Sunday, December 30, 2018

A note on Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

 I've been rereading Ruth Franklin's wonderful bio Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life and realized again that we should be reading more Shirley Jackson and not stop with "The Lottery" and The Haunting of Hill House.

Franklin is equally good on Jackson's life and on the themes of her writing. Did you know that in the lean early days Jackson and her husband, the New Yorker writer, literary critic, and Bennington professor Stanley Hyman, had to share a typewriter? Can you make an educated guess about who got the typewriter the lion's share of the time? Their "open" marriage--guess who's the only person who took advantage of that and then was annoyed and puzzled at Jackson's distress and her late-in-life crippling agoraphobia?

Then I came across this in a discussion of Jackson's first novel, The Road Through the Wall (bolded for emphasis)

Compared with Jackson’s masterly late novels, The Road Through the Wall, unsurprisingly, is a slighter work. But it is marvelously written, with the careful attention to structure, the precision of detail, and the bite of brilliant irony that would always define her style. There are wonderful moments of humor, as when one of the neighborhood girls, hoping to decorate her living room with high-class art, accidentally orders a set of pornographic photographs. And there is this astonishing aperçu from the novel’s prologue: “No man owns a house because he really wants a house, any more than he marries because he favors monogamy.” Both house and marriage are valued for the status they confer upon their possessor rather than for their intrinsic worth. In a novel that encompasses adultery, murder, and suicide, this may be the darkest line.
Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (p. 215). Liveright. Kindle Edition.

House as status --well, sure, but house as control. That's Gaslight. That's The Haunting of Hill House.

I'm recalling the example of someone I knew years ago when we lived in a place with very, very  hot summers. The apartment complex had air conditioning. The person I knew was a professor, and she worked from home, and she was pregnant, which makes you even hotter. But only her husband, who followed his bliss by pursuing art or saving souls or something and was out during the day, got the benefit of the air conditioning. Why? Because he had forbidden her to turn it on during the day to save money. The air conditioning could only be on if he could benefit from it. Let that sink in: he forbade his wife, the person who was paying for the air conditioning, from using it. And even if she hadn't been paying for it, on what planet does he get to make that judgment?  Aren't they partners? That's pretty much what I asked her one time. She shrugged it off.

This is only tangentially related (Content warning: abuse), but the NYT ran an article last summer explaining the way that smart devices were being used by abusers to control their victims--stalking through smartphones and security cameras, turning the heat up and down to mess with victims' minds, locking keypad doors remotely and refusing to let victims move about at will. When women report it, they're dismissed--surprise!--as crazy or hysterical, especially when their partner explains how crazy they are. Fortunately, those who help victims are becoming more aware of such technological gaslighting and are getting restraining orders that cover it. 

But to have the person you're supposed to be able to trust turn against you, and to have that person turn the house against you--that's Jackson's metier, and were she writing today, she'd have whole new fields to cover.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Writing inspiration: John Steinbeck by his second wife, Gwendoline

To distract from my complete and total lack of writing at a time when I really, really need to (because of deadlines and MLA), I offer up another take on John Steinbeck's writing practices. These are described by his second wife, Gwendoline/Gwyndolyn/Gwen Conger, in a previously unpublished memoir that was published recently. (You can see highlights in a review here and at the book site here.)

Short version: Steinbeck was not a walk in the park to live with, and any acrimony in this book is more than balanced by his immortalizing Gwen, to whom he was married from 1943-48 after they lived together for about 4 years, as the sociopathic, murdering, purely evil Kathy of East of Eden. Jay Parini, in his preface to My Life with John Steinbeck, says that Gwen must have been challenging to live with, too.

Here, with some comments, are some notes from the introduction:
She notes his almost fanatical dedication to his work: ‘He began his same usual work schedule, the one he kept to whenever he wrote, no matter where we lived. He arose early and made his ranch coffee. He always wanted a good brand of coffee, and it was always ranch coffee. A little past daylight he began his day, and after our coffee and talk sessions John, with his pajama top and khakis, went into his nest, usually by seven or seven-thirty.’ He took a brief break for lunch at noon, although he rarely said much to her during these meals, not wishing to disturb whatever was happening in his head: ‘If he were going strong, he would only have more coffee. He never talked, never said a word and I would not speak to him. Usually, his average output in those days was anywhere from twenty-five hundred words to five thousand words a day.’ 
Lawson,  Bruce. My Life With John Steinbeck: The Story of John Steinbeck's Forgotten Wife (Kindle Locations 163-169). Lawson Publishing. Kindle Edition.

1. "Nest" is what they all called Steinbeck's writing room. This was before the last phase of his career when he had the octagonal writing cottage in Sag Harbor. That house, and the Steinbeck estate more generally, was the subject of a lawsuit that you can read about at the link, involving Steinbeck's two sons (by Gwen) and his third wife, Elaine. Like many writers' and artists' final (third, fourth, etc.) wives (Mary Hemingway, Carlotta Monterey, etc.), Elaine seems to have had a great sense of his legacy and of protecting it in ways that to outsiders may seem ruthless.

2. "Ranch coffee" is coffee made with an egg to clarify the grounds, which apparently makes good coffee and also a spectacular mess. (Guess who got to clean the pot?)

3. Words per day: 2500 to 5,000. Are you envious yet?

4. After finishing a piece of writing, Steinbeck, always restless, would want to move to another place, another state, another country: "And always he sacrificed everything for his work. When he worked, he became a superhuman machine. When a book was complete, he sank into states of depression and turned to a new location for his life: a new city, a new town, new people, a trip to anywhere that took his fancy."

5. "John loved to keep his writings neat. Almost all of his works were in old folios or books, or on legal pads. Only late in his life did he resort to the typewriter."

