As our planet has rotated once again around the sun in a nearly perfect circle, I will now highlight several books from this year’s reading that move in more eccentric orbits. Each proves that Ambrose Bierce’s withering definition of eccentricity — “a method of distinction so cheap that fools employ it to accentuate their incapacity” — has its limitations.
I picked up Edith Sitwell’s The English Eccentrics from a tucked-away shelf in a used bookstore, which struck me as fitting given that the book’s mission is to reanimate long-buried “mummies lying under the ruins of time.” This nonpareil work opens with a tableau of “The Battlebridge Dust and Cinder-Heap,” a mountain of debris that was removed in 1850 to make way for London’s King Cross Station. Sitwell conceives of the pile as a heap of stories and memories speaking to us through the muttering dust:
We may seek in our dust-heap for some rigid, and even splendid, attitude of Death, some exaggeration of the attitudes common to Life. This attitude, rigidity, protest, or explanation, has been called eccentricity by those whose bones are too pliant.
That is, Sitwell’s eccentricity is less a deviation than a heightened state of the human, a protest against submitting to any greater, inhuman system: “Any criticism of the world’s arrangement, if expressed by only one gesture, and that of sufficient contortion, becomes eccentricity.”
Attuned to the “articulations rising from the dust,” Sitwell passes these tales of past eccentrics on to us: ornamental hermits, bearded men paid to reside in the grottos of country estates; Celestina Collins, a miserly woman who dined nightly with her favorite rooster and a humungous rat (until she kills the latter while breaking up a fight over their respective rations); the “amphibious” Lord Rokeby, known for the pathological “frequency of [his] ablutions;” Jemmy Hirst, a retired tanner who conducted his beloved hunts on the back of a “bull of ample proportions and uncertain temper” and preferred “a crowd of vivacious and sagacious pigs” to hound dogs; and the “loving and gay saint,” naturalist Charles Waterton, a rider of crocodiles who “was seized by a strong wish to have his big toe sucked by the Vampire Bat, just once, so that he could say that this adventure had befallen him.”
There is a note of elegy in each of her portraits, regardless of whether they chronicle a life of ebullience or despair:
…although the dusty world is too deafened by the sound of the machines that it has made for the trapping and murdering of time to listen to those sounds that are clear as the song of angels.
I also greatly enjoyed Simon Winders’s Danubia, a wonderful book written by a man finely attuned to the oddness of history. It tracks the course not of the river Danube, but of the Habsburg line, the “catastrophically inbred and unlucky family” that finally lost power when the Austrian-Hungarian Empire collapsed in the First World War. Remarkable about them is how very unremarkable they were:
To us the Habsburg rulers — many quite mediocre or merely dutiful — can seem as specialized and helpless as koala bears and their claims to grandeur and the highest place in Europe an obvious try-on.
There are exceptions of course, such as Maximilian I, an “unusual Habsburg in being both a convincing man of action and an intellectual.” And there are other strange birds literally and figuratively on display: notably Rudolph II, a collector of exotica, including a dodo and a cassowary. He was obsessed with “glyptics, the art of carving on precious stone;” patronized the fruit-crazed painter Arimboldo, the “Milanese oddball,” and allowed a lion and tiger to roam his castle at will, occasionally mauling or killing terrified servants.
But generally, the book can’t therefore rely on the personalities of its subjects to generate interest. After Leopold II dies in 1792, Winder gives a typically candid assessment of what’s to come in the remainder of his book: “His successors were a narrow dullard, a simpleton, a narrow dullard and a non-entity, and those four get us to 1918.”
What makes the parade of dullards interesting is the Winder’s own eccentricity. While Danubia is not a personal history per se, it is a work of history in which personality shines through. For instance, in explaining his preference for the “sheer, wild ungovernability” of the Danube over the Mediterranean and environs, Winder recounts an anxiety-ridden trip to Italy:
I felt trapped in the sort of novel in which a young curate sits on his own in his hotel room, leafing through his fine edition of Robert Browning, while his beautiful wife hands out with dockside minotaurs, feeling their deltoids.
