segunda-feira, 27 de outubro de 2014
The Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower, who is eighty-six and lives in Sydney, has been decidedly opaque about why she withdrew her fifth novel, “In Certain Circles” (Text), some months prior to publication, in 1971. Her mother, to whom she was very close, had died suddenly the year before. Harrower told Susan Wyndham, who interviewed her a few months ago in the Sydney Morning Herald, that she was absolutely “frozen” by the bereavement. She also claims to remember very little about her novel—“That sounds quite interesting, but I don’t think I’ll read it”—and adds that she has been “very good at closing doors and ending things. . . . What was going on in my head or my life at the time? Fortunately, whatever it was I’ve forgotten.” Elsewhere, Harrower has cast doubt on the novel’s quality: “It was well written because once you can write, you can write a good book. But there are a lot of dead novels out in the world that don’t need to be written.”
Harrower deposited the manuscript of “In Certain Circles” in the National Library of Australia and essentially terminated her literary career. She has said that she thinks of her fiction as something abandoned long ago, buried in a cellar. She can’t now be bothered with writing. “I don’t know anybody who knows I’m a writer,” she said in 2012. In 1971, plenty of people knew Harrower was a writer. The novelist Christina Stead, for one, declared that Harrower’s “The Long Prospect” (1958) “has no equal in our writing.” But obscurity is a fast worker, when properly paid: by the early nineteen-nineties, all her novels were out of print. Patrick White, who urged Harrower to keep working, once inscribed a book to her with the injunction “To Elizabeth, luncher and diner extraordinaire. Sad you don’t also WRITE.”
Her work might still be out of print if Michael Heyward and Penny Hueston, a married couple who run the Australian publishing house Text, hadn’t decided to start republishing it in 2012. They began with Harrower’s greatest novel, “The Watch Tower” (1966), the bitter story of two sisters, Laura and Clare, who lose their parents and fall under the sway of Felix Shaw, an abusive and controlling drunk. Over the next two years, Text published the rest of Harrower’s earlier work: “Down in the City” (1957), her first novel, and “The Long Prospect” (1958), her second, both of which she wrote in London; and “The Catherine Wheel” (1960), her third book. “In Certain Circles,” the withdrawn novel, was clearly the publisher’s most precious quarry. Heyward cajoled Harrower into letting him read the manuscript. She had not read any of her own work in forty years, and suspected that she might have to die before it was read again. Heyward thought the novel “extraordinary,” and Harrower agreed to its publication, perhaps figuring that death was a steep penalty for a comprehensive backlist.
Harrower’s writing is witty, desolate, truth-seeking, and complexly polished. Everything (except feeling, which is passionately and directly confessed) is controlled and put under precise formal pressure. Her sentences, which have an unsettling candor, launch a curling assault on the reader, often twisting in unexpected ways. And although her novels can feel somewhat closed, and tend to repeat themselves in theme, her prose is full of variety. She can be bracingly satirical: “The piercing soprano she raised at parties was understood to be her most prized asset, and had won her much applause.” She is generally tart. In “The Catherine Wheel,” a novel narrated by a young Australian woman living in a London bed-sit, a single glance at the room’s furniture tells us much about her self-esteem: “Above it was a mirror, undistorted, except perhaps—I’d already noticed—on the side of flattery.” She can be savagely metaphorical: “She was like a park that had never once removed its Don’t Walk on the Grass signs.” But her wit often teeters on the edge of pain, as it does in that last sentence, which describes Laura and Clare’s vilely haughty mother in “The Watch Tower,” or as it does in this description of pretty, ingenuous Zoe Howard, who will marry disastrously in “In Certain Circles”: “It never mattered what she said to men: they liked her to say anything.” The sentences have an innocent composure, as if Harrower hoped to slip the pain past us: “Yet really, apart from the sense of irretrievable loss, there was nothing wrong at all.” “Really, it turned out to be like every other day, except that she never forgot it.” Zoe Howard, trapped in her painful marriage, standing by a swimming pool on a morning in which she and her husband have managed to effect a brief truce, is described thus: “She shivered and pulled on her towelling coat, prudently absent from past and future.” What pain lies in the coiled coda of that sentence! Sometimes, the reader has to decode Harrower’s careful irony: “He made a sound not like a laugh” (about a histrionic charmer who is feeling sorry for himself). But Harrower’s prose expands, too, to gather in the Australian landscapes: Sydney, the wide harbor, the narrower suburbs (easily dispatched in one novel as “weedy parks named after councillors”), the blue skies and breathing red outback, the “blue and legendary haze” that seems to hover over the whole world.
