Yale University Press
Fast-Talking Dames has a fascinating thesis: "when
film found its human voice," she writes, "it simultaneously
gave to the American woman, as performer and heroine, a chance
to speak her mind, to have a real, not just a presumptive, say
in her own destiny." Given where women stand in contemporary
Hollywood films, DiBattista seems almost to be writing about
a never-to-be-found Shangri-La. But think of that all-too-brief
period between the silent film era (when, in Norma Desmond's
famous declaration in Sunset Boulevard, actresses didn't
need dialogue because they had faces) and the rise of the beautiful
but baffled blond bombshell of the 1950s (instantiated most perfectly,
of course, by Marilyn Monroe).
From the Thirties and into the Forties, the cinema's fast-talking
dames, as DiBattista pointedly calls them, ruled Hollywood comedies.
Consider a handful of the actresses whose performances DiBattista
examines: Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck
and the celestial Katharine Hepburn. In DiBattista's reckoning,
their fearless self-reliance made them instances of "an
icon of American individualism, bold and imaginative in her pursuit
of happiness." And their language--coy, knowing and, perhaps
most importantly, fast (a mark of modernism's streamlined speed)--singled
them out more than any other quality as a cinematic high point
in women's independence.
It's a bold, grand notion, and DiBattista, who is a professor
of English at Princeton University, documents it impressively
with a witty, fast style that puts a nice, highly readable spin
on the standard dense, academic voice. To her credit, DiBattista
doesn't see literary criticism as political warfare by another
name, and in place of feminist ideologies, she offers good, traditional
close readings that enrich our appreciation of the films themselves
(which should surely be the aim of criticism, after all). The
fact that she manages to say quite a bit about gender relations
portrayed in the early talkies and, by comparison, in the contemporary
cinema is grimly ironic, I suppose. (If only more academics appreciated
this: the same point can be made better--and more persuasively--through
strong analysis than through doctrinal speechmaking.)
Some of DiBattista's most fascinating work here ties her fast-talking
dames to a broader historical context, in which American speech
came into its own as the voice of modernism, at least partly
at the hands of New York wags who moved to Hollywood. "By
bringing their irreverent and exuberantly vernacular style to
the movies, they championed the national claim of the American
language as the standard-bearer of a cocksure, exultant modernity."
(Ah, but then the genie--dyed blonde and stumbling cutely over
her one-syllable words--had to be stuffed back into the bottle
My only gripe with this superb, insightful book is this: DiBattista
stretches her definitions a bit too thin by including Greta Garbo
among the grand dames of the fast-talking Golden Age. By DiBattista's
own reckoning, Garbo never showed the speed or agility demonstrated
to such perfection by the text's other actresses (beside Catherine
Hepburn's performance in Bringing Up Baby, she moves with
glacial slowness). DiBattista's a superb close reader, and the
Garbo material is interesting in itself, but it seems off-point,
I think, and the book is certainly strong enough without it.
Back to Archived Short
Dalkey Archive Press
It's an unqualified
shame that Henry Green's novels aren't more widely read today,
but I suppose it's not surprising. Even at the height of his
writing career (Green died in 1974), he preferred to remain an
obscure figure who quietly held down a job as an engineer and
managing director at his family's Birmingham engineering firm.
In fact, Green's real name was Henry Vincent Yorke; he chose
'Green' for his writing name because it was satisfyingly bland
(his first choice had been 'Browne'). The fact that he didn't
write for the last twenty years of his life didn't help his backlist
sales, either. (Alcoholism was at least partly to blame for his
literary silence--as well as his losing his job with the family
firm. He was forced out after his 'water' glass in a conference
meeting was discovered to contain straight gin.)
In all, Green published ten books, and rather remarkably,
all but two of them are currently in print--including (as of
this year) his first novel, Blindness, which originally
appeared in 1926, when Green was still an undergraduate at Oxford.
(He was all of twenty-one.) Dalkey Archive, which has already
republished three other Green titles, has done yeoman's work
getting Blindness out in a handsome paperback edition.
Philosophically and aesthetically, Blindness is wonderfully
of its period. John Haye, the novel's teenaged protagonist, wears
outlandish coats and bizarre hats and uses "a cigarette-holder
about eight inches long." As we quickly discover in the
opening pages (which are presented as his journal), he is unathletic,
florid in his gestures and headstrong in his opinions. "I
wish the world was not so ugly and unhappy," he writes.
And there is so much cynicism. And why does Science label
and ticket everything so that the world is like a shop, with
their price on all the articles? There are still a few auction
rooms where people bid for what they think most worth while,
but they are getting fewer and fewer. And people love money so,
and I shall too I expect when I have got out of what the elders
tell me is youthful introspection. But why shouldn't one go through
something which is so alive and beautiful as that? But they only
say, smiling, "Yes; I went through all that once; you will
soon get over that." I shall fight for money and ruin others.
