Annie Dillard is one of my favorite memoirists, even if American Childhood, evoking a rather patrician coming of age, is misnamed. So, I thought I would try her new novel, The Maytrees, out on the book group.
The novel is about a couple, Lou and Toby Maytree. The story begins when they fall in love shortly after World War II. The place is Provincetown on Cape Cod. They marry, have a child, and love grows year by year. After fourteen years, however, when Toby is forty-two, he runs off with another woman. His leaving Lou is novelistically under-motivated, and the twenty years he spends with the other woman is in the nature of a "moral correction" since he had not really stopped loving Lou. He had just underestimated the hard work of loving. Such are the bare bones of a story that is as much about the natural world of the Cape as it is about Lou and Toby. The larger backdrop is that of time and eternity, as the dunes on which they spend their time are constantly besieged and reformed by the sea .
As I read, I couldn't help thinking of the writings of Virginia Woolf and of Marilynne Robinson, author of the cult novel Housekeeping. Both are what I would call "women writers."
What do I mean by that? In place of emotions -- say, anger, when Lou is abandoned by Toby, or "Maytree" as he is called throughout -- we have contemplation. After a visit from a friend, Cornelius, she decides to stop "poisoning herself" with anger. We have to take Dillard's word for it, however, since we never see Lou reacting with anger:
"After Cornelius left she climbed the steep street to Pilgrim Monument. She mounted the monument stairs in her camel's hair coat and red earmuffs. From the top she look at flat sky, flat sea, and flat land. She was ready to stop this. Thereby she admitted -- barely -- that she could choose to stop. For one minute by her watch, she imagined liking Maytree impartially. For only one minute by her watch she saw him for himself. That day, having let go one degree of arc only, for one minute, she sighted relief. Her was something she could do. She could climb the monument every day and work on herself as a task. She had nothing else to do. Their years together were good. He was already gone. All she had to do for peace was let him go."
And that's what Lou works on doing -- letting go -- for the next twenty years. She paints a little, lets go her ties to people she doesn't like. She imitates Diogenes "who shaved half his head so he would stay home to think. ... She took pains to keep outside the world's aceleration. ... A hundred freedoms fell on her. She hitched free years to her lifespan like a kite tail."
Pretty, yes, but the emotional life on view here reminds me of the brain scans of people on life support. This is what I mean by saying that Toby's abandonment seems so under-motivated; we don't see what drives him into the arms of the other woman. This is the only insight we have into his emotions: "Had he stopped loving Lou? Not at all. His abiding heart-to-heart with Lou merely got outshouted." This is a very high-minded sensibility, accompanied by lots of words to substitute for the portrayal of emotions. They are interesting words (shims, alewife, kapok, thigmotropic, spicules, zebus, pauciloquy, epistomeliac, to name a few), along with arresting imagery ("He failed to still his bilge. He could replace its slosh with only more slosh"), particularly of the sea and heavens. This method is Woolf's and Robinson's, too.
One of the first attacks on the sexism of modern male novelists and on the so-called patriarchy was that of Kate Millett in a book called Sexual Politics. It made quite a stir when it appeared in 1970. Among the male writers she criticized was D.H. Lawrence. In Sons and Lovers, however, you know how the woman feels about things, her disappointment, her bitterness, her love for her son. There is an empathy you feel with characters like the mother, something you also have in novels by Jane Austen or George Eliot. The writings of Virginia Woolf have introduced something weak in the portrayal of human emotion.
More on this perhaps later. In the meantime, Carol Iannone has a view concerning the "woman's perspective in literature."
Christine de Pisan picture credit: Ellen Moody