Harrower was right about “In Certain Circles” being well written, but surely wrong to take its superb style for granted, as if mere literary muscle memory. Like the rest of her work, the novel is severely achieved: the coolly exact prose cannot be distinguished from the ashen exhaustion of its tragic fires. The book suffers from a few structural difficulties (some weirdly compressed transitions, a couple of characters who never quite come into focus) that may have earned Harrower’s anxious scorn in 1971. But “In Certain Circles” also extends and deepens several of her persistent concerns: how easily we submit to cruelty and coercion; the relations between men and women in a frankly misogynist era; the moral imperative to tell the truth, to shatter the china niceties that sustain bourgeois domestic life. The book belongs with her best work, with “The Watch Tower” and “The Long Prospect.”
“In Certain Circles” opens with the zest and freshness of Theodor Fontane’s great novel “Effi Briest.” Like young Effi, like poor Isabel Archer (Henry James leans over all of Harrower’s work), the irrepressible Zoe Howard will, over the course of the novel, be repressed into an obedient shadow of herself—ground in the very mill of the conventional, as James described the fate of his unfortunate heroine. When we first encounter Zoe, she is seventeen, the privileged daughter of prominent Sydney intellectuals, the head of her school, the editor of its paper, intelligent, and confident (“she had read millions of books”). She periodically strives to have a social conscience, but will catch sight of herself in the mirror and be overcome by the deliciously attractive prospect of being Zoe. (“She was almost certain her heart was in the right place. It was simply that circumstances had not called on her to produce it very often.”) By contrast, her elder brother, Russell, who has returned from war—where he has been in some kind of prisoner-of-war camp—has an anguished and principled politics. At her parents’ house, Zoe meets one of Russell’s friends, Stephen Quayle, and is immediately attracted by his fierce difference from her peers. Stephen was about seven when his parents died in an accident, and he and his younger sister, Anna, grew up as orphans. He is a frustrated and impoverished intellectual, trapped in a pointless job; he is serious, passionate, and abrasive, and he comprehends, from an estranged distance, the kind of privilege that Zoe takes for granted. Zoe is entranced: “She had met the first man ever to judge her.”
Harrower likes to nudge offstage major developments in her narration—marriages, deaths, divorces. She alludes to them glancingly, the better to concentrate on the slow present. This can make her books feel stifling, and at times hermetic. “In Certain Circles” gives few indications of just when it is set. Russell’s wartime experiences and his job (he seems to work as a publisher, and produces a leftist newsletter) remain a bit mysterious. A great deal happens invisibly between the three sections of “In Certain Circles,” as it does between the three parts of “To the Lighthouse,” a novel that was perhaps in Harrower’s mind. At the start of the second section, we learn that Zoe has spent several years in Paris, where she gained renown as a war photographer; she had an affair with a movie director there and seems to have designs on that field. At twenty-five, she has returned to Sydney, and she is going to marry Stephen Quayle. We see a glimpse of the marriage; the auguries are not good. In an extended scene, Stephen baits his wife, irritated that people keep asking her what she’s going to do with herself. He badgers her to concede that “there aren’t any first-rate women directors, are there?” In any case, he’s “never been able to regard the cinema as an art form.”
In the novel’s third section, Zoe is forty, and the man who had seemed to her like a character out of a Russian novel—irascible, but strange and brilliant—has become her jailer, delighting in diligent belittlement. Zoe once thought that men didn’t care what she said as long as she said something to them. Now her coldly jealous husband thinks the same. “I hope you don’t think he was interested in what you were saying?” he says to her, after a friend of theirs had asked Zoe about a film festival. “We know where his interests lie, don’t we?”
