Wednesday June 29th, 2011

You With the Stars In Your Eyes

Art and Madness by Anne Roiphe
Nan A. Talese , 240 pp., $24.95

In Sempre Susan, Sigrid Nunez’s recent memoir of her friendship with Susan Sontag, she recalls Sontag offering this piece of bitter wisdom: “It is harder for a woman.” Explains Nunez: “Meaning: to be serious, to take herself seriously, to get others to take her seriously. . . . But not her! She had put her foot down while still a child.”

It took Anne Roiphe, born nearly three years after Sontag, a longer time to take herself seriously. Before she published her first novel, Digging Out, in 1967, which kicked off a prolific career, she, like Sontag, worshipped at the altar of Art. But central to Roiphe’s worship was a belief that she needed to love an artist, and endure whatever cruelty or chaos they generated, because tempest was a sign of genius. In Art and Madness, Roiphe’s fourth memoir, she tells the story of how she came to that faith, and why she lost it.

The book is a nearly perfect narration of a conscience torn, and of a young woman’s yearning for a life of significance. It should stand alongside Mary Cantwell’s Manhattan, When I Was Young and Patti Smith’s Just Kids as a model evocation of what it feels like to be female and in thrall to the dream of a creative life in New York. In Roiphe’s self-portrait, we see flashes of her fictional contemporaries Marjorie Morningstar, Esther Greenwood, and Franny Glass. She’s Marjorie, but blessed with a secret, slow-burning faith in herself; Esther, but graced with a hunger for experience that gives her hope; Franny, but grounded by a (slightly) stronger nervous system. Roiphe seems to know that her story is by now archetypical, and her precise, spare, and subtle rendering of her coming of age lends her book the feel of fable — a fable written in commiseration with, but mostly as a warning for, those who have been similarly afflicted.

We begin in 1953, with Roiphe at 17, coming to the close of a sheltered but unhappy girlhood on Park Avenue. Her mother, the daughter of a Jewish immigrant who founded the Van Heusen shirt company, was married for her money, and soothed her depression with an endless stream of scotch and waters. Her father carried a monogrammed briefcase, hated Communists, and was a serial adulterer. “I knew,” Roiphe writes, “by the time I knew anything that the marriage vow was like the little boy’s finger in the mythical dike, in the real world it wasn’t going to hold.”

Roiphe, instead, is itching for something as big as the Spanish Civil War to hitch her passion and idealism to. But the fact of the ’50s remains. “The social rules wanted me,” she says, “just the way Uncle Sam wanted the boys my age to go to Korea.” What Roiphe wants is to live an unsuffocated life, a life that stands in opposition to the orderly emptiness of the ’50s. She has been inspired by literature and has taken its characters to heart. “I would have followed Hans Castorp into battle if I had been able,” she says. “I would have held his hand as he died and watched in horror as his blood seeped into the ground.” But she knows that as a young woman who has not seen war, or seen much of sex or death, she has no business writing literature herself. A Sarah Lawrence poetry professor tells her as much.

She then sets about finding work as a muse. She goes to Paris in a college program, ditches her convent of classmates, and lies in wait. “From time to time I would find an empty table at a promising café, order a sandwich jambon, a lemonade, and place myself in harm’s way, seeking harm the way a salmon seeks its breeding ground. I hoped to meet a writer and fix him dinner eternally.”

Eventually, back home in New York, she does meet a writer — an immensely troubled and immensely gifted young man from the outer boroughs. She marries him. She worries, and eyes him nervously, with sorrow. He drinks, disappears for evenings, makes a habit of prostitutes. But she has a child with him, a daughter. He aspires to fame, but his attempt at Broadway is a failure that he cannot bear up under.

Here is where Roiphe begins to lose her faith. After she and her husband break up, she starts going to a weekly party hosted by George Plimpton. Although she eventually sleeps with Plimpton himself, she makes it clear that this one-night stand, which transpires because he is drunk and she is without hope, is no aperitif to a glittering interlude — in the morning, he tells her, “If I see you in a few years I might have forgotten I slept with you.” Isn’t it romantic? Readers looking for richly detailed, eminently dishable dirt will be disappointed. Roiphe’s account of these evenings is grim: she did not drink, and so could not see the fights and debates and flirtations as the glamorous field exercises of literary lions. Instead, they seemed petty, even grubby. Even so, she found herself drawn to, and drawn into, the arms of many talented or connected men, men who were married with children. Seeing how the hunger for immortality damaged her husband, she did not leap into those arms as much as drift. Disillusioned, the intellectual fashions of her girlhood — existentialism and its embrace of the absurd — failed to provide her with an argument or excuse for her drifting.

“I would be both greedy and ashamed,” she writes of her dealings with these men. “I felt uneasy at how easy it was to become the other woman or one of the many other women. But then I believed or tried to believe that everyone should be free and every free act struck a blow against a world so cramped and sad that I could not endure it, would not pass it on to my daughter.” She continues: “I was unmoored, uncertain, and violated the only religious precept I really believed: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But those untos in the phrase marked it as ancient news from an ancient world that couldn’t survive the things we knew. . . . It wasn’t so much desire that led me as my intention to not live like a coward. . . . I wasn’t sure what was right or wrong and if it mattered. I considered Simone de Beauvoir. She was not impressed with the lord’s commandments.” And then: “I had the morals of a four-year-old.”

