freshly out, that suggested it was more my kind of book than Moo and that had stuck somewhere in the musty bookshelves of my mind. Anyway, I did examine it, it did look good, and so I bought it, and I finished it this morning very glad I had given it a chance, because it’s excellent.

Private Life is formally unassuming, even old-fashioned: it proceeds by direct,  methodical exposition, without even much extended dialogue. We are just given one sentence after another as we follow our group of characters across a span of history marked with major public, “world-historical” events including the Great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, the First World War, and then, as the book concludes, the Second World War. Our perspective is almost exclusively that of Margaret Mayfield, a bookish girl from Missouri who grows into what looks like certain spinsterhood until she attracts the notice of Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, an eccentric astronomer. They marry and move to California, where Andrew tends to a small observatory at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo. In their marriage, he is very much the larger force, which only gradually comes to seem not just unnatural but unjust and insupportable to Margaret. It’s not a novel of rebellion and liberation, however, but a patient account of Margaret’s experiences, particularly as her wifely allegiance to Andrew is tested against his mania for scientific theorizing and his incessant demands that she serve as amanuensis, secretary, and chauffeur. Margaret is naturally self-effacing, to the point of often feeling herself a spectator at events in her own life. That and her learned expectation that a wife subordinates her interests and time to her husband’s make her disillusionment a slow process, but also an especially painful one, as despite her eventual realization that she is married to an absurdity, she cannot, or will not, repudiate him, even though one consequence of his near-delusional thinking is that he accuses Japanese friends of hers of spying, leading to their arrest and internment.

At one level the novel is just what the title suggests: a story of private life. But it also artfully evokes the complex interplay between that individual experience and the broader narrative of history. It tells an alternative history of America from 1883 to 1942 that makes everyday life and, more particularly, women’s lives central and thus renders more traditional historical subjects peripheral. Thus Smiley contributes to the history of those who “rest in unvisited tombs,” who get through every day and do nothing spectacular, nothing that gets reported or documented – who do nothing except live as best they can in the circumstances they meet. One theme of the novel is that “just living” is not as easy as it sounds, something we all know, in our own ways. Margaret’s sister-in-law Dora, whose life as a reporter involves her much more directly in the turbulence of the public world, eventually writes a column called “My Life Didn’t Prepare Me For This,” a title that resonates with Margaret: “Dora was writing about the mysteries of the Khan el-Khalili bazaar. Margaret was thinking about everything in the whole world.”

The “private life” of the title also refers more specifically to Margaret’s experience: though we know she develops a circle of superficial friends through her knitting circles and card playing afternoons and charity work, she does not share her intimate life – her thoughts, her dreams, her emotions – with any of them. Even through the agonizing and beautifully told death of her only child, her grief is controlled and internalized; much later, when she finally speaks about it to a friend who becomes, briefly, her lover, she breaks down and weeps, relieving us, too, of some pent-up emotion. The novel’s impact depends on the strength of these reserved feelings, on our awareness that Margaret is capable of much more than she is saying or doing. “There are so many things I should have dared before this,” she says bitterly at the novel’s end.

Smiley sets Margaret’s intensely personal experience of life up against her husband’s preoccupation with the universe in general. One exemplary (and also quietly profound) sequence focuses on Margaret’s discovery of a family of coots on a nearby pond. Margaret returns again and again to the pond to watch the chicks growing under the watchful eyes of their parents. Finding beauty and tranquility in this tiny piece of nature, she brings her friend Mr Kimura to the pond to paint them (the resulting scroll painting becomes an important symbol for her of what she actually loves and values, and also of what she is unable save or achieve in the world). Returning from one of her visits, overwraught with her realization that the chicks are being preyed on, their numbers slowly diminishing, she finds Andrew obsessing as usual over “larger” issues. “It seemed to her that if he said the word ‘universe,’ she really would scream,” she reflects. “The universe, of course, was the very thing that circled around those chicks, vast and senseless.” Margaret feels the largeness of things as oppressive. Andrew, in contrast, believes passionately in the theory that the universe, far from being empty, is filled entirely with “ether.” In fact (as Margaret sees by this point) what fills it, or at least fills his consciousness of it, is his own ego: Andrew’s “life force” is endless, ceaseless, overpowering; it crowds Margaret so that she always happy when he leaves the house. His supreme self-confidence makes him a poor scientist, more determined to prove himself right than to pursue the truth. There is perhaps something too neat in the way Smiley divides up her fictional universe between the hyper-masculine, monomaniacal, ultimately delusional, but also pathetic Andrew and the passive, inward-looking, domesticated Margaret: they are emblems of a gendered division of attention that reflects a historical division of education and labour but also repeats a version of the ‘separate spheres’ myth reflected throughout so many 19th-century texts – and rejected so eloquently in, say, Aurora Leigh. I longed for Margaret to fling off her opressive but also just plain annoying husband with Aurora’s cry, “I too have my vocation, work to do!” But there’s more Dorothea than Aurora in Margaret (and plenty of Mr Casaubon in Andrew, though in a louder, more clanging register), absent the moral yearning that makes Dorothea’s mistakes heroic, but with the same moral paralysis inflicted by an essential generosity that makes it near impossible to admit, to her friends and family much less to Andrew, that she knows perfectly well he is a fool. Smiley’s answer to the problem of such essentializing views of gender and gender roles is not to defy them by creating a modern heroine to satisfy us, but to guide us towards recognizing the heroism in surviving Margaret’s life.

