Monday, July 21, 2014

(All titles that are highlighted are linked to reviews at "How Jack London Changed My Life")

Switching Sexes

            Male versus female novelists — which are better able to enter into the sensibility of someone of the opposite sex?
            This issue arose when I read Arthur Schnitzler’s Theresa — its subtitle is “The Chronicle of a Woman’s Life.”
            It struck me how seldom either a man or a woman author attempts what he did. I looked at the Modern Library’s list of the one hundred best novels of the twentieth century (written in the English language) and found less than ten that could qualify. In my own library (I keep books that are, to me, in some way significant achievements) the results were similar.
            Of course, almost every novel has people of both sexes, and in the successful ones both males and females are portrayed well. But what I want to explore are authors who set out to write exclusively from the perspective of a main character whose sex is different from their own. All other characters must play supporting roles. Concerning such exclusivity of approach, think of the legion of brilliant novels written by men from a male viewpoint, or by women from a female viewpoint. So the rarity of books in which an author goes into the mind of the other sex and occupies it is notable. Especially since empathy is a writer’s bread and butter.
            What factors are at work?
            We write what we know. Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and American Indians almost invariably use people of their particular race as their main characters. When, in The Confession of Nat Turner, William Styron presumed to enter the mind of a slave, he was roundly criticized. It was a “How can he know?” reaction. As for religion and nationality, they’re factors when they impact one’s place in society. “Jewish novels” (such as Myron S. Kaufmann’s Remember Me to God) were written when Jews felt they were marginalized. The Irish experience in Depression-era Chicago plays an important role in James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan. These types of novels fade away when integration into mainstream American life takes place.
            The tendency to stick to our kind extends to economics. Writers who know affluence write about affluent people, those who know poverty write about the impoverished. Thus John P. Marquand in The Late George Apley and Tillie Olsen in Yonnondio wrote about two widely disparate worlds existing in the same country during the same period of time. Neither had the background to write the book the other did.
            But sex falls into a different category. Only the societal roles assigned to males and females is a divisive issue. But I don’t consider that to be a barrier to insight. Yet a barrier seems to exist.
            Of the sixteen books in my library where that barrier was successfully bridged, twelve were written by men, four by women.
            Maybe this reflects a bias — I may prefer masculine novels, even when they take on a woman’s point-of-view. Maybe I don’t understand women, and the male authors didn’t really get the female characters right; I just thought they did. Or maybe the issue is one of an inequality of representation; in the Modern Library list, only eight authors are female. My own collection is skewed toward male writers, though not to that degree.
            Anyone’s input is welcome. I know of books that do exactly what I’m concerned with, but that I haven’t read. Enlighten me about the successful ones that I’ve missed.
            There must be ground rules as to what qualifies for inclusion. As noted above, novels with many characters don’t meet the exclusivity clause. But I confronted a thorny problem in the case of books that have two to four major characters of different sexes, in which the author goes into the minds of each person (William Trevor’s Felicia’s Journey, Soseki Natsume’s The Gate, Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn). Some even alternate: one section is entirely from a male perspective, another from a female (as in John Fowles’s The Collector). It was with regret that I decided to exclude all such novels. Thus Anna Karenina didn’t make the cut because half the book is devoted to Levin. Actually, Levin was an addition. In letters Tolstoy expressed dissatisfaction with Anna: of what worth was a book about a woman who committed adultery? He thought he needed a character who made the right choices in picking a life’s mate. Tolstoy’s tendency to instruct won out over his novelist’s instincts. I preferred the Anna sections, and I’m not alone; some abridged versions simply leave Levin out.
            Success is another issue. An author can attempt what I’m proposing, but fail (or flop) in their depiction of the other sex. Of course, the unsolvable problem of our disagreeing as to worth arises. Since this is my essay, you’ll be getting my opinions; all I can offer is a rationale for how I felt. For me, Francine Prose’s Blue Angel was a failure and John Updike’s S was a flop. And I thought that Henry James was unable to enter into the mind and emotions of a little girl in What Maisie Knew. I don’t, therefore, give these novels a place in the discussion.
            Some authors quite effectively portray someone of a different sex, but the books don’t quite, for one reason or another, rise to the level of all-around excellence that I’m setting as a standard. Still, they deserve mention.