Down with Science. Romanticism, all spiritual greatness is going.
Soon music will be composed by scientific formulae; painting
has been in France, and look how photography has put art back!
Oh, for a Carlyle now! Some prophet one would follow.
The novel trips along like this nicely (if pointedly verbosely)
for thirty pages, and then Green slyly lets a huge piece of information
arrive in a tiny letter from one of Haye's school mates: while
Haye was riding the train home from school, a boy threw a stone
at his train car and shattered the window beside which he sat.
The glass shards from the explosion destroyed Haye's vision and
now, suddenly, the enthusiastic aesthete finds himself cut off
from the lit world from which he drew his inspiration. Even worse,
his stepmother is, perhaps not wrongly, worried about his future
in the stuffy, unforgiving society to which she's accustomed.
In passages that draw on stream-of-consciousness and lush lyricism,
Green shows us these two rival concerns--the stepmother plotting
Haye's social resurgence and Haye's equally fervent searching
for a new sort of life-sustaining impressionism--and the effect
is often breathtaking in its intensity.
Blindness is certainly a young man's work, full of
youthful, intellectually fervent intensity and clearly written
before Green hit his trademark cynical stride (to say nothing
of his penchant for using gerunds for his titles--Doting,
Concluding, Surviving, etc.). But it's a compelling,
intelligent, often beautifully written work whose lyrical impressionism
is stunningly accomplished. (Imagine even a handful of such accomplished
first novels appearing each year...)
This past Spring, Random House published Jeremy Treglown's
Romancing: The Life and Work of Henry Green, and in his
superb biography of Terry Southern (A Grand Guy), Lee
Hill did strong work demonstrating Green's influence on Southern's
own writing. (Click here to read WAG's review of A Grand Guy.)
Could we, just possibly, be on the verge of a Green resurgence?
Back to Archived Short
Getting a Life
Alfred A. Knopf
a Life, Helen Simpson's third short story collection, offers
familiar material for readers who have followed her career since
her first collection, Four Bare Legs in a Bed, won the
Somerset Maugham Prize in 1990. Women (most of them older, this
time out) find themselves suffering limitations brought on by
the very things they so fervently sought out in their naïve
youth. Family and work, work and family: no matter how you juggle
them, they simply don't allow you room for much of anything that
you might be tempted to call happiness, and at times,
one's very identity seems at stake. As a thirty-seven-year-old
mother of three tells her husband in "Hurrah for the Hols,"
"At the moment I feel sub. Sub something."
"Suburban?" suggested Max.
"Subordinate?" said Dorrie. "No."
"Submerged, then. How about submerged?"
"That's nearer. Still not quite...I know! Subdued. Though
submerged is growing on me. Submerged is accurate too. That time
at Marks, all my twenties, half my thirties, it's like a dream.
I've almost forgotten what it used to be like."
And she tried to explain to Max her feeling about this encroaching
blandness, adaptability, passivity, the need for one of them
at least to embrace these qualities, even if this made them shudder,
if the family was going to work.
"We all have to knuckle down," he said. "Sooner
"It just seems, some of us more than others."
"If we want to join in at all," opined Max. "Life.
It's called growing up."
"It doesn't feel like growing up," she muttered
from her side of the fence. Rather it felt like being freeze-dried
and vacuum-packed. Knuckled down was putting it mildly.
Aristotle's notion that we become what we do--that character
is derived from habit--is never far from the surface in the nine
stories included in Getting a Life. During a married couple's
Client Entertainment outing in "Opera," the female
protagonist watches a bickering couple and says to herself, "We'll
be like them in five years' time...if we carry on like this;
it's what you do every day that changes you." Fate--family,
middle age, the world of getting and spending--drags one willy-nilly
on, it seems, and who, precisely, you are before it's over is
not as stable or heroically unchanging as one might expect.
Guilty resentments about the burdens family life can bring
can't be readily shared with others, of course, and Simpson has
an unsparing, brilliant knack for suspending her characters between
the painful truths they secretly know and the inane, fulfilled
happiness they're forced to feign for outsiders' benefit. Parenting,
after all, is an officially sanctioned, unmixed blessing, and
to say otherwise--to complain in the least--is to speak sacrilege.
"Look at her nails," one mother says to another in
the title story. "You can always tell. Painted nails mean
a rubbish mother."
And here, I think, is what makes Simpson's characters feel
so incredibly real: like a lot of her readers, her characters
lead a sort of double life, with their spoken language hedging
the really important issues and their unspoken thoughts
hitting home relentlessly, most often (as in the brilliantly
done "Café Society") against themselves and
the world they have constructed out of those youthful, naïve
After reading Getting a Life, one is tempted to rise
up with a cry of Mothers of the world, unite! But so complete
and frankly dire is Simpson's assessment of the dilemma that
I'm not quite sure what you could unite for, precisely.