Harrower is an exceptionally subtle psychologist—she can sound like a Russian novelist herself—and she fills the opening pages of “In Certain Circles” with Zoe’s young, impulsive consciousness, so that we encounter with due horror her later fall into habitual misery and the tormented stasis of her marriage. See how the teen-age Zoe responds to one of her parents’ friends, a woman known to the Howards as “poor Ellen.” Ellen is unhappily married—“the possessor of a German husband named Hans, Ellen lived in a handsome house, made excellent crème caramel”—and is known as “poor Ellen” or “that sad lady” because the only thing Zoe has ever heard her say to Mrs. Howard is “Hans and I can’t go on like this, Alice.” Ellen is an amusing Chekhovian creation, but Harrower dwells on this minor character, one who plays no subsequent role in the novel, using her to mark the difference between being young and optimistic, like the careless teen-age Zoe, and old and faux-optimistic, like the burdened Ellen:
[Ellen] was always so anguished, so convinced that a change of some quite fantastic nature was due to occur within the hour that, non-existent though Zoe’s interest was in these adult matrimonial troubles, she was always jolted when she heard, months later, that nothing whatever had changed. It seemed uncanny that a grown-up woman could want and expect an event, and the event refuse her.
Years later, Zoe has turned into an acutely miserable version of “poor Ellen,” desperate to escape a man who has become “the tomb of them both.” If the young Zoe could not comprehend the notion of being refused by events, the grownup Zoe cannot quite comprehend it, either. The difference is that now she herself has been refused by events:
Sometimes it seemed that nothing much had happened. There was only a vague distress, the dreamlike sensation of having mislaid something vital. Some messenger from life stood before her with a telegram reading: you have lost your life or sadness unto death. It seemed dramatic, and half-touched her, this eternal telegram.
Elizabeth Harrower was born in Sydney in 1928. Her parents separated when she was small, and she spent periods of her early childhood with her grandmother. In 1951, at twenty-three, she left Australia for London, the customary gesture, at that time, of discovery and expansion. When you’re young, Zoe Howard’s father says in “In Certain Circles,” the size of Australia on the map makes you proud; but when you’re older “it’s a deprivation not to be in Europe.” In this way, Harrower’s fiction has complicated relations with her native land (complications that persist in the work of contemporary writers like Peter Carey and Murray Bail). Her prose lingers beautifully over Sydney, the city she missed so much that she had to return to it from London, in 1959, but it’s generally a sign of provincialism, or worse, when her characters start praising the famous view. “Well, does this beat the Mediterranean hollow or doesn’t it? Leaves Capri for dead, I’d say,” Felix Shaw avers, in “The Watch Tower.” The view of the harbor fills Zoe Howard’s room “like a rather too-literal painting of itself.”
London, with the gray gift of its indifference, must have been a good place to work. In quick succession, between 1957 and 1960, Harrower published her first three novels, “Down in the City,” “The Long Prospect,” and “The Catherine Wheel.” (Let it be whispered here that Harrower’s exquisite stylishness seems not to extend to her titles: they sound like parodic fabrications, mid-list dozers dreamed up by Nabokov or Anthony Powell.) Her masterpiece, “The Watch Tower,” took longer to write (it appeared in 1966), because after Harrower returned to Sydney she started working for the publisher Macmillan, a job that lasted until 1967, so she had to write in the evenings and on weekends. Harrower’s five novels have an almost relentless thematic consistency and a strikingly similar darkness of vision. In all of them, female characters find themselves imprisoned in coercive relationships with charismatic bullies; in all but one, the bully is a man (the exception is “The Long Prospect,” in which the hateful Lilian Hulm holds sway over her granddaughter, Emily, who has come to live with her after being largely abandoned by her parents). In the four novels that have to do with relations between men and women, the women enter apparently freely into those relations and help to sustain and excuse their own abuse.
Harrower is a vivid portraitist of anger (usually male), of the ways in which entitlement and resentment feed off each other. Like Dostoyevsky, she sees that pride is really humility, because both are born of uncertain reckoning; measurement always cuts in both directions at once, higher and lower. The chauvinist men in her fiction are all at social disadvantages to the women they get involved with; that is part of their anger. Felix Shaw, the bumptious businessman in “The Watch Tower,” is a brutal abuser of Laura, his young wife, and of Laura’s sister, Clare (who lives with them). “He seemed to regard drinking himself sodden nightly and terrorising his compulsory audience as a perfectly natural way to behave.” He’s a loudmouthed bigot and misogynist, captured in sure, calm, sometimes amusing strokes—as when Harrower tells us that, at dinner, during the war, “he began his nightly analysis of the Allies’ blunders.” When the war ends, and his wife suggests that they go into town to celebrate, he responds, “What’ve I got to celebrate?” But we also spy Felix on his own, fulminating against “a lecturer’s cultivated drawl” that he is listening to on the radio: “Who says? You think so, do you? Bloody mug! Bloody professors!” Lilian, in “The Long Prospect,” lives in an industrial seaside town and has set up her daughter, Paula, in Sydney. Lilian is hostile to all forms of difference and nonconformity, and is described thus: “Until the tea was made, Lilian angrily set forth her contempt for the city in which Paula lived, and for all that vast crowd to whom she was unknown, over whom she had no power.”