The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
Mrs. Ted Bliss – Stanley Elkin
The Fool Killer – Helen Eustis
The Bitter Box – Eleanor Clark
Mildred Pierce – James M. Cain
Queen’s Gambit – Walter Tevis
Therese – Andre Mauriac
Anna of the Five Towns – Arnold Bennett
L’Assommoire – Emile Zola
Aleck Maury Sportsman – Caroline Gordon

            What follows next are the ones that made the cut: excellent novels by a man or woman that are told from the perspective of the other sex (in a few cases exclusively, in most predominantly to an overwhelming degree). I find it interesting that only one uses a first person narrator (and that’s in the form of a diary). I’ve made a comment on each (and some get a full review at my site). I’ll begin with the novels written by men.

Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
In many ways Emma isn’t feminine; Flaubert may have been stating a fact with his “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” He also wrote a long story about a woman — “A Simple Heart” — that’s wonderful. Felicite, in her simplicity, is the polar opposite of Emma — and of Flaubert.
Sister Carrie – Theodore Dreiser
Though Dreiser got Carrie right, the novel weakens near the end. When Ruth and Augustus Goetz wrote the screenplay for the William Wyler film version, they solved this problem. At the point where Carrie and Hurstwood part ways, the movie follows Hurstwood. His story is more dramatic and believable than Carrie’s. Dreiser, to keep true to his premise, had to stick mainly with Carrie, even though I think he was drawn more to Hurstwood’s descent.
Mrs. Bridge – Evan Connell
This is pointillist fiction, in which all the dots (the short episodes) come together until a full portrait emerges. I was unaware, when I read it, that there’s much of Connell’s own mother in India Bridge (the author conceded as much). I recently read his The Patriot, which also has autobiographical aspects, but in that novel the mother is notable for being a complete nonentity. In Mrs. Bridge Connell found the depths that exist in a muted person.
The Bad Seed – William March
We’re never in the mind of Rhoda; what March explores is the mother, Christine, as she realizes the truth about her daughter — and about herself. March had a skewed mentality. He could present something seemingly harmless and, in turning it over, startle you. If you believe the theme of an evil child is hackneyed, consider that March was the first and the best to do it. His focus on a sympathetic character confronted with a terrible dilemma is key to his success.
Effie BriestTheodore Fontane
After reading this, I got another novel by Fontane — Jennie Treibel — and was disappointed; in it he was more concerned with social/political considerations than with a human being. Effie’s humanness is this book’s predominant quality. If I had read Jennie first, I would never have read Effie. Kind of scary, how chance plays a role in what we experience in our reading lives.
The Season of the Witch – James Leo Herlihy
A seventeen-year-old girl keeps a diary. In the first entry, dated September 2,1969, she’s about to run away from her suburban home for the hippy subculture of New York City. Gloria is a good writer, and often funny, but this novel is a dark one. Lies are what Herlihy exposes; Gloria is not how she sees herself, nor is the Age of Aquarius world she enters a glamorous or fulfilling one. The book was written in 1971, so its topicality makes it relevant to the time but also dates it.
The Black Swan – Thomas Mann
Mann’s very short last novel had its origin in a story his wife told him about a middle-aged woman who, after falling in love with a younger man, had seemingly experienced a return of her menstrual cycle, only to discover that she had cancer. Mann presents Rosalie’s story in a manner that is both emotional and clinical, suffused with longing and harshly realistic.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – Brian Moore
A repressed, middle-aged spinster is Moore’s subject, and even when he takes the perspective of other people, Judith Hearne is the person they’re observing. This is a bleak novel, but a moving and truthful one. It’s also tumultuous, for Judith’s poverty places her in precarious straits. Moore writes compassionately about a woman for whom life is a struggle that she must engage in alone.
The Old Wives’ Tale – Arnold Bennett
The idea for this novel came to the author when he watched an elderly lady — fat, ugly — make such a commotion in a restaurant that she became an object of ridicule for the other diners. Bennett thought of the young girl she had once been, and the infinite number of infinitesimal changes that brought her to what she had become. To him this had great pathos. Bennett follows the lives of  two sisters, beginning when they’re teenagers. One chooses a quiet life, the other seeks adventure and romance. But those terms — “quiet” and “adventure” — lose their conventional meanings.
The Makioka Sisters – Junichiro Tanizaki
Tanizaki presents us with three women. One is happily married, one is searching for a husband (as time runs out for her) and the third is sexually “liberated.” The social context is a strong element; Tanizaki presents life in Osaka in the pre-war years. Yet he wrote it during World War II; in a sense, the author cast aside the horrors around him and looked back upon a time of peace. Perhaps, in his depiction the ordinary lives of three sisters, he was saying to the world, This is what we are.
Debbie – Max Steele
Steele takes full possession of a woman with the mind of a child. There’s nothing condescending in his portrayal of Debbie; she’s as fully-developed a character as you’ll find in fiction. More developed, actually, in that she experiences emotions intensely. Her observations are often perceptive because they come to her directly, uncluttered by logic. It’s perplexing to me that someone who could write as well as Steele produced only one novel (while hacks churn out dozens).
Theresa – Arthur Schnitzler
This is the novel (which Schnitzler subtitled “The Chronicle of a Woman’s Life”) that gave me the germ of the idea for this essay. The word “chronicle” suggests an element of detachment. Though the author does scrupulously report events, we go deep into the psychology of Theresa. As the years pass and happiness constantly eludes her, she comes to feel that she doesn’t matter to anyone. Schnitzler’s major accomplishment is that Theresa mattered to me.

