Few writers have watched and captured women with such conspicuous pleasure as du Maurier — the way they walk and wear coats and unscrew their earrings. The way they pin up their hair and stub out their cigarettes; the way they call to their dogs, break horses, comfort children, deceive their husbands and coax plants from flinty soil. Few writers (Elena Ferrante comes to mind) have been so aware of how women excite one another’s imaginations.
To so confidently believe oneself to be on the right side of history is risky—for a writer especially. In that balmy glow of self-regard, complacency can easily take root. And good prose demands a measure of self-doubt—the worry that nags at a writer, that forces her to double back on her sentences, unravel and knit them up again, asking repeatedly: Is this clear? Is this true? Is this enticing? This book has a slackness to it that suggests Roy has abdicated some of these anxieties.
As a child, Leonora Carrington — painter, fabulist, incorrigible eccentric — developed the disconcerting ability to write backward with her left hand while writing forward with her right. This trick did not go over well with English convent school nuns. Between the world wars, Carrington was thrown out of one school after another for persistently odd behavior. When she came of age, she fled England — and her family’s fortune — for France and the Surrealists, for a life crammed with incident and adventure, occasional poverty and steady productivity. She died in Mexico City in 2011, at the age of 94, leaving behind paintings and stories full of strange, spectral charm, in which women undress down to their skeletons and a sociable hyena might venture out to a debutante ball, wearing the face of a murdered maid.
There is a tradition in queer women’s writing in which creative work, politics, and desire are comfortably intertwined. Consider Adrienne Rich, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Audre Lorde, who wrote, in an essay on the political potential of the erotic: “There is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love.” But Arbus was not looking for love. “Once she became an adventurer she went places no one else had ever gone to,” Arbus’s lover Marvin Israel said. “Those places were scary.” She wanted to cross all kinds of thresholds, emotional as well as physical. Some lovers chafed at what she wanted them to do to her—one told Patricia Bosworth, almost apologetically, that he just didn’t want to punch Arbus in the mouth. But there was nothing it seemed she wouldn’t do or couldn’t look at. For years a rumor circulated that she’d set up a camera to record her suicide, to shoot her as she lay, “crunched up” in her bathtub, in the medical examiner’s words, wrists sliced to the tendons. Fear was part of what Arbus was seeking, even if she didn’t understand entirely why. In therapy she discussed her habit of picking up odd-looking men on the street. For “experience,” her psychiatrist recalled, years later. “That’s all she could name it.”
By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, April 6, 2017
This spiny, scary story of moral decline, crisply plotted and no thicker than my thumb, has been heralded as the finest Indian novel in a decade, notable for a book in bhasha, one of India’s vernacular languages. The Great Indian Novel has almost always referred to a particular kind of book: big, baggy, polyphonic and, crucially, written in English — “Midnight’s Children,” say, or “The God of Small Things.” Admirers of this austere little tale, who include Suketu Mehta and Katherine Boo, have compared Shanbhag to Chekhov. Folded into the compressed, densely psychological portrait of this family is a whole universe: a parable of rising India, an indictment of domestic violence, a taxonomy of ants and a sly commentary on translation itself.
A strange thing about novels is how often, and strenuously, they proclaim the dangers of novel-reading. Consider the fates of our most famous bibliomaniacs. Don Quixote succumbs to delusions, debt and sundry humiliations. Emma Bovary to debt, seedy affairs and protracted death by arsenic. Catherine Morland, delusions. Mary Bennet, insufferable pedantry. Jo March — unforgivably — marriage to an insufferable pedant and surrender of all creative ambitions.
The novel’s ability to seduce readers with its alternate, and invariably more attractive, versions of reality was much lamented in the 19th century. Thomas Jefferson blamed literature for encouraging “a bloated imagination, sickly judgment and disgust towards all the real businesses of life.” But it is this very power — to inspire us to insist a flock of sheep is an opposing army — that is literature’s true subject, according to the critic and journalist Elif Batuman. Novels are about other novels — and how they make us suffer, she wrote in her 2010 essay collection, “The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.” They are about “the protagonist’s struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favorite books.”
Despentes’s understanding of rape shapes the feminism in her work. Her books aren’t much concerned with the material conditions of women’s lives — there’s only glancing acknowledgment in “King Kong Theory”: “Why didn’t anyone invent the equivalent of Ikea for child care or Mac for housework?” Her true subject is women’s physical vulnerability, the way the threat of rape is central in how the sexes are oriented toward each other and how women collude with men in shrinking themselves, bargaining away their power in order to be desired. She has punk politics — a sustained commitment to rage, which she believes is leached out of women too early and too easily. They’re schooled in docility (a favorite word of hers): “Hiding our feelings . . . and not listening to yourself. Not listening to what is wrong for you and smiling when you’re just destroyed inside.”
FOR MOST OF her life, Virginia Woolf suffered from what she called “looking-glass shame,” an aversion to seeing herself in mirrors. She wrote about it late in her career, not long before her suicide, recalling that the trouble began with one particular mirror. It hung in the hall of her family home, and when she was about 6, her half brother Gerald Duckworth lifted her onto a nearby table and put his hands under her clothes.
Woolf’s other half brother, George Duckworth, also began molesting her a few years later, paying her almost nightly visits for a time. She would go on to speak and write publicly about the abuse, which continued into her 20s — even confronting George — but mirrors continued to distress her. “It is so difficult,” she wrote, with uncharacteristic and moving awkwardness, “to give any account of the person to whom things happen.”
The question of what posture to take toward our own pain is unexpectedly complicated. How do we understand our own suffering — with what words and to what ends? Does great suffering always diminish us? These are the kinds of currents swirling around the word “survivor,” the increasingly popular term for people who have experienced sexual violence. Commonly used to describe those who had endured the Holocaust, the word was picked up by feminist groups organizing against the sexual abuse of children in the 1980s and has since broadened in scope and gone mainstream.
The figure of the terrorist has long been irresistible to novelists — and dangerously so. Some of the attention is rivalrous; as Don DeLillo argued, the terrorist has in some ways supplanted the writer. “Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture,” the writer in “Mao II” says. “Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.” After Sept. 11, Western writers flocked to the topic with touching and clumsy avidity in a bid, it seemed, for relevance. In the effort to understand just what creates a terrorist (then as now the dominant question when it comes to terrorism), couldn’t the novelist — that specialist in the dark, cobwebby corners of the soul, that diagnostician of how the private life intertwines with the public — prove himself useful?
Rushdie wrote that the migrant had to discover new ways to be human. These books recognize what a task that is; they recognize that migration can be, for some, an almost posthumous existence, that it awakens not only the desire to succeed but also, sometimes, the drive to extinguish what little remains of the self. One wants to praise these novels as immigrant fiction not in order to marginalize them but to pinpoint how deeply and clearly they see across borders and into character and history (“vision” and “visitor” share a Latin root; the visitor is she who has come to see, she who notices). This is the bitter paradox regarding the grousing about immigrant fiction: that a genre with such a wide sweep, with such a vantage point on the contingencies of human and cultural behavior, can be derided for, of all things, narrowness.