Throughout, Winder demonstrates an unalloyed, boyish enthusiasm for his subject. When he visits a small museum of in the Czech town of Cheb, he is “hardly able to control [his] excitement,” futilely attempting to focus on the ground floor exhibits before bounding up the stairs to see the main attraction: the bedchamber in which Albrecht von Wallenstein, a Bohemian warlord during the 30 Years War, was assassinated.
The book always comes back to the Hapsburgs but never passes up a diverting detour. On the fate of hippos loosed from zoos during various conflicts, Winder contemplates composing a “parallel history of Central Europe seen through the endurance of one brave African artiodactyl family.” Another fascinating aside delves into the satirical implications of a Guinea-Pig village wherein the furry inhabitants inhabit a scaled representation of a Hungarian town. (He calls it a “genuinely frightening, brilliant piece of work.”) In a tome that spans half a millennium, Winder knows when to drop the doctrinal disputes and battles over succession to focus on history’s long-neglected subjects: scurrying rodents.
While we’re on the subject of autocrats, there’s Frances Fitzgibbons, the indomitable heroine of Raymond Kennedy’s Ride a Cockhorse, an immensely entertaining New York Review of Books reissue I finally got around to reading. Fitzgibbons, a mild-mannered, widowed loan officer in her mid-40s, undergoes a transformation in which she rediscovers her “gift for persuasive speech” and experiences a “sudden quickening of her libido.” She beds a “resplendent young drum major” from the high school marching band, then rapidly seizes control of the bank where she has worked for years, the oldest in the small New England town. Frances accomplishes this coup through chutzpah, media savvy, sexual magnetism, swift firings, brute force, and outrageous assertions that are nonetheless immediately accepted as truth.
One could read the novel as a portrait of female empowerment — a demented Lean In — or as a statement about the amorality of capitalism set during a national financial crisis: “Sentiment has its place in bed, not on the dotted line of a home mortgage.” But Ride a Cockhorse is more accurately about the seductive lure of fascism, both the “pure egoistic excitement” enjoyed by those in power and the comically abject desire to submit to them. “Chief” Fitzgibbons is a “brooding tyrant” with a cobbled-together, and priceless, retinue of toadies that include a secretary-turned-enforcer, a hair-dresser, and Frances’s smitten, Peeping Tom son-in-law. As she ascends to power, Fitzgibbons, who in the novel’s first scene admires the “martial beauty” of a passing parade, begins to dress more and more like a New England version of Il Duce.
Though we can’t help but cheer her on as she runs criminally roughshod over the “gutless” executives in her way, we also recognize the truth about her best expressed in an anonymous bit of bathroom graffiti: “Frankie Fitz is a fascist pig.”
Because concluding the year with a bathroom stall scene seems depressing, I’ll briefly mention Ari Goldman’s The Late Starters Orchestra, an uplifting chronicle of a journalist’s “middle-aged musical obsession” with the cello. As opposed to other shopworn works in the same genre, Goldman’s strikes the perfect balance of unselfconscious devotion (he proudly joins in his son’s youth orchestra), nuttiness (his used cello has a bullet hole in the front), and spirituality. Goldman ultimately performs a Bach minuet and “Mimkomcha,” a Shlomo Carlebach melody inspired by Hebrew prayer. Though the setting is only a small birthday, he makes us believe that he has reached his own “musical promised land.”
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My high school’s theater department put on two Shakespeare plays a year, and when I was old enough to audition, I ran to the front of the line – not to read for the part of Juliet in that year’s headlining Romeo and Juliet, but rather for her lesser known, and much more intoxicating complement, the lady Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Miraculously, I got the part. At the time, I was young and knew little of the play save the recent Kenneth Branagh-Emma Thompson adaptation, but quickly found myself madly in love with this character: a strong-willed, funny, independent wordsmith. For years, I envisaged Beatrice and her ilk as the exemplar of female empowerment in literature and theater, and yet while I’ve personally fixated on the Beatrices that have populated the centuries, I’ve done so because it is clear they were the exceptions to the rule. The rule, in fact, was Juliet. It was Beatrice’s younger cousin, Hero. It was Bianca and Disney princesses and anything that presented an ingénue as a leading lady. Sadly, for every Scarlet O’Hara, there is a Melanie Hamilton offsetting an absurdly independent protagonist. Clearly this paradigm is what has propelled literature forward, but lately, as I’ve explored my bookshelves, it seems as though this requisite stock character, as antiquated as its stock cousins, is finding its way off the pages of great novels, leading me to believe that she has been graciously euthanized by literary fiction. And thankfully so.