What matters more, public life or private? Private Life builds towards the commonplace but still uneasy idea that the two are never truly distinct. History happens to the people in the novel in the form of cataclysms and catastrophes  – earthquakes, fires, assassinations, bombings. But at the same time the people in the novel are the ones making history. Smiley’s novel works in the tradition of social historians and women’s historians, blurring the boundaries between public and private or around the definition of “event.” What is the San Francisco earthquake, after all, as a historical event, but the accumulation of stories of people who lived through it, suffered during it, or died from it? What is the “event” we call “Japanese-American internment” but the actions of all those who conceived of, contributed to, and carried out this shameful policy, as Andrew contributes to it by writing paranoid letters that lead to the arrest and internment of the Kimuras? Private Life proceeds quietly, but it pulses between these levels of engagement and lets Margaret, so quiet herself that it is an effort for her to speak, be fully herself and yet much more than just a woman in private.

Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

From the Novel Readings Archive

One of the reasons I began blogging in the first place was to experiment with writing about books in a non-academic way. One of the first blogging projects I took up, therefore (because research is an academic habit that is hard to give up), was reviewing examples of non-academic writing about books–books about books, but written for actual readers. I read Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, for instance, which was the subject of one of my earliest blog posts, and Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time, and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, and John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel, among others. Unlike OLM’s Sam Sacks, who thought Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel was a “low point” in the genre of “books about the culture of reading” (to Sacks, Smiley comes across as “a supercilious book-club leader uttering inanities over a demitasse cup”–ouch!), I thought Smiley’s was one of the best of the bunch.* It seems apt, then, to continue my series of posts resurrected from the Novel Readings archives with my own review of this particular book about books.

*Continuing in a nostalgic vein, my comment politely disagreeing with him about Smiley (which seems to have been lost in the move to the new OLM layout)  was one of my earliest interactions with Open Letters. And I also read Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure, the main subject of his review, for my ‘books about books’ project but didn’t write it up because I thought Sam was completely right (and completely articulate, of course) about that one.

Of the array of ‘books about books’ aimed at general audiences that I’ve read in the last few months, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is by far the most intelligent and engaging. Smiley writes as a novelist primarily, reflecting often on her own experiences and motivation as an author, but she also writes as a scholar, a dedicated reader, and an insightful literary critic who can capture a significant idea about a writer or a text in a well-crafted sentence or two. Here, to give just one of many examples, is Smiley on Anthony Trollope:

Trollope was a great analyst of marriage as a series of decisions that turn into a relationship and then, as time goes by and the children grow up, into history and architecture; simultaneously, he was the great analyst of politics as it devolves into feelings and their effects on the nation. If we say that Trollope is the ultimate realist, we are recognizing that his work as well as his life recognized more points of view, more endeavors, more sensations, more things to think about and reasons to think about them than almost any other novelist; that the technique he developed for balancing the attractions of these sensations–in sentences, paragraphs, chapters, characters, and entire books–beautifully mimics the way many people construct their identities moment by moment. (133)

Not only is that analysis elegantly put–I love the description of marriage moving from something intangible and negotiable into something with the solidity of a building–but every reader of Trollope will appreciate how well Smiley has captured the distinctive qualities of Trollope’s accomplishment in something like the Palliser novels or the Barchester chronicles.

I was particularly impressed with Smiley’s engagement with the moral implications of some of the novels she considers. Her comparative discussion of Wuthering Heights and de Sade’s Justine (in which Bronte’s novel comes off much the worse) is an excellent example of ‘ethical criticism’: like Wayne Booth, Martha Nussbaum, and others (though without explicit reference to any theoretical work in this area) Smiley illustrates that elements far more complex than a novel’s content need to be considered when evaluating its ethical import:

Justine shows that whatever an author’s motives for depicting horror, the form of the novel itself molds the depiction. Ostensibly shocking and immoral, Justine actually promotes a certain moral point of view–that integrity and virtue can be retained and recognized in the face of relentless suffering. In addition, to expose secret corruption is to challenge its existence because of the nature of the novel as a common and available commodity. (111)[F]ar more shockingly cruel, in its way, than Justine is that staple of middle school, Wuthering Heights. No one has ever considered Wuthering Heights to be unsuitable for young girls; most women read it for the first time when they are thirteen or fourteen. There are no sex scenes in Wuthering Heights. . . . At the same time, there are no beatings or shootings in Wuthering Heights. The only blood is shed by a ghost in a dream.

At the same time, the theme of Wuthering Heights is that any betrayal, any cruelty, any indifference to others, including spouses or children, is, if not justifiable, then understandable, in the context of sufficient passion. . . .

Do the characters of Wuthering Heights perpetrate even a grame of the harm that the characters of Justine do? No. Does Wuthering Heights seem in the end to be a nastier novel than Justine does? Yes. They are similar in that both are unrelieved and both have endings that are happy relative to the rest of the novel. But it is more disheartening to read about Heathcliff’s domestic sins than it is to see the crimes of the ruling class exposed, because the exposure of political crimes seems like a step towards ameliorating them, while Heathcliff’s cruelties are specifically directed at those he should be nurturing, and only chance intervenes between him and his victims . . . . The paradox is that novelists ended up exploring the rich subject of the morality of interpersonal relationships only to discover that while, on the one hand, this subject was safe from the danger of sex and violence, on the other hand, achieving in such plots the satisfying feeling of redress is difficult if not impossible. (114-5)

The specifics of her argument will no doubt strike other readers as debatable, but to me her analysis is an effective example of the Victorian critical premise that I have been exploring in my research: that it is not the subject but its treatment that determines a novel’s moral character. The conclusion to this particular section also, I think, effectively captures the problem of the unsatisfying endings that are so common in 19th-century marriage plots (Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for instance, or Middlemarch): the novels expose and critique systemic problems with marriage and the condition of women but struggle to resolve them–or (as with Jane Eyre or The Mill on the Floss) resolve them by abandoning realism. Continue reading