The gender of genre.
When You Could Be Normal?
By Jeanette Winterson
New York: Grove Press, 2011, 230 pp., $25.00, hardcover
Unorthodox: The Scandalous
Rejection of My Hasidic Roots
By Deborah Feldman
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012, 254 pp., $23.00, hardeover
One writes out of one thing only--one's own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.
--James Baldwin, "Autobiographical Notes," in Notes of a Native Son (1984)
When is memoir an art form, and when is it something else? Feminists who follow literary trends will be familiar with the misogynistic assumptions that lurk around the edges of this innocent-sounding question: Isn't there something awfully womanish in all the focus on personal issues ? How could touchy-feely subject matter ever substitute for the true rigor of craft, the masculine discipline of Making Stuff Up? The prevalence of thinly cloaked gender biases within debates over genre makes it tougher--and all the more necessary--to refine the questions we ask about women's autobiographical writing. How do we value the importance of the tale to the teller? What about its importance to an audience hungry for what has come to be called a "relatable" story--which can mean anything from one that holds out to readers a life-saving grasp of shared oppression to one that provides them with a momentary refuge from their own stale distress in the traumas of other people? What about literary types--writers and readers--who seek an alchemical transformation of disorderly events into beautiful form and surprising language? Are all of these reasons for writing and reading equally valid? And are they as discrete and easily untangled as listing them implies? In a culture perpetually confused about the status of women--are we people or fetus factories?--might we still have a very old-fashioned need for stories of female self-making, regardless of "quality"?
In her memoir Wily Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, the distinguished British novelist Jeanette Winterson recalls how she once shared the view of personal narrative as a gender-tainted pursuit and sought to avoid it. In Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), her acclaimed debut, she reworked her early memories as fiction partly "to get away from the received idea that women always write about 'experience'--the compass of what they know--while men write wide and bold--the big canvas, the experiment with form." Now she has chosen to revisit her childhood in a gripping if uneven nonfiction narrative. Like Oranges, Why Be Happy centers on the conflict between an embattled yet life-loving lesbian daughter and her troubled adoptive mother. "Mrs. Winterson," as Winterson now calls the woman to whom she referred as "my mother" in Oranges, is a "flamboyant depressive" and God-of-vengeance fundamentalist whose militantly negative worldview impels the girl's self-invention.
Throughout her career, Winterson has been a captivating world-spinner, combining old-fashioned storytelling verve, a love for vernacular literatures such as the Bible and fairytales, and a zest for play with narrative conventions. Why Be Happy deploys this combination to good effect. On the one hand, we get keen pictorial detail, an ear for the dour poetry of English working-class speech, and memorable actions that nail character, such as Mrs. Winterson's habit of keeping "a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge." On the other, we get striking, epigrammatic reflections on what is at stake for Winterson as she pursues her chosen art form, which she views as an outgrowth of her early losses. "Adopted children," she says,
are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives.... That isn't of its nature negative. The missing part, the missing past, can be an opening, not a void.... Rewrite the hurt ... Reading yourself as a fiction as well as a fact is the only way to keep the narrative open.
In brief, thematically titled chapters that bend chronology ("The Wrong Crib," "The Trouble with a Book ..."), we travel from Winterson's childhood in the shadow of vengeful parental moods and loopy theology to her escape to studies at Oxford. This story registers as a moving, unconventional tribute to a mother whose raging denial of her own wounds indelibly scars her child, yet catalyzes that child's own wound-driven narratives. "To avoid the narrow mesh of Mrs. Winterson's story I had to be able to tell my own," writes Winterson.
Along with this mother-daughter duo, the star of the book is the postwar milieu of Accrington, the Wintersons' home near Manchester, where "[t]hat typical flat grey unlovely look of the northern industrial roofscape is no-nonsense efficient, like the industry the houses were built to support. You get on with it, you work hard, you don't try for beauty or dreaming. You don't build for the view." Looking back on her ill-considered 1979 vote for Margaret Thatcher, Winterson reflects, "I did not realise that when money becomes the core value, then education drives towards utility, or that the life of the mind will not be counted as a good unless it produces measurable results." An unwavering faith in intellectual adventure coupled with an equally strong pride in the achievements of her working-class community, so many of whose members never got her lucky chance for "beauty or dreaming," is one of this book's glories.
The art of the tale falters when Winterson, pole vaulting over a quarter century of adult life, dumps us in the middle of an emotional crisis and her subsequent decision to seek out the facts of her birth and adoption. While the leap makes narrative sense, the story never regains its footing amid recent memories. The first sign of trouble is clunky exposition: "I was having a hard time. My six-year relationship with director Deborah Warner was rocky and unhappy for us both." Not many pages later, following a breakdown, she writes, "I had fallen in love with Susie Orbach." Breaking the hypnotic spell of personal myth, this name dropping feels both lazy and intrusive. A truncated discussion of Winterson's suicide attempt risks turning what began as a quest for "that order which is art" into a self-help tract--okay, maybe, on its own terms, but it's not what we signed on for: "If you believe, as I do, that the mind wants to heal itself ... then it isn't hard to conclude that the mind will manifest whatever is necessary to work on the job."
While I admire Winterson's frankness about her mixed emotions at what her adoption search reveals, I'm dismayed by the hasty, often slipshod writing in which she couches it. Revealingly, she compares her panic at a swirl of conflicting feelings to "staring into a muddy pond," adding, "[R]ather than wait until an ecosystem develops to clear the water, I prefer to drain the pond." In art as in life, she seems to have lost faith in the patient trial and error that might have distilled from her muddy environment a way to read this difficult new chapter as satisfying fiction.