Harrower is as interested in the seductions of power as in its coercions. Many of her female characters seem to fall in love with pity rather than with people. They feel sorry for the people who oppress them, and the drama of suffering makes them feel at least alive. Despite her knowledge that Felix taunts her just for “being female,” Laura feels sure that her husband “had been hurt into this shape and not created in it.” He needs her, she thinks: “He was her task.” In “The Catherine Wheel,” Clemency, the Australian student in London, falls in love with a disastrously belligerent and needy charlatan named Christian Roland, and almost kills herself in her devotion to him. She feels uncomfortably “connected to suffering” (she means Christian’s), but thinks that her housemate shouldn’t waste her time on dull people: “Life should be intense experience.” Zoe Howard gets sick, too, and while convalescing imagines conversing with a hypnotist about her misery. “But I’m the guilty party,” she imagines telling him. “I let it happen. . . . Agreed to be devalued to the point where I’m of less consequence than anyone in the world. Permanently in the wrong.”
In “Either/Or,” Kierkegaard talks about the idea that against God we are always in the wrong. He means that God’s love is always greater than anything we can offer Him, and this, combined with our sinfulness, means that we are always in error in relation to God. This is a good thing, Kierkegaard says—we should desire that edifying wrongness. Harrower’s female characters have something of this Protestant masochism. It isn’t quite that these women mistake abuse for devotion, though perhaps they do. It is that they mistake themselves for the people they live with. The pity they feel is really self-pity, and the suffering they feel “connected to” is really their own. It is not Felix who has been “hurt into this shape” but Laura who has been “hurt into this shape” by Felix. Laura is describing herself when she tries to describe Felix.
The distorted religious contours of this sacrifice are visible in “The Watch Tower.” Laura, abandoned by her mother and burdened with looking after her younger sister, is plucked out of hardship by the much older and nicely well-off Felix. (The marriage offer itself is a grim utilitarian charade: “What’s the matter?” Felix asks, when Laura seems to hesitate. “You don’t want to marry anyone else, do you?” No, Laura replies. “Well okay then,” comes the graceless marital response.) She feels grateful for being singled out. Reflecting on the fact that Felix gives her generous birthday presents, she thinks about what she—dependent, as she is, on his income—can give back to him. Harrower’s prose rises to an anguished severity:
Of his free will he had chosen her. The fact held her. Her mind’s core stood in meek and helpless subjection before the idea of herself as someone singled out. This was a safe and inviolable fact, not to be bent or broken by any amount of thought. Therefore no return that was in her power to give could be too great. It stood to reason. Alas, though! Poor Felix valued beautiful presents, too, like the ones he gave. And she had only herself, and out of herself she had somehow to manufacture repayments he would find acceptable.
Harrower has suggested that she doesn’t identify with feminism, perhaps because she feels that her novels predate the rise of the contemporary movement. But they contain powerful elements of feminist critique. Her abusive men, after all, are not just Australian Gilbert Osmonds (the ghost of Isabel Archer’s sadistic husband is perpetually hovering somewhere around these works). They are not simply haters of their wives but haters of women. “The Watch Tower,” though set in the nineteen-forties, seems very much of and about the nineteen-sixties. It and “The Long Prospect” have some of the anti-bourgeois animus one finds in Richard Yates’s “Revolutionary Road” (1961). But Yates is really working to shore up imperilled (i.e. feminized) American manhood, and produces, as an excavated by-product of his rage against all domestic limitation, a feminist argument only in spite of himself, like a hound tossing up soil as it digs. Harrower, in contrast, works with an uncanny omniscience. You feel she knows exactly what she is up to. Her staging of misogyny takes place alongside, as if in analogical relation to, other prejudices and presumptions of the era: anti-Semitism, racial bigotry, and English condescension. Stephen Quayle perfectly mixes sexist anxiety and Australian anxiety when he gets Zoe to admit that even if a first-rate female film director could be found, “with all respect, it isn’t very likely that she’d rise up here, is it?”
