Heroines

Brilliant bursts of rage on behalf of all the poets/geniuses/authors’ wives who were relegated to second place, told that they (the wives) could not create, could not be artists, could only be fused with their talent by being characters in the males’ work. “Mr. Fitzgerald is a novelist, Mrs. Fitzgerald is a novelty.” Virginia Woolf’s workday whittled down to a few hours at the demands of Leonard, to keep her sane. Zelda’s life lifted from her letters and journals and made Scott’s work sparkle. Through all this, Zambreno’s own story is woven, the wife of a special collections librarian who uproots her life to follow him from job to job. “The chattering woman is the muse of modernism. Her talk that is represented as unconscious and intuitive and associative. He always accompanies her with a notepad. He copies down her ‘disordered’ speech, and later he will use it to convict her.” Snippets of shoutouts to all the ladies, Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, Simone de Beauvoir, Vivienne Eliot, Anais Nin and June Miller, Djuna Barnes, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, Anna Kavan. Sylvia Plath’s journal from the final 3 months of her life, burned by husband, censored.

T.S. Eliot’s wife, Viv, abandoned, banned, divorce impossible, communicated with only through lawyers, placing an advertisement in The Times, “Will T.S. Eliot please return to his home, 68 Clarence Gate Gardens, which he abandoned Sept 17, 1932.” Showing up at a performance of Murder in the Cathedral with a sign (allegedly) that said: “I am the wife he abandoned.” Eventually Viv is locked away in an asylum. Zambreno is unable to receive permission from the T.S. Eliot estate to read

Viv’s unpublished texts. Suppressed even after death.
She describes running into a guy she used to know/was friends with briefly who brags about his one thousand page novel coming out (compared to Zambreno’s “slim nervous novella”), his work will be the longest first-person novel EVER:

We discuss the respective length of Tristam Shandy, Ulysses, Infinite Jest, War and Peace, etc. He is pulling out his cock and comparing it with those writers whom he will be compared. (I will be compared to nobody, I think, I am sent into an existential crisis when I get home, and for weeks afterwards.)
Canon actually comes from a Greek work for “measuring rod.”

An author loves his or her character if he or she has ever, really, cried for her, not what she represents, but for her, for her sad, lost life, this LOST GENERATION of brilliant girls, all the sad young girls. I who am bellowing for my heroines. (p 156)

It’s infuriating to think how coming-of-age novels about the feminine experience are read and dismissed as chick lit or schoolgirl books or YA, etc., when Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, surely also a very unformed Bildungsroman, is still considered great literature. Carson McCullers, Shirley Jackson, Plath, all lumped into young adult. As if the female coming-of-age experience is somehow more frivolous or less rending than the male one. And how these works are seldom read as existential novels about girls who want to realize themselves, who want to be artists, and the desire not to have their future decided for them. (p 193)

It drives me absolutely bonkers that the mythology of Zelda, as endlessly repeated by Scott’s biographers, by even her biographer, by her daughter, dictates some narrative that she was not disciplined enough, and that is why she did not succeed as an artist. She was absolutely disciplined. My god, she twisted and contorted herself into a dancer within years. She made paintings for decades that she only showed in a gallery a few times. She worked steadily on her stories, and then later graduated to novels. (p 214)

The notion of the Great American Novel seems to be almost exclusively male. It seemed for a while The New York Times was under the impression that David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published, unfinished The Pale King was the only recently published novel–it was constantly covered and reviewed, an endless documentation. A canonization–with that book he was raised to the literary heavens. In reviews DFW was compared to Melville and other Great Men just like that boy I knew was compared to DFW. Much has been said lately about how women are reviewed less in big literary sections, but not about HOW they are reviewed, or HOW they are not reviewed, and who women writers are or are not compared to in the body of their occasional reviews. We are considered outside the conversation of Great Books, a male-dominated tradition. (p 229)

There’s also a great section (p 260) sending up golden boy Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, “my god though the novel is being feted as the tale of our times, written about rapturously… I mean, it’s a beautiful book, but I don’t get all the adulation. The narrative of the nervous girl would never receive that treatment.”