Deborah Feldman, a first-time memoirist still in her mid-twenties, shares with Winterson the experience of childhood immersion in a fundamentalist faith, self-rescue through passionate reading, and elite education as an exit strategy. Unlike Winterson, however, she seems minimally aware of the paradoxes involved in trying to approach her own reality as an imaginative construct. In prose that's serviceable but often uninspired, her book Unorthodox offers a detailed account of growing up in the Satmar Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; marrying the man selected for her; and bearing a child before enrolling in Sarah Lawrence College. As a young girl, Feldman is aware of painful feelings of difference from her peers, who all live in big nuclear families, while she stays with her paternal grandparents. Her father suffers from obvious mental problems that nobody will discuss, and her mother, raised in England before her arranged marriage, has left the Satmars to live, as the community feels, "like a gentile." Both parents are sources of shame.
Feldman is good with details, peppering her story with Yiddish phrases, explanations of the fine points of theology and community mores, and scenes that convey the claustrophobia (and sometimes the comfort) of a life in which every detail of dress and conduct seems to be prescribed.
When my zeide [grandfather] gets angry, his long white beard seems to lift up and spread around his face like a fiery flame....' Der tumeneh shprach!" [the impure language] he thunders at me when he overhears me speaking to my cousins in English. An impure language, Zeidy says, acts like a poison to the soul. Reading an English book is even worse; it leaves my soul vulnerable, a welcome mat put out for the devil.
Her pride in her grandfather's "scholarly ecstasy" stands out, along with sporadic empathy for her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor so traumatized by loss that she "no longer has the energy to connect emotionally with people," Feldman writes. Overall, though, the first half of the book feels plodding and literal; we quickly grasp the tedium of a world where girls are shut out from the Talmudic studies that constitute the only admissible life of the mind, and chapter epigraphs from the "impure" texts Feldman furtively consumes (from Chaim Potok's The Chosen to Anne of Green Gables) don't do enough to vary the monotony. The problem isn't really the lack of incident, but the dearth of structure and texture, of patterned stresses that could invite the reader to marinate in the emotional resonance of seemingly minor events.
Things picked up for me when the marriage plot kicked in, an interesting reflection on the perennial appeal of certain timeworn narrative devices, almost regardless of the skill with which the tale is told. "A kallah maidel [bride to be] must have elegant clothes.... I have never been spoiled with so many new and beautiful things in my entire life," Feldman marvels. Of course the husband is all wrong for her--he's not an ogre but a Hasidic homme moyen sensuel, so clueless that he blabs to his relatives about the couple's sexual difficulties. Soon the whole community is talking. Diagnosed with vaginismus, the young bride desperately cajoles her reluctant body to yield, in the hope of escaping the gossip and outrageous meddling.
Feldman's choice to narrate her story almost exclusively in present tense, surely meant to lend a sense of immediacy, often feels stylistically awkward. Worse, it discourages the type of reflective commentary that's needed to illuminate crucial themes, such as the way in which memories of persecution and genocide contribute to the Satmar community's rigid insistence on conformity and its habit of blaming the victims of sexual assault. Another thread I wanted to see teased out involves social life as the conscious acting of a part, something that Feldman is eerily aware of from an early age, and that crops up even with her newborn: "What a performance new motherhood is, I think.... I paste a proud smile on my face and play the part they expect me to, but I feel hollow inside." A familiar note in feminist critiques of overidealized mothering, this reaction is especially poignant coming from someone whose lifelong sense of isolation really does give her reason to fear that she is unable to connect.
Reluctantly seduced by Feldman's view of herself as an unconquerable soul somehow destined to triumph against the odds, I found myself regarding her book, in contradictory ways, as courageous testimony about a young woman's single-handed combat with patriarchy, and as an opportunistic summons to self-congratulation on the part of her (presumably non-Orthodox) readership. "[S]uddenly my past struck me as wildly colorful and exotic," Feldman writes, describing her shift in perspective after leaving the Satmars. It's not the only time she strikes an almost Orientalist note, echoing mainstream views of a range of fundamentalisms--Islam being the prototype--that invoke gender as the prime signifier in an updated version of "the West versus the rest." In such narratives, an implicit positioning of the affluent white woman of nonreligious background as the standard bearer of gender equality often complements a neoliberal agenda equating women's emancipation with consumer "freedoms." Bound for an introductory meeting with a literary agent, Feldman rejoices at her pantsclad, high-heeled reflection in Madison Avenue windows, then welcomes the agent's backhanded compliment: "'You look nothing like I expected.... Are you wearing the wig?'" Coming on the heels of her much-discussed longing for a norm she defines as "blond-haired and blue-eyed" (really? in New York?), Feldman's declaration that she's "proud of being Jewish, because I think that's where my indomitable spirit comes from" only prompts unanswered questions about what's involved in her transition to an identity as a secular Jew.
Ah, well. It's the rare memoir that succeeds in distilling "that order which is art" front the swarming mess that is human subjectivity. As I finished Unorthodox, I wished its author all the best in the brave new world she's entered, but I couldn't help regretting that the book that got her there doesn't offer more substantive insight into the patterns and meanings of the life she left behind.
Jan Clausen's books include the memoir Apples and Oranges: My Journey through Sexual Identity, two novels, and five poetry collections. She teaches in the Master of Fine Arts writing program at Goddard College.
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|Title Annotation:||Why Be Happy: When You Could Be Normal?; Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots|
|Publication:||The Women's Review of Books|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2012|
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