So those are the twelve novels by men in which women are the predominant presence. What follows are the four by women in which they take up residence in the minds of men.

The Bachelors – Muriel Spark
Using eight male characters, Spark gives us a panoramic look at the thoughts and emotions of that subset of humanity that stays, for one reason or another, unattached. It’s a very active novel, full of events, but at its core is an unmovable sadness. Because Spark is often a cold dissector of people, the empathy she displays for these men is noteworthy.
Wise Blood – Flannery O’Connor
This must be judged as a comic novel, with religious belief being Hazel Mote’s obsession. Whereas in the other books discussed the characters are definitely of one sex or the other, Hazel’s extreme oddity makes him a sexless being. Nor do the secondary characters fall anywhere near the spectrum of normality. Still, O’Connor chose to use a male as her vessel to set sail in a strange world.
The Unspeakable Skipton – Pamela Hansford Johnson
Daniel Skipton is also odd, and of indeterminate sexuality, but one can relate to him and his struggles. He’s a writer who feels that he’s unappreciated and who resents the poverty which causes him to constantly scrounge and manipulate in order to survive. Are not these feelings — of being unappreciated, of resentment — universal? What makes Skipton different is the ferocious anger that infects his thoughts and emotions. That I felt pity for such a warped person is the true measure of Johnson’s success.
Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton
A three character novel, but the two women simply play a role in Ethan’s life. At the core of this grim book is a man’s effort to find that which will satisfy him; mainly, love. Wharton frames her Greek tragedy in an unusual way. Before Chapter One a writer (an “I”) collects information; at the end of this introduction he writes that he had “found the clue to Ethan Frome” and is now able to put together the “vision of his story.” On the next page we’re with young Ethan on a snowy New England night.

            I wrote earlier that there didn’t seem to be a “barrier to insight.” And, indeed, for the authors cited above no insurmountable barrier existed. Still, in their other novels most of these authors wrote only from the perspective of someone of their own sex. Flannery O’Connor, in her stories, probably crosses the line more often than any of the others. Yet sex isn’t the issue in her work; her recurring subject is the tension between a mother and a son or daughter.
            There are many authors of note who never make the attempt to fully and exclusively cross the line. And then there are those who are unable to convincingly portray a member of the opposite sex even as a secondary character. The women in Hemingway’s novels always struck me as artificial. This may, possibly, reflect something lacking in him. If a man or woman’s attitude is antagonist or dismissive, they will fail (or flop). And no fully-dimensioned human being can emerge if treated as an accessory or a stereotype.
            Anyone who assumes the perspective of a person of a different sex must have — besides insight — empathy. In my brief remarks on the books above I constantly express the fact that I was moved emotionally. That feeling was absent in the case of Hazel Mote — I couldn’t relate to him. And in only one novel is a character unsympathetic. Madame Bovary is a deplorable person. But at the end I did have pity for her suffering. Flaubert punished her in a most brutal way, but he could not help but have feelings for her.
            In my so-called “male versus female” premise, men were the winners. I’m not asserting that this means anything definitive, but I also don’t  reject the possibility that men are better able to depict the inner lives of women. My real purpose is to bring up an issue for consideration. The rarity of authors “switching sexes” must be meaningful. The question is, What does it mean? I know a choice is being made, but why does the choice almost always go one way? At any rate, I wish authors would try to switch over more often — to leave what may be an unconscious comfort zone and explore unknown territory. They may learn something about themselves.

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