Monday, August 26, 2019

Other Men’s Daughters by Richard Stern

I am surprised that I somehow missed Richard Stern’s 1973 novel, Other Men’s Daughters. Stern is a writer of great power and an almost unbelievable master of vocabulary. Like John William’s novel, Stoner, this is in many ways a quiet novel, and again as in William’s novel there is an undercurrent of probably unintentional sexism that runs through it, though I think both Williams and Stern would have denied ithis.

The lead character is almost always referred to as Dr. Merriwether; he is a professor of physiology at Harvard. Married to a very clever woman, Sarah, who has given up her own academic career in order to take care of the professor and their three children.
Until the day of Merriwether’s departure from the house—a month after his divorce—the Merriwether family looked like an ideally tranquil one. Parents and children frequently gathered in the parlor reading in  their favorite roosts.
A rather staid and somber man, he would have thought himself the least likely of men to fall in love with a younger woman. 
When he teaches the  Introductory Physiology course, he begins one lecture, “Today, ladies and gentleman, we will talk about love. That is to say, the distension of the venous sinuses under signals passed through the third and fourth sacral segments of the spinal cord along the internal pudendal nerve to the ischio cavernous, and, as well, the propulsive waves of contraction in the smooth muscle layers of the vas deferens, in seminal vesicles, the prostate and the striated muscles of the perineum which lead to the ejection of the semen. 
But, unlikely as it seems to Merriwether, he becomes quite interested in a young ‘summerer’ (students not officially admitted to Harvard, but there to take summer courses). Dr. Merriwether spends five mornings a week in the lab with his research work, but he also moonlights as a part-time doctor nine hours week, and it is in that capacity that he first meets Cynthia Ryder who comes to him to get a prescription for the pill.
Dr. Merriwther’s life was surrounded if not filled with woman. A distant, formal husband, a loving distant father of two daughters. As for woman lab assistants and graduate students, he was seldom aware of them except as amiable auxiliaries. Many such women felt their position depended on masculine style, which had meant brusqueness, cropped hair, white smocks, low shoes, little or no make-up. Fine with him. No woman was so despised here as the occasional student who strutted her secondary sexual characteristics…Though the women’s movement had begun to touch the biology labs, it went slowly, perhaps because there was a greater awareness of the complex spectrum of sexuality, the hundred components of sexual differentia.
Merriwether sees  Cynthia a couple of other times on campus, but even when he exchanges a good-bye kiss with her after one such encounter, he is able to preserve his sense of decorum and distance.   “Weeks later, she said, “I was so surprised. ...Still he was kissing in part for her sake (for therapy, for a common humanity). So he could still feel himself Man of Principle, Man of Year, Doctor of Confused Patient, Professor to Easily Enchanted Student.”

Cynthia, like his wife Sarah, is a bright and able student in her own right, and she continues with her academic work even as their affair continues and becomes more consuming for them both. Eventually, Merriwether feels obliged to confess his affair to his wife, though only after a magazine article has called attention to their union.
She was being destroyed, this life could not go on, she was not a mat, she was not a maid, she was not going to clear up his mess, she was finished. She didn’t need Kate Millett and Germaine Greer for strength. 
While he continues to live in the marriage house, the husband and wife occupy different floors, and Merriwetrher finds himself quite confused that Sarah wants him gone. The roughly two thirds of the novel that describes their slow break-up is often quite humorous as well as painful.  About half way through the book, I noticed that almost every time Merriwether speaks of his wife, Sarah, he mentions her plumpness, her fat face, her shortness, although he always sees this as simple description, no harm intended. As he recalls his past happiness, his contentment. “Sublimity. What was anything else in life next to it? He owed that to her. Fine little stump of a wife…round back, square flanks—no hourglass there…

A few times, early in my reading, I thought Stern might be aware of the sexist tone to the writing, thought perhaps he was making fun of himself and his own character, but upon completion, it seems clear to me that Merriwether is simply mouthing the views of his time, including views that women are not really capable of scientific discovery or discipline. 