“In Certain Circles,” as perhaps befits a novel written at the end of the nineteen-sixties, is more explicit than Harrower’s earlier work about ideological tensions between men and women. It is also broader in scope and not as angry—wiser and less hopeless. Where the earlier novels end in despair or horrified stasis (Laura will continue to live with Felix, despite her unconvincing attempts at escape), “In Certain Circles” allows those who cannot cohabit to break the bonds of habit: Stephen and Zoe agree to separate, and the decision seems, within Harrower’s unforgiving world, an authorial blessing. The book treats questions of gender openly, because, uniquely in Harrower’s work, intelligent women are allowed to talk among themselves about such matters. (In “The Watch Tower,” Laura’s sister Clare fails to get Laura to face the facts about her marriage: “Nothing is this small. . . . Will you speak the truth?”) Zoe speaks the truth, and finds that her sister-in-law Lily and Stephen Quayle’s troubled sister, Anna, want to share this momentous elixir. “We never understand how little time there is,” Anna says at one point. “This is what you want to say to people—that there’s no time for lies.” Zoe tells Lily:
What I do understand is that at any point in a woman’s life she may come across something like a cement pyramid in the middle of the road. Another person. People. She’s capable of sitting there, convinced that it would be impossible to forsake her position, till it becomes a private Thermopylae. This sort of block was probably designed for the survival of our species, but the cost’s high. What makes men superior is that they don’t—on the whole—stop functioning forever because of another person. They lack this built-in handicap, and are they lucky!
Despite its airlessness, “In Certain Circles” nevertheless moves outward, linking feminist questions with the more general problem of wasted human potential. Zoe pursues no career after her return from Paris. Stephen reveals that he had always wanted to do scientific research, not work at a printing press with his brother-in-law. His formidable sister, Anna, is shamefully underemployed. Anna says that offices are full of heroic dreamers, men who can’t fulfill their potential, characters without a stage. When Zoe asks her if women are the same, Anna replies, “Women are still in their early days. There isn’t very much for them to be like without upsetting preconceptions.” She adds that she knows “heroic types of both sexes, who were not only in their imaginations worthy of a better fate, but were really worthy, and really did suffer from great qualities that had no outlet, and it certainly wasn’t their fault. Unless you can call it a fault to be born too soon to be caught up in the general affluence, which younger people think has always been there.”
This is significant, because, earlier in the book, Anna described a rather conventional male colleague as someone who “seems to be listening to something that happened a long time ago, when he would have been more at home.” If the male (and female) oppressors in Harrower’s earlier work all seem to be listening to something that happened a long time ago, or are actively trying to hold back the song of the future, then her later novel seems to hold out the possibility that a new generation may go out to meet the oncoming present, and that Zoe and Anna might, as free agents in it, and free analysts of it, even belong to it.
Not that freedom, if this is what it is, has been easily purchased. Zoe has reached this tentative finale only by being, as she puts it, a slow learner. And Anna’s will to truth has pushed her to the edge of suicide—Anna “went to the very door of death to make change possible,” Zoe reflects. The description of Anna’s near-suicide might stand as well as any single passage in Harrower’s work for all her qualities as a novelist: her wounded wisdom, the elegance and strictness and perilous poise of her sentences, the humane understanding, and ceaseless incisions, of her intelligence. Anna tells her friends and relatives, who are assembled around her, how she had always rejected the notion of suicide, and then, one morning, felt exactly the opposite:
I’ve always been convinced that if you’re of sound mind you have no real right to—lower the confidence of the world. Something like that. By deserting it. Letting it be known that you reject what makes everyone else cling to life. Yet one morning I woke up and my mind was still sound but suicide had chosen me. And none of my previous convictions had any weight at all. It had seductive arguments. I argued back as if only the promise that death was instantly available made it possible—as if my arguments had to be completed before I could go. I know it sounds confused.
“And in the end?” Zoe asks. “A new idea occurred to me,” Anna says. “I made a choice. I ate a very stale piece of apple pie—about the only food I had in the house. When I picked it up, after having thought the great thought, I saw that I was going to stay alive.” ♦
James Wood has been a staff writer and book critic at The New Yorker since 2007.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 13:05