But did she? Was she immature, or confused? Does confusion on the importance or validity of certain values past the age of 25 always equal immaturity, or immorality? This occasional self-flagellation is the only thing that mars Roiphe’s book. It puts one in mind of Thomas Merton castigating himself for being a young man enjoying New York in The Seven Storey Mountain, or Augustine feverishly disavowing his youthful love of the theatre. Which is to say, it feels like an excess of guilt performed for the reader because the writer imagines the audience as unforgiving a jury as herself. Roiphe does not need to insist on her immaturity for her readers to sympathize with her. Her honest accounting of her confusion about her desires, her admission of ambivalence, and the clear-eyed cross-examination of her conscience — these acts are moral in their way, too.

What’s more interesting than whom Roiphe slept with is what she thinks about success. The book is ostensibly about the lionized link between art and madness, but it is really an inquiry into women and ambition. While she makes it very clear she is talking about herself, and only herself, here, there is a Woolfian undercurrent suggesting that women may feel less of a pull toward the grand canvas of history, being that we have been sidelined from or disagree with so much of it, leaving men to hanker after posterity and women to satisfy that desire with children. Roiphe as a girl wanted to insert herself into history — she wanted to go off to wars, worshipped Jackie Robinson and Vercingetorix. But watching her writer husband break down after a creative failure led her to question the desire for fame. She’d spent too much time around egos engorged by alcohol and lust to continue being impressed by it. “Who cares if your name is written in history books?” she writes. “Isn’t the simplest touch of a child’s arm on the face more important, isn’t the good meal, the brush against a thigh, a hand held during a movie, a swim in the sea, aren’t those things of equal importance as the sands of time come rushing down on our heads burying ambition and love . . . ?”

Roiphe’s question echoes sentiments aired by Joyce Carol Oates in her recent memoir A Widow’s Story. “All this you have lost,” Oates writes, referring to the daily comforts of marriage. “The happiness of a domestic life, without which the small — even colossal — triumphs of a ‘career’ are shallow, mocking.” She ponders Emerson’s declaration that a writer must live and die by his writing, and Philip Roth’s insistence on the supremacy of art over life. “[T]his is a masculine stance, I think. The bravado, the futility. Bravado in the very face of futility.” What is masculine, Oates is suggesting, is the ability to see your art as the supreme good and so be able to sacrifice anything for it.

Roiphe’s and Oates’ books point to the same conflict. Women writers might still feel pulled to answer not just to the page but to the very real people that live outside the page — their children, their parents, their partners, their siblings — in ways that men might not. Any woman who is currently trying to do something creative or intellectually demanding rather than raise a family, or do something creative or intellectually demanding in addition to raising a family, may be experiencing tensions that some would like to believe have disappeared. It may still indeed be harder for a woman artist to take herself seriously and to get others to take herself seriously.

These days, not many women would lay down their artistic life for a partner, or work, as Roiphe did, so that an artistic partner didn’t have to. Women still might not approach the building of an artist’s life with the same single-mindedness as male counterparts, and might sacrifice ambitions to financial or emotional security more quickly than men do. And the social rules still want us. They might want us less than they used to, but they still want us. They want us to be model daughters, sisters, students, friends, girlfriends, employees, wives, and mothers. The work is still being pulled out from under a blotter and then tucked back under.

When Roiphe began writing, she wrote when her daughter napped. She wrote at the supermarket. She was not precious about where or when, and just got down to work. The myths and rituals of her time had been dispensed with. “The culture, of course, has mirrored the shift in my mother’s thinking, her retreat from the bewildering and seductive idol of the artist himself,” writes her daughter Katie in her introduction. It does seem that women in successive generations have learned, whether through minoring in gender studies, coming of age with Courtney Love, or sustaining injuries from their freer-loving parents’ experimentation, what Roiphe had to learn the hard way: just do the work and forget about cultivating a heroic persona, or dating such a persona. Here are two telling pieces of advice from two of the most successful talents in their fields. Listen to Zadie Smith, addressing aspiring writers in the Guardian: “Don’t romanticize your ‘vocation.’ You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page.” And then Tina Fey, in a women’s magazine, on what she tells young female comedians: “Remember that talent is not sexually transmittable. You don’t have to date the funniest or most talented person — just date someone who’s good to you.”

Don’t be a groupie! Just be the thing yourself, and don’t forget to have children to make sure you remember what’s really important! One wonders if that is the new fairy tale it will take us a decade or two to wake up from, and what memoirs of that dream will sound like.

Carlene Bauer is the author of Not That Kind of Girl. She lives in Brooklyn.

Mentioned in this review:

Art and Madness
Sempre Susan
Digging Out
Manhattan, When I Was Young
Just Kids
The Seven Storey Mountain
A Widow’s Story
Marjorie Morningstar
The Bell Jar
Franny and Zooey