The ingénue in contemporary fiction is a powerful mirror against which society is reflected, and its notable absence is indicative of ambitious thirst for change. That there has been a gradual evolution on the page that is sadly not reflected even off the page for female writers, female politicians, and female business leaders is significant in this long-awaited evolution. Pinning down the issue to the paltry representation of women writers in reviews and literary journals as explored through the latest VIDA counts extrapolates the problems women writers face in representation, coverage, and reviews, and there is much work to be done to establish equality. Yet this lack of real estate does not mean that there is a deficit of powerful female characters written today.
When looking directly at the content of contemporary fiction, however, I am as excited as I was when I got the part of Beatrice back in the mid-1990s. Writers, both male and female, are creating strong, authentic characters who can stand on their own. There may be criticism on the outside, but directly on the page, this glorious affirmation of strong-willed women drives me as a writer, as a lawyer, and as a woman, to know that we are represented on the page, whether instantly likable or not. As an aside, perhaps the hotly contested debate currently surrounding this question in fact hinges on the lack of ingénues populating today’s great novels. A simple glance at titles reflects this: The Woman Upstairs, Look At Me, Gone Girl, State of Wonder, On Beauty, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Hours, and even in non-fiction with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. None of these books apologizes for anger, frustration, strength, manipulation, power, emotion, sensuality. And mostly, none of these books requires a supporting ingénue waiting in the corner, ready to cry foil to a Lizzy Bennett or Jane Eyre or even Catherine Earnshaw.
In contemporary society and fiction, women run companies, perform surgeries, and question their desire to even have children. Dr. Marina Singh and Dr. Anneck Swenson battle wits in the South American jungles of State of Wonder, almost inverting the stereotype by making an ingénue out of the missing male doctor, Anders; Eva Khatchadourian begs people to question her “traditional female values” by often wishing she never had a child in We Need to Talk About Kevin; and women of three generations dominate The Hours, portraying this very evolution of the literary female character in a single brilliant narrative. I could continue to list the novels, but it would probably exceed my word count, so instead, it’s probably better to review how we got to this point.
It’s not that strong women were absent from literature in the past, but rather that they were welcomed with antithetical reception: if not written amongst a flock of female stereotypes (read, “the villain,” the “mother,” the “nurse”), they may have needed the ingénue as a foil to the less commonly recognized strong women of the time. In contemporary culture, however, no one denies the presence of strong, successful, complex women in every facet of society, and likewise, readers are not shocked when they turn up in great literature. It is simply that contemporary literary fiction portrays a realistic society so that ingénues are no longer needed within the texts — as foils or otherwise.
When looking back at some of our most beloved “strong women in literature” from Shakespeare to Victorian England to the early 20th century, almost none of these women is allowed to exist on her own, almost as if the supporting ingénue (or another stock female character) must balance the strong woman so that society may rest. This seesaw of female identity so portrayed in literature of the past seemed necessary in order to propel forward movement. By having the rare and special woman on one end and the stock female (usually the ingénue) on the other, their interaction pushed the story forward, enabled the game of wits to persist, and flexed the narrative into motion.
Beatrice, the gloriously witty self-effacing, proud bachelorette of Much Ado About Nothing, vows never to marry and is teased, mocked, and pitied as a result, countered by the requisite companion ingénue in the banal Hero. Kate of The Taming of the Shrew, who we all know and love as the girl who just didn’t want to fit in, is deemed eponymously shrewish by her unabashed expression, and of course, is, of course, neutralized by her ingénue of a sister, Bianca. Portia, the brilliant heiress of The Merchant of Venice, stands initially as a stellar example of intelligence, power, and leadership, but in order to fulfill her needs as an ingénue, she must impersonate a man. Although pillars of force, these women cannot be fully portrayed without a veil of disbelief, either by unrivaled presentation beside a flattering ingénue or the forced portrayal of a man, so that societal equilibrium of the time is restored.