Phillip Roth writes a glowing introduction to the book, and  I’m not surprised that Roth seems to deeply admire Stern as well as his narrator, Dr. Merriwether.  I agree with Roth that the science asides and even some of what might be called philosophy of literature that are to be found in the novel are interesting and well thought out.  Still, in the end, this is a novel of how easily men take advantage of younger women and/or women in subordinate positions, and then convince themselves that they have done nothing wrong. Merriwether is so much more typical than he pretends to be. When I read Stoner, I found myself wanting to hear the story from the wife’s perspective.  And in this novel, too, I would have been interested to get Sarah’s or Cynthia’s take on the events rather than the rather monotone and self-righteous view of Dr. Merriwether. 

This is an intriguing book that is so well written. I will leave it up to you readers to decide if it is satire or simply a novel expressing attitudes of the time.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

He is running, running running.

And it’s like no kind of running he’s ever done before. He’s the surge that burst the dam and he’s pouring down the hillslope.
This time, there’ no chance to sniff and scavenge and scoff. There are no steel bars to end his lap, no chain to jerk at the limit of its extension, no bellowing to trick and bully him back.

This time, he’s further than he’s ever seen before, past every marker along the horizon line, every hump and spork he learned by heart. He is running, running, running.

And there’s no course or current to deter him.

He is One Eye now.

He is on his way

Lucky for the dog, One Eye, that he is adopted by a man as lonely and abandoned as he is. Selected from a bunch of creatures MISTREATED, ABANDONED, ABUSED. When the kennel keeper grabs him by the scruff and leads him to the man. “You are leaning low, nearly dragging your body along the aground, as though carrying a great lump of fear.”

The dog is a terrier, and although the reader never discovers just where he came from or how he was abused, it is suggested that he went down a hole after a badger, losing his eye in the ensuing battle.  

The man is living in his father’s house and has no memory of a mother. His father is dead, but the son remains in the house, which he says is as close to a mother as he has ever known. He is 57, too old to start over and too young to give up. The village in which he lives sees him as ugly and retarded, and his father keeps him away from school and pretty much away from all of society, more or less embarrassed by his awkward, ugly son. 

But the man and dog carve out a life, and very soon, the man cannot imagine life without One Eye. He watches the dog amazed by his nose, amazed that he can be hypnotized by smell. “I wish I’d been born with your capacity for wonder.”

The story of their interdependence is a sad but lovely one. We learn that as a boy, with almost no help from his father, he learned to read. And then when in his forties, because the father is too crippled with gout to drive, he teaches the man how to drive. While he is frightened by most people, he loves to read; despite the villagers misconception, he is not retarded. 

This is a debut novel for Sara Baume, and she finds ingenious ways to have the dog’s voice ‘heard’ by the readers. He talks to the dog, and then tells us how the dog responds. He reads to the dog, and listens carefully for One Eye’s commentary. Turns out that One Eye has a moral take on the world as well as a rational one. Like Iris Murdoch, Baume allows the dog to speak, and the reader learns so much from the interchange between the two.

Unfortunately, just as many in the village see the man as menacing, they come to see the dog as a menace as well. Not entirely undeserved, since he viciously latches on to two other dogs, one small and terrified by the jaws of the terrier, and the other a handsome collie, with a rich owner,  who is bitten on the snout by One Eye. 

Knowing that animal control will soon come to his house and take the dog away, and unable to imagine going back to his utterly lonely life prior to One Eye, the two take off and travel the backroads and small villages of Ireland, living in the car or beside it, and surviving as they can from day to day and town to town.

Shortly before deciding that they need to run, the man takes stock of his perhaps rash decision to adopt the dog.
I should never have adopted you. You bring trouble and then just when I think trouble has passed, you bring trouble again. Caring for you is like keeping a nettle in a pretty porcelain flower pot, watering its roots and pruning its vicious needles no matter how cruelly it stings my skin, until I’m pink and puffy all over yet still worrying the old welts back to life. 

And now I think how I was my father’s nettle. His big lump of an embarrassing son...A son fit only to be kept indoors, away from people and from light. Where there’s nothing to sting but himself.
I know that most of what I have described seems just too sad, but in fact, there is much joy and loveliness in this insightful little novel.
I wonder have we grown to resemble one another, as we’re supposed to. On the outside, we are still as black and gnarled as nature made us. But on the inside, I fell different somehow. I feel animalized. Now there’s wildness inside me that kicked off with you.
Man rescues dog, and dog rescues man. This is a wonderful love story, and one that you will be glad you read.