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.

No comments:

Post a Comment