Fast-forward to early 19th century England, not far from the domination of yet another female monarch, and strong women in literature are still not singularly permissible. Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, the presumed model of the era, is a wonderfully suspicious, intelligent representation of female strength, yet still must be presented beside her exhaustively ingénuesque sisters, so that we all know how rare and special a creature she is. Lizzy Bennett is sublime, and I share a name and nickname with her, so I can’t help but beam with pride whenever she is listed amongst the feminist wonders of the literary world; but the sad truth is that she is so well cited because she is the outlier. Society does not yield a sea of stereotypes in order to hone in on a strong woman, and nor should literature require this pool of ingénues, out of which we may select and conclude that, indeed, Ms. Bennett is different.
Even in late 19th/early 20th century literature, women who battled this stereotype were plagued with depression and expropriated labels. In England, Virginia Woolf wrote of depression and isolation, while in America, Charlotte Perkins Gilman openly divorced her husband, but not before writing about post-partum depression in an incisive story that had never been seen before on the page. Sadly, these women committed suicide, and their autobiographical roles were neither accepted nor credible by the male literary establishment, reflecting yet another mirror of their times. Their characters, however, have lived on, refusing to succumb to literary archetypes. Had they been written as ingénues, they would have evolved into that other stock character of “the madwoman in the attic.” Unfortunately, by removing the label of ingénue and refusing to share the scenes with a classic ingénue, these characters and their architects met a tragic end.
Now, however, strong female characters reign aplenty in literature without their necessary ingénue escorts, slowly eroding the role of that stock accompanying character. It’s not that these strong female characters newly exist, or that they suddenly gained mass appeal, but rather that they are surviving on their own. They are flawed, beautiful representations of women that provide depth, understanding, and sympathy, regardless of their periodic unlikeable actions. They bear their identities proudly, and never require an accompanying convention to confirm their individuality, so that the role of the primary and supportive ingénue is no longer required.
I recently went to hear Isabel Allende speak about her latest novel, Maya’s Notebook. At the Q&A, a young aspiring female writer rose to ask a question that surprised a majority of the audience. “You write a lot of strong women in your books,” she said, before asking, “Has there been anyone who has influenced you?” Allende either didn’t understand the question or wanted to emphasize the lunacy of it, and after three attempts replied: “Do you know any weak women?” Needless to say, a resounding uproar of applause emerged from the previously unobtrusive audience. This is not a topic that is far from the consciousness of the literary establishment, nor is it one that should be. It is so prevalent on people minds and hearts precisely because of its relevance. Readers don’t want to see any more ingénues or stock characters. They want to see the people that they know, the strong women who populate their lives, because, as Isabel Allende so bluntly and perfectly stated, there really aren’t weak women.
I’m not naively suggesting that contemporary fiction has conclusively banished the ingénue from its pages; nor am I claiming that the character is close to her coffin in certain genres, but I am suggesting that that she should be. Fiction, as any vital art form, serves a purpose to reflect society in its emotional, environmental, and political nuances. It informs us, teaches us, reflects humanity in its reverie. If the ingénue, which may be dying in literary fiction, begins to fade in all genres of contemporary literature, if we accept the evolution of the young female protagonist in literature, we may stop expecting women off the page to play that stock role, as well. By exiling the word to the trash bin or perhaps feeling a little bit guilty whenever used, we might continue to represent women as they are – likeable or not. Powerful characters who sometimes want love, sometimes want power, ache with ambition and passion, refuse to be called ingénues, or any other pile of stock stereotypes. They are merely women who need no other label.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
“Sandberg does not mention pleasure. Sandberg assumes instead that the feminist question is simply, how can I be a more successful worker?…Sandberg has penned not so much a new Feminine Mystique as an updated Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” At Dissent, Kate Losse, herself a former Facebook employee, critiques Sheryl Sandberg’s new and controversial Lean In.