One might commiserate, but how could one affect change? A single
character (a young woman in the brilliant "Burns and Bankers")
seems to offer a solution when she stands up at a whiskey-driven
meeting of bankers in honor of Robert Burns and delivers the
Women want love and they want work, just the same as men...And
they want children to be seen as a fact of life, not as a personal
weakness. So if you love your women, all you men out there, take
your share of what's called women's work so that us women can
take some of the bread-winning burden off your shoulders.
Get a life. Outside the office. It'll be better for your health.
Better for your love life. And, if you're interested, since Burns
mentions it, better for your immortal soul. Aux armes, citoyens!
In the name of the love you claim to feel for us lassies.
"She left the dais," Simpson tells us, "to
ragged applause and uncertain wolf whistles. She did not smile
or look back."
It may be painful to see secret dilemmas exposed so thoroughly--and
to see possible solutions rejected so unthinkingly--but I don't
think I've ever seen it done so accurately. Or captivatingly.
Back to Archived Short
Wanderlust: A History of Walking
What does it
mean to walk? Babies' first halting steps are eagerly awaited,
recorded in photographs and videos and triumphant calls to grandparents.
In nothing is the pure pleasure of movement so apparent as in
the meanderings and dashing-abouts of very young children, but
almost as soon as we begin to walk, we are exhorted by parents
to stop, to slow down, to come along now, and then by schoolteachers
to sit down, and warned of the dangers of strangers and traffic
and the laws against trespass, and slowly we are instructed in
the rules and the realities that circumscribe our stepping out
into the world.
Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust is a ramble through the
history of walking, from its still-debated origins in the first
proto-human hominids ("walking upright is considered to
be the Rubicon the evolving species crossed to become hominid,"
Solnit writes) to its endangered status in the modern, Western,
automobile-dominated world of sidewalk-less suburbs, where the
freedom to move has been transformed into the disciplined "workout"
on that electric-powered road to nowhere, the treadmill.
I first approached Solnit's book much the way I take a walk--start
at the beginning and proceed to the end--and I'm afraid my attention
soon wandered, as it is wont to do. The next time I picked up
Wanderlust, I set off instead to explore, to make forays
into this and that chapter as they interested me, and soon I
was engrossed. In the best tradition of the essayist, Solnit
takes something we hardly think about, this most ordinary and
fundamental of human behaviors, and demonstrates how vast and
complicated its history truly is. From the countryside rambles
of Jane Austen's characters, to the mass protests of Prague's
Velvet Revolution, to the solemn processions of the mothers of
the "disappeared" in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires,
to the festive abandon of Halloween in the streets of San Francisco's
Castro district, Solnit explores the many meanings of putting
one foot in front of the other to move through space.
Solnit's book moves at a measured pace, dense with the sorts
of details that give rise to pondering and rumination, for which
activity, Solnit points out, a walk is ideal.
[T]hinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented
culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It's best done by disguising
it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing
is walking.... It strikes a delicate balance between working
and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces
nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.
Solnit's own walks are the framework against which she examines
the various--and still unsettled--theories of why we began
walking, and traces the evolution of the idea of walking for
pleasure. Most fascinatingly, however, Solnit demonstrates convincingly
the degree to which walking is a political act. Those for whom
walking is a choice, rather than a necessity--who can freely
choose where and when to walk--are the powerful and the
free. She writes, for example, of the ways in which women's walking--and
therefore women's freedom--has been controlled throughout recorded
human history. Everyone knows, of course, what a "streetwalker"
is, and Solnit describes how simply being in a certain street
at a certain hour has often been enough to get a woman arrested
on suspicion of prostitution. Any woman in the U.S. today lives
with an automatic, visceral awareness that walking alone is a
risky pleasure. Even though far more women are raped or murdered
at the hands of someone they know than by the stranger lurking
in the bushes, we grow up believing we are safe only when locked
inside. Similarly, curfews and laws against trespassing, vagrancy,
loitering or public gatherings are used worldwide to prohibit
whole groups--the young, the poor, the disenfranchised--from
occupying public space.
If I have a complaint with Solnit's book, it is with the decision
to run a series of walking-related quotes in a single line along
the bottom of the book's pages. Most of the quotes run across
several pages, which means that to read them while reading the
book itself, one must constantly turn back and forth, shifting
between narrative and quotes. I found it distracting, so I skipped
the quotes, which seemed a shame, if only because someone--Solnit,
I presume--had worked hard to gather all of them together here.
But this is a quibble with a design flaw, and by the time I arrived
at the sublime couple of pages about the 1976 Cadillac painted
with the stations of the cross in the town of Chimayó
in New Mexico, I had succumbed entirely to the pleasures of this
ramble with Rebecca Solnit.
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