6. As mentioned in the East of Eden notebook, he wrote letters to friends to warm up each morning. 

7. Chronically unfaithful during their marriage, Steinbeck was furious when Gwen started dating after their divorce. Like Philip Roth and Theodore Dreiser, he practiced the double standard: "you have to stay faithful, but I don't, and you belong to me forever."

8. He also blamed her for problems with East of Eden: 

One night, after the divorce, he yelled at me, ‘It’s all your fault!’ John stood outside the house and had awoken me by throwing stones up at the window. It was about the time he wrote East of Eden. I shall never forget seeing John standing there, saying, ‘My editors say that I have to rework this whole book, and I have never rewritten anything in my life.’ He calmed down, and I invited him in.
I told him, ‘John, dear, you are one of the greatest writers in the world, and maybe you have two books in one?’ ‘
Harold Guinzburg has never turned me down before, and they’ll never buy this book as it is.’
‘What did you come to me for then?’ I was irritated.
‘It’s your fault!’ he snapped back.
9. Gwen was a singer and wrote songs as well. When she had recorded about 24 of them, Mark Hanna, a theatrical agent, was interested in publishing them, but Steinbeck told her there should only be one writer in the family, so, "[t]o keep peace in our family, I reluctantly gave up my efforts as a songwriter. Sometimes now I wish I had continued writing songs, but then I just had to stop."
I hope there's more writing inspiration than the chronicle of a raging ego in this post, but even if there isn't, it's time for me to get back to work and try to emulate the level of concentration and productivity, though definitely not the behavior, that Steinbeck showed in his writing life.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

St. Lucy's Day

St. Lucy's Day isn't the shortest day of the year any more (because science, and maybe John Donne knew better even back then), but it feels like the shortest right now because of all that we're all doing. 

We're working from fairly inflexible lists at home and at work, and the "self-care" guidance dispensed in the popular press--eat more kale! get more exercise!--somehow isn't cutting it right now, at least for me. It's the Sheryl Sandberg broccoli approach to self care. With apologies to the original cartoon in the New Yorker, I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it.

And let's just say this: getting ready for Christmas or other holidays is not helping with the stress levels. 

So what does or has helped? Well, television, including The Good Place and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I knew that  MMM might be for me when Emily Nussbaum said she hated it. Nussbaum hates shows that don't wallow in cruelty, horror, and violence and where nice things occasionally happen. By the transitive hate property, I therefore thought that there might be something in MMM for me. For an hour every night, I get to live in a gorgeous technicolor 1950s fantasy where problems are mild and solvable, not like the horror comedy of watching the posturing fool in the White House energize his base."Cloying fantasia," I am there for you.

What else helps? Saying no to the things you can. Making cookies. Looking up new recipes for scones. (Food is big in the "what else helps?" department.)

And remembering that this will turn around eventually or on December 22, when we start getting more light again.

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day
By John Donne

'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
         The sun is spent, and now his flasks
         Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
                The world's whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar'd with me, who am their epitaph.

Not news to you all, of course; but today I remembered this from a long-ago course I took in metaphysical poetry. 


Saturday, December 01, 2018

Random bullets of December 1 and the "quit cooking" genre

Figure 1. Knickers the cow, the Mona Lisa of internet attention.
  •  Someone on Twitter posted that all the news should just be giant cows, always. Everybody wants to explain Knickers the cow ("a steer, not a cow, you ignoramus!" says the New York Times), but I just want to look at all the giant cows, kittens, sloths, dogs, and otters all day, at this point.
  • I saw a headline the other day stating that the president was in a "terrible mood" on his way to the G20 summit. I am "voted for George Washington" years old and have never before seen presidential moods reported, as if he's a toddler being picked up from day care and we're the harried moms being given the slip of paper with a smiley or frowny face.
  • Is it heresy that, just for a minute every December 1, I wish they'd cancel Christmas and all the other winter holidays and just let us have a good, long rest? A Rest Holiday, where you eat whatever's in the house instead of cooking and read and watch old movies? Heresy? Okay, moving along.
  • Liz Lenz's "I'm a Great Cook. Now That I'm Divorced, I'm Never Making Dinner for a Man Again" is getting a lot of attention on the interwebs. It's a good essay, but who would ever cook twice for a man who rates every meal 3/5 stars--or indeed, any man who ever rates a meal at all? What kind of  partner greets any meal that someone cooks for him/her with other than profound thanks? It reminds me of those scenes in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel when Midge puts on a fetching negligee and full makeup to go to bed, then sneaks out to the bathroom to put in curlers and apply face cream after he's asleep. 
  • Someone should write about "cook until you drop for ungrateful men and then stop" theme in women's writing.  
    • Mrs. Dalloway has glimmerings of this. 
    • Nora Ephron's Heartburn famously has her dumping a key lime pie over the head of her lying, cheating husband with the greatest reason of all time. Paraphrased: "If I hit him with a pie, he won't love me, but he already is cheating on me and doesn't love me, so I have nothing to lose"--and bam! I hope that really happened, and I would love to see any picture with Carl Bernstein dripping with key lime pie. 
    • In Marilyn French's The Women's Room the main character has a similar realization re:cleaning the house. 
    • And in Joyce Maynard's At Home in the World, she throws an entire Christmas buche de Noel and the rest of the dinner in the trash because she's fed up. 
    • Let's also not forget Mad Men's Megan Calvet, who throws a plate of spaghetti at the wall when Don shows up drunk. (Why did they eat the spaghetti without any sauce in that show? That's a question for another time.) 
Sadly, we do not have Rest Holiday. Instead, we have "grade all the things" and "write all the things," so that's enough with the reveries about women who have just plain had enough and are ready to throw something, which I now see is the real theme of this post.