A few years ago, at a publishing conclave in Manhattan, someone handed me a slim unlovely galley called The Riddle of Life and Death. It consisted of a pair of novellas: Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Tell Me A Riddle, by Tillie Olsen. I’m always in the market for Tolstoy — even Tolstoy I already own. But who, I wondered, was this Tillie Olsen? And aside from a certain anagrammatic plausibility, what had she done to deserve the unenviable role of Count Leo’s undercard, the “Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man” to his “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction?” Before I could be bothered to find out, a move to a new apartment landed the book in a giveaway box on the stoop.
Well, praise be to the gods of books on stoops, who apparently make allowances for callowness. Walking through my neighborhood one day last December, I stumbled across a hideous Delta Trade Paperback of Tell Me A Riddle. If the Gift-like circularity hadn’t caught my attention (give an Olsen, get an Olsen) the promise of an introduction from John Leonard would have:
See how it’s done: First what Cynthia Ozick once called “a certain corona of moral purpose.” And then the prose that lashes like a whip, that cracks and stings. And then the judgment coming down like a terrible swift sword. And then a forgiving grace note, like haiku or pascal. memory, history, poetry, and prophecy converge. Reading her again, and again, and again, I find that when you love a book, it loves you back.
Jesus, does it ever. I actually postponed reading Leonard’s introduction until I’d finished the book, but by the second page of the first piece, “I Stand Here Ironing,” I, too, was feeling the love: palpable, unflinching, almost parental. By the twelfth and last page, I was in tears. “I Stand Here Ironing” is a story about a working mother, but to call it that — even to call it the best story ever written about a working mother — feels reductive. Work-life balance may now be the stuff of Atlantic cover stories and Lean In, but in 1961, exploring it in fiction was a downright radical act.
The middle two of these four stories more obviously connect to Olsen’s reputation as a feminist and Paleyesque working-class heroine. But the political virtues that helped to land them in anthologies and on syllabi in the ’60s and ’70s may also have contributed to Olsen’s relative obscurity among readers of my generation, for whom the canon wars are settled history. (The fact that she never published another collection of fiction after Tell Me A Riddle can’t have helped. Nor, come to think of it, can the spectacular disservice book-cover designers have done to it.) Oddly, then, the partial eclipse of her politics might be a good and a timely thing: it gives us room to see her art.
The novella that concludes Tell Me A Riddle tells the story of a long marriage, and is one of the great pieces of writing about death. As the wife grows sick, the couple haul themselves around the country, visiting their far-flung progeny. And in the nearness of its approach to their worries, it approaches poetry:
In the airplane, cunningly designed to encase from motion (no wind, no feel of flight), she had sat severely and still, her face turned to the sky through which they cleaved and left no scar.
So this was how it looked, the determining, the crucial sky, and this was how man moved through it, remote above the dwindled earth, the concealed human life. Vulnerable life, that could scar.
There was a steerage ship of memory that shook across a great, circular sea: clustered, ill human beings; and through the thick-stained air, tiny fretting waters in a window round like the airplane’s — sun round, moon round. (The round thatched roofs of Olshana.) Eye round — like the smaller window that framed distance the solitary year of exile when only her eyes could travel, and no voice spoke. And the polar winds hurled themselves across snows trackless and endless and white – like the clouds which had closed together below and hidden the earth.
“Tiny fretting waters…” “Clustered, ill human beings…” “Vulnerable life, that could scar…” I’ve been carrying these lines around with me for months now, waiting for a chance to share them. Normally, the fact that someone beat me to the punch here at The Millions would be a source of regret, but I’m happy to find myself in Alice Mattison’s amen corner. Tell Me a Riddle really does deserve a place next to Ivan Ilyich, it turns out — not because Tillie Olsen’s a progressive and a humanist (though more power to her), but because she’s a master, and this story, this book, is her masterpiece.